A brighter tomorrow
February 16, 2021
President Dennis Assanis shares an optimistic outlook for spring
At the University of Delaware, spring semester signals a fresh start, a time for new books, new brainstorms, new hope. As a year of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic rounds a corner, this has proven especially true. The campus community is feeling buoyed by the promise of a healthier forecast for 2021.
“We are certainly much more hopeful for the future,” UD President Dennis Assanis said during the first Faculty Senate meeting of the new year, held Monday, Feb. 8. “In spite of everything going on around us and the prevalence of the pandemic, there truly is a number of things giving us a source of optimism.”
After thanking the faculty and staff for their continued spirit of resilience and creativity, Assanis cited a more than 95% retention rate for the spring class of Blue Hens, “which is very consistent with the rates we have seen in previous years,” he said. For these students, 17% of undergraduate course sections and nearly 21% of graduate course sections will have a face-to-face component — about double what was offered in the fall. Close to 4,000 students will live in UD’s residence halls, compared to about 1,300 in the fall. At 60% of their designed capacity, these buildings will still allow for social distancing.
Adding to this culture of safety, Assanis emphasized that UD’s on-campus COVID-19 testing will ramp up from 2,000 per week to 6,000 per week in the spring, although this number jumps closer to 9,000 when accounting for tests that will be done on the Laird and STAR sites in partnership with the state.
Assanis also said he is encouraged by the application pool for the upcoming fall semester. As of Feb. 8, a record-breaking 33,000 applications had been submitted.
Additionally, budget projections are allowing for a sense of “guarded optimism,” Assanis said. He cited $32.5 million in relief funding from the state and $18 million in additional relief funding from the federal government that will soon be coming to UD, of which $6 million will be directly allocated to support UD students. Among other operating deficits, the state and federal funds will partially offset lost revenue and increased costs that the University has incurred during the pandemic, including approximately $25 million of forgone tuition revenue and $3 million in additional instructional costs during Winter Session, when Blue Hens were allowed to take up to six free credits that they carried over from the fall semester.
“We’re really proud of this, because it provided great relief for the students and their parents,” Assanis said, referring to the floating credit program. UD is anticipating some additional budget impact from the floating credit program into the summer semester, as well as costs of increased COVID-19 testing and sanitation protocols.
Charles G. Riordan, vice president for research, scholarship and innovation, offered the Senate an update on the vaccine rollout in Delaware. At the time of the meeting, the state received between 15,000 and 20,000 doses per week: “The guidance that we are given from the state is — until we’re given a larger frequency of doses per week — we need to continue to hold tight and to be patient,” Riordan said.
Provost Robin Morgan echoed this sentiment.
“The problem is supply,” she said. “Our advice to everyone is still: Get the first vaccine that you can legally get. But remember: Having the vaccine does not end the need to wear a mask. It is not the I’m-free-and-can-do-whatever-I-want flag. Hang in there. I do believe it will get dramatically better.”
On the regular agenda, the Faculty Senate business generating the most discussion was a resolution to amend the academic calendar to include, in addition to major Christian and Jewish holidays, significant Muslim and Hindu holidays. From a practical perspective, according to John Jebb, associate professor in the English department and co-sponsor of the resolution, such a move would help instructors better plan their syllabi, making them more aware of occasions when assignment due dates might conflict with holy days observed by students. Also, from a symbolic perspective, the new additions show “awareness and receptiveness of diversity within the student population,” he said.
Others argued that such a list could never be inclusive enough, so a better move would be to include no holidays in the handbook at all but, rather, a link to a more comprehensive roundup.
“But we know that the percentage of click-throughs on links are notoriously low,” said co-sponsor Vickie Fedele, assistant professor of English and women and gender studies. “We stand a much better chance of getting our point across about normalizing and embracing other religions, particularly ones like Islam that are the subject of such vilification, if we actually list the major holidays in the text of our policy and our calendar. Why miss this opportunity to better educate people? Isn’t that the mission of a university?”
The resolution passed, 47-11.
In light of the unprecedented and ongoing disruptions to research, teaching and service experienced by faculty during the pandemic, the Senate also passed a resolution acknowledging these disruptions and the necessity of taking them into account during faculty evaluations. Based on the recommendations of a designated task force, the body voted to update UD’s promotion and tenure policies to include guidance for external reviewers and to make specific allowances for professors entering evaluation processes, including a one-year extension to the contract/tenure clock.
Additionally, the Senate passed a couple of “bookkeeping” resolutions, according to Chris Williams, professor of wildlife ecology and chair of the Senate’s Coordinating Committee on Education. One of these resolutions updates the course schedule in the Faculty Handbook; the other updates times for common examinations.
Meg Grotti, assistant head of instructional services at Morris Library, presented to the group as project lead for UD’s initiative seeking to make open-education tools — for example, free multimedia or public-domain materials as opposed to expensive textbooks — more accessible for instructors and their students. This effort, research shows, has a positive impact on grades, particularly for populations typically underserved by higher education.
“While faculty can’t control the costs of higher-ed infrastructure — tuition, fees, et cetera — faculty can take action to lower the cost of their course materials, which can help reduce barriers for students and drive interest in certain courses and programs,” Grotti said. “I have had the pleasure of working with many faculty in many disciplines across UD as part of this work, and I’m always very impressed by all the ways UD faculty are already thinking of addressing costs of materials in their courses. But I’m really here today to let my colleagues know that the library, along with Faculty Commons partners, is here to help.”
Grotti noted that, in partnership with the Center for Teaching Assessment and Learning, the library offers grants for faculty looking to improve the educational effectiveness of their courses while reducing costs. Since 2017, through these grants, UD professors have saved their students between $208,000 and $345,000. Interested persons can learn more by visiting this site or by attending one of the workshops offered during Open Education Week, March 1-5.
Also presenting at the meeting was student Emma Goetz, faculty and alumni engagement chair for UDance 2021, a yearlong fundraising effort that supports pediatric cancer patients and their families.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that the way we have to live right now, with masks and social distancing, is the way that so many families with children fighting cancer have had to live from the first day their child is diagnosed,” Goetz said. “However, COVID has not stopped the UDance community.”
Professors interested in learning about involvement opportunities can sign up for UDance’s faculty newsletter and be on the lookout for information regarding UDance’s March speaker series, which will be uploaded to the organization’s website soon.
Senate President Charles Boncelet, professor of electrical and computer engineering, made several announcements. Among these was that Karren Helsel-Spry, administrative assistant to the Senate, will be retiring at the end of the month, after 24 years of service. The new senate coordinator will be Karen Holden, formerly an administrative assistant in the nursing program. Also, senators should mark their calendars for either May 10 or June 7, for a possible additional meeting to address an overflow of Senate business in the spring.
The consent agenda, comprising 31 resolutions, passed unanimously. Among these resolutions were recommendations to revise requirements for the strategic communications certificate and to disestablish concentrations within the exercise science master’s program.
New business included a request to look into the prevalence of food insecurity among undergraduates at UD and another request to establish the office of an ombudsperson on campus.
In the meantime, “Get ready for spring,” Provost Morgan said. “Here it comes.”