Claiming racism, Cheyney alumni threaten suit over funding

State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams speaks about the possible revival of the lawsuit at a news conference outside federal court in Philadelphia. Chaka Fattah and Jannie L. Blackwell also were present.
State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams speaks about the possible revival of the lawsuit at a news conference outside federal court in Philadelphia. Chaka Fattah and Jannie L. Blackwell also were present. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 25, 2013

PHILADELPHIA A group of elected officials and a coalition of Cheyney University students and alumni said they will restart a 33-year-old federal civil-rights suit against the state unless Gov. Corbett's administration provides additional funding to help the deficit-plagued, historically black state school survive.

"We're trying to make sure that Cheyney is treated not just fairly, not just equally, but equitably," said Michael Coard, a lawyer, Cheyney alumnus, and part of a coalition calling itself Heeding Cheyney's Call.

Because the university is small, compensating it under the same funding formula as the other 13 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education is not adequate, the group said.

On a sidewalk near Philadelphia's federal courthouse - where some of the same members of the coalition filed the federal suit in 1980 - Coard said the group would give the Corbett administration 10 days to meet its demands.

The original suit led to a 1999 settlement in which the state funneled $36.5 million to Cheyney for building and academic upgrades. Coard was student government vice president at Cheyney when the suit was filed.

The coalition declined to say how much it was seeking, though Coard said $250 million would be "a nice, round number."

Located on 275 acres of rolling farmland in Delaware and Chester Counties, Cheyney - founded in 1837 and one of the oldest historically black colleges in the country - has struggled for years with low enrollment and funding woes, as have many historically black universities. It faces a $14 million deficit and enrolls 1,200 students, down from nearly 3,000 in 1977, the coalition said.

Cheyney is known for giving underprivileged inner-city students a chance at a college education that other schools may not. More than half of Cheyney's students hail from Philadelphia.

The other 13 state universities, the group asserted, are running a $100 million surplus while Cheyney operates in the red.

"Racism," Coard said. "That's why we're pushing this issue."

In a statement, Peter Garland, acting chancellor of the state system, denied discrimination and said the system has allotted Cheyney the highest per-student funding of any of its universities. The system also has awarded Cheyney $70 million in capital funding over the last two years for a new residence hall and science center.

"Clearly, Cheyney University is treated fairly and equally in comparison to its other sister schools," Garland said, noting that the percentage of Cheyney's budget covered by tuition and fees is smaller than at the other schools.

Corbett's office, the state Education Department, and Cheyney president Michelle R. Howard-Vital did not respond to requests for comment.

The group was joined by U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, State Rep. Ronald Waters, and Philadelphia City Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, also a Cheyney alumna, among others.

"We're here for the long haul," Blackwell said.

Also leading the news conference was Jeffrey K. Hart, an event planner and Cheyney alumnus who was part of the 1980 suit as student government president.

Alumni, he said, have become increasingly concerned, spurring him to review the lawsuit.

"I brought about 12 people together and decided this would be the action we'd take," he said.

Malik Williams, 21, student government president, said Cheyney buildings need work and better equipment.

"If we had more funding, we could build more things. We could grow," said Williams, a business administration major from Pittsburgh.

The coalition said the state system should revise its funding formula and exempt Cheyney from any "austerity measures" enacted at the other universities as budgets tighten.


Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq. Read her blog at www.inquirer.com/campusinq

|
|
|
|
|