DOVER — After 148 years, Wesley College is about to be radically transformed.
A few months from now, Wesley will, barring something completely unexpected, no longer exist. Instead, the private liberal-arts schools will be subsumed by Delaware State University, making it the first non-minority institution to be acquired by a historically black college or university.
Though the college’s memory will remain in the form of its 50-acre campus and with DSU’s College of Health and Behavioral Sciences being renamed the Wesley College of Health and Behavioral Sciences, Wesley itself will be a thing of the past.
Following years of financial troubles that mostly played out away from students, faculty and Dover residents, the obstacles facing Wesley really entered the spotlight in 2019. In June of that year, the Delaware State News reported the school was confronted by significant budgetary issues, prompting it to seek state support.
About a year later, following public discussion about funding for the college in the General Assembly, DSU announced an arrangement where it would acquire Wesley. In the press release detailing the news, DSU President Tony Allen noted Wesley had a similar student body in terms of both demographics and academics and touted the impact on Kent County and particularly downtown Dover.
Earlier this month, Dr. Allen and DSU Board of Trustees Chairwoman Devona Williams spoke of the benefits the deal should bring to many.
“To serve substantially more students who need our brand of excellence, education and care, we must increase our footprint, expand key academic programs, grow our research base and enhance our economic impact on the state of Delaware. The university also needs a more direct connection to the economic, social and cultural life of downtown Dover, which is ripe with opportunity, particularly for people of color,” they wrote in an op-ed.
“As of July 1, Delaware State University will have a student body of nearly 6,000 students, a $30 million research portfolio and the enhanced capacity to generate $350 million annually in economic impact for Dover, Kent County and the entire state. The primary driving motivation behind this acquisition, however, has been increasing the opportunities for our students, especially those from Delaware. We know the university will be a new place and space for all Wesley Wolverines who choose to become Hornets, so we want them each to know that ‘your success is our success, and we are proud to welcome each of you into the Delaware State family.’
“We are working hard to earn every current Wesley student’s choice to enroll at the university. Continuing Wesley students will have all credits transferred to the university without exception, be instructed in the degree program of their choosing and pay much less in tuition, room and board than previously.”
The acquisition was made possible in part by funding from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (the world’s richest man), as well as from the Education Finance Institute and the Longwood Foundation.
DSU acquires Wesley
DSU has consistently painted the agreement as an acquisition rather than a merger of equals, and it has received kudos from state officials for stepping up to absorb Wesley.
In contrast, the University of Delaware — the state’s largest institution — has taken heat for failing to acquire the college, such as from the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee during a budget hearing about a year ago. UD’s decision rankled some lawmakers who saw the university as putting itself before the interests of the state as a whole.
The University of Delaware and Wesley were in talks about an acquisition in 2019, but those fell through, likely in part because officials from the larger institution saw little benefit to absorbing the college and its debts.
For state, county and city officials, much of the benefit comes simply from avoiding Wesley closing its doors entirely. Should the school have been unable to find a partner, it may have indeed had to shut down for good, leaving a hole in the heart of Dover.
“If this wasn’t Wesley College, if this were a business, we’d still be talking about 200 employees, $100 million in economic impact,” Sen. Colin Bonini, a Dover Republican and Wesley alumnus, said in 2019.
Now, rather than having a 50-acre dead zone in the state capital, Wesley will continue as a unit of DelState. Though one of DSU’s constituent colleges is being renamed to recognize the longtime fixture in downtown Dover, the new Wesley College of Health and Behavioral Sciences will have no additional autonomy.
Accreditation from U.S. Department of Education and Middle States Commission on Higher Education is expected to come this summer, meaning by the time the fall semester starts, Wesley will no longer be an independent entity.
Delaware State University recently sent letters of consideration to almost 60% of Wesley’s staff and academic faculty. Responses indicating their interest were due last week, with official employment offers to follow.
Though it’s not publicly known exactly how many and which Wesley faculty members are joining DSU, an official list should be published at some point.
DSU decided who to keep “based on the human resources needs of the University relating to the expanded campus footprint and building infrastructure, the additional academic offerings and enrollment increase,” DSU spokesman Carlos Holmes wrote in an email.
What titles the ex-Wesley employees will have with DSU has yet to be determined, with each individual being handled on a case-by-case basis, per Mr. Holmes.
According to several Wesley professors who were not offered jobs with Delaware State University, DSU has focused on younger academic professionals. Those who have been offered jobs would be considered visiting professors, and individuals who have tenure with Wesley are not getting that benefit from DSU, Wesley personnel said.
The new DSU faculty and staff will be considered state employees like current university personnel, said Mr. Holmes.
“Generally speaking, each employee that comes from Wesley to DSU will be handled on a case-to -case basis with respect to their specific rank and position at DSU. There is not much more that can be said about that while DSU is in the middle of that process,” he wrote.
Any Wesley student who wants to continue at DSU will be eligible to do so, regardless of current academic success, and all Wolverines can try out for the Hornets’ sports team if they wish. All course credits offered or accepted by Wesley will be good at DSU.
Because some students are still deciding whether to join DSU or transfer elsewhere, it’s not clear how many new pupils the HBCU will have in 2021-2022.
DSU is weighing what to do with every building on Wesley’s campus, according to Mr. Holmes.
“The building utilization question will not be fully answered until the University has a chance to thoroughly evaluate each edifice. That will not happen until the acquisition is finalized on July 1. Decisions on building usage will also flow from that thorough evaluation. That said, expanding of available academic infrastructure is the University’s top priority when it comes to Wesley building utilization,” he said.
Delaware State University is adding some programs from Wesley, including both undergraduate and graduate degrees.
End of an era
Though DSU officials paint the deal as a tremendous opportunity for Delaware’s second-largest university, the Wesley community mourns. Wesley faculty interviewed for this story expressed a sense of feeling misled by the administration while also believing the school’s collapse was not inevitable.
E. Jeff Mask, a professor of religion, philosophy and American studies at Wesley who was not offered a job by DSU, puts much of the blame on the board of trustees and other top decision-makers at the liberal-arts college.
“I think it’s a consistent mismanagement at Wesley over a long span of time that has created persistent financial problems,” said Dr. Mask, who has been at the school for 30 years.
He described poor fundraising, bad investments in the form of purchasing or constructing several buildings in Dover, an overreliance on state funding, questionable leadership hires and institutional stubbornness as preceding the serious monetary issues.
English professor Mika Shipley, who also was not offered by Delaware State University, shared a similar viewpoint.
Wesley only recently stopped calling the deal a merger, and students didn’t learn until February that Wesley’s athletic programs would be discontinued, in contrast to what coaches and players were led to believe for months, she noted.
The whole thing is tragic, she said: “It makes me feel the last 15 years of my life have just kind of disappeared.”
Both Drs. Mask and Shipley see the arrangement as about DSU gaining land and facilities rather than continuing Wesley’s traditions — the most logical option for the HBCU but still in some ways disappointing to the Wesley community.
The Whetstone, Wesley’s student newspaper, ran several editorials this week blasting the school’s leadership, in particular President Robert Clark, for a lack of honesty and strong guidance.
“Last summer, the school officially announced that it had been acquired by Delaware State University. The administration kept saying that everything would stay the same,” current sophomore Damani Eason wrote. “That was another lie.
“This hit home the most for students when the school announced there would no longer be Division III sports at Wesley. Although many of us suspected it was inevitable, DSU announced only last December that it will not continue Wesley’s Division III status. Wesley failed to tell its student body this news until mid-February — only two months ago — when sports teams were getting ready to prepare for their COVID-limited games.
“Students felt blindsided and betrayed. Not only were students affected by the administration’s lack of transparency, faculty and staff members were affected tremendously. They were under the impression they would have job security with the ‘merger,’ which was later turned into an acquisition. That was yet another lie.
“Some faculty and staff recently got emails telling them they would not have a chance at a job this fall; others got letters saying they will be considered. The college failed at being upfront and honest with its community, leaving many lives in limbo, including faculty, staff and students. Someone needs to be held accountable for all of the harm that the school has inflicted on its community.”