Millions in tax dollars went to private Wesley College; fallout from sale leaves a lot of questions
Standing before Kent County Levy Court in February 2020, state Rep. Sean Lynn pleaded for the commissioners to support giving state dollars to Wesley College.
Legislators had already funneled $3.375 million to the small private school, long known to be on the precipice of financial demise. An additional $3.2 million would keep the doors open as the Dover college searched for a partner school to latch onto.
"You're facing the potential loss of an entity that not only employs 300 people, but contributes $89 million to the local economy," Lynn, a Democrat and Dover native, said. "I don't believe that's a loss we can suffer."
Come July 1, Wesley College will cease to exist.
Neighboring Delaware State University will assume ownership, marking the first time a historically Black college or university has acquired another college.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE:Delaware State University signs agreement to acquire Wesley College
For faculty and students at Wesley, it's been a year of mourning, uncertainty and tension.
Faculty and students interviewed for this story said college leaders misled them into thinking Wesley would still exist as an independent institution even after DSU came into the picture.
Wesley leadership portrayed the acquisition as a chance for the college to grow, they said.
In an interview with Delaware Online/The News Journal, Wesley President Robert Clark II said the acquisition isn't the "death of a college," but rather a "reemergence of a college."
Faculty, staff and students have since come to realize that come July 1, the Wesley they know will be no more.
Wesley employees fear job losses as they wait for DSU to make staffing decisions.
For nearly two years, Dover legislators urged the importance of using taxpayer funds to support the private college long enough for a partner school to strike a deal and save the day.
By the time the DSU acquisition was announced, the state had already given Wesley $5.175 million in higher education funding.
"They're not saving Wesley College," said Jeffrey Mask, a religious study professor at the school for 30 years. "The best they could say is that they're euthanizing it."
Strained finances, strained relationships
"It takes courage to look at ourselves and see not just the good, but also, with eyes wide open, the things about ourselves that we must change," psychology professor Angela D'Antonio said in a speech at Clark's 2015 inauguration.
It was no secret that Wesley was in trouble. Faculty at the school couldn't remember a year where administrators didn't warn of the school's growing financial strains.
Clark arrived at Wesley with five years of higher education experience – a three-year stint as c.0ommandant at the U.S. Naval Academy, followed by two years overseeing ROTC programs at Pennsylvania State University.
The expectation was that Clark would push Wesley toward financial stability. A key responsibility of college presidents is to bring in donations.
Throughout his tenure, Clark seemed to place a greater emphasis on bringing in state dollars, as opposed to private money.
"I think we get caught up too much in labels," Clark said in a 2019 interview, a sentiment he has often repeated in defense of receiving state funding. "Is it private or public? I think that's the wrong measure of investment. It shouldn't be how a school has been, but what does it do for the investor?"
The infusion of state dollars into Wesley started with the old Dover Library. The school bought the building from the city for $1 in 2017 in hopes of turning it into the site of the college's master's of occupational therapy program.
The state chipped in $1.375 million to go toward renovating the building. By June 2019, the money was reallocated to go toward Wesley's general operating funds.
To this day, the library is still vacant.
Throughout 2019 and 2020, the state continued to give Wesley money in increments, primarily at the urging of Dover lawmakers like Lynn and Rep. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, a Wesley graduate.
"That is close to 50 acres in downtown Dover in a disadvantaged neighborhood, and is an anchor for the economy and the communities," Bonini said in a January 2020 interview. "Wesley is a minority-serving institution. So we're talking about a lot of kids who would not otherwise have had an opportunity."
DOVER DEVELOPMENT:Dover officials: The loss of Wesley would be 'a nightmare' for downtown
At one point in 2019, had the state not given Wesley $3 million, students would have lost access to federal financial aid, and salaries would have been at risk.
When Wesley was actively seeking state money, the oft-repeated sentiment was that the state wouldn't let the school fail because it couldn't handle that many people suddenly being unemployed, many professors recounted.
"Now, that is exactly what it looks like is going to happen," said English professor Susan Redington Bobby.
In March, faculty received notice that their Wesley contracts would not be renewed, and any employment news would come from DSU. A few weeks before, human resources shared unemployment information with faculty and staff, Bobby said.
Recently, DSU told all Wesley employees they will find out in mid-April if they still have a job after this school year.
In total, Wesley has received $6.375 million in state higher education funding.
FINAL ROUND OF FUNDS:Wesley College approved for additional $3 million in state funds
According to IRS Form 990s, in the five years before Clark assumed office in 2015, Wesley was profitable, although sometimes just barely so.
Every year Clark was in office, the college saw financial loss. For its fiscal year that started in July 2017, Wesley lost $272,691.
The following year – reflected in the most recently filed 990 – shows a net loss of $2.66 million.
"We needed leadership, wisdom, integrity and creativity," D'Antonio said in a recent interview, reflecting on her 2015 speech. "None of that really came to fruition, did it?"
Clark's relationship with faculty has been strained throughout his tenure.
For years, faculty had debated issuing a vote of no confidence in Clark. Fearing they would hurt the college's chances of securing funding or finding a partner school, the vote never came to fruition.
That was until March 1, when in a 27-4 vote, faculty expressed their lack of confidence in the school's leader.
"It's the right thing to do. It's symbolic; it's deserved," said Jack Barnhardt, a Wesley psychology professor. "The stock response from staff seems to be, 'about time.'"
Whether Wesley would have survived past this year without DSU entering the scene is questionable.
It's hard to tell, Clark said. Despite "catastrophically low" enrollment in the wake of the pandemic, an influx of federal COVID-19 funds filled the gap. The school is forecast to at least break even for academic 2020-2021, Clark said.
“But for DSU stepping in, there likely wouldn’t be a Wesley right now," Lynn said.
Faculty and students said that for months into the fall semester, they were led to believe that Wesley would continue as its own branch campus. As such, it could grant Wesley degrees and field Division III athletic teams, for instance.
DSU was clear throughout negotiations with Wesley that a branch campus wouldn't be possible – it seemed unlikely to get accreditor approval, and the school didn't see the business model working, said Steven Newton, a spokesperson for DSU.
It wasn't until February that student-athletes were informed that Division I and III athletics wouldn't be able to coexist once the acquisition was complete.
WESLEY'S FINAL SEASON:Sale to DSU spells end of Wesley College sports
"We were told that we'd be a branch campus, that we'd be our own establishment," said sophomore Damani Eason. "We were told a lie almost, a façade. Even now, [Wesley is] still saying not much is going to change."
DSU President Tony Allen said he is committed to retaining Wesley traditions, reflected in the acquisition agreement. But come July 1, Wesley College will exist in name only, as the Wesley College of Health and Behavioral Sciences under DSU.
That nuance has been absent from the scenario Clark portrayed throughout the fall semester, students and faculty said.
"Every twist and turn that happened was communicated at [faculty and student] forums, was communicated in outreach," Clark said. "Does that mean 100 percent of the people get the information, understand it and like it? No."
D'Antonio said there has been misrepresentation and distortion of the reality of the situation.
"Wait a second, we cease to exist on June 30," she said. "How is this, with a straight face, presented, and expected for people to buy this? That this is really something to celebrate and that we're growing?"
Students caught in the middle
Antoinette Borg started her college career at Southern Vermont College playing softball.
"It was everything I ever wanted in a college," the 21-year-old English major said.
In the spring of her freshman year, students got last-minute notice that the college was closing. She watched classmates pack their belongings and disperse across the country. Beloved professors lost their jobs. Some even lost their homes.
Borg transferred to Wesley in July 2019, in the midst of the school's efforts to secure more state funds.
"My mom asked, 'Is this school financially stable? Like, it's not going to close?'" Borg recounted. "They lied straight to our faces and said yes."
A year later, the DSU acquisition was announced.
Small liberal arts colleges with low endowments like Wesley have struggled to stay open for years. Enrollment was already declining nationally, and the pandemic made things worse.
Since 2016, 65 colleges have closed, merged or been acquired by other institutions, according to a database managed by Higher Education Dive, an online education news outlet based in Washington, D.C.
For Wesley students, the transition won't be as abrupt as a closure. DSU is allowing any interested Wesley student to transfer into DSU academic programs next school year, bringing all of their course credits, too.
It's still unclear how many will register at DSU, but Borg said her decision to stay in Dover was driven mostly by expenses. It would have cost too much to move to a third college and pay application fees. She likely would have had to do an extra year of schooling to make up for any credits that didn't transfer.
"We chose to come to Wesley because of what it had to offer," Borg said. "But we didn't get the choice of if we wanted to go to DSU or not. We kind of got pushed into going there."
The school year has been filled with mourning, Bobby said. Her students are anxious and depressed over the closure of their school. Losing athletics "was the big punch in the face," Borg said.
"You don't expect to go to a college and have it shut down in two years," Eason said. "No one prepares you for that."
The isolation of the pandemic has made the uncertainty even worse, Bobby said.
"We should be acknowledging everyone's grief," Bobby said. "We are watching the place die. We're watching our careers die. The students' ability to play their final year of sports at this campus die. It's heartbreaking."
Clark has said it is his priority to make sure faculty and staff not hired by DSU land on their feet. But for tenured faculty who have called Delaware home for decades, options are slim – faculty jobs are hard to come by, even without a pandemic squeezing higher education finances.
The agreement between DSU and Wesley states the university is not obligated to retain Wesley staff. But the university plans to hire a substantial number, Allen said.
DSU is primarily interested in Wesley's health science and STEM courses, namely the college's master's of occupational therapy.
Professors in liberal arts subjects feel the writing is on the wall.
"I'm 65 years old," Mask said. "I would be shocked if another college is going to give me an opportunity to teach."
When Lynn urged Dover officials to support funding Wesley, he pointed to Wesley's economic contribution. The student body spending money downtown; Wesley's local utility bill; faculty and staff feeding the local economy – to lose that all at once would have hit Dover hard.
"I don't want anybody to lose their job. However, if Wesley were to have closed all together, they would all lose their jobs," Lynn said in an interview. "Will there be some attrition? I assume that's probably where this is headed. But, for every job we keep, I'm grateful to DSU. It could have been so much worse."
Pending approval from accreditors, DSU's acquisition of Wesley – in which it will assume its buildings, liabilities, intellectual property, academic programs, and more – will become official July 1. The university said the deal will cost it $15 million over three years.
"We saw this as the opportunity to expand our footprint, serve more students who look like our students, and solidify our footprint in downtown Dover," Allen said. "As we move forward, bringing together two school cultures, that's when the real work begins."
Natalia Alamdari covers education at The News Journal. Got a story tip? Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org