Update: Delaware State University to acquire Wesley College

Wesley College has a student population of about 1,150 compared to Delaware State University’s 5,000 students. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

DOVER — Delaware State University is slated to acquire Wesley College by next summer, officials announced Thursday.

“Despite so much uncertainty on many fronts nationally, this is a unique opportunity for the university and the state of Delaware. The time for bold innovation for young people is now, particularly for students who have made it to college by sheer determination against sometimes enormous odds,” said DSU President Tony Allen in a prepared statement.

“Acquiring a college like Wesley, which serves a very similar student base, boasts strong academic programs, and brings sustained economic impact to Downtown Dover and Kent County, is a significant step closer to our broader vision — a substantively diverse, contemporary and unapologetically Historically Black College or University,” he continued.

Dr. Allen and Wesley President Bob Clark signed a definitive agreement Thursday that will see the DSU acquire Wesley no later than June 2021.

“During the past years, we’ve watched Wesley go through enormous challenges and continue to persist, we’ve noted that persistence in their 147-year tradition, we see them as having significant brand equity and importance both to the Dover market, and to the state of Delaware, and the mutuality of our programs is clear. Wesley’s academic programs complement our own,” Dr. Allen said during a press conference Thursday afternoon.

The decision kicks off a yearlong process of the school becoming part of DSU.

“Substantively, there will be no change in this first transition year,” Dr. Allen said. “Wesley College will continue to operate as an independent college; Delaware State University will do the same.”

As the acquisition moves forward, there will be several more steps before DSU fully takes over the Wesley mantle. The university requires approval from appropriate governing and accrediting bodies, meaning the U.S. Department of Education and Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

DSU will need to secure sufficient private and/or government funding resources outside its normal operating revenue to manage the acquisition. No existing revenue in the university’s current budget can be used to support the transaction, according to a news release.

Dr. Allen noted that the university does not plan to go to the state in the initial years, noting that their interest lies in “congressional delegation specifically and also private funders that we believe will have a significant interest.”

During fiscal year 2021, Wesley’s budget, operating expenses, negotiated contracts with vendors, and other obligations will be coordinated with DSU, according to a release.

Looking toward the future, Dr. Allen said that the university does want to take advantage of the talent within the faculty, staff and leadership at the small college.

President Clark couched Wesley’s future as an intimate campus in downtown Dover under DSU leadership.

“Those young men and women who might not necessarily have the means or, quite frankly, a desire to go to a larger campus can come to this small intimate campus, and [it can] still provide life changing opportunities for them that they can realize here,” he said. “By bringing this downtown campus now into the Del State system, it truly expands the possibilities for Delaware State University, and the collective students we serve.”

Dr. Allen noted that the university wants to protect the Wesley legacy during this transition period.

“I think Wesley’s brand has a lot of equity in the Dover community and in Delaware, more specifically,” he said. “How we use that equity is yet to be determined but I can assure you that we will use it.”

Dr. Allen also expressed confidence in retaining Wesley students.

“I think we have a unique model,” he said. “I think the year will give us the prospects and strategy on how to make sure that those kids feel good about the transition and have the opportunities that they came to college for in the first place.”

No changes will come to athletics for this upcoming academic year, Dr. Allen said. Decisions for subsequent years have not yet been made.

Last month, a spokesman for DSU confirmed that the university had been “exploring the possibility of acquiring Wesley,” for some months. Updates submitted regularly to the state by Wesley cited positive conversations with a potential institution for a merger, though college administration never divulged the name of the institution, as to not jeopardize the agreement.

“With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic the future was forced upon higher education, and many small and medium size independent institutions are scrambling to find partnerships and a way to survive,” President Clark wrote in a letter to faculty, staff and students Thursday.

“We are fortunate to have already been well into this journey before our collective world was turned upside down by the unprecedented economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

William Strickland, chairperson for Wesley’s board, said in a prepared statement that the board of trustees is excited to join DSU.

“With the changing landscape of higher education, combining resources and cost efficiencies will likely become imperative for colleges and universities to not only survive, but more importantly, to thrive,” he said.

Dr. Devona Williams, board chairperson at DSU, noted that this partnership presents a new future for the university.

“This will be a very involved process, but if we are successful, we consider this to be a real opportunity to expand our capacity thoughtfully and responsibly grow in multiple dimensions for years to come,” she said in a prepared statement.

The announcement of a merger would serve as a bookend to the small private college’s search for a partner, which began more than two years ago.

In 2019, Wesley requested financial support from the state, asking for — and, later, receiving — about $5 million from the Higher Education Economic Development Investment Fund to address financial difficulties.

As it accepted funds for the state, the college also explored the possibility of a merger. DSU was not the first to express interest — last year, according to a University of Delaware spokeswoman, there were conversations between UD and Wesley. They had stopped by June 2019.

The announcement brought thoughts from Delaware’s legislators.

Sen. Tom Carper expressed excitement over the connection in a prepared statement.

“It was 27 years ago this month, after years of transformation that so many worked hard to achieve, that Delaware State College became Delaware State University,” he said.

“Now, Delaware State University is achieving another milestone by bringing on a well-established Dover institution, Wesley College,” he continued. “I am thrilled that both schools are coming together for the greater good of our students, our Dover community, and our state. Nearly three decades ago as governor, I supported Delaware State University’s historic milestone, and I will continue my work to support these two great institutions as they come together today.”

U.S. Sen. Chris Coons described DSU as one of “Delaware’s most cherished and important institutions.”

“DSU’s acquisition of Wesley College is a fantastic development not only for Wesley and DSU, but for the Dover area and the entire State of Delaware,” he continued. “By building on Wesley’s tradition of excellence, expanding academic programs, growing the student body, and increasing the University’s footprint and capacity, this move solidifies DSU as the premier HBCU in the country.”

U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester agreed.

“Today is a new day for higher education in Delaware. Wesley College has carved out a critical and unique role in our State’s education landscape over nearly 150 years, combining instruction of hands-on skills with the teaching of interdisciplinary values. With today’s acquisition, Delaware State University and Dr. Tony Allen continue their mission of creating and expanding programs that will prepare students for the future of our economy,” she said in a prepared statement

A partnership brings a new era for the institutions, both which draw their lineage back to the 1800s.

Wesley, the state’s oldest private institution, was founded in 1873 as a preparatory school. The college conferred its first four-year degrees in 1978. The college offers 30 bachelors, four associates, and master’s degrees in nursing, occupational therapy, education, business administration and environmental science.

Meanwhile, DSU’s legacy began in 1891 as the Delaware College for Colored Students. Two name changes later, it became Delaware State University in 1993.

By the numbers, DSU touts a student population 4.5-times the size of Wesley, with the most recent cohort helping the university surpass 5,000 enrolled students. Wesley’s enrollment rings in at approximately 1,150 students.

Wesley, a federally designated minority-serving institution, shares a similar student demographic profile and mission to provide greater educational access to students from traditionally underserved communities, according to a news release. The college serves 63% students of color, with an average entering grade point average of 3.05 and average SAT scores of 905, compared to Delaware State University’s 91% minority students, average GPA of 3.15, and average SATs of 920, a news release states.