Remarks from the March 27, 2020 Meeting of the Board of Trustees

Friday, March 27, 2020

Board of Trustees Meeting
Friday, March 27, 2020

Remarks by Sheri Everts, Chancellor

Good afternoon.

As I give this report, I am deeply saddened by the circumstances in which we find ourselves. While we regularly train for numerous crises and disasters, the reality of leading our university through an extended global pandemic sets in with significant gravity at unexpected times throughout the process. We are simultaneously planning for every conceivable scenario, responding to each new circumstance, and learning to anticipate every eventuality as the ground continues to shift beneath our feet.

I have told my leadership team numerous times throughout the past few weeks they are the right people to be at the helm with me during this time. They have risen to every challenge:

  • Transitioning 2,600 course sections from face-to-face to online learning in two weeks;
  • Reaching nearly 600 faculty last week alone with workshops, support and training sessions;
  • Managing the reduction of our on-campus residents from more than 5,600 to fewer than 130 – that’s two percent of our usual number;
  • Reducing our operations to essential functions, with more than 2,150 faculty and staff working from home or off-campus locations;
  • Bringing 128 students home from international programs, and suspending or cancelling 58 more international programs that were scheduled to begin this semester and this summer.
  • Freeing resources to ensure we can meet the immediate needs before us, limiting expenditures to essential spending and continuing to closely monitor our resources and COVID-19-related expenditures;
  • Delivering curbside meals to our campus community;
  • Cleaning residence halls, offices and public spaces with increased frequency;
  • Supporting the emergency response and relief efforts of our broader High Country community;
  • Developing new work shifts to comply with social distancing and share work hours across staff members;
  • Re-allocating resources to fortify emergency loans for faculty and staff, and student grants to help ensure a safety net for the Appalachian Community.

So far, no faculty, staff or students have been confirmed as having COVID-19 by our local public health agency. We know this could change at any time. Our hope is the timing of our Spring break and the mitigation efforts by the UNC System are making a difference in the health of our community.

We are seeing an increase in financial need for our students affected by displacement and loss of employment. Our University Advancement and Student Affairs teams worked together to develop the Mountaineer Emergency Fund for our students who are facing financial challenges that present significant barriers to their academic success. Students who encounter an unforeseen financial emergency or urgent situation that would prevent them from continuing their App State education may apply for short term, emergency grants – money they don’t have to pay back – that can help them through this difficult time. With the fund merely days old, we have already granted allotments to students struggling with job loss, and those with child care and utility bills piling up. These are powerful examples of how this fund makes an immediate difference, and I will take a moment to say publicly that you can continue to help our students by visiting give.appstate.edu.

As you know, along with our sister institutions in the System, we are prevented by the coronavirus from holding a face-to-face Commencement in May. Our librarians report that in the history of this institution, we have never cancelled the university’s main Commencement ceremony, not even for the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic or World War II. It was unthinkable for us to consider cancelling our May Commencement ceremony, especially with the available technology that is allowing faculty to continue teaching and engaging in research. So, we will celebrate May Commencement virtually and invite our Spring graduates to December Commencement. These aren’t the options we want, but they are options we can commit to now, allowing our students and their families and friends the opportunity to celebrate from wherever they are in May, and time to plan to walk across the Commencement stage in person.

I am immensely proud of our faculty. The efforts they made to flip their courses from face-to-face to online and other remote learning modes were tremendous, and they continue to prove themselves to be selfless and adaptive professionals. I can assure you, as a former faculty member who also taught online, it is not easy. It requires more hours and constant availability to your students, and when you haven’t planned for it, it can be a shock to the system. However - the vast majority of our faculty have simply made it work, without complaint and with a deep understanding of the historic circumstances in which we find ourselves. Teaching with children home and laundry piling up, they change their Zoom backgrounds to a sunny beach or outer space, and they continue the work of making real and powerful connections with our students. They keenly understanding that these relationships across distance are all the more meaningful in times of widespread anxiety and fear of the unknown.

Of course, faculty will recall at the beginning of the academic year, I committed to develop a 4.99% pool for faculty merit increases, with the understanding that once the budget process was complete at the state level, we would move forward with merit increases for faculty as allowed. We certainly could not have anticipated the challenges with the state budget at that time, nor the current circumstances that have caused President Roper to temporarily disallow salary adjustments. I remain committed to continuing my history of advocating for and providing salary increases for our faculty when we have funding and authorization.

Our staff, who (often behind the scenes) have and continue to support our faculty, did not have Spring Break. They have worked long hours – many logging 12-plus hour workdays for several weeks now, to ensure faculty and students had the technology, training and support necessary to begin a “new normal,” while continuing to keep the institution running and adapting to each new change as it comes. It’s important to note that some staff, particularly those who have temporary employment status, have faced reduced work hours or no hours as we moved to a system of telecommuting. While the System has ensured short-term financial relief for them, we know they have great concerns about their financial stability moving forward.

As we navigate this confusing, rapidly changing and unpredictable new normal, leaders across campus are continuing to share valuable updates and exhibit tremendous dedication and innovation in all aspects of campus life. On so many occasions, I have been encouraged by the resoundingly positive response of the Appalachian Community to the challenges posed by COVID-19:

  • Our Staff Senate transitioned their annual AppKIDS Superhero Run, Walk, or Fly 5-K, which raises funds to support winter shopping trips for local children in need, into a virtual, “run from where you are” race.
  • In a recent note to her college, Dean Melba Spooner of the Reich College of Education encouraged her newsletter readers to be the “first to give someone a smile today.”
  • Earlier this week, our Department of Art donated 30 N-95 masks to our local health department.
  • The Turchin Center for the Visual Arts had to close its doors, but its staff created community art kits, and left them in an outdoor locker, for anyone in the community to pick up for free (using the disposable gloves provided).
  • Career Development is engaging with employers and connecting them with students, while continuing to assist our students with career materials, job searches, and interview preparation.
  • Our providers in Wellness and Prevention, the Student Counseling Center and Student Health Service are continuing health care to students via telephone, Zoom and on a limited, in-person basis.
  • Faculty “champions” from each department who regularly teach courses online continue to share strategies and tips with those who are converting face-to-face courses to remote learning experiences.

We are Appalachian State, and we will prevail.

Faculty and staff whose roots are firmly planted here – from Professor Baker Perry, the great-great-grandson of D.D. Dougherty, to IT Manager James Shook, the nephew of Mary S. Shook, who was Appalachian’s first health care provider, exemplify the power and the heart of the Appalachian Spirit.

The instinct to support and encourage, especially in the face of adversity, has bolstered us through the most difficult moments in our history for more than 120 years. We will emerge from these challenges stronger, more resilient, and poised for even greater success.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my remarks.