Washington Evening Journal
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Iowa Wesleyan to close doors
MT. PLEASANT — Iowa Wesleyan University plans to shut down at the end of the current academic year, the school announced Tuesday, citing financial challenges officials attributed to a drop in philanthropic donations, increased operating costs and a denial of COVID-19 relief from the state. The school said its 20-member board of trustees voted unanimously.
The announcement comes despite reported record enrollment from the institution, which a news release from the school said was still not enough to ensure financial stability.
“We have much gratitude for the faculty and staff who have worked extremely hard and with remarkable resilience throughout our current financial circumstances,” said an email to students on Tuesday, signed by the school’s board of trustees chair Robert Miller, and University President Christine Plunkett, who took over the position in 2019 after the departure of Steve Titus. “Many of our indicators were trending in a positive direction but we needed more time and funding to complete a full recovery.
Members of the 878-strong student body said they were blindsided by the announcement.
“We just registered for classes,” senior criminal justice student Brooke James said. “I just got accepted into the GA program so I could get my masters for free.”
International students said they were especially uncertain about the future.
Some expressed fear about telling their parents the news, while others worried about the status of their educational visas.
“We don't see any options,” said international nursing student Prapti Operty. “We are international students, and I'm freshman, so I don't know about me.”
School officials said they also struggled to grapple with the sudden change for the university, which was established in 1842, and predates Iowa’s statehood.
“It is with deep sadness that we announce the board of trustees has made the heartbreaking decision to close our beloved Iowa Wesleyan after 181 years as an educational pillar in this community,” Plunkett said in a statement. “Our focus is now on assuring our over 850 students have a smooth transition to another educational opportunity.”
That news release said the school had established “teach-out agreements” with at least four other schools, which would “ensure the students can complete their program on time and for a comparable cost to Iowa Wesleyan.”
Decision-makers said they had no better option than to close the school’s doors.
“Like many colleges and universities nationally that have recently announced closure, IW has been confronted with many headwinds including increasing operating costs, declining numbers of high school graduates nationally, and insurmountable inflationary pressures,” said Robert Miller, chairman of the school’s board of trustees. “We have worked tirelessly to find solutions at all levels but to no avail.”
The school had requested $12 million in relief money from the state’s American Rescue Plan Act funds, a proposal Gov. Kim Reynolds denied.
Miller named that state decision as a major contributing factor in the school’s closure.
“As a higher education institution that serves rural Iowa, we are disappointed in the lack of state support for this effort,” he said. “All our indicators have been trending in a positive direction, but we needed funding to buy some additional time.”
In a statement released early Tuesday afternoon, Reynolds said her office had a policy against using the federally granted relief money on anything other than one-time expenses, and stated her skepticism that it could get the school back on its feet.
She noted troubling findings from a third-party audit of the institution.
“Based on this and other factors, the independent accounting firm determined that providing one-time, federal funds would not solve the systemic financial issues plaguing the university,” Reynolds said. “If the state would have provided the federal funding as requested and it was used to finance debt or other impermissible uses according to U.S. Treasury guidelines, the state and taxpayers could have been liable for potential repayment to the federal government.”
Reynolds said she had directed the state’s Economic Development Authority and Workforce Development agency to reach out with support for the community’s business leaders.
In the meantime, community members said they needed time to process the information.
“We are focused on overall understanding and having a ton of empathy for those that lost their jobs today,” Mt. Pleasant Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President Rachel Lindeen said. “It’s an institution that’s been around for, what, 181 years, it’s a tough loss,”
When the university closes on May 31, the school said its campus would become the responsibility of the United States Department of Agriculture. The land was used as collateral for a $26.1 million loan from the federal agency, according to state officials.
SEIU’s AnnaMarie Ward and the Gazette’s Vanessa Miller also contributed to this report.