Pennsylvania’s Cheyney University is fighting to continue its 183-year legacy as the nation’s oldest HBCU.
The historically black college or university is located just 45 minutes outside of Philadelphia but, like many other HBCUs, has found it hard to survive the school integration that came after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Cheney was founded before the start of the Civil
“HBCUs produced so many talented, high achieving, not just professionals, but scholars, that over time they now go anywhere,” said Ron Stodghill, an associate professor at the University of Missouri and author of Where Everybody Looks like Me: At The Crossroads of America’s Black Colleges and Culture. “It’s kind of an irony that HBCUs are almost a victim of their own success.”
Now HBCUs like Cheney and Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, are facing financial woes and plunging enrollment that threatens their accreditation. Enrollment at Cheyney has dropped 38 percent since 2018, and now the school is struggling to keep its accreditation with Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).
Aaron Walton assumed the role of university president in 2017, making him Cheyney’s fourth president in 10 years. Upon taking the position, the veteran businessman who also served on the board of governors of
“Even though I had been on the board for a number of years, until you actually are resident in a place you can’t tell the depth of issues that an organization has,” Walton said.
Walton used his private-sector experience to make some major changes at the school including eliminating jobs, reorganizing academic departments and
“Some of the decisions that have had to be made are very difficult and very painful to a lot of people including myself,” said Walton. “I don’t relish disrupting people’s lives. But I also know changing the business model is not change, it’s transformation.”
Walton knows it will be a rough road ahead, but he believes that Cheyney will progress. He reveals enrollment is up for the coming year, and the school recently unveiled programs that they hope will attract competitive students from around the world, including a partnership with Starbucks and Thomas Jefferson University.
Nina-Simone Beaver, a senior in Cheyney’s Keystone Honors Academy program,
“With time, 183 years, there becomes old branches,” said Beaver. “But I will say, you have to be careful because even though you want this tree to grow, you can’t cut it down so much and hinder the roots.”
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