Cheyney’s Leader Inspires as He Upgrades the University
President Aaron Walton combines solid ethics, social responsibility & academic excellence to save America’s oldest HBCU, writes Ceisler Sr. VP Kirk Dorn.
One of the great privileges of the mission-driven nature of the work I perform for clients is the opportunity it affords me to collaborate with a wide range of CEOs with varying styles and personalities. The great ones, however, have common traits that draw me, and their employees, to them.
They are intelligent and strategic thinkers. They develop and work from a step-by-step plan. They hire and retain people for the right reason—competence and commitment to the cause—and perhaps most important, they are guided by high ethical standards.
All of these attributes are exhibited by great leaders like Kelvin Jeremiah from the Philadelphia Housing Authority, Todd Bock of Camelot Education, Steven Fischer at the Chester Housing Authority, Meir Gelley at Nationwide Healthcare Services, Janet Abrahams at the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, Malik Majeed at PRWT Services, and Scott Gordan of Mastery Charter Schools. Each has built and led tremendously successful organizations.
But for this edition of our client appreciation newsletter, our editor asked me to single out just one, Aaron Walton, president of Cheyney University. (The editor’s name is Glen Macnow, so those of you not mentioned here may address your complaints to him.)
After a long and fruitful career as a healthcare executive, state leaders convinced Mr. Walton to give up his very comfortable retirement to lead Cheyney in the hope he could literally save the nation’s first Historically Black College (HBCU) from extinction.
The school’s finances were beyond distressed when Walton arrived in 2017. Academic standards had fallen to an unacceptably low level. A low percentage of students were being retained. And the school’s reputation reflected all those harsh realities.
Walton made clear at the start that the next two-to-four years were going to be painful as he restructured the institution. He would have to tear things down to build back an entirely different model - and do so under an unbearable debt burden.
I remember sitting with him at our communications campaign launch meeting and being blown away by a presentation he had prepared. The plan was brilliantly innovative – yet simple. It laid out a vision in which private companies would be recruited to operate their businesses on Cheyney’s 275-acre campus, simultaneously creating a revenue source for the university and on-campus internships for students.
Some biotech companies have already set up shop in Cheyney’s Science Center, while other businesses will be coming to other parts of the property. The program was slowed down a bit by COVID, but it is still moving forward. It has drawn the attention of other leaders at other colleges interested in duplicating the model at their campuses.
Cheyney’s plan is not just about finances. From the outset, President Walton insisted student decisions would be guided by three pillars: academic excellence, character development, and social responsibility. It occurred to me these values are direct reflections of him.
When he arrived at Cheyney, Walton found a school on life support. After almost four years, he has stabilized the university and positioned it for long-term financial sustainability, while also significantly raising the academic bar for admission. In doing so, he has created a school for which potential students will have to compete for precious spots. Also, through these business partnerships, he has created a pipeline for students to move into science-based and other career fields.
He had committed to staying only four years but recently agreed to extend his tenure because he now feels he needs to see the plan through to fruition. As in sports, you can have the best game plan on paper, but the real work comes in the execution. And Aaron Walton still has a few more big plays to execute before he resumes his retirement.
I feel very fortunate to know him. And as an organization, we at Ceisler Media could not be prouder to represent Cheyney University.
Kirk Dorn is the Senior Vice President in Ceisler Media's Philadelphia office.