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University of Delaware President Navigates Through the Pandemic

Photo courtesy of the University of Delaware

Dennis Assanis, PH.D., President of the University of Delaware, relies on their academic training to take them to school through the pandemic.

Living through a crisis will record certain scenes in your memory.

"My wife Eleni and I were in Greece with about 50 students and some professors on a study abroad program," recalls Dennis Assanis, president of the University of Delaware. “It was January 20, 2020 and I was reading a Greek newspaper the day before I flew home. I saw just one little article about a deadly virus in China and I thought, 'This could be serious.' "

Shortly after, back in Newark, the Assanis were dining at Caffe Gelato on Main Street, but now Dennis I was thinking of another group of UD students abroad. This one was still in Italy, experiencing a serious early outbreak of the coronavirus. "I had been getting messages from the parents of these students about what we should do," he recalls. "I said, 'Let's bring them back.'"

A year and hundreds of critical decisions later, Assanis is chatting with Zoom on a Friday afternoon, and things are starting to look a little less bleak. Two Days earlier, he and his wife had attended UD alumnus Joe Biden's presidential inauguration. "We now have two Delaware graduates living in the White House," Assanis proudly says of the first president and first lady of the United States. United of been, and notes how Joe had spent his first two days in office issuing executive orders to overcome that pandemic for nearly a year. it has kept the UD campus largely devoid of students.

Even a global pandemic cannot stop school spirit. With a student body eager to learn and a faculty and president quick to improvise, the University of Delaware has managed to overcome the COVID-19 crisis. / Photo courtesy of the University of Delaware

At the start of the viral outbreak last spring, Assanis met with various university committees to deal with the campus crisis, hoping to employ a hybrid model for the spring 2020 semester: part classroom and part virtual. But in early March, they decided to go fully online and readjust spring break to give themselves time to prepare. "We were the first local institution to go virtual," says Assanis. Classes were kept apart during the spring, summer, and fall sessions, as well as the winter term earlier this year.

Born and raised in Athens, Greece, Assanis earned his BA in Marine Engineering from Newcastle University in England (1980). He went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he earned three master's degrees in naval architecture and marine engineering (1982), mechanical engineering (1982), and management (1986), and then a doctorate. in power and propulsion (1985).

It was this engineering experience, Assanis says, that prepared him for a situation that he would have otherwise struggled to navigate. "Engineers love complex problems and systems solutions, and dealing with coronavirus is like that," he says. "Develop a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C, and how to optimize each one."

Before making the critical decision to suspend classes, Assanis says he consulted with experts of all kinds. "We estimate that an average student would have up to 5,000 contacts per week," he says. They knew there was no way to protect the campus from the spread of the virus.

Dennis Assanis, President of the University of Delaware / Photo courtesy of the University of Delaware

Perhaps even more painful was the need to downsize faculty and staff, issue licenses unpaid and enact voluntary early retirements. And even with those measures, the university still had a deficit of about $ 250 million by 2020, Assanis says, about a quarter of its budget.

Throughout the year, he periodically sent email updates to the university community in an effort to have transparent communications.

While engineering the school's path through the darkness of the pandemic has been difficult, an equally daunting challenge has been trying to get the campus back to something close to normal. "But I'm optimistic," says Assanis, with the spring semester on the horizon.

Photo courtesy of the University of Delaware

Assuming the COVID-19 case burden recedes as Delaware communities get vaccinated, he says the spring semester by 2021 you will see 60 percent of UD's dorm rooms open, 4,000 students on campus, and 20 percent of classes in the classroom.

“Also, our Plan A should be as normal as possible for the fall semester 2021,” he hopefully reaffirms, meaning that all classes scheduled to take place on campus will continue to do so. The residences will also be reoccupied and the Fighting Blue Hens athletic teams will be under the lights of the playing fields.

"The exciting thing is that applications for next fall are 2 percent ahead of 2019, which was a record year," says Assanis. “A university never really closes. Intellectual activity continues. ”

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