UD officials face questions about transparency, Wesley

DOVER — The Joint Finance Committee grilled top University of Delaware administrators over transparency and diversity Thursday, with one senator questioning why the institution failed to acquire Wesley College last year.

Officials from UD, Delaware State University and Delaware Technical Community College appeared before the legislature’s budget-writing panel for their annual hearing, allowing the three entities to detail their needs and lawmakers to pose inquiries. Sen. Trey Paradee, a Dover Democrat, took full advantage, pressing President Dennis Assanis and others from UD for more than 15 minutes.

While the prior two hearings had been drama- and tension-free, this one was not.

Sen. Paradee expressed concerns over the makeup of the student body and the university’s refusal to allow the state auditor to examine its finances while also tying in Wesley, which has been facing severe financial problems.

The two institutions were in talks about some type of acquisition last year, although it ultimately fell through for reasons that have not been publicly disclosed. If UD had only been willing to assume Wesley’s $7.5 million debt, Sen. Paradee said during the hearing, they could have come to a mutually beneficial agreement.

Such a deal, he said, would have secured Wesley’s future, perhaps as a satellite campus for UD. Either way, it would have protected not only the small college, its faculty and its students but also Dover, which would be hit hard if Wesley is forced to close its doors.

“I think you missed a real opportunity there,” the senator said.

A state committee on Wednesday announced it was awarding Wesley $3 million — with some strings attached — to help it stay solvent. A merger with an out-of-state school, meanwhile, could come in a matter of weeks.

Sen. Paradee also ripped into UD for a lack of diversity and what he sees as a failure to prioritize Delawareans.

As of the fall semester, 7,480 of the University of Delaware’s 19,047 undergraduates were Delawareans. That’s 39 percent, below comparable institutions in the region like the University of Virginia, University of Maryland, Penn State University and Rutgers, all of which have at least 56 percent of their population from within the state.

Twenty years ago, 45 percent of the student body population consisted of Delawareans.

“The reality is the 30-, 40-year trend line has steadily been down,” Sen. Paradee said. “Meanwhile, the amount of money that the state of Delaware gives to the University of Delaware has steadily gone up.”

The state operating budget for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2000, allocated $104.9 million, or about 5.2 percent of the total General Fund spending, to UD. In the current fiscal year, that total is $125.3 million, or 2.8 percent.

As Sen. Paradee noted, the sum earmarked for UD’s general operations comes to about $16,800 per in-state student, while the $3 million set to be given to Wesley is equivalent to approximately $6,000 for each of its 500 or so native Delawareans.

“God forbid we give a little bit of money to Wesley College to help them bridge the gap and everybody acts like it’s the biggest story and the greatest controversy,” he said.

Its racial makeup compares unfavorably to other flagship institutions in neighboring states, Sen. Paradee, himself a UD graduate, said.

As of fall 2018, 71 percent of undergraduates were white. At the University of Maryland, for instance, just 48 percent of the students this school year are white.

While the Hispanic, Asian and international student population at UD has increased over the years, the percentage of black pupils has remained around 5 percent for decades.

President Assanis responded by noting most of the comparable institutions in the region receive more state funding and described the data Sen. Paradee cited as potentially misleading.

Out-of-state students pay two-and-a-half times in tuition what Delaware residents are charged, which Dr. Assanis referred to as crucial to allowing the university to provide a quality education for all.

Many Delawareans, he said, simply aren’t ready to attend UD straight out of high school.

“I’m not the one holding back the kids from Delaware to come into the university,” he told the committee. “We need more production for babies and we need better qualified students who come out of their K through 12, because we don’t want to put them in a first-class environment and leave them to have mental health problems because they would fail. So, it’s a complex equation.”

At issue as well was the university’s status — specifically, is it public?

UD’s website calls it a “state-assisted yet privately governed” school, which has its roots in the institution’s charter. Delaware State, in contrast, has a slightly different status, according to officials.

UD has butted heads with state auditor Kathy McGuiness recently about whether she has the ability to audit the school’s finances, an issue that came up Thursday. Delaware law says the university’s expenditures of state funds shall be audited annually but does not reserve the ability for the auditor, instead noting only the officeholder “may” examine the records.

“There is no parameter that the state auditor solely and exclusively audits UD’s state dollars,” Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer John Long said, telling the committee the institution and the state must agree on who will conduct the audit.

Perhaps coincidentally, a request for proposal for an audit of UD from one of the country’s major accounting firms was posted Thursday, according to Mr. Long.

DSU and DelTech were recently audited by Ms. McGuiness’ office.

A few others also posed questions about transparency during the hearing, with Sen. Laura Sturgeon, D-Woodbrook, asking if Dr. Assanis would be willing to open up committees of the Board of Trustees to the public. Board meetings are public and subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, although its subcommittees are not.

Dr. Assanis gently shot down the request, saying UD has already taken steps to promote transparency.

John Morgan, an associate physics professor at the university and a frequent critic of its inner workings, during public comment noted the Court of Chancery ruled in the 1950s UD is in effect a state agency.

“I believe there is no legal basis whatsoever for the claim it is a private university,” he said.

Dr. Assanis declined to answer questions afterward, citing a meeting for which he was late.