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Faculty Senate holds first meeting of the academic year

President Dennis Assanis offers updates on the impacts of COVID-19

University of Delaware President Dennis Assanis shared news both encouraging and sobering with members of the University community at the first regular 2020-21 Faculty Senate meeting, held via Zoom on Monday, Sept. 14.

“The health and security of our campus has been job number one for me, the highest priority,” Assanis said to the group. “And I have a great team of people who have been assisting me … who have stepped up in immeasurable ways to advise me on the best course of action.”

These efforts have yielded great results, Assanis said, including in-house, rapid-result coronavirus (COVID-19) testing capabilities and a robust Protect the Flock campaign, which leverages communications, signage and social media to encourage healthy behavior by students, faculty and staff, such as wearing face coverings and social distancing. (The campaign video has been viewed about 27,000 times across all social media platforms.)

Assanis praised the faculty for adapting to the many changes imposed by the pandemic. Through dedicated efforts, UD faculty have modified their courses, so that about 91% of undergraduate class sections and 88% of graduate class sections are being delivered online this fall.  Also, University research expenditures in July and August were at 85% of what they were in 2019, demonstrating faculty members’ commitment to this important element of UD’s mission.

“You have been the unsung heroes,” Assanis said to faculty members in the meeting. “You have done amazing things to change your trade. To reinvent yourselves. To help the institution. In the spring, you obviously had zero time to change, and it was a Herculean effort. Through the summer, you educated yourselves to reinvent, to find ways to do things in a more effective way for our students. Thank you from my heart for all you are doing for our students. I believe they appreciate your efforts and hard work — and they are stepping up themselves.”

The University, though, continues to face challenges, Assanis added. As of Sept. 14, registration numbers for first-year, full-time students were down from last year and are significantly short of UD’s 4,450 enrollment target. Non-resident and transfer student numbers are also showing a dip. A bright spot is an increase in graduate student enrollment and the Associate in Arts Program, which has held its enrollment steady compared to 2019. Due to the coronavirus, UD is also coping with an increase in appeals for financial aid.

All of this has contributed to a steep operating deficit. Back in June, that deficit was projected to hit $168 million for fiscal year 2021, Assanis said. A variety of mitigation efforts — including a salary freeze, a hiring freeze, executive pay cuts and other measures — brought that shortfall to $82 million. The Board of Trustees agreed to cover this deficit from a pool of funds invested with the University’s endowment.

However, all of these numbers assumed full occupancy of campus in the fall, Assanis said. The need to de-densify the campus in response to the pandemic and move virtually all courses online in the fall resulted in fewer than 1,300 students living on campus, instead of a typical 7,000. The loss in housing and dining revenue, along with higher-than-normal student attrition and other impacts, means that the operating shortfall will likely increase by $60 million. If the situation doesn’t change for the spring semester, the operating deficit might increase by yet another $60 million. Assanis cautioned that these projections remain very fluid and depend on a variety of outside factors, especially the trajectory of the virus.

“This is one of the most difficult things you can ever aspire to address, projecting enrollment and tuition revenue net of scholarship aid right now,” Assanis said. “Every rule that worked for years is not working.”

The University is looking at several ways to reduce costs, including personnel actions, Assanis said. These will likely include incentivizing voluntary schedule reductions and retirement options.

“We need to minimize the extent of the impact to people and their families,” Assanis said.

In the meantime, he petitioned the virtual crowd: “We have to navigate this with humanity, respect and the understanding that we are in this together. We have to work together to do everything we can to help the institution.”

Provost Robin Morgan echoed Assanis’ statements on safety being UD’s first priority, and she updated the Senate on a new smartphone app called COVID Alert DE, set to be launched by the Delaware Division of Public Health this week, that will support contact tracing and help slow the spread of the virus.

“I hope you’ll encourage your colleagues and your students to download this powerful tool for helping to keep each other safe,” Morgan said. “We want to be the university that makes it to Thanksgiving, and I think we can.”

Morgan updated the faculty on the UD Antiracism Initiative, a grassroots movement among students and faculty meant to address issues of implicit bias on campus. The organizers will host the Department of History’s Speaks-Warnock Symposium on the History of Race and Racism at the University on Tuesday, Sept. 29, at 12:30 p.m. It will feature professors from other campuses who have undertaken similar projects to explore the history and legacies of slavery, race and racism, as well as the unacknowledged displacement of indigenous peoples from their lands.

“It is not a coincidence that Black Lives Matter and other diversity and inclusion movements have come to the surface during COVID-19,” Morgan said. “It is neither inconvenient nor a coincidence. These are related incidents.”

Finally, she highlighted the development of a task force that will look at equity in faculty evaluations moving forward, since the pandemic has disproportionately affected caregivers: “We’re looking for input on how we can be as fair as possible to our faculty as we evaluate them both for promotion and tenure, post-tenure review, and two- and four-year reviews.”

John Jebb, professor of English and Faculty Senate parliamentarian, gave the group a brief history of and refresher on Robert’s Rules of Order, America’s foremost guide to Parliamentary procedure — updated for the Zoom era. He covered topics such as etiquette, voting and the authority of the presider to control the floor. This year, that power will fall to Faculty Senate President Charles Boncelet, professor of electrical and computer engineering.

“I hope to encourage debate as much as possible,” Boncelet told the group.

Awards announced

Boncelet also announced the recipients of the teaching and advising awards, selected every year by the Senate’s Committee on Student and Faculty Honors.

The awards for Excellence in Teaching were presented to

Salil A. Lachke, associate chair and Alumni Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences; Jill Flynn, professor of English; William Rose, associate professor of kinesiology and applied physiology; and Owen White, professor of history.

The awards for Excellence in Teaching for Graduate Students were presented to Diana Lucas Baka, doctoral student in chemistry and biochemistry; Harrah Newman, doctoral student in biomedical engineering; Prabhat Kumar, master’s degree student in applied mathematics; and Kendell Daughtry, doctoral student in education and human development.

The awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Academic Advising were presented to Jennifer Saylor, associate professor of nursing; Tracey Holden, assistant professor of communication; and Vincent DiFelice, senior instructor in entrepreneurship.

The awards for Excellence in Scholarly Community Engagement were presented to David Teague, professor of English and associate director of the Associate in Arts Program in Wilmington; and Jennifer Buckley, professor of engineering.

The awards for Excellence in Scholarly Community Engagement for graduate students were presented to Andrew Jenks, instructor and doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science and International Relations; and Kalyn McDonough, doctoral candidate in public policy and administration.

The awards for Excellence in Mid-Career Faculty Scholarship were presented to Pascha Bueno-Hansen, associate professor of women and gender studies; and Chengmo Yang, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

The Jon Olsen Exemplary Senate Service Award was presented to Fred Hofstetter, professor in the School of Music and the School of Education who served as president of the Faculty Senate in 2014-15.

Before the meeting adjourned, Morgan expressed her appreciation to faculty and all members of the UD community who have stayed the course during a turbulent time.

“I’ve seen determination, resilience, flexibility and courage to get through this, and I’m really grateful to every one of you,” she said. “I think you’re grateful to each other, and we should be proud of where this University is. As we deal with budget challenges and the fact that everyone is really tired of this — we are ready for it to end — I want to continue to be confident, and I am, that this determination, resilience, flexibility and, especially, that courage to be a Blue Hen and protect the flock is going to keep us going. Thank you, everybody, thank you. There are just no other words to say how I feel.”

Editor’s note: The minutes of the Sept. 14 meeting are posted on the Faculty Senate website.

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