Wesley College: An Extraordinary Turnaround

John W. Dysart
President
The Dysart Group, Inc.

Although alumni today often boast about how Wesley, a predominately liberal arts college in Dover, Delaware, affiliated with the United Methodist Church “refused to die,” the fact is that the 133-year-old institution was almost moribund when President Scott D. Miller assumed the presidency in 1997. As strategic enrollment management consultant to the College throughout the last decade, it has been an inspiration to watch Wesley’s transformation since Dr. Miller’s infusion of business and marketing savvy, coupled with his infectious enthusiasm and high energy, propelled Wesley’s future to possibilities unimagined  10 years ago.

By any standard, Wesley’s transformation is an impressive story involving a leader who turned an institution around and led it to prosperity. Wesley College today represents a pay-off of the entrepreneurial, calculated risk-taking leadership of President Miller, cited among 17 college presidents who have advanced their institutions through such leadership in the book, The Entrepreneurial College President, the largest empirical study yet of presidential attitudes, values and behaviors. Authors James L. Fisher and James V. Koch, both former college presidents and consultants to governing boards and presidents, specifically cite Dr. Miller’s “agenda to innovate, lead and plan strategically, solve problems, create efficient financial structures and operate with fiscal responsibility.”

Reversing a decade of deficits, sagging enrollment, stagnant voluntary support and declining alumni and faculty/staff morale, President Miller moved proactively – even before his arrival on campus — commissioning a comprehensive institutional review examining all aspects of campus operations  and helping craft the College’s blueprint for the future. The review resulted in a 128-page working document with 60 specific recommendations for change that led to development of an ambitious 10-Year Master Plan to turn the College into the robust institution it is today.

On the enrollment side, it is especially gratifying to note Wesley’s extraordinary growth under Dr. Miller’s leadership. Fall Semester 2006 opened with College enrollment not only at an all time high, but also, with selectivity the most rigorous in its history. In the last decade, Wesley’s applications have more than tripled, and enrollment more than doubled to 2,400. The SAT scores of incoming freshmen have risen by 133 points, and the retention rate increased by 30 percent.

Wesley’s incoming class of 525 students was drawn from a pool of more than 3,000 applicants, reflecting its momentum and growing reputation as a progressive, financially stable institution with quality academic, student life and scholar-athlete programs. For the third consecutive year, the College earned top-tier ranking in its region in the prestigious U.S. News and World Report. For the past seven years, Wesley’s operating budgets have included a surplus, alumni giving has risen from a dismal 5 percent to above the national average, overall revenues have tripled and Wesley’s effective fundraising has been recognized by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE).

A student-friendly, consumer-oriented marketing, recruitment and retention strategy focusing on enhanced facilities and amenities, culminating in the completion of the Academic Village this year, has been a major emphasis of Dr. Miller’s turn-around strategy, based upon research showing prospective students were not attracted to the College’s former dated facilities, food services and playing venues. Completion of Malmberg Hall in August 2005 culminated the College’s vision of an Academic Village also consisting of Zimmerman Hall and Bellmeyer Honors House while supporting the goal of about 70 percent of traditional students living on campus. A substance- ree student residence featuring 180 beds lodged in two and four person suites, Malmberg earns high marks from students, families and student life staff after its first few months of occupancy. The new residence facility has earned kudos from local media, as well, with the News Journal lauding Wesley for “putting its money where its mouth is” in creating this optional living choice for selected upperclassmen. “The college has made a costly investment in their students’ future, and (administrators) deserve our thanks for leading the way in Delaware,” a September 11, 2005, commentary, notes.

The overhaul of Dulany Hall, the College’s dining commons, and hiring of a new student-friendly food service company capped this effort, resulting in a marked increase in the number of students using theinstitution’s meal plan. Eliminating formerly long lines for meal service, the new  service offers fresh, made-to-order entrees, individual food preparation stations, takeout meals and a single traditional entrée station. The upgraded facility was designed with new student tastes and dining preferences in mind and input from a seven-student advisory panel.

“Far from being ‘frills,’ these amenities are central to the total undergraduate residential experience,” says President Scott D. Miller. “They reflect Wesley’s commitment to the total quality student experience.”

“Dr. Miller has indeed been the architect of Wesley College’s revival,” notes an independent May 2006 institutional assessment. Under his tutelage, the report notes, the College has established an off-campus center near Wilmington, expanded its work at Dover Air Force Base and has initiated several popular master’s degree programs, including an M.B.A. This fall, Wesley’s strong international program has received a renewed impetus with the addition of a faculty associate for global initiatives post to head the interdisciplinary focus that will emphasize preparing students to graduate as citizens of a global community.

Several of the most innovative thrusts of the College in recent years have occurred in its relationships with the regional community. The College now boasts a thriving Boys and Girls Club that impacts the lives of many dozens of young people annually and provides many Wesley students with internships and highly desirable community involvement. With nearby Delaware State University, Wesley has forged a highly successful and significant alliance with the Schwartz Center for the Arts in Dover’s historic downtown district that “was truly a good deed, but also made lots of sense,” according to an elected official.

Capitalizing upon the College’s strong scholar-athlete tradition, Dr. Miller embarked on major upgrades of Wolverine Stadium for the college’s football program, ranked 4th in the nation at the NCAA Division IIIlevel at this writing, as well  as renovations of the gymnasium, playing courts and fields. A $1.4 million privately funded upgrade and 1,000-seat expansion with a 300-seat “VIP section”, the new stadium also features “Field Turf,” a synthetic surface safer than natural grass, a press box, new lighting and pedestrian walkways.

Athletics continues to be an important and integral part of Wesley’s entire culture, which emphasizes excellence both on the fields and courts and in the classroom, President Miller emphasizes. More than two-thirds of Wesley’s current students participate in sports at the varsity, club or intramural levels, and the College’s strong track record of successful scholar-athletes is a competitive recruiting and retention advantage. Four new women’s and men’s intercollegiate varsity sports have been added under Dr. Miller’s tenure, bringing the total to 17.

The announcement that Wesley teams will join the Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) for the 2007-08 academic year comes as yet another third-party recognition of its scholar-athlete tradition. The conference is one of the top NCAA Division III conferences in the nation, with member institutions boasting impeccable academic reputations. In addition, the CAC complements Wesley’s mission of graduating scholar-athletes, placing a high priority on the well-being of the student in scheduling and in adhering to strict codes of sportsmanship.

The results of this transformation have been impressive, say alumni now flocking “back in droves,” as one put it, to savor their alma mater’s success while enjoying its renovated campus in Dover’s historic downtown district near the state Capitol.

“I used to be embarrassed to be identified as an alumnus of Wesley,” said one graduate of the period before Dr. Miller arrived. “Now, I can enthusiastically recommend the College to prospective students.”