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Pennsylvania higher ed system to vote on naming Aaron Walton president of Cheyney University

Debra Erdley
| Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, 2:15 p.m.
Frank Pogue, left, is stepping down as interim president of Cheyney University. Aaron Walton, right, has been selected to succeed Pogue.
Cheyney University
Frank Pogue, left, is stepping down as interim president of Cheyney University. Aaron Walton, right, has been selected to succeed Pogue.
Aaron Walton (left) and Dr. Robert Thompson (right) at the New Pittsburgh Courier's 2012 Men of Excellence Awards Reception on Thursday, October 25, 2012 in the Main Ballroom of the Fairmont Pittsburgh Hotel. 
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Aaron Walton (left) and Dr. Robert Thompson (right) at the New Pittsburgh Courier's 2012 Men of Excellence Awards Reception on Thursday, October 25, 2012 in the Main Ballroom of the Fairmont Pittsburgh Hotel. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education oversight board will meet Monday to vote on an unprecedented request to waive policy and name former board member Aaron Walton president of Cheyney University.

Walton, 70, of Pittsburgh is a retired vice president of Highmark Inc. Last spring, he resigned from the PASSHE board when he was appointed interim president of Cheyney, located in suburban Philadelphia and considered the oldest historically black post-secondary school in the nation.

The request to make the $248,000-a-year appointment permanent comes as Cheyney faces a Nov. 16 showdown with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

The accrediting agency demanded the university, which has been plagued by declining enrollment and budget deficits for the last decade and on probationary accreditation for two years, show cause why it should remain an accredited institution.

The commission cited a lack of permanent leadership and financial planning among the key issues in a show-cause order setting the stage for the upcoming meeting.

Officials say Walton, who served on the PASSHE board of governors and the council of trustees at California University of Pennsylvania, has helped the struggling school address its problems.

“Since the day he arrived on campus, Interim President Walton has demonstrated both his outstanding leadership abilities and the courage to make the difficult but necessary decisions to help secure Cheyney University's future,” Robert Bogle, chairman of Cheyney's Council of Trustees, said in a statement. “It's essential as we near a decision from Middle States that we have strong, stable leadership in place. Aaron Walton is the leader we need now and into the future.”

Cheyney trustees on Thursday forwarded a request that Walton be appointed president to the PASSHE board of governors. To grant the request, PASSHE's oversight board would have to waive a requirement that presidential search committees consult with a search firm and submit two names for consideration to any appointment, PASSHE spokesman Kenn Marshall said.

Nationally, colleges and universities engage search firms in about two-thirds of all presidential appointments. According to the American Council on Education's 2017 survey on the state of college presidencies, only 15 percent of presidents come from outside of higher education.

Walton could not be reached for comment.

He was a member of the team that helped rescue Pittsburgh's August Wilson Center for African American Culture from bankruptcy. He has a bachelor's degree in speech pathology and audiology from Cal U and a master's degree in public policy and management from Carnegie Mellon University.

In August, Marshall said the PASSHE board endorsed a long-term financial plan Cheyney submitted and voted to forgive $30 million in loans it provided to the school, providing the budget is balanced in each of the next four years.

The long-term financial plan comes at the conclusion of a decade during which the school first dipped into its reserves, then looked to the state to balance its budget as enrollment slipped from about 1,500 to 755 this fall.

Citing Cheyney's struggles and its historical importance, Cynthia D. Shapira, chairwoman of the PASSHE board of governors, issued a statement commending Cheyney's trustees for their recommendation.

“I am willing to entertain any prudent and legal action within our authority that can help preserve the university's future,” Shapira said. “Cheyney University is America's oldest historically black university, and it has an important role in our society.

“Unquestionably, Aaron Walton has demonstrated his commitment to Cheyney University and to helping to secure its future — working tirelessly on behalf of the institution and its students over the past nearly six months.”

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@ tribweb.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.

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