Washington Evening Journal
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'Out of the blue’
Wesleyan closure surprises most, despite years of financial trouble
MT. PLEASANT — When one of the oldest universities in Iowa announced that it would shut down at the end of the academic year on Tuesday morning, the news sparked shock, confusion and concern across the community.
In a Zoom briefing with reporters Tuesday afternoon, University President Christine Plunkett said the writing was on the wall as the 181-year-old school showed underperforming finances, even as it reached a record enrollment of 848 students.
“Faculty and staff were aware this year … that it was going to be a particularly tough year for us,” she said. “We could see early on, the impact of the economy right now on philanthropic giving, we could see early on the impact of our expenses going up due to inflation, and we could also see the impact of enrollment growth, which we still had, but slower growth than previously.”
By most accounts, however, students and staff didn’t see the announcement coming. Many students had just finished registering for classes, and teachers said they’d already contracts for the next school year. Social media accounts for the school announced athletic commitments for incoming freshman just days prior, while academic calendars already featured a 2023 homecoming date and course schedules through summer of 2024.
Plunkett said the public-facing push for growth was intended to prevent the institution’s eventual shutdown. The school had recently announced new programs in computer science as well as a master’s degree option in criminal justice, part of an effort to boost enrollment officials hoped would keep doors open.
Mike Heaton — Wesleyan’s vice president of advancement from 2018-2020, during the thick of its last financial crisis — said the school’s reputation for pulling out every stop to survive had likely given some a false sense of optimism.
“There’s been a lot of efforts to grow the university and become fiscally solvent again, but if you’re paying attention and you see the numbers, you see the trends, it’s not hard to put two and two together,” he said. “My guess is … right up until the moment they made the decision, they were trying every single thing they possibly could to keep that university open.”
That rang true for students, who said they took the recent growth as a sign of financial security, planning their futures around more semesters in Mt. Pleasant.
“I just got done crying,” senior criminal justice student Brooke James said on Tuesday. “We just registered for classes … I just got accepted into the GA program so I could get my masters for free.”
Announcement shocked student body
Throughout campus, students said none of them saw the news coming as they filed into the Methodist school’s chapel for a mandatory meeting Tuesday morning, as instructed by an email from academic higher-ups.
“It came out of the blue,” Freshman and football team member Camden McEntire said. “A lot of people were stunned by it, looking at the person next to them. They couldn’t really believe it at first.”
For junior Chloe Kirkhove, the unexpected announcement of a closure was all too familiar.
Kirkhove transferred to Wesleyan from Lincoln College in Illinois, which permanently closed in May of 2022 citing reduced enrollment and economic factors. Wesleyan marks her second time wrapping up a year at a soon-to-shutter institution.
The elementary education and exercise science student said she had consulted several people late last year about the school’s finances in an effort to avoid repeating her previous experience. That it happened anyway was heartbreaking.
“I was apprehensive at the beginning of the year, coming to Iowa Wesleyan, being new to everything all over again, but I grew to love it like it was my second home; or third, because Lincoln was my first second home,” she said. “I was initially super hurt, super upset, and then that hurt grew into anger of like, ‘Why, again?’ … that’s how I’ve been feeling all day.”
Jamarion Ferguson — another football-playing freshman — woke up to the word of imminent closure. Currently attending Wesleyan on a full-ride scholarship, he was unsure of what to do next.
“I ended up going to get my equipment, because they want us to get it,” he said. “After that, I’m going to head back to my room and call my mom. I'm going to inform her about it and see what we can do from there.”
Many athletes took to social media after the announcement, often repeating the same verbatim message to inform athletic scouters that they were, “100% open to recruitment.”
Maci Kuchta, a member of the women’s basketball team, had one semester to go before graduation. She, like many, said she’d prioritize institutions that would let her keep playing the sport as she figured out where to finish her degree.
Several coaches at her backup schools had already reached out by Wednesday afternoon. For that, Kuchta said she was grateful, noting that many of her peers didn’t have such quick contingency plans lined up.
"Basketball has just always been a huge part of my life, and I’ve always known that I wanted to play out my full college career,“ she said. ”I’m not ready to give that up yet … I do want to continue playing, whether that is at one of these scouts, or whether that’s somewhere else.“
Timing means trouble for faculty
Some staff said they were equally surprised by the news, informed of their employer’s imminent closure in a schoolwide meeting just one hour before students on Tuesday morning.
“It comes as a massive surprise to every last one of us faculty, we had no way of knowing,” said one professor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity. “There was the trouble from 2018 that’s been in the news, but everything seemed to be on the up and up, things were looking up for the university.”
The professor said many faculty — themselves included — were now anxious about finding work, having already signed contracts to stay with the school in the 2023-24 academic year.
With the closure announcement coming so late in the hiring season, that job hunt is likely to prove challenging.
“The academic job market, in my particular field, is a nightmare,” the professor said. “And hiring season is over, essentially, so I’m scrambling … this comes as a massive surprise on a market that effectively ends in March. This is hard, this is sudden, and this has lasting impacts.”
While some said financial troubles in 2018 were a proverbial canary in the coal mine, Tuesday’s news still came as an unwelcome surprise.
“It’s not complete shock, but it’s just sadness,” said Southeast Iowa Symphony Director and part-time university employee Bob McConnell.
In any case, university employees said the announcement was emotionally devastating, whether they saw it coming or not.
IW Assistant Professor of Art and Gallery Manager Sonia Perea-Morales said this was her only her first year at the school, but that she did not regret choosing to work there despite the sudden change of plans.
“I have learned so much from all of the students, and love each and every one of them dearly. My heart breaks to see them feel displaced and lost,” she said. “I hope that, wherever they end up, they are valued and appreciated for the wonderful people they are.”
AnnaMarie Ward contributed to this report.
Comments: AnnaMarie.Ward@southeastiowaunion.com, Kalen.McCain@southeastiowaunion.com