Black school revives civil rights lawsuit

Philadelphia — A broad coalition of students, alumni, faculty, staff, politicians, religious leaders and community supporters of Cheyney University gathered for a press conference outside the federal court building in Philadelphia on Sept. 23. Named “Heeding Cheyney’s Call,” the group put Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett on notice that they intend to restart a major civil rights lawsuit that seeks additional funding for the traditionally Black, state-owned school.

The coalition charged that, despite austerity measures under Corbett’s administration that impacted all 14 state schools, the 13 with predominantly white enrollment share a $100 million budget surplus, while Cheyney faces a $14 million deficit. When asked the reason why, Cheyney alumnus Michael Coard, lead lawyer for the lawsuit, replied, “Racism!”

A civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of Cheyney in 1980 successfully charged the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania with racial discrimination in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and other federal and state laws. It cited the state’s unlawful and inequitable actions against the traditional Black university, compared to its treatment of traditionally white state-owned schools.

That lawsuit resulted in a binding agreement in 1999 with the Office for Civil Rights that funneled $36.5 million to Cheyney for building and academic upgrades. However, plaintiffs in the 1980 case — many of whom attended the press conference — charged the Commonwealth has continued to maintain an illegal and racial “dual system” of higher education, to Cheyney’s detriment.

Coard stated that the Commonwealth “has affirmative obligations to ensure that Cheyney University becomes and remains equitably comparable to the traditionally white institutions in Pennsylvania.” Calling a 60 percent drop in Cheyney’s enrollment — from 3,000 students in 1977 to 1,200 today — “shocking,” Coard blamed recent state tuition rate increases, which he described as “oppressively high for Cheyney students.”

Coming from families with average household incomes of under $40,000, more than 80 percent of Cheyney students rely on financial aid. To comply with the 1999 settlement, the HCC coalition calls for a major revision of the state’s funding-per-enrollment formulas that benefit larger schools.

“The Commonwealth says they can’t give more money because there are not enough students. We say there are not enough students at Cheyney because there is not enough money,” Coard said. “We are calling on the federal government to force the Commonwealth to come back to the table and reach an equitable agreement with Cheyney that complies with the 1999 agreement they signed.”

Coard explained that the group chose Sept. 23, the 33rd anniversary of the 1980 case, “to give notice that the Commonwealth continues this pattern of discrimination through underfunding,” leaving “Cheyney University with all-time low student enrollment and an all-time high budget deficit.”

“We are trying to make sure that Cheyney is treated not just fairly, not just equally, but equitably,” said Coard.

Founded as the African Institute in 1837, Cheyney is one of the oldest historically Black colleges in the U.S. Reinstituted under the state system as Cheyney University in 1983, the school offers 33 majors for undergraduates, as well as a master’s in Educational Leadership and Public Administration, helping to prepare much-needed African-American and other students of color to become leaders in education.

As the HCC press conference got underway, the pressing need for more Black administrators was underscored by news that two white school officials in the nearby Coatesville school district were caught texting messages containing racial slurs about students and staff. Some 47 percent of Coatesville’s 7,000 students are ­African-American.

In Philadelphia, dozens of schools have been closed and layoffs of nearly 4,000 support staff have resulted in class sizes of over 40 students with no counselors, supplies or even textbooks. Schools most impacted are in African-American communities. Coard challenged the state’s priority of spending more money on incarceration than education.

Attacks on Black colleges mount

Cheyney is not the only Black university impacted by racism where inequitable funding is involved. The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education recently filed a federal lawsuit seeking $1 billion to make up for disparate funding for that state’s four Black colleges and universities. In 2000, Maryland promised to rectify these concerns, but plaintiffs charge that little progress has been made.

Noting that the Maryland $1 billion lawsuit covers four schools, Coard suggested that for Cheyney alone, “$250 million would be a nice, round number” to help upgrade physical facilities and provide support for students.

Coard said that the coalition is giving the Commonwealth a 10-calendar-day notice to respond. Pointing to a group of eight lawyers gathered behind him, Coard stated, “We have an army of lawyers with us. We want the governor to know that we are coming!”