Mapping out vi­sion for Cheyney U. to cre­ate another legacy “T

The Morning Call (Sunday) - - TOWN SQUARE -

hey have far ex­ceeded my most san­guine ex­pec­ta­tions. Their com­port­ment has been com­mend­able.”

Those are the words to de­scribe stu­dents at the In­sti­tute for Col­ored Youth in 1851. It was John Ste­wart Rock who com­pli­mented his stu­dents.

Rock was an African-Amer­i­can teacher, den­tist, physi­cian and at­tor­ney. He is best known for be­ing the first AfricanAmer­i­can ad­mit­ted to ar­gue be­fore the U.S. Supreme Court — though an early death in 1866 robbed him of the chance to ac­tu­ally ar­gue a case be­fore our na­tion's high­est court.

To­day, we know of the In­sti­tute for Col­ored Youth as Cheyney Uni­ver­sity, the only his­tor­i­cally black col­lege or uni­ver­sity in the Pennsylvania State Sys­tem of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion.

Be­sides the school's name, much has changed at Cheyney since those days in 1851. Through­out the 20th cen­tury, there were al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion by ad­min­is­tra­tors. There was also con­de­scen­sion — yes, some, but not all, racially charged — by some of Cheyney's PASSHE col­leagues.

Now, with Cheyney's en­roll­ment shrink­ing by well over half since 2006, there have been calls to close the in­sti­tu­tion's doors. These calls have be­come louder in the halls of Har­ris­burg, as the school is more than $30 mil­lion in the red.

Sis­ter PASSHE uni­ver­si­ties shell out hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars each year from their re­spec­tive bud­gets to dam the flood of debt in­curred by Cheyney. To be sure, these other PASSHE schools are deal­ing with their own bud­getary woes.

So, while PASSHE and other of­fi­cials at­tempt to fill the credit holes at Cheyney, a sus­tain­able vi­sion for the in­sti­tu­tion's fu­ture is in or­der, is it not?

Cheyney, which started off on Sixth Street in Cen­ter City Philadel­phia as the ICY in 1837, has a lengthy and rich his­tory. It is an in­sti­tu­tion worth sav­ing, but the ques­tion is how to ac­com­plish that mon­u­men­tal task with­out cost­ing PASSHE in Har­ris­burg and the other 13 state uni­ver­si­ties hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars each year from their re­spec­tive bud­gets.

To get us there, let's look at how we can tie in a fu­ture vi­sion of Cheyney with the in­sti­tu­tion's his­tory. Cheyney's rich his­tory should be cel­e­brated and re­spected, but that needs to be done in a fis­cally re­spon­si­ble fash­ion.

One way of do­ing that? Make it a school that fo­cuses on a few, spe­cial­ized ar­eas. Con­sider the Cheyney Uni­ver­sity of Health Sciences, with col­leges within it be­ing named af­ter prom­i­nent African-Amer­i­cans tied to the school, his­tory or its mis­sion some way.

To do that, we can re­turn to John S. Rock, one of the very early African-Amer­i­can in­struc­tors at the ICY. Rock was prac­tic­ing den­tistry be­fore even­tu­ally jump­ing over the race hur­dle that pre­vented him from study­ing medicine in Philadel­phia. Rock was men­tored by the ICY's first African-Amer­i­can in­struc­tor, Ish­mael Locke, grand­fa­ther of Alain Locke of Har­lem Re­nais­sance fame. Teach­ing at the ICY as an evening in­struc­tor, Locke even­tu­ally left for a job in Providence, R.I.

That is when Rock took over un­til he moved to Boston's Bea­con Hill to first prac­tice medicine and then law be­fore dy­ing very young of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis. The point of this brief his­tory les­son: Il­lus­trate that Cheney's past can be the con­cep­tual bedrock for its fu­ture.

Should the Cheyney Uni­ver­sity of Health Sciences, as one might dub it, come to fruition, per­haps the John S. Rock Den­tal School could be a key com­po­nent? This would be not only of his­tor­i­cal but also of strate­gic sig­nif­i­cance, since there are no den­tal schools in Delaware, none in south­ern New Jersey and only three in Pennsylvania.

And what about be­com­ing an eye doc­tor? A po­ten­tial name­sake for an op­tom­e­try or oph­thal­mol­ogy school at the Cheyney Uni­ver­sity of Health Sciences, you ask? En­ter David K. McDonogh, the first AfricanAmer­i­can oph­thal­mol­o­gist. Though McDonogh did not study in Philadel­phia, he did his un­der­grad­u­ate work in the Le­high Val­ley, at Lafayette Col­lege.

Is it not ap­pro­pri­ate to con­sider se­ri­ously mak­ing some­one like McDonogh the name­sake for such a school of oph­thal­mol­ogy or op­tom­e­try? PASSHE could then join the den­tal and oph­thal­mol­ogy or op­tom­e­try schools with one for pub­lic health, nam­ing it af­ter the Rev. Richard Allen.

Allen may be best known for es­tab­lish­ing the African Methodist Epis­co­pal Church af­ter be­ing asked to leave a pre­dom­i­nately white church for re­fus­ing to pray in the church's “ne­gro” sec­tion.

How­ever, Allen was in­stru­men­tal in treat­ing fel­low Philadel­phi­ans stricken with yel­low fever in 1793, largely be­cause 18th-cen­tury think­ing was that those of African lin­eage were im­mune to the dis­ease.

Doesn't the Richard Allen Col­lege of Pub­lic Health have a ring to it? With all of the talk of eco­nomic sus­tain­abil­ity whirling around Har­ris­burg, it is time to think, too, about how his­tor­i­cal roots en­hance the le­git­i­macy of a strug­gling uni­ver­sity.

Doesn't the old­est his­tor­i­cally black col­lege and uni­ver­sity de­serve that much?

Christo­pher Brooks is a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at East Strouds­burg Uni­ver­sity.


State Rep. James Roe­buck Jr., D-Philadel­phia, speaks at a Nov. 10, 2015, rally in the Capi­tol Ro­tunda in Har­ris­burg to press Pennsylvania to help the fi­nan­cially strug­gling Cheyney Uni­ver­sity.

Christo­pher Brooks

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