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DSU, Wesley finally confirm long-rumored deal to merge

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Jennifer Antonik
Jennifer Antonik
Jennifer Antonik is a freelance writer and public relations coordinator for the Delaware Farm Bureau.

Wesley College in Dover
The Wesley College campus in Dover is in the heart of the downtown area.

Delaware State University and Wesley College will merge, according to letters sent by the heads of both institutions to faculty and staff.

Founded in 1891 as the Delaware College for Colored Students, DSU has signed a definitive agreement to acquire Wesley College, founded in 1873.

The schools celebrated in a 4:15 p.m. conference.

DSU President Tony Allen said the deal was good for everybody in a letter to faculty and students.

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“Despite so much uncertainty on many fronts nationally, this is a unique opportunity for the University and the State of Delaware,” Allen said. “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. “

Allen said in the DSU release that acquiring a college like Wesley, which serves a 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.”

Dr. Harry Williams, CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and former president of DSU, said in a press release that the move was unprecedented.

No HBCU has ever acquired a non-HBCU institution before, but I am not surprised that Delaware State University is leading the way,” he said.

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In Allen’s letter to faculty and students, he said having an HBCU acquire another institution is a significant point, but not the main one.

That is to “serve more students who need our brand of excellence, education, and care, we need to increase the size of our footprint, build on our key academic programs, grow our research base and enhance our economic impact on the State of Delaware,” he said.

“It is also clear that the University needs a more direct connection to the economic, social, and cultural life of downtown Dover, one ripe with opportunity, particularly for people of color,” he said.

The student population between DSU and Wesley track together: More female than male students are enrolled at each school, for example. And most of their undergraduate students are 24 years of age or younger, according to age data reported for fall 2017.

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Both schools also have a majority of Black students, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. At DSU, 70% of its enrolled undergraduate students are Black or African American, compared to 8% who are White, 6% who are Hispanic/Latino and smaller demographics. At Wesley, 41% of its students are Black or African American, compared to 37% who are White and 7% who are Hispanic/Latino.

Crime reported by both institutions, however, varied widely. In 2017, DSU reported 335 incidents ranging from drug abuse violations or liquor law issues to rape or burglary. That same year, Wesley reported 87 incidents.

Delaware State University
Delaware State Unversity is a historically black college and university in Dover, Delaware. Courtesy of DSU

Addressing financial woes

For Wesley College, the partnership could mean its students can continue the Dover legacy in spite of financial concerns. The private institution has requested millions in state funding to help pay for operational costs and other needs while they awaited a merger or acquisition.

Its most recent source of assistance from Delaware came in February this year as a panel of professionals approved what they demanded would be the last round of assistance before the college reached a merger agreement with another institution. Those officials included Delaware’s controller general, director of the Office of Management and Budget, chairs of the Joint Legislative Committee on Capital Improvement and the secretary of state.

The $3 million came from the Higher Education Economic Development Investment Fund. Created in 2018 by the General Assembly for the state’s public institutions of higher education including the University of Delaware, Delaware State University and Delaware Technical Community College, the fund was expanded in 2019.

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The new round of assistance would go toward Wesley College’s operating expenses such as payroll and debt service to ensure the college can continue to function.

If the funding was not provided to the college, a statement from the panel members said more than 200 jobs could be lost along with the vacancy of 19 buildings in the downtown Dover area, not to mention the disruption of education for Wesley’s more than 1,000 students.

The decision, they added, was not easy to make, although it was supported by the Kent County Levy Court and Dover City Council.

In return, Wesley College agreed to stringent conditions. They were required by the panel to meet milestones, continue working toward a merger agreement, provide documentation regarding their finances and draw funds on an as-needed basis.

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Wesley College also needed to agree that the institution could not request further funding.

“Though this is truly a great opportunity for our two institutions, as well as our state, we still have a very uncertain future resulting from the unknowns that lie ahead with the COVID-19 Pandemic.  Because of these uncertainties, there are contingencies associated with the Definitive (Acquisition) Agreement, the biggest being securing external (Federal, private…etc.) funding support to assist in the transformation process,” Wesley College President Robert E. Clark II said in his letter released today.

“I am cautiously optimistic, and will continue to do everything possible to ensure with any eventuality that we will be able to continue the Wesley legacy of providing life-changing educational opportunities to the students we serve, while also protecting the salary and benefits of our faculty and staff for as long as possible moving forward, as we all continue to deal with the uncertainty resulting from the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic.”

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In spite of the excitement, the acquisition comes with stipulations.

According to DSU, the institution must secure private and/or government funding resources “outside its normal operating revenue to manage the acquisition.” It also must receive approval from “appropriate governing and accrediting bodies,” which are identified by example as the U.S. Department of Education and Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Wesley’s budget for fiscal year 2021, including operating expenses, negotiated contracts with vendors and other obligations, will begin to be coordinated with DSU. And, the press release adds, a transitional plan serving the needs of all students must be developed so that it “ensures the University’s long-term financial stability and growth.”

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Wesley College Board Chairperson William Strickland said of the transition, “The Board of Trustees of Wesley College is very excited to join Delaware State University. 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.”

Local and federal leaders, including U.S. Senators Tom Carper and Chris Coons, cheered the two institutions on as they work their way through the acquisition process.

“Both of these great institutions have served Delaware well in their own right — but combining their assets, talen, and vision, I’m confident that they will be even stronger,” said U.S. Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester in the press release. “With this move, Delaware State’s students will be better positioned to contribute and compete in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world.”

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