As president’s alma mater, UD expects Biden boost
NEWARK – It’s been a difficult year for higher education as campuses across the state and nation try to keep classes operating online and in person amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but the election of Class of 1965 graduate Joseph Biden Jr. to the presidency has provided a huge boost in morale to the University of Delaware.
“This is a moment of pride for the entire university community,” said Dennis Assanis, president of UD, who noted that the university’s ties run not only to the president-elect, but also the future first lady Jill Biden, who earned a doctoral degree in education from UD, and other Biden family members. “It’s really an inspiration to all our students about the power of a University of Delaware education.”
“The university president’s house is right across from the Biden Institute on campus, and from the moment the news came out I can tell you that it has been non-stop traffic of students coming to get a photo in front of the Biden Institute sign. It means something to them,” he added.
Assanis, who has had to lead the university through a trying period in 2020 marked by layoffs and an enormous budget deficit amid pandemic-spurred declines in enrollment, said that Biden’s election will also inspire a new generation of university students.
In 2019, UD received a record number of applicants totaling about 33,000, or a 35% increase over 2018. This year, Assanis said that the university saw an 18% increase over last year’s record numbers in early action applicants, or those who submitted by Nov. 1 and tend to have UD ranked highly on their preference list.
“We’re seeing huge interest in everything that Joe Biden dedicated his career to including public policy and administration, political science, international relations, history, social justice, diversity, equity, inclusion, etc.,” he explained. “We have more than 20,000 early action applications, which is phenomenal in this time of COVID.”
For students who were still considering a UD education, tours are a hot commodity on the heels of a Biden presidency. The limited, small campus tours book up with hours of their offering, Assanis said.
Carolyn White Bartoo, a senior marketing and public relations instructor at UD and a former state tourism director, said that she believed the Biden connection will help more families feel comfortable learning about and potentially applying to UD.
“The value might be not so much in the adding of value, but the removal of a hesitation. People will have heard of Delaware now,” she said. “Because they’ve heard of it, it feels safe. The implication being that if I haven’t heard of it, it can’t be that good.”
Another point of pride that UD expects to help its enrollment marketing is its status as a state school, and not a high-priced Ivy League university. Not since 1974, when University of Michigan grad Gerald Ford assumed the White House, has a president been a state school grad.
“It’s inspiring and transformational for every kid in the country who is able to go to their state school, the flagship campus in their state, and say, ‘I want to be president one day,’” Assanis said. “Now we can say again that you don’t have to have an Ivy League degree, I can be like Joe Biden and become president.”
Assanis said that the “Biden effect” has impacted the university ever since the then-former vice president announced the founding of his Biden Institute at his alma mater in 2017. A year later, the university renamed its School of Public Policy and Administration after him.
The university president anticipates the Biden connection will not only help recruitment of students, but faculty and speakers as well. Never before in modern history has an established college school operated when its founder was elected president. All such schools have been created after a founder leaves office, such as the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University founded by former President George H.W. Bush in 1997, or long after they died.
“Our School of Public Policy and Administration has been a very good school over the years, it’s highly rated, but now we’re thinking the sky’s the limit. We can be a Top 20 school or higher,” Assanis said. “The Biden name is such a magnet of attraction.”
Assanis, who has grown closer to the university’s most famous graduate since Biden spoke at his inauguration nearly four years ago, said he made a request to the president-elect while congratulating him on his win a few days after Biden gave his acceptance speech in Wilmington.
“I told him that we hope he gives a commencement speech at some point in his term,” he said, noting Biden did so in 2014 when he was vice president.
The Biden ties at UD may also one day rise to an even higher level if a presidential library comes to Newark. Assanis said that the university, which already is home to all of Biden’s senatorial papers, has made it clear that it would also welcome a permanent home to the Biden presidency’s legacy.
Thirteen presidential libraries, overseen by the National Archives and Records Administration, hold papers, records, collections, and other historical materials of every president from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush. Former President Barack Obama’s library is currently under construction in Chicago.
If the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas is any indication, such a library would be a major draw for tourism and academia. According to the Bush Library’s 2018 annual report, it has averaged more than 300,000 visitors a year since opening and sold out dozens of programs.
“We certainly aspire to work with the state of Delaware to make sure that there is a permanent Biden presence, in our hearts, in our state, and on our campus. That’s what we’d love to do, and I like to believe that that’s what the president-elect would also like,” Assanis said.
By Jacob Owens
Editor’s note: This story originally incorrectly reported that UD saw 55,000 applications in 2019 due to an editing error. The university had about 33,000 applicants that year.