A report commissioned by Pennsylvania lawmakers has revealed several recommendations for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) to get rid of a vast number of its 14 public colleges and universities, which will help will help PA save billions annually on campuses which yield little in enrollment gains, economic impact and research. From the report:
Instead of university closures, there are five possible options for change. Several of these options could affect the missions of the universities, accessibility, and costs for students, and the sovereign immunity that currently protects the State System from lawsuits.
Option 1 is to keep the broad State System structure with improvements. It upgrades the existing system by modifying the governance structure to reallocate authority across the various system levels and freeing institutions from some state requirements.
Option 2 makes the changes in Option 1 and also consolidates the current 14 universities into a smaller number — perhaps five to eight — by merging State System universities in each region of the state and including at least one fiscally viable university in each merger.
Option 3 would eliminate the State System structure and convert the universities to state-related status. This option would be applied to the stronger universities or to weaker universities that could be merged with stronger ones prior to independence.
Option 4 places the State System and all its institutions under the management of a large state-related university, building on their strong performance, possibly for a defined period of time such as ten years.
Option 5 merges the State System universities into one or more of the state-related universities as branch campuses.
Among those non-productive campuses on the state’s radar is Cheyney University, the first and most-embattled public HBCU which for years has been threatened with closure due to enrollment loss and mangled administration. Unlike officials from its southern neighbor Maryland, Pennsylvania is smart enough to avoid being hit by a federal racial discrimination suit for outright closing the campus but has no problem throwing the school and the system under the bus by suggesting that saving Cheyney has put the entire system in jeopardy.
The Case Against Cheyney
Cheyney University is an example that came up repeatedly during the interviews. There were adequate warning signs for many years about Cheyney’s management of its operations and finances that negatively affected every aspect of the institution, including its administrative processes, quality of academic programs, and culture. But the board and the CO neither held the institution accountable nor intervened in a timely manner to address the seriousness of the situation. In 2015, Cheyney was put on probation by the Middle States Commission of Higher Education, and it continues to be on probation. To preserve the oldest historically black college, the board recently adopted a process by which the university’s more than $30 million in system loans may be forgiven. According to our interviewees, the money came out of the State System’s cash balance, which comprises the cash balances of all 14 universities and the CO. To the extent that the reserve represents funding to cover institutional deficits, other institutions now face greater risk in covering any deficits they might have.
But the report goes far deeper than finance and culture. In chart after chart, it outlines the numbers behind Pennsylvania’s dying higher education industry, and the disparate impact it has had for Cheyney.
The Transition Plan for Cheyney
And then the report lays out the specifics for Cheyney, and how it “survives” without drawing possibilities for alumni and students to sue the state for racial discrimination.
Our first example, Cheyney, is the nation’s oldest historically black college and one of two in the state. Because of its history and special mission, discussions of major changes are bound to be sensitive. The state may choose to provide an increased level of support that recognizes Cheyney’s special mission and enables it, with sound management and oversight, to become healthy as an independent university that can continue its historical legacy and contemporary mission. If that support commitment is not forthcoming, we see several merger possibilities for Cheyney, each of which could preserve significant aspects of Cheyney’s mission. The option that seems to have the greatest prospects of retaining Cheyney’s historic mission is a merger with Lincoln University, a state-related historically black university located about 25 miles away (under Option 5). Cheyney and Lincoln could combine their programs and faculty to support their joint history and mission of access for African Americans and, by extension, other racial or ethnic minorities.
We see at least two other merger options. Cheyney could be merged with a stronger State System university in the same general region of the state, likely West Chester, with which it has already started to share support services (under Option 2 or 3). Or, it could be merged into Penn State as a regional campus (under Option 5). Because the parent institution under either of these two options does not share Cheyney’s specific historical legacy and mission, it would be desirable to retain significant aspects of Cheyney’s special mission to reach African Americans and other racial or ethnic minorities through continuing structures and programs, as well as offering students access to a broader set of academic programs from the parent institution.
Under any of these three merger options, Cheyney could focus on a more specific set of missions and programs, such as offering the first two years of undergraduate education with transfer to the parent institution for degree completion in some or all fields.
Cheyney is All But Gone
Shortly after Cheyney received a reprieve from the Middle States Higher Education Commission to extend the university’s accreditation show-cause status for another year, I wrote that CU remained vulnerable to the state’s trends of declining enrollment and funding. Now we have a report affirming what officials in the statehouse and in the PASSHE general office have wanted to do for years; knock the nation’s first HBCU off the map through merger or forced closure.
Now we know what is likely to happen with a school that deserved saving, but which never got the political, philanthropic or cultural momentum to make it possible. Cheyney will probably be merged with West Chester, and whatever form that takes probably will not wind up with its HBCU history, mission or infrastructure as an existing byproduct.
The key is not in saving Cheyney, but learning the lessons Cheyney teaches us to prepare for similar fights in Nashville, Tallahassee, Baton Rouge, Grambling, Baton Rouge and Itta Bena. Because if this can happen to the first of our schools, it can happen to the biggest and baddest of them as well if we refuse to pay attention to the signs.