Christine Plunkett once left finance to run an apple orchard in Vermont. Now, she's trying to secure Iowa Wesleyan's future.

Months later, partnership with Florida campus remains work in progress for Mt. Pleasant college

Chris Plunkett, president, is photographed in her office at Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. The school’s interim preisdent, Chris Plunkett, comes in as the school seeks to improve its financial situation after nearly being forced to close last year. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Chris Plunkett, president, is photographed in her office at Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. The school’s interim preisdent, Chris Plunkett, comes in as the school seeks to improve its financial situation after nearly being forced to close last year. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Apple cider for years was made from less-than-pristine apples. The scraps. The bruised ones.

Orchard owners brewed batches, in part, to reduce waste. But Christine Plunkett and her husband, John Watson, saw potential.

So a 38-year-old Plunkett in 1994 left her Boston gig in finance and moved with her family back to her home state of Vermont, where she and Watson resurrected a 300-acre overgrown and untended orchard of old apple varieties specifically for the purpose of brewing craft cider.

“We developed a different niche, which was to actually specifically use the apples on the trees to make cider,” Plunkett said. “We weren’t primarily farming for apples. We were farming to make cider.”

That vision for her once-unkempt orchard and its “drops” — apples found in the dirt rather than on the tree — has been a throughline in Plunkett’s career, taking her from the finance world to the orchard to a struggling secondary school, a battered private college in Vermont, and finally Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant, which last fall announced such “significant financial challenges” that it might close.

“I’ve had these roles where I’ve gone in as the finance person, and end up in the administrative role when previous leaders leave,” Plunkett said. “I think it’s because I’m drawn to nonprofit institutions that tend to often be ones that are more financially challenged.”

While still brewing cider with her growing family of seven, Plunkett — with a master’s in finance from Northeastern University in Boston — made her first foray into education as chief financial officer of The Gailer School, an independent secondary institution in Middlebury, Vt. She served as head of that school for a stint before leaving for the chief financial officer post at Burlington College in 2007, where she worked under then-President Jane Sanders, wife of Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.

Plunkett’s financial leadership again drew her into the lead role at Burlington when Sanders left — although she felt that wasn’t a good fit, and the school continued to struggle.

Both it and The Gailer School eventually closed due to financial woes, and Plunkett after leaving Burlington in 2014 landed on the Registry for College and University Presidents.

As a sort of clearing house for academic administrators, the registry helps institutions from coast to coast find temporary leadership — which is how Plunkett ended up in Iowa, a state she had never even visited before stepping in as interim chief financial officer at Iowa Wesleyan in 2015.

“It was a big adventure,” Plunkett, now 63, said.

An ‘easy decision’

Having been raised on a farm in Vermont, and now with her five children grown, Plunkett said she quickly felt at home in the rural landscape and small-town feel of Mt. Pleasant. That made it easy for her to answer the call to stay beyond what was supposed to be a one-year engagement at the struggling university — a school of 455 students that had just attempted to refinance its debt through a $21.5 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Office.

“At the end of that year, they asked me to remain on for a second year,” she said. “And that happened three more times.”

In fall 2018, former Iowa Wesleyan President Steve Titus issued an assessment of his school’s shaky standing — paired with a public plea for donations to keep it afloat. He revealed Iowa Wesleyan could be near the end of its 175-year run, prompting a patchwork of donations and more USDA help to extend its life long enough to solicit potential partners to create a new future.

The search for a partner resulted in a pending collaboration with Saint Leo University, a Catholic campus in St. Leo, Fla., north of Tampa.

Plunkett said amid the turmoil — with a crop of grandchildren growing — she thought it might be time for Wesleyan to search for a permanent CFO so she could head back to New England.

But when Titus announced he would retire in July, she received a familiar invitation.

“Given that we were right in the middle of the whole partnership process, which is very financially involved, the board came to me and asked if I would be willing to consider stepping into the president role and remaining through that process,” she said.

Plunkett didn’t flinch.

“I was happy to do that,” she said. “We’ve really found quite a home here. It was a real adventure to come to the Midwest for us. It’s been quite a change, obviously, from New England. And we’ve just loved it here. So it was a pretty easy decision.”

Partnership slows

Although Plunkett said she doesn’t know how long she’ll serve as the interim Wesleyan president, she likely will be its last — as the Saint Leo collaboration will eliminate the role.

Because Saint Leo is 1,200 miles south of Iowa Wesleyan, however, the Mt. Pleasant school still will need a campus leader, a chancellor of sorts. But those details are being ironed out, and Plunkett said she doesn’t know exactly how long that will take.

When the partnership was announced in April, Titus flagged May 30 as his hopeful deadline for a definitive agreement. But that date came and went, and a deal has yet to be signed more than four months later.

“Things slowed down over the summer,” Plunkett said, noting Saint Leo pressed on the brakes so Titus could transition out as she transitioned in.

Once her interim presidency began Aug. 1, negotiations resumed — with both sides performing “due diligence” involving the nature of Wesleyan’s long-term debt, for example, and its financial partnership with the USDA, according to Plunkett.

“Saint Leo wishes to invest pretty significant funds into our campus, (for) deferred maintenance, and they need to be in the best position to be able to do that,” Plunkett said. “The assumption is still that we are going to complete that merger. But I will say, as president here and with my Cabinet, our message to our community internally is business as usual.”

When the prospective partnership first was unveiled, she said, faculty and staff would speculate about the value of various undertakings with so many unknowns.

They would say, according to Plunkett, “Maybe we shouldn’t do this project because once this merger happens it won’t be necessary.”

But “we can’t do that,” she said. “We need to continue to serve our students and grow enrollment.”

‘Moving forward’

And, Plunkett said, despite last year’s dire projections and Wesleyan’s uncertain path forward, enrollment remained strong this fall. From a low of 455 students when she arrived, enrollment this fall continued its upward trajectory to 643 from 635 last fall and 628 in 2017, according to Iowa College Aid.

“We’re in a higher ed environment right now where if your enrollment is flat, you’re in good shape,” she said. “If you think about the fact that one year ago, around Nov. 1, we announced that we might be closing in a month, honestly we were planning and expecting a significant drop in enrollment as a possibility.”

That the drop didn’t materialize and, in fact, went in the opposite direction speaks to the sense of value and belonging students, faculty and staff feel on the campus, according to Plunkett.

“The energy and the morale on campus this fall is great,” she said. “Everyone’s just moving forward. And they’re saying we’re moving forward just the way we are — until we’re not.”

That means debuting new programming and offerings — like the addition of men’s and women’s wrestling, announced in May with plans for Wesleyan students to start competing in 2020-21.

“And if you keep your eyes on the news, we’ll have a new program coming up pretty soon, by early November,” she said.

Plunkett couldn’t give a specific timeline for the completion of a Saint Leo partnership — with attorneys navigating accreditation hoops and negotiations with the USDA.

“If you look at corporate mergers, this is really more normally the way something like this goes,” she said. “There’s just so many moving pieces.”

Plunkett said the USDA hasn’t yet approved its proposed collaboration, and government officials have not answered questions from The Gazette about the prospective merger’s impact on its loan.

Marie Cirelli Thornsberry, a Saint Leo spokeswoman, said her school has signed a nondisclosure agreement and therefore can’t answer specific questions about negotiations.

“The expectation, if all moves forward as we planned, would be that by the end of this academic year, everything would be in place to proceed next fall with the merger,” Plunkett said.

A pioneering path

Although she technically never has held a permanent position at Iowa Wesleyan — and she’s been pining for more time with her burgeoning lot of grandchildren, with a fifth on the way — Plunkett said she has no plans to leave the school until the haze from its path has lifted.

“My commitment is to support the university through whatever transition is needed to get them to stability,” Plunkett said. “I have every intent of remaining here until Iowa Wesleyan’s future has been established.”

Iowa Wesleyan Board of Trustees Chair Annette Scieszinski said Plunkett is uniquely positioned to do that — with her history as an “astute financial manager” over similarly struggling schools and her deep knowledge and understanding of Wesleyan’s situation.

“Chris is a very resourceful kind of leader,” Scieszinski said. “She’s very practical and open-minded, flexible and nimble.”

And she has to be in this shifting higher education landscape that projects big changes and challenges in a smaller-school enrollment, demanding creative solutions and innovation.

“We believe strongly that there is great change coming in the higher ed landscape, and Iowa Wesleyan has faced our issues transparently and publicly and very candidly in real time,” Scieszinski said, noting Wesleyan could be paving a new way. “We think there are probably others very carefully watching what happens.”

Like Plunkett’s East Coast experiment in craft cider that allowed customers to create their own blends of Macintosh, Ida Red or Paula Red variations, for example, Scieszinski said Wesleyan under her watch could kick-start a trend.

“This effort at pursuing a partnership is very much a pioneering one in higher ed,” Scieszinski said. “And we think our alternative future is very bright if we can pull this partnership together.”