Cheyney hopes for balance

The nation’s oldest Historically Black College and University deserves better.

And it looks like it is finally going to get it.

Cheyney University, whose sprawling rural campus straddles the border of Delaware and Chester counties, has struggled for years with declining enrollment, accreditation woes and mounting money problems.

Then Aaron Walton arrived.

From the moment he walked onto the campus in June 2017, Walton brought with him a mandate: Put the school back on an even financial keel, fix the academy problems, and attract students to the once-proud institution.

Yes, it was a tall order. Enrollment, which just a few years saw several thousand kids from all over the nation arrive at the prestigious school on the county’s western edge, had plummeted to a little more than 400.

The school was continuing to bleed red ink, with a deficit that stood at $7.4 million and growing. And the Middle States Commission on Education, which lords over schools’ ability to retain their accreditation, was keeping a wary eye on the school’s shaky academic footing.

Walton arrived and immediately made some very tough decisions. Some of those included unpopular cuts, including axing the school’s football program.

But perhaps the best thing Walton did was realize that Cheyney was not going to climb out of this hole alone.

That was the overriding theme behind this week’s press conference at the school as Walton announced a turnaround plan dubbed “Resurgence.”

Job One? Shoring up the school’s finances. Walton announced his belief that Cheyney will end the fiscal year on June 30 with a balanced budget, something the school has not done for six years.

Of course, he’s banking on $4 million in donations to get it done, but it represents a huge step forward from the bleak outlook of the past few years.

It is in fact reversing that bleak picture, the shroud of doubt about the school’s future that stands as Walton’s biggest challenge. From the outset Walton offered a resounding message to current and prospective students.

“Students enrolling for fall semester should know two things as they prepare to join us,” Walton said. “First, Cheyney has positioned itself for a strong and sustainable future. And second, we have transformed Cheyney’s culture to accept nothing short of excellence in academics, character and social responsibility.”

That’s a far cry from recent headlines made by the school, with parents and students complaining that dorm rooms did not have heat or hot water.

Apparently a lot of students are getting the message. School officials say applications are up, with more than 2,700 students seeking admission, a 30 percent boost from this time last year. The school has offered admission to half of those.

Walton is reaching out and developing partnerships in the community and region to bolster the campus and restore the illustrious -- but recently faded -- reputation of the 182-year-old institution.

Epcot Crenshaw Corp., a West Chester tech firm, is planning to build a new headquarters on the campus, complete with research labs, greenhouses and an aquaponics facility.

Thomas Jefferson University announced a joint research project with the school, focusing on health disparities across the region. Jefferson officials said they hope the program would lay the groundwork for Cheyney grads to enter post-graduate studies.

Starbucks has committed to several joint projects with the school to research barriers to workplace recruitment and retention of minorities in the Philadelphia region.

Walton also hinted that the 275-acre campus could soon be home to a hotel and conference center, while also leasing space on campus to strategically aligned partners.

The latest rescue effort followed word from the chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education that Cheyney was in danger of losing its accreditation. Daniel Greenstein and Gov. Tom Wolf met with Walton last week and all voiced support for the university.

Kenn Marshall, a spokesperson for the state system, said that threat remains, although state officials are encouraged by the progress Walton has shown.

“We’re going to continue to work with Cheyney and support them,” Marshall said “Obviously, President Walton has a plan and we hope it’s successful.”

Walton was especially well-suited for this task. He came from the corporate world, not education. In fact, he spent four decades turning around struggling businesses.

“My marching orders on four turnarounds that I did was make it work or shut it down,” Walton said. “They don’t need a turnaround artist to come to Cheyney to shut it down. Anyone could’ve done that.”

For most of its 180 years, Cheyney has gained acclaim that matched its legacy as the national oldest institution of higher education traditionally dedicated to African-American students.

It was the cream of the crop of HBCs.

That goal was in danger of drowning in red ink.

Aaron Walton has stanched the flow of red ink and is now working on a “Resurgence.”

Cheyney University deserves no less.

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