Assanis unveils plans to build the “university of the future”
MANAGING NEWS EDITOR
With visions to attract new faculty, construct more research facilities, broaden academic offerings and implement deeper diversity initiatives, President Dennis Assanis hopes to provide the university with the tools and people necessary to confront the toughest challenges facing the world today.
In his second interview with The Review, Assanis, who began his post as university president back in July 2016, outlined his plans to advance the institution into a new age of research and discovery — plans that begin, as they always have, with providing Delaware’s students and faculty with the resources required for innovation and success.
“We would never have the great scientific accomplishments that we all celebrate and benefit from without the presence of the greatest minds in the country,” he said.
One way in which Assanis hopes to achieve this is through the opening of the Biden Institute, a bipartisan think tank focused on addressing a wide-ranging list of domestic policy issues.
With Joe Biden, the university’s most famous alumnus, serving as a chair founder, Assanis explained that the former Vice President’s role, in addition to working with a team of full-time staffers to craft major policy reform, will be that of a “magnet” — a catalyst that will attract prominent public figures to the university. Without naming any names, he added that the institute might even draw appearances from several popular, and maybe even presidential, guest speakers.
“We are going to bring some popular singers that the Vice President knows, perhaps even a president of the country,” he said. “So we’re going to have these very distinguished lecturers, but we’ll also have what we call subject matter experts, who come and lecture classes.”
Assanis also hopes to couple the arrival of the Biden Institute, which is slated to fill 44 Kent Way, with an increase in graduate student enrollment.
“We have already seen a whole lot more interest in the university and the school as a result of this announcement,” Maria Aristigueta, the director of the School of Public Policy and Administration, said. “We are hoping to double our enrollment and increase the number of majors we have for our undergraduate and graduate offerings.”
This decision to increase graduate offerings, however, will not be unique to the School of Public Policy and Administration. In fact, President Assanis sees increasing graduate enrollment in all available areas of study as a “needed expansion” for the university.
“I feel that it would be appropriate, especially with the expansion we have around the STAR campus, that we also think about expanding our education opportunities and degrees that we offer, and I think the opportunity to do so at the graduate level is very exciting,” Assanis said.
To prepare for this radical change in student demographic, Assanis intends to increase the faculty body by up to 250 members over the next five to 10 years. It is his hope that this proliferation in graduate applications will not only make the university more competitive, but will also usher new and innovative ideas into the university’s lecture halls and research labs.
“Oftentimes, what happens is we deliver great undergraduate experiences to our students and when it comes time for graduate school, they go to some other place,” he said. “ I like to retain our best and brightest, and I think if we give them challenging opportunities at the master’s level, it will do so.”
Assanis anticipates that a larger graduate student body will also endow undergraduate students with more financial and educational resources, noting that increased graduate enrollment will yield more tuition dollars, teacher’s assistants and peer advisors — tools that give undergraduates more opportunities for growth and mentorship on campus.
“We like to give our undergraduates more opportunities to engage in research and it’s so much easier to do that when there’s peer-to-peer advising,” he said.
That aside, Assanis predicts that the creation of these new, higher level degrees will generate more interdisciplinary areas of study, prompting more possibilities for partnership and collaboration on the university’s STAR campus.
“I often say that the STAR campus is a field of dream,” he said. “It’s really this blank campus that we can actually use now to sketch and draw the university of the future…it is where the University of Delaware will make the world.”
Since its inception, the university’s STAR campus has aimed to cater to more interdisciplinary areas of study in laboratory spaces that are more conducive for “collaboration” and “discovery.”
In addition to STAR Health, a facility used primarily for physical therapy, remediation engineering and nursing programs, the university is also in the process of constructing a 10-story building that will house programs for communication disorders, speech pathologies, kinesiology and nutrition. The new 100,000 square foot building will be known as the STAR Tower.
Unlike the laboratories housed around The Green, Assanis boasts that this new facility will have less compartmentalized, more reconfigurable spaces that will create better shared lab environments between different disciplines of study.
Despite the president’s enthusiasm surrounding the future of STAR campus, Assanis was sure to readdress his commitment to the futures of Delaware’s students past and present, documented and undocumented.
“We’ve said numerous times that we will protect those students and ensure a safe environment for their learning to the extent permissible by law,” he said. “Obviously, as you can understand, we always have limitations.”
Using his own story as an example, Assanis also reaffirmed the university’s allegiance to its international students.
“I’m one of them,” he said. “Let me just say that so we all recognize that.”
Assanis, who left his native country of Greece in 1980, first earned his bachelor’s degree in marine engineering from New Castle University in England before going on to earn not one, but three master’s degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology alongside a Ph.D. in power and propulsion.
According to Assanis, it was his international background that encouraged him to improve diversity initiatives within both the student and faculty bodies. By introducing mid-search checkpoints and mandating diversity training for all faculty search committees, Assanis is hopeful that the implementation of these strategies will help the university generate a more diverse pool of candidates.
On the student end of things, Assanis feels that the test-optional route, in addition to the introduction of programs like the Blue Hen Success Collaboratory and the Blue Hen Success Grants, will help encourage more socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals to both begin and finish their degrees at the University of Delaware.
“I think this will help our diversity, but there’s a lot more to do,” he said. “That’s why we need our campus to change and our culture to change.”
Meghan Jusczak contributed reporting to this story.