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Faculty Senate holds December meeting

President Dennis Assanis expresses optimism for 2021

The approach of a new year is always a time for hope. For promise. For looking to the future with a renewed sense of possibility. This has arguably never been truer than now.

As the challenging 2020 year was drawing to a close, University of Delaware President Dennis Assanis expressed confidence in progress forward, inviting the University community to enter 2021 with a spirit of optimism.

“Brighter days will come,” he told the virtual crowd at the Dec. 7 Faculty Senate meeting. “And this is not just due to a vaccine on the horizon. It is the momentum we have built.”

Assanis thanked the UD faculty, staff and students for an overwhelmingly successful semester and for “driving to the finish line with a remarkable spirit.” Because individuals came together to protect the health and safety of themselves and others, the fall term will come to a close without interruption. A robust testing program conducted more than 18,000 screenings, with results available quickly and allowing quarantine and isolation spaces on campus to operate well below capacity. Provost Robin Morgan echoed this appreciation, saying: “It is impossible to express my gratitude to each one of you.”

Alongside health and safety, academic continuity has remained a top priority.

“I want to especially applaud the efforts of our heroic faculty members, who have managed, with dedicated support from our staff, to convert their trade from a face-to-face modality to online in a record amount of time,” Assanis said. “But they have not simply converted their courses — they have innovated in the process. This was not about simply uploading PowerPoint presentations, but inventing creative new ways to  teach new modules online, to enable self-based learning, to do amazing things.”

The University has continued research operations with a global impact, Assanis said, while increasing diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Fatimah Conley, new interim chief diversity officer who will provide leadership in nurturing an increasingly equitable working and learning environment, urged faculty members to reach out to her with any concerns or ideas. 

Adding to the optimism for the future, Assanis said, the state of Delaware has designated $45 million in funds received through the federal CARES Act for higher education — UD has submitted a request for relief. Meanwhile, an early college credit program has added a new pipeline to UD, with an impressive 286 students registered to participate from 13 Delaware high schools.

Additionally, Winter Session enrollment is up 60% over a typical year, according to Assanis. More than 10,000 Blue Hens are registered.

“This does demonstrate that we are capable of delivering at least twice as much in terms of online winter curriculum for many years to come,” Assanis said. “Which hopefully should be a good source of revenue. But beyond the financial picture, this is great for our students — it will help them graduate sooner and make progress toward those degrees — and this is why we are so thrilled.”

The outlook for spring is equally positive, Assanis added. And although plans are dependent upon the trajectory of the virus, as of early December, Blue Hens can expect more opportunities for face-to-face instruction and on-campus living next semester. The plan is for residential occupancy to increase to 60% of capacity. To ensure the continued health and safety of the University community, on-campus testing will ramp up to 6,000 per week.

Similarly, “we are doing phenomenally well” in terms of applications for fall 2021, Assanis said, due largely to a successful early action program — 7,000 students have already been offered admission, which is 1,000 more than at this time last year.

“As we turn the corner and move into this winter and spring, it is appropriate to reimagine UD’s role in the post-COVID world,” Assanis said. “We need to see what opportunities have been enabled because of lessons learned from COVID. I am going to involve the entire campus in strategic planning efforts to touch up our plan and imagine the next five years of our life.”

Faculty Senate President Charles Boncelet, professor of electrical and computer engineering, made several announcements. Among these is that the General Counsel office for UD has recently updated a document on political activity and lobbying among community members, and this is available on the General Counsel’s website. Additionally, community members can expect to see resolutions related to equity in faculty evaluations, given the particular challenges of COVID-19, on the Senate’s February agenda. Also, updates to the University’s sexual misconduct policy are under review by a couple of committees, and these will potentially be ready for discussion by February as well.

On the regular agenda, several resolutions generated discussion. Among these was a proposal to edit the Faculty Handbook section relating to student class attendance and excused absences. Boncelet explained that the goal is to make the language more inclusive, replacing certain pronouns with the gender-neutral “their,” for instance. Some Senators expressed concern that the updates do not go far enough in spelling out a list of religious holidays that faculty should consider when scheduling examinations and other assignments. It was explained that this wording is still under discussion by committees, and will be presented to the Faculty Senate for review in February. The resolution passed, 58-2.

Another resolution, spearheaded by graduate student representatives, seeks to preserve the position of UD’s sustainability manager, recently eliminated.

“While we all recognize this decision was made in very tough times, it is no doubt that this decision has external implications, and it affects the entire University — every one of us, every one of the students coming in the future,” said Samantha Bingaman, president of Graduate Student Government. “If it were eliminated, we would be losing part of the spirit of the University.”

While a couple of Senators questioned the appropriateness of weighing in on individual layoffs at this level of detail, and Assanis noted that the duties of the position would simply be absorbed by other professionals on campus, many others shared support, and the resolution passed.

A resolution passed 59-1 for the Faculty Senate Budget Committee to annually receive the University’s budget and all relevant documents. Three other resolutions passed unanimously. These included a request for permanent status of the bachelor of science degree in applied mathematics, a request to add a representative to the Senate’s Library Committee from the Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration and a request to edit the language of the Faculty Handbook, making clear the existing role of the Coordinating Committee on Education to review academic calendars proposed by the Provost’s Office.

The Senate’s consent agenda also passed unanimously. Among the 19 proposals included were recommendations to revise major and minor requirements within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the College of Arts and Sciences and the Graduate College.

Several items of new business were presented. These included a request for alternative forms of online assessment as well as a request for a formal, documented process for reviewing and approving non-credit certificates and courses taught by the UD Division of Professional and Continuing Studies.

As a replacement for spring break in the spring semester of 2020, the Student Government Association introduced a resolution proposing “re-coop” days staggered throughout the term, in order to safeguard the mental wellbeing of the student body.

“I want to commend these students publicly for their professionalism as they worked with me on this, and also the faculty who came forward with feedback,” Provost Morgan said. “I’m very excited about this resolution.”

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