When the words “unnecessary program duplication” come up in conversation about Pennsylvania’s state-owned universities, someone usually is talking about cutting a campus budget.
But those words are being used of late to assert a broken promise and racial discrimination in a decades-old civil rights lawsuit resurrected last week by a coalition supporting Cheyney University, a historically black school in Delaware County.
The coalition including students, alumni and community activists say Cheyney, smallest of the 14 state-owned universities, is in the red and losing students because it has not received equitable resources, despite a 1980 federal lawsuit and a 1999 settlement with the state.
Named as defendants were Gov. Tom Corbett, the board of governors of the State System of Higher Education and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
The plaintiffs assert that the state as part of the 1999 settlement promised to develop and strengthen several areas of study at Cheyney, among them computer science, middle school certification, geographic information systems, emerging technology, pre-professional programs and hotel, restaurant and institutional management programs.
“Pennsylvania promised to limit the expansion within the State System’s regional universities in the identified academic programs areas,” says the 14-page complaint. “This promise meant that the state was committing to not having ‘‘‘unnecessary program duplication.’’’
Instead, the suit alleges, the defendants “allowed and affirmatively encouraged duplication of Cheyney’s unique programs” at other state schools in a way that “demonstrates a bias and preference” for the vitality of schools other than Cheyney.
The complaint says the federal government failed to enforce the 1999 agreement.
The lawsuit, filed Oct. 29 in federal court in Philadelphia, does not specify the dollar amount being sought. But Michael Coard, a spokesman for the coalition, says the plaintiffs want more resources to develop high-demand and academic programs, improved facilities and better recruiting to compete for students.
Mr. Coard said the goal is “parity through equity,” and he invoked a line from Hollywood in saying Cheyney can rebound provided it receives resources to create a campus better able to attract students.
“If you build it, they will come,” he said. “Students will come to Cheyney if there is something to come there for.”
The governor’s office referred a call for comment to the State System, which on its web site posted a statement saying it is focused on Cheyney’s future but that “it is our practice not to comment specifically on ongoing litigation.”
In recent years, budget stresses and enrollment losses have been pronounced across the State System, and Cheyney has been hit particularly hard. Its enrollment of 1,022 is little more than half of what it was in the early 1980s and 36 percent less than in 2010.
Cheyney supporters say the State System’s distribution of funds is not enough to move the school toward parity. The State System responds that the school already receives $14,145 per student, more than three times the system-wide per-student average of $4,529. It says the school has also received in recent years the largest amount of capital funds.
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org, (412) 263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.