DSU describes plan for Wesley acquisition

DOVER — As the work gets underway for Delaware State University’s acquisition of Wesley College, the school is shaping its vision for a new — and larger — DSU.

Tony Allen

“We still have significant hurdles before us, but we do believe that we’re in good stead,” DSU president Tony Allen told Dover City Council members during a committee meeting Tuesday evening. “We are working very intently with the colleagues at Wesley and with some outside consultants to make sure that we get this right.”

Dr. Allen’s update to Dover officials follows the formal announcement of the acquisition in July. The institutions will operate independently this year, with the acquisition slated to begin June 2021. At the meeting, Dr. Allen explained that the transition is anticipated to take about three years overall. The university is coordinating with Wesley on the school’s fiscal year 2021 operating expenses, he added.

In Tuesday’s meeting, Dr. Allen explained that the acquisition of the small private college — which boasts 50 acres in Dover — will create a downtown presence for the historically black university, increase enrollment and facility space, grow research and expand academic and athletic programs.

With about 5,000 students this fall, Dr. Allen said the goal for the university is closer to 10,000 students. By fall 2025, integration of Wesley into the DSU system would increase its footprint to more than 8,500.

“Think of these as, and I think they are, very modest (estimates), as it relates to undergraduate and graduate. We wanted to be thoughtful about how we were able to grow into the unique opportunity,” he said.

While it is still in the early phases — “not yet on paper,” Dr. Allen noted — the visions for what Wesley could become are varied. The college could be “themed”: focused on health and behavioral sciences such as public and allied health, nursing, social work, psychology and more. It also could be a good home for the university’s Early College High School, a charter school with approximately 425 students from all over the state, he said.

“Our ability and exposure to downtown Dover, both as sort of an opportunity for them to go to a class but also a learning lab — the city itself being a learning lab — I think to be important,” he said.

Noting that he was a supporter of the acquisition, Dover City Councilman Ralph Taylor asked what a downtown campus could mean for revitalization, calling the Division Street area one that could “easily be classified as distressed.”

Part of that ties into social work and health, like a health and behavioral sciences college, Dr. Allen noted later, while the other part is entrepreneurship opportunities.

“We can build a corridor where it really is a unique opportunity for more young people to be engaged in more opportunities for experiential learning across a number of platforms to build on and things that we want to have happen,” he said.

He noted in particular the Schwartz Center for the Arts, which the university and Wesley both own. The center held its last public event in 2017. “We want the Schwartz, for instance, to be a vibrant center that’s attracting not only the programs, but also people to the city, as well,” he said. “So we think our capacity to build cultural and economic vitality through the prospect of higher education is a model that has worked in many places.”

The university owns another property downtown — on South State Street and Loockerman Plaza — that a coffee shop rents.

“We do think there are some unique entrepreneurship opportunities that could be student-led as we move forward, as well,” Dr. Allen said, adding that the university’s technology center could benefit from a downtown presence, too.

Regardless how the college evolves under the DSU flag, Dr. Allen said that there is “a lot of brand equity in the Wesley name.”

“So preserving the name is important to us,” he said, adding, “We believe that there are … a number of very well-developed and healthy programs that we can take advantage of.”

As to how the acquisition will affect Wesley employees, Dr. Allen called it early in the process. For Wesley retirees, he said they needed more “due diligence on that front” to see how they could be impacted.

“What I can say is that, as you might imagine, as we go through the acquisition, those faculty and staff that remain with the new Delaware State University will have full access to the benefits that we normally provide our employees,” he said.

For those planning to stay, Dr. Allen said that for the last six years, DSU’s number of faculty has remained flat, while its student population has grown.

“As we bring up even more students, it’s clear that we’ll need to bring on some level, and I’d say some significant level, of faculty and staff to support the new configuration,” he said.

Dr. Allen described Wesley’s debt — totaling about $10.1 million in areas such as leveraged debt, line of credit and a lease for two dorms — as “fairly low” for its size, with an operating budget of $22 million. The college’s real estate is appraised at $32.5 million, with about $14 million in deferred maintenance.

Moving forward, the acquisition will require funding resources outside of the university’s operating revenue, approval from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and a robust transition plan.

A timeline from Middle States places the process at the beginning of peer review. Legal review, evaluations and more will carry through March 2021.