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History of Wesley College

Source: Meeting the Challenge – The Wesley College Story 1873-2007

Wesley College first began as an academic brainchild of the Wilmington Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which established the Wilmington Conference Academy in Dover, Del., and first opened on Sept. 1, 1873. It began as an academy for boys, but the following year began accepting girls as day students. The first principal of the school was the Rev. J.M. Williams, a member of the conference.

Over the next 35 years, despite frequent financial challenges, the Academy not only survived but managed to grow during that period.

A succession of seven principals would end with the 1911 appointment of the Rev. Dr. Henry G. Budd, who seven years later would lead the transition of the institution into a junior college and become its first president. A member of the Wilmington Methodist Conference, Dr. Budd was a graduate of Dickinson College and the Boston University of Theology. While his leadership was credited with physical infrastructure and academic improvement, the greatest development was revision of the charter and the name change of the institution.

Prior to securing a new charter in 1918, the school held a highly successful fundraising campaign in support of the change to come, raising from Methodists in the conference $260,000 – about $60,000 above its stated goal.

The 1918 school year began with a new name – Wesley Collegiate Institute. The school continued its preparatory school, and in 1922 began adding its first junior college-level courses with the first junior college class graduating in 1924.Throughout the 1920s, Wesley would operate as both a preparatory school and as a junior college, and share the post-World War I prosperity experienced elsewhere in the country.

Dr. Budd resigned in March 1926. He was succeeded by Professor Clarence A. Short, a Master of Science graduate of the University of Delaware and the former principal of Laurel (Del.) High School. Under Professor Short, the school billed itself as nonsectarian and open to students of all denominations.

The stock market crash of 1929 that ushered in the worst American depression had dire consequences for Wesley. For a few years, the college struggled on, but by spring of 1932, the enrollment had dropped from 91 to 81 students. The school’s recruitment efforts could not overcome the nationwide economic calamity, and existing students began dropping out, citing financial difficulties.

The fall 1932 term began with only 40 students, prompting the Board of Trustees to unanimously decide to suspend operations for one year. Efforts to reopen the school in 1933 and subsequent years were unsuccessful, leaving Wesley closed for 10 years.

In 1951, the school’s trustees then elected Dr. J. Paul Slaybaugh as Wesley’s fifth president, who was a graduate of Dickinson College and had served for 25 years as headmaster of West Nottingham Academy in Colora, Md.

The growth of the College continued under Dr. Slaybaugh’s leadership. By the fall of 1954, the enrollment had grown to 201 students, and nearby properties had been purchased for Wesley use. The progress at the College prompted its Board of Trustees to seek substantial financial support – $1.5 million over three years – from the Methodist Church to make improvements to the campus detailed in a 1955 report to the denomination.

Amid signs that the Methodist Church planned to withdraw its support and close the College, Wesley students, faculty, alumni demonstrated in the streets of Dover in support of their school. The massive show of support swayed the Methodist Church away from closing the College, instead providing financial support to get Wesley through the 1956-1957 school year.

Successful fundraising over the next year which raised $500,000 was met by another $750,000 from the Methodist Church, assuring the continuation of Wesley and effectively putting any notion of closure to rest. The Board approved a new campus development plan in September 1957 and a groundbreaking for the first building construction project – a classroom building, auditorium and heating plant – was held in March 1958.

Also in 1958, the school’s charter was revised, dropping the “Junior” from the private institution’s name. From then on, the school’s name would be Wesley College.

At the end of that decade, Dr. Slaybaugh announced his retirement as president effective June 30, 1960. Soon thereafter, the Board announced the naming of Rev. Dr. Robert H. Parker as the sixth president of Wesley College. Dr. Parker, a native of Cumberland, Md., was a graduate of The American University and Drew Theological Seminary; he had also received an honorary doctorate in 1953 from Western Maryland College.

The 15-year tenure of Dr. Parker would be a period of tremendous progress for Wesley. One evidence of that growth was the enrollment, which grew from 295 students in 1959, to 919 students (507 full-time) in 1964, and to 1,150 students (800 full-time) in 1973.

Corresponding to that enrollment growth, the College constructed 11 buildings – including dormitories, science and dining halls, and the library – during Dr. Parker’s tenure. An explanation point to that physical infrastructure expansion was the razing of the “Old Main” building to make way for the construction of a $3.5 million Henry Belin du Pont College Center – completed in October 1974, shortly before Dr. Parker’s year-end retirement.

After Dr. Parker’s 15-year tenure ended, the Board of Trustees selected Dr. William W. Hassler, a clergyman of the United Methodist Church* and a former president of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, to succeed Dr. Parker in January 1975. However, Dr. Hassler’s tenure lasted only less than two years, as he unexpectedly resigned at the end of the 1976 fall semester.

*In 1968, the Methodist Church joined with the United Brethren Church to become the denomination of the United Methodist Church.

However, prior to Dr. Hassler’s departure, Wesley took its first steps toward becoming a four-year institution. During the fall of 1976, the College began offering a curriculum leading to a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration and enrolled a dozen students into their junior year of the program. The first seven baccalaureate graduates received their diplomas in 1978.

In early 1977, the Board selected Dr. R. Jarvis Cooke, a United Methodist Church minister, to be the next Wesley president. A native of Wilmington, Del., he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in History (cum laude) from Washington College, a Master of Divinity Degree in Sociology from Drew Theological Seminary, and attended the Navel Training School for Chaplains at the College of William and Mary.

Dr. Cooke also had a strong connection with the College. He had served as a member of the Wesley Board of Trustees for 15 years. His father, two uncles, an aunt and a daughter-in-law all had studied at Wesley.

The beginning of his presidency coincided with another Wesley first – full operations as a four-year baccalaureate college. All four undergraduate years were represented in its enrollment, filling the capacity of its dormitories. Along with the Business Administration program – then in its second year – the College had also began offering a four-year program in Medical Technology.

By the fall of 1993, Wesley had fully evolved into a comprehensive, four-year baccalaureate liberal arts college. That same year, the College entered the area of graduate students for the first time by establishing a Master of Science Degree Program, designed specifically for registered nurses.

After a 14-year tenure, Dr. Stewart retired as president in 1997. In honor of his leadership accomplishment guiding Wesley from a junior college to a four-year baccalaureate school, the College’s Board of Trustees elected him President Emeritus that same year.

In August 1997, the Board of Trustees named Dr. Scott D. Miller as the 10th president in the collegiate history of Wesley College. Prior to his arrival in Dover, he served as the president of Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn. In addition to a Bachelor of Arts from West Virginia Wesleyan College and a Master of Science from the University of Dayton, he holds an Ed.S. in Higher Education Administration from Vanderbilt University and a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from The Union Institute and University.

Wesley’s history credits Dr. Miller with further reaffirming the College’s connection with the United Methodist Church, bringing a fresh and creative approach to addressing the financial challenges of the private institution, the upgrade of on-campus technology, and developing stronger connections with the community surrounding the campus.

According to Wesley’s history, by 1999 – the College’s 125th year – the school was on solid financial ground. Grants and private contributions had increased more than tenfold over the first two years of Dr. Miller’s presidency. In those initial years, Dr. Miller is credited with raising more than $12 million for physical plant improvement, instrumentation, endowment, and operations – $6 million of which was earmarked for renovations.

Since 1997, Wesley experienced the best five years of fundraising ever by securing 10 of the top 12 gifts in its history.  During that period, Dr. Miller’s administration raised $47 million for the College’s operations, endowment and capital improvements. The College’s assets had more than doubled to $59 million, and funds for student scholarships increased to more than $6 million. The end of each budget year during that period ended with a surplus.

By 2001, Wesley enrollment had grown to a record 2,008 students at all of its locations – including students enrolled at Wesley’s Center for Adult Studies (established in 1999) in New Castle, Del., and its Dover Air Force Base Center. In 2003 – Dr. Miller’s fifth year as president – the total enrollment figure rose to 2,250, which included 1,810 full-time students.

In intercollegiate athletics, the Wolverines football team made its mark in 2005, as a 9-1 regular season earned Wesley a bid in the national NCAA Division III Football Championship Series. The team made it all the way to the semifinal round when it was defeated by the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater. Two years later, Wesley announced its move for all its athletics teams to the Capital Athletic Conference.

Dr. Miller’s tenure – which result in significant growth in enrollment, academics and physical infrastructure – came to an end in October 2007, when he resigned to become the president of Bethany College in West Virginia.

Over the next 14 years, Wesley began to experience financial challenges from which it never recovered. After attempts failed to merge with other institutions of higher education, Wesley College was acquired by Delaware State University in 2021. Its last year as Wesley College was the 2020-2021 school year.