I have spent the last few months poring over articles and talking to other area presidents about the state of higher education. The themes are consistent and clear: we must prepare for a demographic shift and its likely impact on enrollment. Some refer to it as the ominous "demographic cliff." In short, there are simply fewer high school graduates, and even fewer of that group are headed to college. The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed are full of stories covering how institutions have responded to such pressures. Many, including a number of Ohio and other Midwest small private colleges, are making significant cuts to their programs. Many are sadly laying off faculty and staff. Some have closed. Others, like Wilmington College, are focused on developing new revenue-producing programs and investing in order to grow.
As we are all aware, Wilmington is not immune to these same pressures. With nearly 90% of our enrollment heavily dependent on traditional, 4-year, undergraduate, residential students, we are in a place of vulnerability. But it is also important to recognize that we've been here before. Our rich 153-year history offers us great perspective on how the institution has responded to adversity and pressure, and when considered, reveals this institution's remarkable resilience. I am confident that we will together face these new challenges by demonstrating that same resilience. I am also confident that together we will, as we have throughout our history, create successful new revenue streams that are true to our mission and embody our core values.
Genesis of the Agriculture Program
For the first half of the 20th Century, Wilmington College focused its educational programming within classical studies and the liberal arts, particularly the fine arts, natural sciences, and social sciences. The College also emphasized teacher education.
In 1946, sophomore Roy Joe Stuckey came to President S. Arthur Watson with a proposition that would change the trajectory of the institution for the next 77 years. Stuckey had seen an advertisement in the newspaper for land that was coming up for sale: a 247-acre farm that adjoined the campus on two sides. He envisioned a future for the College that incorporated instruction in new farming techniques and practices to support the southwest Ohio region's thriving agricultural community. The farm could provide food for the campus community and a new source for revenue generation. Wilmington College, he argued, could engage and extend the federal Land-Grant mission to make agricultural education accessible for all. Intrigued by the proposal, President Watson agreed to take it to the Board of Trustees. The Board approved and the College purchased the Academic Farm for $93 per acre using funds from its institutional endowment.
Recognizing that much work was needed to bring the farm to a point of operation, Stuckey rallied his fellow students. They remodeled the barn to accommodate a new milk-pasteurizing system and hosted several soil-conservation field days, a series later referred to as "Farm-O-Rama." These events became the foundation for what is now called the Ohio State University (OSU) Farm Science Review: one of the largest agricultural expo events nationwide.
Faculty in the Agriculture program today use the same model of hands-on learning in tandem with the Academic Farm. New partnerships with OSU, Central State University, local Soil and Water Conservation Districts, FFA, Bane-Welker, Master Feed Mill, Common Orchard Project, Clinton Streamkeepers, and area veterinarians, among others, have provided endless opportunities for on-farm experiential learning and professional development for our students. Since the first purchase of 247 acres, the College has received an additional 900 acres of farmland for use in production, teaching, and learning. Today, agriculture has become our largest academic major, representing 25-30% of total undergraduate enrollment. Stuckey's remarkable vision for a transformative and accessible agriculture program endures.
The Building of Marble Hall
Fast-forward just one year to the spring of 1948. The then College president, Samuel Marble, just five months into his first year, was faced with a severe campus housing shortage caused by the influx of men attending on the newly instated G.I. Bill. Needing residential space for nearly 100 additional students and with limited resources, he rallied the campus community for a "do-it-yourself" approach. Marble climbed on his desk among a crowd of students and called on them to help build a dorm brick-by-brick. They responded in droves.
Marble Hall construction began on "D-Day" or Dorm-Day, April 13, 1948 and was completed within two years, largely due to the efforts of students, faculty, and community members. It stands today, donning the cornerstone "Built By Students" as a reminder of how the institution came together in a time of need and persisted.
As noted in the 1961 edition of The Link magazine, "No other movement of its kind has attracted so much world-wide publicity."
Prison Education: Project Talents
In 1967, Wilmington College made its next bold move. The institution began offering education in Ohio prisons before any degree programs were possible for incarcerated individuals—squarely aligned with our mission to offer "practical experience and co-curricular activities in a variety of settings to students from diverse backgrounds." In 1985, with federal Pell Grant support, the College became the first Ohio institution to offer full bachelor's degrees in Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections prisons, including Warren and Lebanon Corrections and Franklin Pre-Release. The program was called "Project Talents." Faculty working in the prison program offered vocational and skill-building courses including personal development, life coping skills, life management skills, and career development and readiness, in addition to business and accounting.
In 1994, the program received its first blow. Congress discontinued Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals, which meant significant cuts to the budget. Yet, Wilmington College persisted. The College continued its program on limited state-level funding for nearly two more decades until, in 2012, degree-granting programs were forced out of Ohio prisons. Even then, Wilmington College faculty refused to pull their courses, offering non-credit "inside-out" programs like choir and book clubs in tandem with their regular courses, integrating main campus students with those in the prisons.
In 2023, with news of the return of the Federal Pell Grant program for those incarcerated, Wilmington College has once again stepped up. We now await final approvals to return to the prisons to offer 4-year bachelor's degrees in articulation with Sinclair Community College at three locations: Warren and Lebanon Corrections as well as Dayton Correctional Institution—an all-women prison with a population of just over 900 individuals. Since its inception in 1967, although programs and funding sources have changed, the goals of the prison program remain the same—decrease recidivism, improve the job prospects of returning citizens, and provide meaningful personal development for people who are incarcerated.
A Global Pandemic
We also demonstrated our resilience, energy, and creativity in March of 2020, facing the COVID-19 global pandemic. Like all private and public institutions in the state, Wilmington College was forced to shut down just halfway through the spring semester. Courses immediately shifted online, as faculty and staff scrambled to stabilize and react. Students were ushered out of the dorms and sent home. The spring Commencement was canceled. It was as if time froze.
Yet again, the College persisted. Almost overnight and in a seamless fashion, faculty and staff together developed platforms and processes to enable learning to continue remotely. The College distributed institutional licenses for digital tools like Zoom and Perusall. One week into the national shutdown, Wilmington College was back to business. Over the course of the next several weeks, faculty and staff, again together, developed new modalities for courses, including fully online, hybrid-traditional, and hybrid-flex, which are now part of the institution's regular offerings. And, with a new, robust, digital foundation in place, in 2022, the College developed a fully online Master of Organizational Leadership program. Enrollment in the program continues to grow.
Even the last year has been one of exploration and expansion. We have invested time, energy and talent in a workforce development program through expansion of our Office of Career and Workforce Development on campus and in partnership with the Clinton County Workforce Collaborative with its ties to the greater community. In addition, we have considered new ways of using campus facilities in the summer that will produce revenue and introduce others to the College. Within the realm of academics, we have seen increased demand for the master’s program in Occupational Therapy, which has become a true trailblazer in our allied health offerings since its launch in 2022. Finally, we look forward to new hybrid academic programs in the high-demand areas of public health, nutrition, logistics, and actuarial science coming next fall.
This brief survey of our history makes evident the fact that the Wilmington College community is not just resilient but remarkably so. That is in our history. Moreover, it is ingrained within our philosophy.
So, when I read about the pressures facing institutions like Wilmington, I am inspired by the stories of our creativity and persistence, by our willingness to develop new programs that serve our students and the College both. Then and now, we teach students to opt for a front-row seat to their educational experience. We encourage them to dig in, roll up their sleeves, and get messy. We push them to be creative and collaborative in problem-solving and to practice the Quaker Values of respect for all persons and service to the greater good. We recognize the risk and vulnerability they often experience when facing the unknown, but we encourage them to try and to persist. And we model those same characteristics for them.
Built by students and for students, indeed.
I affirm to you: Wilmington College is equipped to take on the challenges facing higher education. We know how. We do what we've always done. We meet students where they are. I refer to it sometimes as collective stewardship in education. We develop (and sometimes build brick-by-brick) robust and rock-solid foundations for experiential and immersive learning for all students, whether on campus, online, or within the prison system.
It is simply what we are called to do. It is the Wilmington way.