Iowa Wesleyan on track for 'alternative future'

USDA: 'The furlough basically put a 35-day pause on our efforts to work with university leadership'

Iowa Wesleyan University — one of the state’s oldest higher education institutions, established before Iowa joined the union — last fall announced dire financial circumstances that risked forcing its closure and ending its more than 175-year run.

The school’s honest assessment and public plea — that it needed $2.1 million for a spring 2019 semester and $4.6 million to operate through December 2019 — revealed potential paths forward, with several donors stepping up, the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreeing to re-evaluate its loan obligations and administrators unveiling an “Alternatives Futures Project.”

That project, adopted Nov. 15, aimed to secure partnerships focused on sustaining the university, the community and the regional economy. A “new directions team,” involving Iowa Wesleyan trustees, would lead the effort — issuing a request for partnership proposals, reviewing responses, recommending next steps and implementing new partnerships.

Iowa Wesleyan officials in January reported sending requests for proposals to 242 universities and organizations they viewed as potential partners. On Jan. 9, Iowa Wesleyan President Steve Titus said the team had received 27 “expressions of interest” with at least six to seven planning to submit proposals.

A timeline projected the team would announce one to three finalists by Feb. 7, submit final recommendations by Feb. 22 and implement new collaborations in March.

What’s Happened Since

Iowa Wesleyan’s “new directions team” is reviewing partnership proposals and is “encouraged by the response,” according to Meg Richtman, the school’s vice president for strategic initiatives.

She didn’t disclose how many proposals Iowa Wesleyan received or the names of interested parties.

University of Iowa spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said she wasn’t aware that her institution had received any communication from Iowa Wesleyan, while Kirkwood Community College said it did receive a message spelling out the school’s plight.

“As you may be aware, Iowa Wesleyan University is in the midst of seeking partnerships as part of its Alternative Futures Project,” Titus wrote in the letter to Kirkwood. “If you are interested in pursuing a conversation on a future partnership, or if you are aware of other institutions that may be interested in such a conversation, please forward this information or let me know and I will make contact.”

Kirkwood spokesman Justin Hoehn said the school isn’t ready to dive into a collaboration.

“Kirkwood is always open to considering opportunities to partner with other institutions if it is in the best interest of the students we serve,” according to a statement Hoehn provided. “However, based on what Iowa Wesleyan has said publicly about the uncertainty of its long-term future, Kirkwood is taking a wait-and-see approach before considering any partnership at this time.”

As part of Iowa Wesleyan’s path forward, it is discussing options with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Office, which in 2016 approved a $21.4 million Wesleyan loan that came with a $5 million loan guarantee.

In December, the USDA told The Gazette that Wesleyan had not made any principal payments on that loan — meaning the balance remains at $21.4 million.

“Details of potential changes to the university’s loan agreements are being actively discussed, but no formal decisions have been finalized,” Darin Leach, spokesman for the USDA Rural Development Office, said at the time.

Weeks later, the partial government shutdown halted all activity, and Leach told The Gazette last week his office is assessing the status of pending projects and conversations.

“This includes conversations with the leadership at Iowa Wesleyan,” he said. “In terms of any sort of impact to the university, the furlough basically put a 35-day pause on our efforts to work with university leadership to secure a financial path forward.”

But Iowa Wesleyan’s Richtman said the shutdown “has had no impact” on its timeline.

“We will continue to move through the process and will involve the USDA in the conversations along the way and when necessary.”