Monday, July 06, 2015

Heeding Cheyney's Call

From The Ramparts
                                                  Junious Ricardo Stanton
                                                Heeding Cheyney’s Call

            On Wednesday July 15th at 6:30 PM at Zion Baptist Church Broad and Venango Streets in Philadelphia there will be a mass meeting to update and discuss the ongoing struggle to save and resurrect historic Cheyney University. The meeting is being called by Heeding Cheyney’s Call a broad based coalition of alumni, students, current and retired faculty and HBCU advocates who have sued the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the US Department of Education to remedy decades of deliberate underfunding, willful neglect and discriminatory policies that have adversely impacted the historic institution.  During the meeting the Heeding Cheyney’s Call Steering Committee will provide an update on the status of the lawsuit, where the university stands fiscally and operationally and the plans to save and enhance the university.
            Dr. E. Sonny Harris a retired mathematics professor and former president of the retired faculty union spearheaded the Heeding Cheyney’s Call initiative with Michael Coard, a well known activist attorney, and several officers of the Cheyney University National Alumni Association. The group took the name Heeding Cheyney’s Call because a line in the school’s Alma Mater reads, “When Thou Callest Alma Mater, never shall thou call in vain.” 
As alumni we knew we had to answer the call in Cheyney’s hour of need!  The group formed a steering committee and subsequently met with US Department of Education representatives, local, state and federal elected officials and education advocates in the early Spring of 2013. Everyone the steering committee met with stated emphatically there was no political will on the part of the Corbett administration to do the right thing.
 The July 15th meeting is to dispel false rumors about Cheyney’s pending demise, its closing and/or merger with West Chester University. Twenty-seven months ago Professor Harris called select alumni together to discuss the situation at Cheyney and formulate a plan to save and reenergize the university. He felt compelled to act because enrollment was dwindling precipitously, the fiscal situation was deteriorating and the    university leadership lacked the vision and skills to turn the situation around. It was apparent there was no desire by the Corbett administration to do the right thing short of outside legal intervention.
Corbett’s agenda called for the slashing of funds for education across the board, primary, secondary and higher education such as community colleges, the fourteen state owned universities and four state related institutions: Penn State, Temple, Pitt and Lincoln University.  Only last ditch efforts by Democrats prevented Corbett’s disastrous cuts from going into effect. Nevertheless, all public education took a major hit. “Governor Tom Corbett, newly sworn into office, proposed the most drastic cuts to a state’s public education system in the country. Basic education programs saw a 15% cut, a loss of $1.18 billion… Corbett proposed to cut PASSHE funding for its 14 sister institutions by 53.8% in his 2011-2012 budget. That would have amounted to a total of $625 million. These cuts would have also affected the four state-related universities (Temple, Pitt, Lincoln and Penn State). The General Assembly could have taken a stand against such draconian cuts. Instead they reduced the governor’s budget cut proposal to 20%, which amounted to a loss of $90 million in funding to the system and to the four state- related schools.” In Defense of Public Education In The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
For Cheyney, Corbett’s funding cuts were even more devastating due to the Commonwealth’s bi-partisan history of underfunding the institution and its Draconian performance funding criteria which negatively impacted Cheyney and the other smaller PASHEE schools. While chronic underfunding has been bi-partisan, Corbett’s right wing agenda and his Republican cohorts’ support for it were instrumental in drastically cutting funding for public education while supporting additional appropriations for prison construction.
 “Since taking office Corbett has continued to build three new prisons, one in Benner Township and two in Montgomery County. He is also expanding nine existing prison, including SCI Cambridge Springs, SCI Forrest, SCI Houtzdale, SCI Mahanoy, SCI Rockview, SCI Greenburgh, SCI Laurel Highlands, SCI Pine Grove, and SCI Coal Township. These new and expanded prisons cost $68 million to build and add 5,000+ beds to the state prison system. Though the expansion plans were initiated by the Rendell Administraton, Governor Corbett has continued to aggressively move them forward. These plans are out of step with the national trend toward shrinking state prison systems.” Six Myths About Prison Expansion in Pennsylvania
Borrowing money for new prisons is especially egregious when according to the state’s own crime statistics, crime has been declining in Pennsylvania the past several years!   But the Republican agenda of cutting social programs, building prisons and privatizing public services moved full steam ahead under Tom Corbett.
At a press conference in October 2013 Heeding Cheyney’s Call hinted at taking action to go into Federal Court to reopen a 1999 Consent Decree between the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania if the state did not repent and live up to the agreement.  That consent decree agreement called for the continued support of the Cheyney University and its Keystone Honors Program through special line item funding, facilities and technology upgrades, renovation and new programs. The Commonwealth had reneged on the agreement and HCC was going to hold them accountable.
From January of 2014 through late summer of 2014, the HCC negotiating team and representatives from Governor Corbett’s legal staff and PASHEE met ostensibly to find common ground to remedy the situation. Heeding Cheyney’s Call was joined in the negotiations by lead attorney Joe Tucker of the Tucker Law Group the largest Black law firm on the East Coast. Joe Tucker specializes in Civil Rights and Education law. We were also joined and assisted by Dr Earl Richardson, President Emeritus of Morgan State University and Attorney Pace McConkie two founding members of the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education the group that successfully sued the state of Maryland on behalf of the four HBCUs there. The contributions of and support of Joe Tucker, Dr. Richardson and Attorney McConkie have been invaluable!
While discussions with the Commonwealth were cordial, they proved unfruitful. The Corbett administration was unbending and adamant; they said they were not going to give Cheyney any additional monies. Meanwhile conditions at the school worsened, enrollment continued to decline and as a result the deficits spiraled out of control. The president, Dr Michelle Howard-Vital, retired, but thankfully the Provost, Dr. Phyllis Dawkins served as acting president and provost until an interim president was hired.
 On October 29, 2014 Heeding Cheyney’s Call filed a lawsuit in Federal Court against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and The US Department of Education. The suit withstood legal challenges by both defendants and is proceeding on the Court’s docket. In the meantime Tom Corbett lost the gubernatorial election. His successor Tom Wolf a Democrat had campaigned to restore equitable education funding to both public and higher education. Wolf’s administration inherited the lawsuit. But unlike Corbett, Wolf’s people are willing to sit down and genuinely attempt to work out a solution. All parties know litigating this case will be protracted and an extremely costly affair.
It is important Cheyney alumni, the community at large and higher education advocates support Heeding Cheyney’s Call. Make plans to come out on July 15th to hear the facts about the lawsuit, why it was filed and its significance, learn the status of the negotiations and be prepared to help with the plans to revive and resurrect Cheyney University. The meeting begins at 6:30 at Zion Baptist Church Broad and Venango Streets parking is free after 6:30.



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