By Brooke Retkowski; The Whetstone
Senior Deziyah Palmer is one of the many students on campus who have heard the rumors about Wesley College’s financial struggles over the past year.
“I feel as though administrators at Wesley do not realize how much potential the college has to be a great school,” she said. “People have just allowed the school to go downhill.”
Starting last semester, rumors from alumni, staff and faculty and others in the community involved talk about Wesley College shutting down or being bought out by a bigger institution such as the University of Delaware.
Both faculty and staff have told students the president and others told them during the past year that Wesley has been trying to get money from the state.
Any dealing with the University of Delaware, several professors told students, is less about a partnership and more like a potential agreement to recruit the state school’s student applicants who do not get into UD.
“Institutions often have with each other an agreement where, say, one institution has more applications than they can fill and then another school is in the opposite situation,” Dr. Jack Barnhardt, a psychology professor and chair of the faculty’s Academic Affairs committee, said.
The other major rumor, that the school may be bought, is also not true, Dr. Angela D’Antonio, a psychology professor and chair of the Faculty Services committee, said.
D’Antonio said she heard from alumni and others in the community as early as last semester that the school would be sold.
“Dover is a small community and Delaware is a small state,” she said. “So anything like this that gets talked about is sort of out there and you don’t know the details so you make assumptions about it.”
President Robert Clark has sent out emails to faculty and staff to dismiss rumors that the college is being sold to UD or is closing.
“To be clear,there is no plan, or talk of anyone buying Wesley out, nor are there plans to close,” he wrote on March 27.
Although Clark has said more than once the sources of the rumors were from only a few people, members of faculty, staff and students said they’ve heard rumors from many people in the community, at the school, from alumni and other students on social media, and even at the University of Delaware.
Rumors always easily spread around a small campus, Dr. Mika Shipley said.
“If Wesley were to close, there is a process that has to be followed through by our accreditors (Middle States Higher Education Commission) that would take many years beyond students’ tenure here,” she said. “We are an accredited institution with programs with their own certifications/accreditation. Also, the Methodist Church, which believes highly in learning, owns all of the land and buildings that you and I occupy.”
Regardless of rumors, sophomore Kelly Palmer said, the closing of two of the college’s dorms bothered her.
“I am just a little confused as to why they told us there would be nobody living in Gooding or Williams Hall this year because of the renovations,” she said. “But I have not really seen anyone doing anything with the halls this whole year.”
Although students have been told the halls were closed because of renovation, faculty and staff have told students they were closed because of enrollment shortages, which dipped below 1,000 this semester.
In a story about the school’s budget last spring, The Whetstonereported that President Clark was deciding whether to rent out at least one of the unused dorms to Delaware State University. He decided not to after asking for feedback.
Chief Financial Officer Belinda Burke, who chose not to speak to reporters about the College’s current financial situation, told the paper last year that the school was not going to sell Gooding Hall.
Junior Sydney Brokenbourgh said she thinks that Wesley’s financial status is quite evident through the dorm situation.
“We don’t even have enough students to house, not one, but two freshman dorms this year,” she said.
Senior Lexus Harrison said she was prepared for the decline of students this year.
“I realized that once Gooding and Williams hall was shut down,” she said. “I feel like the school could have done more to prevent it from happening.”
Alumnus Evan Le’Mon said he also had heard the college is having financial issues.
“The writing’s on the wall from what happened with Williams and Gooding, among other things,” he said. “But we only know what we can see – we don’t get to look behind the curtain and see the full scope of the situation.”
Behind The Curtain
Looking behind the curtain often is about how faculty, staff and students perceive Wesley College.
Dr. Brantley Craig said morale has been shaky for a long time.
“Although it has been this way for the last five years, this year has been the most noticeable,” he said. “No one likes uncertainty, which can lead to a drop in morale.”
Craig said there is a lot of worry and stress this year compared to previous years.
“This is mostly related to finances,” he said. “We are down in enrollment and many want to know what the future of the college is like. People are wondering what can and is being done about it, and are frustrated with the lack of communication.”
Dr. James Wilson said it’s also about the fact that faculty and staff have not received raises in at least four years, and that health and retirement benefits have been cut.
“The main concerns of the faculty are the financial,” he said. “Lack of pay adjustments, cuts to benefits like health care and retirement, positions removed, programs discontinued. It’s been getting worse the last several years.”
Members of the top administration told reporters repeatedly the rumors of the closing of the school are false.
“With respect to rumors of the college closing, these are just as you stated, rumors,” Laura Mayse, director of development and alumni relations, said.
Mayse, however, is one of the only employees left in her department after the recent departures of the vice president of institutional advancement, William Pritchard, and Jessica Cook, who updated the website. It was Pritchard’s job to raise money for the school.
Jeffrey Gibson, vice president for Academic Affairs and the provost, also said students should not worry about the rumors.
“In an effort to dispel these rumors, President Clark addressed the faculty and sent a message out via email to confirm that there is no plan for Wesley to be ‘bought out’ by the University of Delaware, nor is there any plan to close the College,” he said. “I hope that this information will allay the students’ concerns so they can better focus upon their studies and have a strong finish to the academic year.”
Many alumni said they have heard the rumors and were not surprised.
Alumna Qhynesha Elliot said Wesley pride has been declining since her freshman year six years ago.
“Back in 2013, the school had events to offer the students,” she said. “Students even had more control over their events hosted at the school.”
Alumna Nicole Rondo, a former Black Student Union member, said the school’s problems have been around for a while.
“The lack of students, events, and overall decrease in the quality of the school is what is hurting Wesley so bad,” she said.
Junior Sidney Kilgore said she believes a lot of Wesley’s problems stem from low enrollment.
“Think about how many available rooms there are in Roe Hall alone, people dropping out, more people transferring out, and poor recruiting,” she said. “They should develop a better way of recruiting non-student-athletes.”
It’s Been Worse
Dr. Kathleen Jacobs, who has been at Wesley College for more than three decades, said she does not believe Wesley will close.
“In the 1980s, the college was in worse condition than it is today,” she said. “Dorms were virtually empty. But those of us who believed in the college stayed and worked together to help it bounce back. To buy into the gossip is not good morale for the students, college, or community at large.”
Christopher Dearth, vice president of enrollment management, said the school has seen a decline in attendance but said he was looking forward to receiving more this upcoming fall.
“Admissions has refreshed our recruitment material, so we are doing more mailing and calls to students to try to generate more of an interest,” he said. “Part of the enrollment decline was large graduating classes combined with some students who could not afford us financially.”
Dearth said that his office has tweaked the old scholarship model and financial aid packaging to help more students to afford Wesley College this fall.
“The positive number for incoming students are above last year, so we are very confident of that,” he said.
Wilson also said Wesley has been in this situation several times before.
“Ten years ago retention was even worse than it is now,” he said. “It’s almost like a cycle when it comes to class sizes, quality of students, sort of like the stock market. This is just a recession that we have a reason to believe will eventually swing up.”
Dearth said that the target goal for this fall is to recruit more than 400 freshmen.
“Deposit-wise, for the fall, we are right around 100 students so far,” he said. “April and May are the busiest deposit months. It is really important if our current students see groups of prospective students that they engage with them about their positive experiences.”
Students Remain Officially In The Dark
Students have yet to be addressed directly about what’s happening.
Dr. D’Antonio said this is often done out of fear.
“I think (the lack of information) comes from the perception of, if we start telling people things, then word is going to spread and it may ruin these deals,” she said. “But a lot of times the opposite becomes true: If you don’t say anything, then people are left to make up their own explanations for what is going on.”
Dr. Barnhardt also said students are not told so they won’t become alarmed, but said students can’t help but notice changes on campus.
“Students look around, they realize two dorms are closed, some staff is not here anymore, and, plus, they hear things around the community from parents or alumni,” he said.
Dr. D’Antonio said faculty and staff are also have questions.
“Faculty and staff are also living every day with unknowns,” she said, “knowing that we have lower enrollment and we have needs for repair and things like that, so people have questions.”
That’s not the way a liberal arts college should work, she said.
“We encourage questions and thinking. There are some things that may not be able to be shared while some agreement is being reached. But there needs to be far more transparency than there has been.”
Brielle Braxton-Young, Rahim Harris, Lydia LaSure, Kai Lee II and Dylan Morris contributed to this report.