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If Cheyney University is going to survive, leaders must be OK with making people angry | Opinion

Six things the HBCU needs to do to change course.

Cheyney University, set in 275 acres in Chester and Delaware counties, has struggled in recent years and is striving to right its course.
Cheyney University, set in 275 acres in Chester and Delaware counties, has struggled in recent years and is striving to right its course.Read moreMichael Bryant / Staff

I spent this past weekend with 15 Minority Serving Institution (MSI) presidents and 21 individuals aspiring to lead an MSI at the MSI Aspiring Leaders Forum. Many of the presidents and aspiring leaders are either leading our nation's historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) or desire to lead them. What I learned during the gathering is that in order to turn around a failing college, you have to take big risks, you are going to make some people angry (including alumni), and you have to have a big idea that is fundamentally different than where you are but appreciates your historical mission.

Once again, Cheyney University has a chance. Under the current leadership of Aaron Walton, it is possible to consolidate, stabilize, and focus on the areas of strength for the institution.  Walton is brave enough to do these things.  But when he is done, Cheyney must hire a new president who has Herculean strength and energy to take the institution far into the 21st century. Cheyney's legacy is rich and vital, but the institution will no longer exist unless it changes course.

Based on the expertise shared in this past weekend's forum, my best advice is to:

1. Build a board that is forward-thinking, innovative, realistic, and can be critical of itself, and that will give and encourage giving to Cheyney.   If those on the board don't hold these characteristics, they need to go.

2. Consolidate academic programs, only retaining those that are marketable and speak to the needs of the surrounding communities.  Cheyney will benefit from being good at a few things, as it's not possible to be good at everything.

3. Keep up with current trends in higher education and technology and incorporate them at Cheyney.  Doing what has been done in the past isn't working and everyone at Cheyney must let go and embrace new approaches, ideas, and technologies to thrive.

4. Engage alumni in rebuilding the institution.  However, alumni must realize that the institution must change to survive and that alumni's voices only matter when they are also giving of their time and financial resources. We show we love an institution when we give.

5. Put students first and at the center of the institution, knowing that meeting their needs and providing them with the best service and curriculum is essential.  Cheyney is a tuition-driven institution that must emphasize student success.  Everyone must embrace students, from faculty to staff to administration to the board to the alumni.

6. Say goodbye to anyone who is not on board to being innovative, changing the course of the institution, and the greater good for Cheyney.  In fact, these individuals would help the institution greatly by taking the first step and saying goodbye now.  When you no longer can truly support an institution, it's time to go.  Cheyney cannot afford to have anyone in its midst who is not fully supportive.

Marybeth Gasman is the Judy and Howard Berkowitz Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the founding director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), which works to amplify the contributions of, strengthen, and support MSIs and those scholars interested in them.