Cheyney president out, acting president to step in Monday

Michelle R. Howard-Vital is retiring.
Michelle R. Howard-Vital is retiring.
Posted: July 05, 2014

Cheyney University abruptly announced on Thursday the retirement of its president, Michelle R. Howard-Vital, and said her successor would take over Monday.

Vital led the historically black university on the Delaware and Chester county line for seven years.

The university's deficit has grown under her watch, and enrollment has not increased - trends that are exacerbating the school's already troubled position.

"I think that Dr. Vital was absolutely an academician who did a lot of good things at Cheyney," said Robert Bogle, chair of Cheyney's board of trustees. "Some of the things this university does face, has faced, will face, she certainly could not control. She tried to grapple with and overcome these issues. Some she could, some she couldn't."

Though Vital's official retirement date is July 31, she won't finish out her last few weeks as president, the university said. Phyllis Worthy Dawkins, provost and vice president of academic affairs since August, will become acting president Monday, the university said.

Vital, who in 2013 was paid $208,503, will "spend the rest of this month helping Dr. Dawkins make a smooth transition," the university said.

Neither Vital or Dawkins was available for comment, said Gwen Owens, a Cheyney spokeswoman.

Bogle, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Tribune, said Vital chose to retire after discussions with Frank T. Brogan, chancellor of the 14-university Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

"We don't comment on personnel matters, but certainly appreciate her service to the university and wish her well in retirement," said system spokesman Kenn Marshall.

Vital said in a statement that she looked forward to returning home to North Carolina.

"I leave knowing that I've accomplished much to benefit the university," she said.

Cheyney has struggled with low enrollment and deficits for years, as have many historically black universities. When Vital began at Cheyney in 2007, the deficit was between $4 million and $6 million, Bogle said. By last September, it had risen to $14 million. Bogle was unsure of the latest figure.

Asked whether he thought Vital was responsible for the growth in the deficit, he said, "Some of it, yes. Some of it, no."

Enrollment has hovered around 1,200. In 1977, nearly 3,000 students attended.

The increased deficit and lagging student population have caused concern among faculty, said Michael Adighibe, an accounting professor and past president of the faculty union.

"She was hired to remove the deficit from the school. She was hired to increase enrollment," he said. Her departure, he said, "is long overdue."

Under Vital's leadership, the university opened its first new residence hall in more than 30 years and restored the oldest building on campus, Humphreys Hall, as a residence hall. A $22 million science center and planetarium is near completion, and the university also expanded its program in Center City, the university noted.

Vital was active on social media - particularly Twitter - and helped the university develop an online blog, a digital newsletter, and a presence on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.

Less than a year into her presidency, she faced allegations of mismanaging finances, and the support-staff union called for her ouster at a rally.

Dawkins, who will serve until an interim president is appointed, came to Cheyney from Dillard University in New Orleans, another historically black college, where she was provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, and a professor of education and psychology.

Dawkins has a bachelor's degree from Johnson C. Smith University, a master's from the University of Michigan, and a doctoral degree from Ohio State University.


ssnyder@phillynews.com

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