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Mount Pleasant residents wonder about life after Iowa Wesleyan University

Outside the admissions building at Iowa Wesleyan, parking signs welcome prospective students. However March 28, the university announced it would close after the semester. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will take ownership of Iowa Wesleyan University May 31.
Zachary Oren Smith
Outside the admissions building at Iowa Wesleyan, parking signs welcome prospective students. The university has announced it will close after the current semester.

After 181 years in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa Wesleyan University will close at the end of May. Local residents are mourning the loss and considering an uncertain future.

Twenty-one-year-old Clayton Henriksen remembers the first time he learned Iowa Wesleyan University was in financial trouble.

In 2018, the university announced that it needed $2.1 million dollars to stay open. Two of Henriksen’s siblings went to school there, and he was hoping to go there too.

“Towards the end of that semester, they were like, ‘False alarm. We found funding. Everything’s going to be alright,' " he said. "Kind of honestly, the whole time I was crossing my fingers, saying, ‘They can do it. Just stay open for four years.’ “

This wasn’t the first time decreased revenue had worried Iowa Wesleyan's Board of Trustees. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture directly loaned the university $21.4 million and guaranteed a loan for $5 million more.

Since then, the enrollment of the students like Henriksen boosted its numbers. This spring is his last semester and just happens to be Iowa Wesleyans’ largest student body in nearly nine decades. Local residents told IPR News that while everyone was aware of prior financial issues, the growing classes seemed a sign of the campus on the rise.

So it was a surprise when Henriksen and other students got an email March 28 saying classes were canceled and that a "mandatory meeting” was being held at the University Chapel.

"Earlier today Iowa Wesleyan University’s board of trustees unanimously voted to close the university at the end of this academic year," Bob Miller, the chair of the university's board of trustees, told those assembled.

On one hand, Henricksen said he was relieved that he’ll get to finish his biology degree. On the other, he wondered what will happen to the small town of Mount Pleasant, the place where he grew up.

“With the college — with it not being there — I think this town will really suffer, losing some of the character of its citizens," he said.

Like his son, John Henriksen is worried about Mount Pleasant. He’s the superintendent of the local school district. And in his 17 years as an educator in the community, he’s seen Mount Pleasant weather loss before.

In 2002, Blue Bird Corporation moved its bus manufacturer to Georgia, costing Mt. Pleasant 350 jobs. Then in 2005, an electronics maker closed, putting 300 more people out of a job. And last year, West Liberty Foods announced it was closing an area turkey processor, cutting away 350 jobs with it.

Recently, Mount Pleasant announced it had struck a deal to bring new industry to replace the hole left by West Liberty Foods. But John Henricksen said it’s not so easy replacing Iowa Wesleyan.

"When you lose a 4-year, post-secondary college — I’ve never been through that before," he said. "This town’s never been through that before — but higher education leaving is going to have a different effect.”

The Mount Pleasant Community School District has made use of the campus and its resources. High school students take college credit classes there. And the district has hired many graduates of the education program to teach.

Maybe they weren’t originally from Mount Pleasant but spent four years in Mount Pleasant. (They) got to know the town and the people and wanted to remain and live and work here as a teacher," Henricksen said. "That pool is gone.”

Henricksen said the dominoes fall in every direction. In addition to workforce concerns, the district is anticipating an impact on enrollment as the campus' 105 full-time workers, their spouses and ultimately children decide on the next steps.

It’s also causing problems for the organizers of the annual Midwest Old Threshers Reunion. They are looking to fill a large volunteer gap left by students who used to work the gates, run the parking lots and so on. But CEO Terry McWilliams said he's not sweating it yet. The community, he said, will pull together.

"You know we work through the issues, and we’ll work through unfortunately the Wesleyan thing, and figure out what the next steps are," he said. "The community and Wesleyan will do what they have to do."

Juleighan Klein is a business student at Iowa Wesleyan, but said it’s the school’s director of choral activities Blair Buffington that they’ll miss the most about the campus.

“Iowa Welseyan has turned into my home away from home," Klein said. "And from the minute I got here, I felt like this is the place I’m supposed to go.”

On Thursdays, Klein and Buffington can be found sitting around a piano, preparing for their final concert. They said it's easy to get sidetracked under the circumstances.

“This town is known for two things," Buffington said. "It's known for Midwest Old Threshers, and it's known for Iowa Wesleyan University. And now one of those things will be no longer."

Next semester, Klein and the other students with unfinished degrees will be able to do so at intuitions like William Penn University in Oskaloosa.

Ownership of the Iowa Wesleyan campus will transfer to the USDA once the campus closes. The USDA told IPR News it is meeting with community members about the next steps.

Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa