Life After the Acquisition: Delaware State and Wesley College

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Laura Mayse and her daughter, Abbey, at Wesley's last commencement in May 2021.Laura Mayse and her daughter, Abbey, at Wesley's last commencement in May 2021.It was a warm day for May in Delaware. Abbey Mayse was sweating. Despite the heat, she was grinning from ear to ear—she and her team had just won the Atlantic Eastern Conference championship game. They swarmed the field to celebrate, then hustled straight to Wesley College’s football stadium in Dover to attend graduation. Mayse wore her softball uniform under her graduation robe.

Their victory meant so much to Mayse, not just because it was the last time she would ever play with her team, but it was the last game that anyone would play wearing the Wolverines jersey, ever. Two months later, on July 1, 2021, Wesley’s 147-year legacy came to an end. Its doors reopened in August under a new moniker, Delaware State University: Downtown.

For Delaware State (DSU), the acquisition of Wesley was a remarkable event: no other historically Black college and university (HBCU) in the country had ever acquired a private institution, much less one that previously held the title of a Predominately White Institution (PWI). For Dr. Tony Allen, president of DSU, bringing Wesley College into DSU meshed perfectly with his goals for expansion. It seemed a match made in heaven.

“It was an opportunity for us to transform the university,” said Allen. “We’ve been fortunate around our rapid growth over the last decade, but our infrastructure couldn’t support it. Where Wesley is located in downtown is where I believe our university needs to be.”

DSU announced its official acquisition of Wesley College on July 1, 2020, and the two institutions have spent the last year and a half on a rocky road to immersion. Faculty at Wesley worked to calm worried students, while waiting almost a year themselves to find out if they would be offered positions at DSU (eventually, 60% would be). Staff at both DSU and Wesley worked 12-hour days week after week to align the public and private universities’ programs and reassess financial aid packages.

All of this was made more complicated by COVID-19, which arrived at almost the same instant Wesley College was on the verge of signing an acquisition agreement with a different institution in another state. The pandemic tightened financial belts, and so when Wesley ultimately signed an agreement with DSU, some faculty felt caught off guard. As shock waves rippled throughout the Wesley community in May 2021, a few members of the faculty filed a lawsuit against Wesley President Emeritus Robert Clark II to stay the acquisition. The suit has since been dropped.

The mechanics of an acquisition 

Now, more than seven months after Wesley’s closure, the two institutions are still hard at work unifying their cultures to build a future for their students.

Christine McDermott graduated from Wesley in 1998. She returned to work there one year later, and by 2020 she was the assistant vice president for academic affairs and director of student success and retention. During the transition, she worked on the team that ensured that the school’s accreditations aligned, a process made slightly easier by the fact that Wesley and DSU were both accredited by the Middle States institution. She is now the accreditation and assessment specialist in at DSU.

“I spent half my life [at Wesley], literally and figuratively,” McDermott said. “Imagine your alma mater, spending half your life there, and then imagine it be your job to close down the institution.”

McDermott recalled hearing rumors of Wesley’s economic trouble back in the 1990s, when she was a student. But as far as she knew, financial woes were par for the course at Wesley. She did not know how dire the situation had truly become until Clark informed the senior staff that the school could no longer survive without a robust partner.

Clark, who was recently named a member of the Board of Visitors to the U.S. Naval Academy by President Joe Biden, came to Wesley in 2015 with an understanding that finances were tight. When he first toured the campus, he witnessed firsthand the wear and tear of years without renovations or maintenance. The 55-acre campus had, said Clark, only one electrical meter for all of its buildings, and the institution, whose endowment had shrunk to under one million dollars, was using a line of credit to get from one semester to the next.

"There wasn’t a long runway, if you will,” said Clark. “And to be honest, as I was discussing things with the faculty and staff, it took a while—I don’t think they understood or didn’t want to—I had to be repetitive about the fact that we were truly in a tough situation.”

Clark said he didn’t come to Wesley with the idea of shutting down the institution. Rather, he did everything he could to revitalize it. He reassessed the way the college spent its money, analyzed which buildings were the least energy efficient and shut them off during the summer.

“But you can’t just cut your way out of long-term issues. You also have to have other means of revenue. So, at the year and half point, it became crystal clear that business as usual is not going to cut it,” said Clark. “We needed investors very quickly or we’d go the way that many schools go. If we didn’t get these partners, it’d be 55 acres of empty buildings, everyone unemployed, and where would our students go?”

Clark said he believes these kinds of financial partnerships should be the way of the future for struggling institutions on the verge of closing, as they are a far better alternative than completely shutting down a college. It was his deepest wish to make sure that Wesley’s legacy remained intact, and his students would be secure in their academic futures. His original hope was that a partnership could allow Wesley to function like a branch campus, something similar to Penn State, where he had served briefly after his transition from naval officer to civilian.

Penn State has 24 campuses spread across 24 locations in Pennsylvania. These campuses function independently as an extended arm of the university.

So, with that idea in mind, Wesley began the process of what McDermott called “entertaining suitors.” Rumors began to swirl on campus about what institution would acquire them.

Wesley College's main building, wearing its new moniker. It is now the hub for DSU: Downtown's Wesley College of Health and Behavioral Sciences.Wesley College's main building, wearing its new moniker. It is now the hub for DSU: Downtown's Wesley College of Health and Behavioral Sciences.By the time DSU entered the picture, Wesley was already knee-deep into a commitment to with another out-of-state institution. The school, which Clark declined to name, was working with its board to draft an official offer near the end of 2019. Then COVID hit.

As institutions navigated the pandemic, the out-of-state institution’s board of trustees no longer felt they could safely create a branch campus with Wesley. With no other financial alternative, Wesley closed the deal with DSU in late spring in 2020.

“Things went smoother quicker with DSU. They’re from Delaware, our board members know each other, and I knew President Allen. I believed that we would be able to find a way to ensure that Wesley College had a path forward,” said Clark. “Sometimes you have to go away to come home.”

But because the idea of a branch campus had taken hold among many Wesley faculty and staff, finding out that Wesley would be fully absorbed into DSU was made “that much more challenging, and sad,” said McDermott.

“Wesley was a very close-knit family. We all had relationships with one another,” said McDermott. “The potential loss of that family was very, very hard.”

A secretive process?

As DSU and Wesley began the work of merging their institutions, McDermott said that she and others was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. She was uneasy doing so.

“It became clear to me in the beginning that there was a lot of information not being shared,” said McDermott. “I’m a very ethical person. I understand you can’t give the ingredients out right away, it’s your special sauce. But having to sign an NDA was a hard pill to swallow. It made it worse, to me.”

The NDA, said Clark, was a necessary legal step required by both the leadership at Wesley and DSU. He signed one as well.

“It was the right thing to do, because otherwise there’s things that, if you dump them out there in their purest form, can get misinterpreted,” said Clark, adding that an NDA doesn’t mean malicious intent on either side. Rather, “that’s just the normal process of things.”

Clark and Allen began to offer town halls for faculty, staff, and students. But Dr. Danielle Archambault, associate director of student success and retention at Wesley, now coordinator of transfer advising at DSU, said those meetings became places where angry staff or faculty aired their “feelings and grievances,” less a place where concrete information could be shared.

Archambault said the transition could have been made easier with a bit more transparency.   

“It was 18 to 24 months of confusion. Long days and nights,” said Archambault.

Archambault taught English and learning techniques at Wesley as an adjunct faculty member. It gave her a unique perspective on the transition, behind the scenes and in front of a classroom, where she witnessed firsthand the anxiety students had.

“Wesley served a lot of academically and financially underprepared students,” said Archambault. “Wesley provided them with some stability. Now, their one place of stability is no longer here.”

Archambault herself was rocked by an unexpected cultural change. At Wesley, everyone referred to each other by their first names. At DSU, like so many other HBCUs, prefixes are attached, even amongst colleagues.

“If I know you and work with you, my first inclination is to call you by your first name. Here, we just don’t do that,” said Archambault. “It’s strange to be so formal.”

Archambault also worried about the gender constrictions around formality.

President Tony Allen of Delaware State UniversityPresident Tony Allen of Delaware State University“As a queer kid growing up in a rural area who presented gender differently than my peers, I’ve been misgendered and called sir,” said Archambault. “It can be triggering, and I don’t want it to be triggering as students.”

At DSU, she was nominated for and accepted a position on the diversity, equity and inclusion council. On October 21, she was able to host a town hall discussion, The Power of Pronouns, open to faculty, staff, and students.

Preserving a legacy

When Laura Mayse found out Wesley was being acquired by DSU, she felt relieved. A 1992 Wesley alum and former director of alumni relations and annual giving at Wesley, she is now the director of development at DSU and is mother to Abbey, who graduated in Wesley’s last class.

“When you take a step back, it makes sense,” said Laura. “Now it’s the feel of a big university, which is great. Our students are similar, and in that sense, it makes sense that we are together.”

Laura said she would remind her colleagues at Wesley that being acquired was far better than the alternative; an empty, shuttered campus leaving a gaping hole downtown.

“I heard, ‘Wesley’s closing,’ or ‘Wesley’s over’—that’s not the case,” said Laura. “Yes, Wesley was acquired and technically closed. But the programs continued. The students continued. The commitment to alumni and the Wesley legacy can continue.”

Allen and his faculty and staff at DSU said they are determined to preserve that legacy. Dr. Stacy Downing is the chief administrative officer of the Downtown DSU campus. She oversees the renovation and restoration of the former Wesley campus, giving the aging buildings more contemporary interiors. Between July and the end of August, Wesley’s main building was transformed into the Wesley College of Health and Sciences, named to honor the living memory of the institution.

A critical part of Downing’s job is ensuring that Wesley isn’t entirely erased from the downtown campus. She’s drafting plans for a physical space where Wesley can be memorialized. Until that space exists, and the newness of the transition has worn off, Downing fully expects alumni to feel shocked when they return to campus.

“They come and see DSU flags everywhere. Managing those emotions, it’s difficult. It’s their school.” said Downing. “Wesley has a lot that they’ve contributed to Delaware, downtown Dover, individual lives. How do we capture that?”

Downing plans to create a DSU: Downtown advisory board, where alumni of Wesley and those with connections to the school can meet monthly to stay abreast of legacy plans.

“I think as I’m looking down the road, I think this process is going to take a couple of years,” said Downing. “There’s no magic wand, although I’m always asking for one. We’re practicing patience.”

Allen said that he knew the transition wouldn’t happen overnight. Once, in his previous life working at a bank, his company was absorbed in an acquisition. The experience has given him, he said, “special empathy for what it takes to make a transition successful. It has to be tailored. The best of both cultures.”

Every year, DSU holds a homecoming parade. This fall, Downing and Allen rerouted the course to end at the DSU: Downtown campus.

The community reception has been welcoming and exciting, said Downing. “It was such an embrace.”

It’s sparking excitement for the potential Downing and Allen see down the road. They envision creating a metropolitan hub for health and sciences, to build a blossoming and thriving Dover. But until then, it’s down to the nitty gritty, the everyday work of deliberate communication. After the announcement, surveys and forms were sent out to Wesley students, asking holistic questions about their concerns and introducing them to their new school. DSU sent Wesley students, faculty, and staff forms about "what they could expect when they became a member of DSU,” said Allen.

“Now we are communicating as one DSU family, we do that regularly, in weekly university forms for the whole community.”

These forms are pushed out to Wesley legacy students on Blackboard, DSU’s online learning management system, which students are theoretically required to access daily. Downing created a Blackboard community for DSU: Downtown. Through feedback received there, DSU has already made one improvement: increasing the number of buses running back and forth between the main and downtown campuses.

But nursing student N’Dea Hardy does not recall receiving any questionnaire or survey.

N'dea Hardy in her cheerleading uniform for Wesley. Since moving to DSU, Hardy has stopped cheering.N'dea Hardy in her cheerleading uniform for Wesley. Since moving to DSU, Hardy has stopped cheering.Hardy joined Wesley’s nursing program in 2018. She was in her junior year when she found out about the acquisition by reading the local newspaper.

“The school didn’t give us answers, no faculty knew anything. Everyone at Wesley was in the blind,” said Hardy. “We didn’t know what to believe, what to look forward to. A lot of people felt betrayed, in a way. Why did we have to find out through the media?”

Hardy penned a June 28, 2021, op-ed for Bay to Bay News, a local paper titled, ‘Wolverine for life’ reflects on her time at Wesley.

“It’s difficult for those of us who have been students at Wesley to believe this is all happening,” Hardy wrote. “We hadn’t seen it coming: 147-year-old traditions just don’t end that way, do they?”

Hardy expressed reservations about attending her senior year at DSU. DSU, she wrote, had “gone out of its way” to ensure the nursing program accreditations were aligned, and that seniors like her would graduate on time. But she would always be, she wrote, a Wolverine for life.

Hardy said she didn’t receive an official orientation into the school or the nursing program. She felt treated more like a transfer student instead of a new student.

“The beginning was really rough,” she said. “I feel like they weren’t prepared for all the students they got. They didn’t ask for this either, but they knew a year ago and could have been more prepared for it.”

There are currently 614 undergraduate nurses in DSU’s program, a record high, said Dr. Gwen Scott-Jones, interim dean of the Wesley College of Health and Behavioral Sciences.

“The challenges are the enrollment growth, making sure the nursing department and all are staffed up,” she said. “The challenge is ensuring that we have adequate faculty to student ratios for nursing and accrediting programs here in the college. We’re working on that diligently.”

Health and behavioral sciences brought over “the lion’s share” of Wesley faculty, said Scott-Jones. That is because DSU absorbed some of Wesley’s programs in whole. DSU did not have a Master’s in Occupational Therapy (MOT) program, but Wesley had the only program in the state.

Dr. Steve Newton, presidential fellow for media relations, executive communications and professor of history and political science at DSU, said that DSU had promised Wesley students they would see a reduction in the total cost of attendance. The university kept its word. And doing so, at times, made drafting financial aid packages complicated.

The nuances came down to the difference between public and private tuition. As McDermott explained, “If your tuition is $5,000 when it used to be $10,000, the government expects that you can pay more now. That means, you might not be eligible for the [aid package] that you were before.”

Scholarships specific to Wesley also had to transfer over. Laura Mayse spent many hours on the phone assuring donors that Wesley students, while they remain in legacy at DSU, will get priority. Once all former Wesley students have graduated from DSU, those funds will be folded into the rest of DSU’s scholarship opportunities.

Faculty positions

DSU was able to make job offers to roughly 60% of Wesley faculty and staff, and according to Newton, roughly three-quarters of those accepted their offers. For those who did not receive offers, Clark offered to write letters, make phone calls, and do what he could to help them find new positions.

Wesley faculty were offered positions as “visiting professors,” and none were placed on the tenure track.

“The idea of visiting professor is a three-year term to see if it’s a good fit for both parties,” said Allen. “Then, we make a more formal offer going forward. It’s a full-time position but it comes with the opportunity to decide.”

Allen added, “I know there was some angst over that, but on balance it had no effect on pay or benefits, and it gives us an opportunity to take a look at the quality coming from Wesley and make sure that DSU remains a good fit for them.”

Dr. Robert Marsteller, who taught education at Wesley, is now a visiting professor at DSU. He said he understands why DSU offered Wesley faculty those positions.

“There was no negotiation with DSU; they made us an offer,” said Marsteller. “I can see their perspective and understand their desire to protect themselves and their interest. I don’t begrudge them that.”

In fact, Marsteller has already begun speaking with his chair about moving into a tenure track position. “I’m trusting in the process,” he said.

DSU’s education department contacted Wesley early in fall 2020, just after the acquisition was announced. They began to meet regularly to discuss their programs and address student concerns. They found more similarities than differences, and, through genuine and concerted effort, the two departments found a way to become one.

“We had a very good experience,” said Marsteller. “The exceptional part about our experience in educational programs is that we had the time to build these relationships with DSU all last year. I don’t think most departments did that. I’m really grateful for having that opportunity.”

“For all of last year, when we were trying to put our students' minds at ease and convince them they would be taken care of, we knew from our relationships with DSU that they respected and valued us and thought we could contribute,” said Marsteller. “There was a layer of decision making that was over their heads.”

Some faculty members left Wesley in the spring semester of 2021. Some never came back in fall 2020 after the acquisition was announced. But, Marsteller said, “I think there were a lot of us that felt like we had an obligation to our students, and that we needed to make sure our students were cared for.”

Marsteller was there at graduation, sitting in the stadium, watching his last Wesley class walk across the stage. He saw the softball team, in their uniforms in the stands cheering on their graduating teammates. Laura was there, too, watching her daughter graduate with pride.

Abbey is now continuing her education, finishing her master’s degree in teaching at DSU, which she started at Wesley. Reflecting back on her last years at Wesley, the chaos of the acquisition and living through a pandemic, Abbey remembered what her softball coach would tell her.

“Whatever is going to happen with DSU and with COVID, it’s going to happen. Enjoy these moments with your friends and professors now,” Abbey recalled. “Go enjoy your last moments on the field, your last class on Wesley's campus. Go do those things like you would, no matter what.”

While she admits still being heartbroken at the loss of her alma mater, she is also thrilled by the opportunities available at DSU, specifically the chance to teach at DSU’s Early College High Schools, which is part of her master’s degree curriculum. There, she is able to apply the science of education in real time. She will continue through this semester, when then she expects to graduate, on time, with a DSU moniker on her diploma.

“I am loving my experience as a teacher here, I love my students—and that’s part of DSU,” said Abbey. “We’re here to further our education, through and through. We’re here to become better scholars.”

Liann Herder can be reached at lherder@diverseeducation.com.

Editor's Note:  Since the original writing of this article, a lawsuit against Wesley has been filed by Aramark food services company, alleging the institution dodged its debts by the DSU acquisition. Laura Mayse has also left her position at DSU and is now director of development at Padua Academy.