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Group Says Cheyney University Underfunding is Result of Racial Discrimination

By Cherri Gregg

CHEYNEY, Pa. (CBS) -- A coalition of Cheyney University students, staff, and alumni today filed a federal lawsuit alleging decades of racial discrimination,  through unfair funding, by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

The lawsuit, filed by a group calling itself "Heeding Cheney's Call," names governor Tom Corbett, the Pennsylvania Board of Governors, and the US Department of Education as defendants, and claims the funding shortages are the result of racial discrimination in violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

"We're one of 14 state institutions owned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and Cheyney from the very beginning has been treated like a stepchild," says Michael Coard, a 1982 Cheyney alumnus who is one of several attorneys representing plaintiffs in the civil rights lawsuit.

The suit revives allegations from a similar suit filed in the 1980s and seeks to enforce a 1999 settlement agreement overseen by the US Department of Education.

"We had hoped to negotiate an out-of-court settlement but that didn't work," says Coard (at lectern in photo), referring to eight months of negotiations with the state, "so now we have to force the Commonwealth to do what it would not do voluntarily."

"We seek now to make the state and government fullfill its promises," notes fellow attorney Joe Tucker.

The lawsuit claims Cheyney University has been left behind the 13 other state-owned institutions because of the state's failure to address issues of "program duplication" left over from a prior system of "separate but equal" education.

"Equality only applies if everybody is treated equally," says Coard.  "Cheyney has not been treated equally.  You can't get equality unless you look at what happened in the past.  That's why we are seeking parity through equity, so we get a level playing field."

Read the entire 61-page complaint (.pdf format)

Currently, the 177-year-old institution is dealing with a decaying campus, shrinking course offerings, and declining enrollment -- all of which, according to supporters, is the result of inequitable treatment and years of inadequate funding.

"We've gone from an enrollment of 3,000 down to an enrollment of 1,000.  You can't run a university with 1,000 students," says E. Sonny Harris, a Cheyney alum and retired professor.  "Some of the buildings and pipes are so old that sometimes, in the wintertime, students don't have heat, they don't have running water."

The complaint does not demand a specific amount of damages but instead seeks remedies that would revive Cheyney by expanding its mission and creating new academic programs.

Cheyney University is the nation's oldest African-American institution of higher learning.

Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education released the following statement in part regarding the lawsuit:
"It is our practice not to comment specifically on ongoing ligation. Cheyney University's role within Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education and the Commonwealth is important. Our collective goal is to ensure that every student who attends the university receives a high-quality educational experience.

The State System as a whole—including the Office of the Chancellor, the Board of Governors, Cheyney University's Council of Trustees, and university leadership—is focused on Cheyney's future. We have been working closely together to identify and address the opportunities and challenges facing the university, especially those that have a direct impact on students." To read the full statement, click here.

The Office of General Counsel, which represents Gov. Corbett, declined to comment.

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