Exclusive: Assanis on the future of the university budget, athletics and free speech

RISHA INAGANTI
Editor-in-Chief

In the corner of Hullihen Hall resides a room filled with awards, campus photos, books and two shovels. The space stands as the office of university President Dennis Assanis, and where The Review sat down for an exclusive interview with him on April 24.

As the 2023-24 school year comes to an end, Assanis spent time reflecting on the university’s successes and failures of the year, as well as discussing plans for the future. 

“I’m really proud and always feel honored and humbled to be leading our university in the trajectory of growth and change, but always with respect to the legacy of the previous 280 years,” Assanis said. 

Increasing applications, decreasing acceptances

This year, the university received close to 40,000 applications, according to Assanis. This number has followed the growing trend of increased applicants post-COVID-19. 

With the rising number of applications, Assanis stated that the university has decided to become more selective, especially regarding out-of-state students. Despite that, he mentioned a desire to increase the geographical pull of applicants.

“We’ve been drawing students from five states, predominantly in the Northeast where there is a real issue with the demographics,” Assanis said. “So we have to open it up to a broader pool.”

He went on to state that the focus is on increasing university access to in-state students.

Assanis explained that over one-third of Delawarean students study at the university for free, in part due to the university’s First State Promise Program, which covers tuition for in-state students whose families make less than $75,000 per year. 

To support the First State Promise Program, Assanis asked the state of Delaware in February for $1.7 million, in addition to the $7.5 million that Gov. John Carney had initially set aside.

Along with that, he pointed to increased scholarship amounts. 

“We were putting around $100 million a year in scholarships for students,” Assanis said. “Right now last year, we invested closer to $182 million. We never increased our scholarship amount, so much so fast. And obviously that’s putting a pinch on our resources.”

The university’s financial state

One of the most prevalent topics at the university this year has been the state of the budget. Assanis claimed that the university was in a budget crisis early in the spring semester. Since then, students and faculty have been left with many questions. 

Assanis pointed out that the university is “not in this alone,” stating other universities are experiencing similar budget issues. 

The university’s initial plan of action was to pause new hires to “preserve the current workforce to the maximum extent possible.” Both student and faculty hiring was temporarily halted starting at the beginning of the semester.

“I haven’t cut anybody’s pay,” Assanis said. “Let’s live rest assured about that. And also, we’re committed to continue to provide a competitive pay for employees. We’re committed to giving raises to people during the next year.”

With efforts to become more selective with admissions and the ongoing budget crisis, the university community has expressed concerns about increasing university prices. 

“We are not immune to inflation,” Assanis said. “We would never want to increase tuition. If you ask me and the [Board of Trustees], we’d like to keep the tuition the same forever but then with inflation and everything else, tuition goes up.”

The university president went on to explain that the board just approved to “modestly increase” some fees, after keeping the price “constant for a number of years.”

Changes in athletics 

With the university’s switch to Conference USA from the Coastal Athletic Association (CAA) starting in 2025, Assanis expressed excitement for the cohort of student athletes who will “have opportunities not just to excel in the classroom, but on the fields, ice and courts.”

The switch to the new conference cost the university roughly $6 million. The university and athletic department have maintained that the fee will be covered by external fundraising. 

Assanis expressed how this switch will improve the university as a whole.

“I think what people need to understand is athletics is the front porch of the university,” Assanis said. “By enabling them to have access to a broader audience, we are able to bring more resources to athletics and the university.

“The amazing part of it is that it really gives us an avenue for the university to shine and tell its amazing story to a national audience. We really haven’t been able to under the confines of the current conference.”

Jordan Rosales/THE REVIEW

Protecting free speech 

With the rise in nationwide university protests, the ongoing crisis in Gaza and the increased antisemitism on campuses, Assanis expressed his commitment to maintaining free speech.

“To me, freedom of expression is extremely important,” Assanis said. “We should always uphold this on university campuses.”

According to Assanis, the  university is a place where civil discourse and civic engagement are done “extremely well.” He noted his pride for university students who coexist despite different beliefs. 

In recent months, the Israel-Gaza war has been a massive conversation point at the university. A three-day protest took place in support of Palestine, Israel Defense Forces Col. Golan Vach came to speak at the university and multiple accounts of hate speech have taken place. 

“The current situation with Israel and Gaza can’t be more divisive, and at the same time, our students can coexist peacefully,” Assanis said. “I think that’s what university should be all about. That’s what society should be all about. 

“We’re very mindful and we will condemn antisemitism and Islamophobia and xenophobia and anything that is really against people’s rights. We’re all united so we’re all peoples of the same world.”

Assanis ended by stating that the university will be able to “turn the corner quickly” and continue “the momentum we’ve built.”

“I want to remind people that this is a moment and it’s not a forever occurrence,” Assanis said. “The university is going to be around for another 200 years, if not longer.”

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