Rights Accord A Big Help For Cheyney The Settlement Will Help The University `Fulfill Its Vision For The Future.'

Posted: June 04, 1999

THORNBURY — There is a sense of history emanating from the Quadrangle at Cheyney University, with its tree-lined walkways, green commons and rustic stone buildings, some of which haven't been in use for years.

The Quad, as students refer to it, is the oldest section of the 275-acre campus along Cheyney Road and was once the center of campus life. It is a grassy rectangular area bordered by the school's remaining original structures, some of which predate its move from Philadelphia to Thornbury Township, Delaware County, in 1902.

They are the stone-and-mortar ``roots'' of one of the nation's oldest historically black institutions of higher education. As such, they have not been demolished even as modern buildings sprouted on campus to replace them and keep pace with time and growth.

Now a move is afoot to return the Quad to its former status by restoring and reusing the old buildings. The work was to be underwritten with a $10 million fund drive initiated at Cheyney last fall, but that would have barely scratched the surface. Most of the money was earmarked for scholarships.

Last month, all of that changed dramatically. Cheyney learned it would receive $36.5 million in state funds as part of a settlement with the U.S. Department of Education stemming from a decades-old civil rights case.

The money is to be received over five years and used in part to restore a dozen campus buildings, including five on the Quad already targeted for rehabilitation. One of them, Emlen Hall, a women's dormitory built in 1905, will become a residence for four-year scholarship students under a $5 million financial aid program called the Keystone Academy, a part of the settlement.

Other restorations include Humphreys Hall, an office and industrial arts building dating back to 1904; Carnegie Hall, a library and classroom building dedicated in 1910; Burleigh Hall, a men's dormitory built in 1928, and Biddle Hall, an administration building built in 1938.

Cheyney President W. Clinton Pettus lauded the civil rights settlement signed off by the state as ``a perfect fit for the direction Cheyney needs to go to fulfill its vision for the future.'' The revitalization program is a part of that vision, he said.

``It is an effort to embrace our heritage, to hold on to our past even as we move forward into the 21st century,'' he said of the program, adding that receipt of the state funds would not sidetrack the fund drive.

Spearheading the drive is Cheyney's 21st Century Leadership Committee, a group of alumni, faculty, students and friends of the university headed by Barbara Daniel Cox, an alumna and professional organizer.

Pettus said the largest portion of the fund drive would be a scholarship endowment aimed at attracting academically talented students. Their success will in turn ``help raise the bar of excellence'' at Cheyney.

``We can no longer sit back and wait for enrollees to walk through our doors,'' Pettus said. ``In a quest for diversity, traditionally white colleges have stepped up their recruitment of black students, so we have to compete, and that takes money.'' That would come from the fund drive, plus the Keystone Academy funds.

Pettus said he plans to move Cheyney's administration offices back to Humphreys Hall, their historic location, when the restorations are completed. The school's administrators, including the president, are now housed in the Wade Wilson Building, a three-story brick structure erected on the north end of the campus in 1979.

It is a typical public building, functional but with none of the architectural charm of Humphreys Hall, which boasts hardwood floors, oak moldings, high ceilings, deep window wells and balustrade staircases.

Although the Quad buildings are quiet nowadays, they retain an aura of the past. Students may be unaware of their history as they pass en route to the nearby Ada S. Georges Dining Hall, but they can sense it.

``The spirit of Cheyney lies within the Quad,'' said Robert Crawford, who attended the university in the 1970s. A Chester Upland School District administrator, Crawford believes he echoes the sentiment of all of the ``old grads'' in lauding the school's plan to reclaim its older campus.

Pettus, who frequently has lunch with students in the dining hall, said he enjoys walking through the Quad. ``It's a perfect backdrop to reflect on the university's mission as envisioned by our founder, Richard Humphreys,'' he said.

Humphreys, a Philadelphia Quaker, bequeathed $10,000 in 1829 for the establishment of ``an institution having as its object the benevolent design of instructing the descendants of the African Race in school learning . . .''

In 1837, five years after his death, the Institute for Colored Youth was set up on a 136-acre farm in what is now the Germantown section of Philadelphia, to provide a free classical education for qualified young people.

In 1902 the school was relocated to George Cheyney's farm, 24 miles west of Philadelphia. In 1913 the name was changed to Cheyney Training School for Teachers. It became Cheyney State College in 1959, and in 1983 became one of 14 members of the State System of Higher Education as Cheyney University.

Cheyney now has about 1,700 full-time students, a 5 percent increase over last school year. It expects the number to reach 2,000 in 2000, and to continue to grow by 2 to 3 percent per year. It has gotten a handle on financial problems, and leadership under Pettus seems to be stabilized.

It wasn't always so.

Starting in the late 1970s, Cheyney enrollment began a downward spiral after peaking around 2,900. At the same time, its indebtedness grew, requiring the state to hand over millions in bailout money.

In 1985 the school almost lost its accreditation over what the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools cited as ineffective leadership, poor fiscal management, poor student-services programs and deteriorating physical facilities.

The result was that teaching positions were cut, departments were eliminated and administrators got fired. In 1991 LeVerne McCummings, the school's sixth president, resigned to avoid a possible firing.

His successor, H. Douglas Covington, served until 1995. Pettus took office the next year, having served as Cheyney's provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Today Cheyney is debt-free, having cleared its outstanding loans in 1996. Enrollment is on the rise, and the school has won full accreditation. Looking back is no longer painful for school officials, and restoration of the historic Quad area is a part of the future.

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