Updated: Friday 3:45 p.m.
Seven City Council members are condemning Chestnut Hill College for discriminating against a black student and fighting against recommendations from the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission about the incident.
Led by Helen Gym and Cindy Bass, the resolution against the Northwest Philly college was introduced in Council’s session Thursday morning. It stems from the 2012 case of then-student Allan-Michael Meads.
“Chestnut Hill College’s response to the findings of the PHRC,” the resolution reads, “has the potential to set a dangerous precedent for over fifty religious colleges and universities across the state who serve thousands of students who deserve to be protected from racial, gender, religious, and other forms of recognized discrimination.”
Danielle Banks, the Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young partner representing Chestnut Hill College, described the findings of the PHRC as similar to a probable cause and said neither Bass nor Gym contacted the college before introducing the resolution Thursday.
“More than half of what’s in the resolution,” Banks said, “is just plain wrong.”
Meads, according to the report from the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, was producing the play “A Raisin In the Sun” at Chestnut Hill College in collaboration with the African American Awareness Society. To prepare for it, he bought supplies and other pieces necessary for production. When local businesses provided him with a discount, Meads offered them complimentary tickets. He also gave complimentary tickets to middle school students.
After the play, and several weeks before his 2012 graduation, Meads was expelled from Chestnut Hill for alleged theft. The school claimed Meads was untruthful in reporting proceeds from the play and spent money for his own benefit, particularly for a cast party at Applebee’s. It claimed there should have been a $2,248 profit from the play. Meads said there were no profits after the cast party and other reimbursements.
Banks said Meads was asked several times for the proceeds from the play and was the first student in charge of a production to ever not return any. A disciplinary hearing was held after he kept avoiding college leadership. Banks said that during the hearings Meads said he thought he deserved the money.
“This is a young man who unfortunately made a bad judgement call,” Banks said. Instead of taking responsibility for his actions, she said, Meads claimed he was being punished by the college because he’s black.
The PHRC’s report outlined several examples of theft perpetrated by white students at Chestnut Hill College and found most of the punishments less severe. One white woman had to write a reflection paper. Many others faced no discipline. A white man charged with drug possession was suspended for two semesters but allowed to re-enroll.
It found that black students, who comprise about 35 percent of the college’s student body, were much more likely to face stiff penalties. From 2006 to 2012, the report stated, expulsions were rare. Only three students faced that possible punishment. One was white. The two black students who were charged with a violation at the school were either suspended or expelled.
For allegedly discriminating against Meads, the PHRC directed Chestnut Hill remove the expulsion from Meads’ transcript, pay three years of salary equal to the average Chestnut Hill grad and reimburse some of his tuition expenses from Cheyney University, where Meads attended after he was expelled.
But Chestnut Hill College has fought in court against the findings of discrimination. It filed a lawsuit in the Commonwealth Court essentially arguing that the PHRC and the Human Relations Act have no bearing on it because it is a religious-based institution. In a court case decided in 1988, the Court found the PHRC has no jurisdiction over Catholic high schools.
Chestnut Hill College is private but received $950,000 in state grants and student loans in fiscal year 2013-14, according to the City Council resolution. The school is facing difficult financial circumstances. With a $2 million shortfall on the horizon, the college cut salaries for faculty this summer. Forbes gave Chestnut Hill College a D for financial health last year.
Banks said if the Commonwealth Court rules the PHRC does have jurisdiction over Chestnut Hill College, the school would maintain it did not discriminate against Meads in what would be a public hearing.
“We have and will defend this vigorously,” she said.
Gym sponsored the resolution, and Bass was the first co-sponsor. Bass said Gym began working on the resolution after a black staffer who attended Chestnut Hill College shared more details of the case and “the feeling of being treated differently on campus.”
“She had a very strong perspective,” Bass said, “and I think the ruling backed up what she felt and what others had felt.”
Banks said she agreed to meet with Bass next Wednesday.