DSU officially closes Wesley acquisition
DOVER — With the flick of a pen, Wesley College was no more and Delaware State University Downtown was born, finalizing the small liberal arts college’s acquisition by the historically Black university on July 1.
Delaware State University President Tony Allen and now-former Wesley President Bob Clark signed the final contract to bursts of applause, dubbed as Day 1 of the two entities joining under the DSU name to a new future. It also marked the first time in history that a historically black college or university (HBCU) has acquired another higher education institution.
“I cannot tell you how pleased I am that we reached this moment … not many people thought we would get to this point,” Allen said during a press conference held at DSU’s campus Thursday morning. “The Wesley acquisition represents a significant step toward our wildest dreams to become the most diverse, contemporary HBCU in the county.”
DSU and Wesley College leadership reached a deal on the acquisition in July 2020, but Clark said in the past that the college had been exploring other opportunities since 2019 to ensure the 148-year-old college survives its financial bleeding and falling enrollment numbers.
With the acquisition complete, DSU has gained a 50-acre campus in the heart of Dover — now branded DSU Downtown — valued at $33 million with low debt service. The college’s name will live on as Wesley College of Health and Behavioral Sciences, offering the only accredited Masters of Occupational Therapy program in the region.
DSU Downtown also comes with a new appointed leadership team. Stacy Downing will serve as chief administrative officer and Terrell Holmes as associate vice president. Both are tasked with overseeing the transformation of the 50-acre downtown campus, which will hopefully lead to a renaissance of the state capital’s downtown.
“This is going to be a multi-year process of renovating facilities, and we have just done some initial walkthroughs,” Downing said. “The primary purpose right now is to ensure the college is ready for a fall opening. But it will be a gradual process.”
Former Wesley employee Laura Mayse was named the new director of community development and institutional advancement for the downtown campus. Dr. Gwendolyn Scott-Jones is the dean of the new Wesley College of Health and Behavioral Sciences.
Wesley’s 14 programs, including its lauded nursing program, have been absorbed into DSU, and about 71 staff members have been retained. Earlier this year, the university announced it had made offers to about 60% of Wesley College’s workforce. DSU also gained 472 of the 650 Wesley students who were able to transfer, although Allen noted enrollment is still continuing to rise today.
All programs, except for nursing, will be offered at DSU Downtown as well. The university is also now able to offer associate degree programs for the first time.
As outlined in plans filed for approval, the acquisition is expected to cost $15 million over the course of the three years. Allen said those costs include what it would take to maintain the downtown campus in terms of infrastructure improvements as well as faculty and staff salaries. DSU raised $40 million in 2020, including from the Longwood Foundation and a gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, and the acquisition was paid for without dipping into the university’s operational budget.
Deferred maintenance costs for both former Wesley and DSU buildings are estimated at $80 million, a drop from the $240 million on DSU campus six years ago, Allen said.
Looking to the future, Allen said it was no secret that his goal was that DSU hits a student enrollment on and off-campus of 10,000. The trends look to be in the university’s favor, which will help offset ongoing financial burdens three years beyond the acquisition. While the COVID-19 pandemic saw undergraduate enrollment drop 4%, graduate enrollment rose 30%. DSU is reportedly looking at a record enrollment between 5,500 and 6,000 students this fall.
“In the last 10 years, our enrollment growth has been 40% while other colleges have dipped about 5.5%. We’re bursting at the seams, when you think about residence halls and research space,” Allen said. “What Wesley affords us is 21 buildings, and that accommodates our needs to grow into who we become.”
Clark, who will have no role in DSU’s administration and plans to retire for the moment, said that while this moment is the culmination of three years of finding a way out of the college’s woes, it can be bittersweet.
“A lot of private schools like Wesley were not able to make it, and the most important thing is to make sure that the Wesley legacy will continue. And it will,” Clark said. “There were people who were not happy, because there is some stress to it. But I personally heard from others that were supportive of this decision. The college’s name has changed many times over its 150-year history, but the spirit will remain.”
With Wesley College’s economic impact of $80 million to Dover, Kent County and the state, State Sen. Trey Paradee (D-Dover) said that his greatest concern was the students and the neighborhood if the college folded.
“A developer could have come in and who knows what would have happened. But it would have radically changed the character of downtown Dover, and not necessarily for the better,” Paradee said. “I think 25, 50, 100 years from now, we will look back on this as a real inflection point not only for DSU but for Dover as well. I cannot wait to see what happens when that campus is full of students again.”
State Sen. Colin Bonini (R-Dover) was visibly emotional when he spoke about his affection for his alma mater Wesley College, noting that it brought him from California and it “changed his life.”
“There’s some heartache that [Wesley] is not going to be officially there, but it is exciting when you think that those buildings will have bright, young minds students walk the halls,” Bonini said. “These small liberal arts colleges are in an incredibly difficult environment … and when you look at that, this is a happy ending.”