Alumni, professors, students and staff at a historically black state college in Pennsylvania have sued the state and the federal government, claiming that the school has suffered from decades of neglect and discrimination and needs a boost in funding to offset it.
This is despite the fact that the school already receives far more per-pupil funding than its peers.
Advocates for Cheyney University, a college in the Philadelphia area, claim the school has been treated like “a stepchild” by the state government, and have sued through their grassroots organization Heeding Cheyney’s Call. While they admit the school today is funded at the same per-pupil rate as other colleges in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, they say the school’s small size as well as years of prior discrimination mean the school needs special treatment today in order to compete on a level playing field.
“They say to us: We want to make you equal,” said retired math professor E. Sonny Harris at a press conference announcing the suit. “They can’t make us equal when you have discriminated against us for 30 years. You have to give us more money than you have given any other state school.”
Cheyney is the oldest historically-black institution of higher learning in the United States, but has struggled for many years. Enrollment has fallen from a peak of around 3,000 students in the 1970s to barely 1,000 today, and the school’s budget deficit surpassed $13 million in 2013, a huge amount for a school whose operating budget is only about $30 million.
Defenders say the school’s decline does not reflect its own shortcomings, but rather neglect from the state, which they say has never adequately made up for de facto discrimination that existed up until the late 60s. Despite pledges from the state government to modernize the school in the 90s, critics say it has been allowed to languish with decrepit buildings and out-of-date academic programs that are unable to attract students.
“Some of the buildings and pipes are so old that sometimes, in the wintertime, students don’t have heat, they don’t have running water,” said Harris.
The lawsuit demands “increased funding, improved facilities, state of the art equipment, effective recruiting, and experienced marketing” from the state as a means to offset the school’s decline. No precise price tag is put on the plaintiffs’ demands, but meeting them would likely cost tens of millions of dollars.
Should the lawsuit proceed, the state will likely defend itself by arguing that Cheyney’s problems are more due to its own financial mismanagement than to any malevolence by the state. The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, one of the lawsuit’s defendants, has already hit back at the suit with its own fact sheet pointing out that Cheyney receives over $14,000 in state aid per student, more than any other PSSHE school and about three times the average.
Not only that, but the school has also received $97 million to construct new buildings on campus, fully $20 million more than the amount given to any other PSSHE school. Despite the state’s largesse, Cheyney has accumulated over $14 million of debt and the hole is deepening quickly.
Unmentioned by PSHEE is another possible cause of Cheyney’s decline: Weak academic performance. The school’s four-year graduation rate is only 9 percent.
This isn’t the first time a lawsuit has sought more money for Cheyney. In 1980, the school took part in a successful lawsuit alleging that Pennsylvania had unlawfully funded it for decades during the Jim Crow era. The suit dragged on for years, and in 1999 Pennsylvania agreed to spend an extra $35 million on the school in order to offset past discrimination and help revive the school’s fortunes.
Heeding Cheyney’s call claims the state has failed to keep the promises it made in 1999, and the new lawsuit is the end result of over a year of failed pleading with the state for a voluntary funding boost.
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