Students, academics, politicians, react to UD’s new president

 The University of Delaware announced Dennis Assanis as its new president. (Zoe Read/WHYY)

The University of Delaware announced Dennis Assanis as its new president. (Zoe Read/WHYY)

After the University of Delaware announced its new president Wednesday, students, faculty and political leaders say they’re hopeful for an improved campus.

During the announcement at the Trabant Center on the Newark campus, incoming president Dennis Assanis expressed his desire to make college affordable, continue academic excellence and engage in the community.

But students and others invested in his leadership say his vow to diversify the campus is the most important promise Assanis made Wednesday.

“We’re at a juncture where the demographic of the student pipelines are changing,” said Cesar Ernesto Caro, PhD candidate in physics and former vice president of student affairs.

“By demonstrating a commitment not only to Delawareans, but improving the university’s diversity and demography as well as ideas, we can appreciate the work we have to do together to move forward, to make ourselves more aware of the challenges, but also make ourselves aware of the possible solutions.”

The university’s former president Patrick Harker, who served for eight years, left in March to head up the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

Nancy Targett was named interim president while the university searched for a permanent replacement. Targett was the dean of UD’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment.

Greek-born Assanis is a long-time mechanical engineer and university administrator, and previously served as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

Edward Feldman, president of the faculty senate at Stony Brook University, said Assanis’ new position is well-deserved. While funding for increased faculty has been a challenge at universities, Feldman said his colleague was able to successfully hire new faculty in clusters.

“He’s got very strong leadership skills, and what I love about him is that he is a very effective communicator,” he said.

Joan Coker, a search committee member, said of all the candidates Assanis stood out because of his passion and commitment to students.

“Some folks were great fundraisers, there were others that were great academicians and others that were visionaries, and he was probably the only candidate we had that clearly embodied all three,” she said.

Georgina Class-Peters, the only student on the search committee, said Assanis’ commitment to diversity also was a selling point.

For several years the university, which has a student body that’s 75 percent white, has been criticized by political leaders, civic groups and students for its lack of diversity. Class-Peters said overcoming this issue should be a top priority.

“Being that he is a person of a diverse background, definitely using his clout as a president to promote different events and promote unity among the institution, because at end of the day whether you’re white, blue, rich, poor, you’re still a blue hen,” she said.

His commitment was something Coker said she could feel instantly when talking to him about his goals.

“It really is just a feeling you get, because folks can’t fake wanting to diversify, especially when you’re talking to a minority, because you either have it or you don’t and you don’t have to be a minority to understand feelings,” she said.

“There’s just something about his spirit that speaks to you deep inside and you know he’s the real deal, he’s not playing.”

One of the students attending the announcement, sophomore Harry Lewis, said he’s cautiously optimistic about the new president.

“I do a lot work around gender based violence prevention, and we had a complicated legacy with our last president Patrick Harker, so we made a lot of strides with our interim president Nancy Target, and I was looking forward to see what the committee came up with for our new president,” he said.

Lewis said he appreciated Assanis’ promise to make education affordable for everyone, and to create open dialogues among students about issues on campus. He said going forth he should focus on the racial and gender makeup of the university and not focus as much on athletics.

State Rep. J.J. Johnson, D-New Castle, has criticized the university for its lack of diversity. He said his first impression of Assanis is positive, and he hopes to meet him prior to taking office.

“I’m hopeful,” Johnson said. “He has impressive credentials, and I like the comment he made in regard to being more inclusive, as well as diverse. He’s saying all the right things, I just hope he lives up to the promise.”

Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington, who also has been a critic of the university’s commitment to diversity, released a statement following the announcement.

“Dr. Assanis brings an impressive background and resume to one of Delaware’s most important posts, but more than that, it seems he brings with him an appetite for reform,” he said.

“I was especially pleased to hear him say that making real strides to enhance diversity on campus would be his top priority and I look forward to engaging him, along with other stakeholders, on that issue.”

Other politicians released statements about the announcement, noting his extensive resume. U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, pointed to Assanis’ background in clean energy.

“I’m excited to learn that Dennis has a strong background in clean energy along with a distinguished academic record,” he said. “I look forward to working with him to ensure that the University of Delaware and the First State remain an attractive place to learn, live and work.”

U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, said he’s positive Assanis can lead the university in the right direction.

“I look forward to working with him and his administration on advancing the University’s academic excellence and internationally known research facilities as well as working together to address challenges at UD, such as college accessibility, affordability, and student diversity,” he said.

Gov. Jack Markell, D-Delaware, also acknowledged Assanis’ experience in academia, science and economic development.

“Dr. Assanis understands UD’s vital role in delivering world class education that’s accessible and affordable, especially for Delawareans. His outstanding work at Stony Brook University and the University of Michigan demonstrates his commitment to research, innovation and economic development,” he said.

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