His selection will be ratified tomorrow at a Board of Governors meeting of the state System of Higher Education. His salary has not been determined. He will succeed acting president Donald Mullet.
When Pettus, 52, takes the reins at the university on July 1, the school will be free of a $6.8 million debt that has saddled it in the past. But problems remain.
The student body of 1,368 is less than half of what the university had during the 1970s. Several administrators are relatively recent arrivals, having been hired after 1992, when president H. Douglas Covington cleared out several administrative positions.
``When you have this kind of opportunity, it is your responsibility to take it, especially if you believe that you have a chance to move the institution forward,'' Pettus said of his decision to seek the job.
Indeed, it may have been Pettus' experience at the school that gave him the advantage over three other candidates.
``They thought he was very capable, hard-working and responsible,'' said Scott K. Shewell, spokesman for the State System of Higher Education. ``Over the last few years [Cheyney has] eliminated its deficit, worked to improve academic programs, and it was felt that he could guide the continuation of the effort.''
Having worked at Cheyney since 1993, Pettus says he knows about the challenges of working in a system struggling to stay alive.
``I saw too many people were saying, `I'm getting out of here; it's not what I'd imagined it'd be,' '' he said. ``They had become disengaged from the university community.''
Before he came to Cheyney, Pettus had been a professor of psychology and vice president of administration at Virginia State University in Petersburg, Va. He is a graduate of Virginia State, having completed his undergraduate and masters' degrees there. He received a doctoral degree from the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana.
As provost at Cheyney, Pettus said he worked to get faculty members involved in the life of the school. They changed the grading structure and allowed academic departments to determine the direction they would take.
``You get a much better product when you allow people to participate,'' Pettus said of his theory of administration.
Pettus hopes that encouraging professors to be more interested in the life of the university will lead to greater interaction with students.
The son of sharecroppers, Pettus said his own life choices were greatly influenced by people he met as an undergraduate. The head of the psychology department at Virginia State encouraged him to study the human mind. That professor urged him to stay on for graduate work and eventually led him into a faculty position at the school.
``She was trying to bring out the very best in me and that was the small school flavor,'' he said.
Pettus' long-term goals include increasing Cheyney's reputation for individual attention to students while expanding the student base.
``I would like to see student enrollment up to about 3,000 in the next five to 10 years,'' he said. ``We don't want to lose the small school feel, but we'd like to increase student enrollment.''
In order to attract students, he's studying ways to fund increased technological and library offerings at the 275-acre campus.
``You want to have some main attractions or things that the school becomes known for,'' he said. ``You have to have a line out there that people can think about when your name comes up.''
Cheyney has historically been known as a teacher's college, and many people are unaware that it has offerings in 42 academic areas, he said. ``Of course, we need to do some fund-raising to get some attractive programs,'' he said. ``But success breeds success, and the more students you can recruit, the more students will come.''