UD President Dennis Assanis Marches Boldly Forward
The University of Delaware’s new leader has a record of achievement that uniquely qualifies him to help make the school a stronger regional player.
“I always believe in building on excellence,” Assanis says. “It can’t be artificial, and it needs to have a foundation in place. You need to have aspirations and to think big. I want to motivate people to have the same aspirations.” // Photo courtesy of the University of Delaware
Brown University was ready to give it all to young Dennis Assanis: full tuition, board—even sophomore status. To this day, Assanis remains proud of the offer. His mother, Sandy, may have felt the same satisfaction, but she wasn’t about to bless her only child’s departure from home in Athens.
“She was afraid I wouldn’t come back,” Assanis says.
Assanis declined Brown’s attractive offer in order to study marine engineering at England’s Newcastle University, not far from the North Sea. It made sense for Assanis since his father, Nikolas, was in the Merchant Marines.
Sandy may have smiled at her son’s decision to remain in Europe, but her delight was short-lived. Not long after finishing at Newcastle, Assanis headed to the United States to continue his education. Mothers know their children. The Continent offered significant opportunity, but America had the Massachusetts Institue of Technology, where Assanis would eventually earn four postgraduate degrees and abundant professional possibilities.
It would be difficult even for Sandy to quarrel with the outcome. After a distinguished career in teaching and research, Assanis moved into academic administration, where he demonstrated leadership skills and considerable ambition, both personal and institutional. After a stint as provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at Stony Brook University, he was named the University of Delaware’s 28th president in June. His charge is to increase the school’s overall academic quality while nurturing and introducing initiatives designed to make UD a greater regional force.
“If we’re going to be up there with the very best, we must be a well-rounded university,” Assanis says. “The pursuit of academic excellence has always been what has driven me as a human being. That pursuit is a virtue.”
Assanis is very much someone driven by the desire to achieve. Doing that requires focus, commitment and an inner fire that creates the need to move forward. His career has been one of significant accomplishment, so he wants to infuse the University of Delaware with the same aspirational energy that has characterized his journey. Just as he was able to determine a personal path that led him to the president’s office, he sees a way for Delaware to improve its influence.
“It’s a natural evolution,” Assanis says. “I was a department chairman [at University of Michigan], and that led me to be provost and then president. I’m ambitious, yes. But it’s not about me. It’s about the place. I want to make this a better place.”
At a time when institutions of higher education must do more than teach students, Assanis is an excellent fit. He understands the need to integrate departments and to sponsor initiatives designed to make Delaware a stronger part of the community at large. UD’s STAR Campus and the school’s leadership role in the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals project are examples of how the university is expanding its scope.
During Assanis’ short tenure, which included meetings with administrators as early as November 2015, he has played major roles in several projects that will help Delaware move into the future. He was a key player in the establishment of the NIIMBL center on campus and had plenty of say in the STAR Tower project, which will house many of the school’s science and technology initiatives. Assanis helped birth the Biden Institute for public policy research and was one of the engines behind the Delaware Technology Park on UD’s STAR Campus.
“We’re trying to go beyond the classroom, and Dennis has the willingness and eagerness to do that,” says John Cochran, chairman of Delaware’s board of trustees. “Our STAR Campus is an example of the hands-on environment. Dennis is going to make an effort to expand that.”
The challenge for Assanis is to create an environment that allows for improvement across many disciplines and a culture in which self-starters pursue big things. That’s not always easy in the academic world, where tension exists between those who make the map and those who are trying to decide whether to follow it. Because many university leaders are former academicians, they understand the worlds of classroom instruction and research. Yet many lack administrative experience, so they may blanch at mandates from above.
Assanis brings a unique blend of skills to the job. His work in the world of automotive power and propulsion was groundbreaking, so it’s impossible to question his research skill. His work in the classroom and as director of several programs at the University of Michigan, including the mechanical engineering department, and his time at Stony Brook demonstrate his administrative qualifications. Finally, and perhaps most important, Assanis has the kind of outgoing personality that attracts people to him and inspires enthusiasm. He won’t impose his will. He will build consensus and a one-for-all culture that will impel Delaware forward.
“He’s a real people person and an engaging guy,” Cochran says. “We focused on the total package. He has a strong engineering background and has a view of the total university. The arts are just as important as the sciences. Also, athletics. He wants the total experience for students.”
When Assanis left Michigan to take the senior VP position at Stony Brook, he was advising 18 doctoral students. Even after his move east, Assanis continued to provide them with guidance.
“I love teaching, and I miss teaching,” he says.
After earning his doctorate in 1985 and a master of science in management in 1986, both from MIT, Assanis began teaching at the University of Illinois. In 1994, he moved to Michigan, where, over the next 17 years, he established himself as one of the world’s authorities on internal combustion engines and energy sources. He published prolifically and cultivated ties with scientists around the world, specifically in China and South Korea. He worked with American automobile manufacturers to help reduce emissions and improve efficiency. And in 2008, he was inducted into the National Academy for Engineers. Had he remained in the academic world, his reach and influence only would have grown.
“Dennis was always a kind of shaker and mover,” says Dave Munson, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Michigan. “He was interested in organizing things that would include multiple faculty members, multiple resources and sometimes multiple universities.”
Assanis was recruited to Michigan by Panos Papalambros, who was trying to bulk up the school’s automotive engineering and manufacturing engineering department after the retirement of several key professors. Thanks to its proximity to Detroit, the University of Michigan and the auto industry have been partners in the research and design of vehicles since the first cars rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line. Papalambros was impressed with Assanis’ work. He was more pleased once the two started working together.
“He was able to combine an ability to work in product performance with an ability to create designs,” says Papalambros, now the chair of the division of integrative systems and design at Michigan. “We were able to do visual prototyping on a simulator, and that became a big part of our work. That brought us work from the U.S. military and from GM.”
Assanis published continually while at Michigan and was part of many initiatives, including the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center for Clean Vehicles. Students flocked to his classes, and he received high teaching evaluations, according to Munson. Assanis was the director of Michigan’s Automotive Research Center, an umbrella program partially funded by the U.S. Army. From 2002 to 2007, Assanis chaired the engineering department, an experience that gave him more insight into the administrative side of the academic world.
Assanis’ work with the auto industry, the military and international partners gave him a taste of the collaboration necessary for a university to enhance its profile. It also showed him that, though classroom work was highly rewarding, there were bigger arenas he could work in.
“Dennis is an ambitious person,” Papalambros says. “I see that as a positive thing. He wanted to influence a wider audience and have a wider impact. That’s consistent with what he has moved into.
“I hope he keeps some technical work up, to keep him honest. People who get into administration forget what it is to be a professor. It wouldn’t hurt him to go to class and work with some grad students. At the end of the day, his constituents are students and professors.”
In 2011, Assanis’ drive led him to Stony Brook, where he became provost and senior vice president. He also served as vice president of the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy facility near Stony Brook that does a lot of work in national defense projects and, among other things, energy science and technology.
Assanis stayed involved with the Brookhaven lab and continued to advise doctoral candidates, but Stony Brook was an introduction to full-time administration. In addition to helping oversee the curricular part of the university, Assanis was responsible for helping to find solutions for issues that arose from faculty. He was quite successful.
“I got to work with him because doing faculty affairs means there is another person in the room with an issue we are trying to solve,” says Stella Tsirka, the vice provost for faculty affairs at Stony Brook. “It was always interesting to see how engaged Dennis was in each of the cases, how he wanted to lean in and be fully informed until he came to a decision.”
At Stony Brook, Assanis learned how to represent the institution while remaining available and empathetic to faculty members. Tsirka says his warmth and ability to make personal connections make others “feel like they are speaking with a friend.” While no pushover, Assanis’ outgoing personality allows him to build consensus and encourage creative thinking while keeping his mind locked in on important goals.
Those abilities will no doubt serve him well at Delaware. It is vital for university presidents everywhere to build relationships with a variety of populations and work with them to move their institutions forward. Assanis will gather as much information as possible and give it due attention before deciding what to do. According to Tsirka, there were times when it seemed Assanis had forgotten about a issue, only to come forward later with a detailed plan of action.
“He is thinking big,” Tsirka says. “He is very capable of accomplishing big things with the right people around him. In high positions of influence in academia, there are outside factors to consider. But he is adaptable. Even if he doesn’t accomplish 100 percent of what he wants to do, he will accomplish a lot of it.”
Because Assanis is an engineer, it makes sense that his plans for Delaware’s academic programs follow a logical path. Take the school’s chemical engineering department, which was once ranked among the best in the country. Assanis wants to restore it to its former status, and he has similar goals for other programs.
“If [a department] is in the top 25, why can’t it be in the top 10?” he asks. “If it’s in the top 50, why can’t it be in the top 25?”
One way he hopes to affect this growth is through interdisciplinary collaboration. That isn’t always easy to encourage at universities. There is often competition within an institution for status and funding. And which department will take the lead in a group pursuit? If Assanis can be the catalyst to create that environment, all of UD will benefit.
“I lead by example,” he says. “I’m a fellow who believes in working together to break down barriers and walls and open up ideas. I love working with people.”
Assanis is logical, but he also has the ability to look beyond the concrete into the possible. His background provides abiding trust in the scientific method and what is provable. But he is a Greek, and that means his education was rich in the classics. His high school education included healthy doses of the thinkers who have shaped Western societies, and they have provided a foundation for creative thought. When you come from the cradle of philosophy and social science, it’s easy to have a confidence that you have been prepared for big things. That confidence allows Assanis to look at Delaware not as the primary academic institution in a small state, but a potential regional and, yes, national power.
To that end, he sees leveraging the school’s location between New York and Washington, D.C., as a launching pad for enhancing the surrounding communities. He can do that by marshaling the university’s resources and partnering with the many business concerns in the region. Assanis speaks of bringing “entrepreneurial thinking” to UD and encouraging students to do the same thing.
One example of how Delaware can expand its reach is the school’s STAR Campus, which Assanis calls “a field of dreams.” By creating an incubator for tech pioneers and partnering them with UD business students who can help bring products to market, the university has a unique and desirable lure for creative thinkers.
“You could basically build a university of the future there,” Assanis says. “It’s a place where the university’s research can work with the business community. I would absolutely love to see us leverage that location.”
That future is now. Delaware has broken ground on a 10-story Health Sciences Tower at the STAR Campus that will help it enhance its work in disciplines such as physical therapy. It will also house various commercial interests, enhancing further the university’s relationship with the business community. And thanks to a substantial federal grant, Delaware will be the epicenter of the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals, which is devoted to creating therapies tailored to individual patients’ needs. By working with a consortium of government and private interests, Delaware has the ability to demonstrate its capabilities to a larger audience and expand its offerings to students and the region. The team Delaware assembled will create and accelerate the biopharmaceutical manufacturing process and advance the field of personalized medicine. “Just imagine the possibilities,” Assanis says.
Thanks to the planned 2018 opening of a $50 million Amtrak station in Newark, travel between the campus and northeast hubs will be made seamless. And the plans don’t stop there. Assanis won’t hesitate to take advantage of any opportunity that helps Delaware expand its footprint. He hopes that even recent alumni who return in 10 years “won’t believe their eyes.” It’s a bold outlook, to be sure, but history has proven that the only way big things are accomplished is to have a big thinker ask, “Why not?” Assanis is asking.
“I always believe in building on excellence,” he says. “It can’t be artificial, and it needs to have a foundation in place. You need to have aspirations and to think big. I want to motivate people to have the same aspirations.”
And never to be afraid to make a big move—even if it means disappointing your mother.