Living through a crisis will etch certain scenes into your memory.
“My wife Eleni and I were in Greece with about 50 students and some faculty on a study abroad program,” remembers Dennis Assanis, president of the University of Delaware. “It was January 20, 2020, and I was reading a Greek newspaper the day before we were to fly home. I saw just a small item about a deadly virus in China, and I thought, ‘This could be serious.’”
Shortly after, back in Newark, the Assanises were having dinner at Caffe Gelato on Main Street, but now Dennis was thinking about another group of UD students abroad. This one was still in Italy, which was experiencing a serious early outbreak of the coronavirus. “I had been getting messages from 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 by Zoom on a Friday afternoon, and things are beginning to look a little less gloomy. Two days earlier, he and his wife had attended the presidential inauguration of UD alum Joe Biden. “We now have two Delaware graduates living in the White House,” Assanis says proudly of the state’s first U.S. president and first lady, noting how Joe had devoted his first two days in office issuing executive orders to overcome the pandemic that for almost a year has kept the UD campus largely devoid of students.
At the beginning 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 2020 spring semester: part classroom, part virtual. But in early March, they decided to go totally online and to rejig spring break to allow time to prepare. “We were the first local institution to go virtual,” Assanis notes. Classes remained remote through the spring, summer and fall sessions, as well as through the winter term earlier this year.
Born and raised in Athens, Greece, Assanis earned his bachelor’s in marine engineering from Newcastle University in England (1980). He went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), earning three master’s degrees in naval architecture and marine engineering (1982), mechanical engineering (1982) and management (1986), and then a Ph.D. in power and propulsion (1985).
It was this engineering background, Assanis says, that prepared him for a situation he would have otherwise struggled to navigate. “Engineers love complex problems and systems solution, and dealing with the coronavirus is like that,” he says. “You develop a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C, and how to optimize each.”
Before making the critical decision to suspend classes, Assanis says he consulted with experts of all kinds. “We estimated that an average student would have as many as 5,000 contacts a week,” he says. They knew there was no way to protect the campus from the spread of the virus.
Perhaps even more painful was the need to reduce faculty and staff, dictate nonpaid furloughs and enact voluntary early retirements. And even with those measures, the university still had around a $250 million shortfall for 2020, Assanis says—about a quarter of its budget.
Throughout the year, he regularly sent email updates to university community in an effort to have transparent communications.
While engineering the school’s way through the darkness of the pandemic has been rough going, an equally daunting challenge has been trying to bring the campus back to something approximating normal. “But I’m an optimist,” Assanis says, with the spring semester just on the horizon.
Assuming the COVID-19 case load recedes as Delaware’s communities are inoculated, he says the spring 2021 semester is seeing 60 percent of UD’s residence halls open, 4,000 students on campus and 20 percent of classes held in the classroom.
“Additionally, our Plan A is to be as normal as possible for the fall 2021 semester,” he hopefully reaffirms, which means all classes scheduled to take place on campus will still do so. The residence halls will also be back at full occupancy and the Fighting Blue Hens athletic teams will be under the lights on the playing fields.
“An exciting thing is that applications for next fall are 2 percent ahead of 2019, which was a record year,” Assanis says. “A university never truly shuts down. The intellectual activity continues.”