Town hall reveals university’s plans for Spring 2021; Assanis elaborates on university budget, unpaid leave for staff

On Thursday, Oct. 1, the university held a general faculty meeting and town hall, with university President Dennis Assanis taking the helm.

Letter from Dennis Assanis
Sam Ford​/THE REVIEW
On Thursday, Oct. 1, the university held a general faculty meeting and town hall, with university President Dennis Assanis taking the helm to discuss the upcoming period of unpaid leave for faculty and staff.​

BY
​Managing News Editor

On Thursday, Oct. 1, the university held a general faculty meeting and town hall, with university President Dennis Assanis taking the helm to discuss fall enrollment, the forthcoming spring semester and the upcoming period of unpaid leave for faculty and staff. Assanis called the town hall in an email he sent out a week prior, which discussed the university’s current financial situation and expressed several issues that have led to a projected total deficit of $228 to $288 million.

The meeting began with Assanis contextualizing the losses, with several slides of his presentation covering the nature of the current and ongoing fall semester.

As of July 1, the university had specifically planned to have the majority of its population return to campus, as denoted by the “Protect the Flock” campaign, an initiative meant to promote safety and awareness. The university prepared 2,000 branded face coverings, “thousands of t-shirts,” promotional items distributed throughout the first week of the semester, 300 yard signs, 92 banners installed around campus and video and photo promotional content for social media purposes.

Naturally, the university was forced to rethink its position on the imminent return, and instead pivoted, leading to the situation the university body finds itself in now: the majority of students are taking classes online, with a select number living on campus. Assanis confirmed there are now about 1,290 students on campus, with 50% of that number being first-years. Delaware residents comprise 590 of those on-campus students, with the rest coming from an amalgamation of 25 states and 18 countries. Assanis also said that there were about 6,000 students living in Newark through off-campus housing.

Residence halls are currently operating at 19% capacity. The university designated three residence halls for isolation, with 250 quarantine beds dedicated to those who have been exposed to coronavirus, as well as 90 quarantine beds for those that have actually tested positive for the virus. Assanis said that as of today (Oct. 1), six beds are currently being used for those exposed, and two beds are currently being used for those that tested positive.

Assanis then touched upon enrollment, and numbers were released for the Fall 2020 semester:

  1. Current undergraduates enrolled: 17,710, down 2.3% from last year
  2. Current Delaware residents enrolled: 6,650, down 0.4% from last year
  3. Non-Delaware residents enrolled: 11,150, down 3.5% from last year
  4. Associate in Arts program enrollment: 908, down 0.4% from last year
  5. Graduate students enrolled: 4,285, up 3.8% from last year
  6. Professional and Continuing Education students enrolled: 710, up 12.5% from last year

First-year enrollment stands at 3,700 students for the Fall 2020 semester. The university had expected around 4,450 students to enroll due to a 33% growth in applications for the class of 2024.

Assanis noted that the hit to the incoming undergraduate population was a decrease that may continue to happen for years to come, a side effect of the pandemic.

“The 2.3[%] lowered number doesn’t necessarily speak to what happened in the first-year students [population],” Assanis said. “That population has been hit considerably, as in many other universities. So, we have predicted back in the summer we’d be around 3,700 — we’re there … but this number is 17% short of the target that we had, and on which we based our budget for this year [for Fall 2020].”

Assanis said that the net tuition revenue for this fall semester was estimated at “exceeding $80 million,” which was not what the university hoped for. This was, as explained, due to a “demographics shift,” and a “very dire consequence of the pandemic and nothing else,” according to Assanis.

This demographics shift included the amount of returning residential versus non-residential versus international students, whom Assanis noted did not receive a discount on tuition. Other factors included a higher discount rate to offset returning students’ needs, an increase in part-time students, an increase in financial aid due to the perceived economic downturn, an increase in balances on tuition and more payment plans being utilized to pay tuition.

To discuss offsetting the loss, the presentation immediately turned to the university’s plans for Spring 2021.

The administration’s plans include a return to campus but at 50% of overall campus density. Assanis said he wants to prioritize freshmen and graduating seniors’ occupancy in residence halls in order to have seniors return to a “taste of a different campus,” and engage in meaningful opportunities for classes or project experiences. He also said the university wants to maximize face-to-face experience while adhering to safety guidelines and fine tune a mix between face-to-face and online content, which is similar to the original plan for the initial return for Fall 2020. That original plan included an “A/B schedule rotation,” with classes held twice a week for 75 minutes on alternating paired days throughout the semester, including on Saturdays.

As Delaware is still at “7% positivity,” according to Assanis, a return to campus is not viable as it stands. But, according to Assanis, once the state of Delaware hits a 3% positive rate for virus cases, the return will become more feasible.

“That may require some calendar changes, and we’re looking at that, people are speculating what we may do …” Assanis said. “But we do plan to bring the community back, to bring our athletics back … the only thing we’ve already decided to cancel is study abroad.”

In tandem with discussion about the Spring 2021 semester, Assanis noted that there are currently 650 student athletes that will “resocialize and acclimate to be ready to compete,” as fall sports were shifted to begin on Jan. 23, 2021 (with the exception of men’s basketball, which is scheduled to begin Nov. 25, 2020, and football, which is tentatively scheduled to come back “in the spring”). Spring sports are scheduled for normal competition within a shortened season with zero or limited “overnight stays.”

Assanis occasionally confirmed certain expenditures throughout the presentation as well. He said that $6 million was dedicated to resources for online education for faculty and staff, who spent the summer training for this fall semester, and did speak on the aforementioned “Protect the Flock” campaign, although its overall cost remains unconfirmed.

Assanis dedicated the majority of the rest of his presentation to a discussion of the university’s budget for Fiscal Year 2020-2021. This began with a breakdown of their original budget projection from July 1 of this year.

The July projection stated an original operating budget for Fiscal Year 2021 with an unmitigated deficit at $168 million. This number included the following components:

  1. $49M due to Fiscal Year 2020’s “year-end operating actual/projected deficit”
  2. $22M due to a 0% tuition rate increase
  3. $20M due to operating gift and interest income decline
  4. $18M due to increased financial aid awards
  5. $13M due to the first-year enrollment decline (3,700 versus an expected 4,450)
  6. $13M due to “F&A (finance and administration) decline” and reduced sponsored activity
  7. $10M due to increased COVID-19 expenditure
  8. $8M due to international fee revenue decline
  9. $6M due to events and conferences revenue decline
  10. $6M due to investment in online conversion and support (the aforementioned faculty training)
  11. $3M due to state appropriation decline

In comparison, Assanis supplied the Fiscal Year 2020-2021 Budget, complete with the impact of what the administration refers to as “de-densified Fall.” The university’s additional deficit, due to this “de-densification,” sits at about $60 million, in addition to a possible extra $60 million deficit if the spring return to campus does not occur, as well as the aforementioned $168 million within the operating budget.

The FY 2020-2021 budget included the following components:

  1. $63.3M loss due to residence halls operating at less than 20% capacity
  2. $10M loss due to “enrollment decline, continuing students”
  3. $10M loss due to increased financial aid awards
  4. $6M loss due to loss of study abroad and World Scholars’ tuition
  5. $5.4M loss due to fall sports delay
  6. $5M loss due to the offered six free credits to be applied to winter and/or summer courses
  7. $4.2M loss due to no on-campus parking fees
  8. $2M loss due to comprehensive and recreation fee reduced revenue (at a 15% discount for the fall semester)

This adds up to a total of $105.9M in projected losses due to the impact of the majority-online fall semester.

Assanis said the mitigation actions the university immediately took during the summer to reduce costs, which resulted in a mitigation of $86M, with $82M being covered by its endowment portfolio. This included salary and hiring freezes, salary cuts for top administrators, spending reductions and reductions in the university’s part-time workforce. Academic support units under the provost, such as Morris Library, have been asked to cut their budgets by 25%. Units that report to the president and executive vice president for operations have been asked to cut their budgets by 35 to 55%, a cut Assanis described as “nearly impossible.”

On the topic of cut budgets, Assanis moved into discussion surrounding the “personnel actions” that were referred to in his email.

“I want to say, and let me say that unequivocally, because I’ve been asked this question — we are not trying to reduce our workforce as much as we can to get out of this,” Assanis said. “To the contrary. We’re trying to preserve our workforce to the maximum extent possible, please hear that from me.”

Assanis emphasized that those employed by the university who “feel that they are ready to retire” are not necessarily being urged out, as the proffered retirement option remains a voluntary one. Out of the 369 eligible staff, 75 have already signed up for this incentive.

Assanis also hopes to see voluntary schedule reductions, especially for those who are the primary caretakers of their households that may want to reduce their hours, further saving the institution money in a specific way.

Finally, Assanis spoke on what he referred to as the “personnel reductions in time and workforce.”

“Many of you are asking … why don’t we call this ‘layoffs’ and ‘furloughs?’” Assanis said. “We could — technically it’s not correct, we’re not trying to hide anything … a furlough is an action that is basically saying for the period of days you are furloughed; you are not going to be paid. A reduction in time gives us more flexibility [in] how to apply it.”

Assanis also said that referring to this action as a “layoff” is also not correct, as a layoff may create the expectation that after a certain amount of time that an individual was “laid off,” they might be hired back again.

Further, in regard to the upcoming period of unpaid leave, Assanis said that every member of campus, university-wide, will be taking unpaid leave. He said that while the administration thinks this period should be minimal, and that they would like to make it five days, it will not yield enough saved money, and it will probably end up within the range of nine to 10 days of unpaid leave. The pay cut works out to a 4% to 5% reduction “over the year.”

Andrea Boyle Tippett, director of external relations for the Office of Communications and Marketing, was fielding questions sent in the Zoom chat for the town hall, and confirmed via an anonymous question that there has not been a decision made on specifically when this period might take place. All questions regarding specifics of the upcoming “furlough” days were redirected to the university’s human resources department.

Although the university was able to mitigate $86 million through earlier actions prior to this semester and has $82 million covered by their endowment, there is still $60 to $120 million remaining for the university to cover in some way. This number depends on what happens during the Spring 2021 semester. If the university remains majorly online, additional mitigation will be required.

Faculty and staff alike were recommended to speak with their American Association of University Professors (AAUP) representative if they had any suggestions to offset the “reduction in time.” University leaders were confirmed to be speaking with and consulting the AAUP.

“If we’re united, if we’re resilient, we are going to basically overcome this unprecedented challenge, and we will re-emerge with new potential as a vibrant, engaged and thriving university,” Assanis said.

As the near future of faculty and staff alike remains uncertain following the town hall, the future of the university also remains unclear.

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