Remarks from the December 4, 2020 Meeting of the Board of Trustees

Friday, December 4, 2020

Board of Trustees
Friday, December 4, 2020

Remarks by Sheri Everts, Chancellor

Good afternoon.

A week from today, we will celebrate our second virtual commencement. I know we are all looking forward to a time when we will be able to celebrate this ultimate commemoration of our students’ academic achievement in person again. Our December graduates have earned one of the most significant achievements of their lifetimes under historically challenging circumstances: two consecutive semesters overshadowed by a global pandemic unlike anything the world has seen in more than a century.

We began 2020 with App State Football fresh off of its fifth consecutive bowl game win. We were continuing our work toward funding faculty salary increases – even as we were entering the third quarter of our fiscal year without a state budget – and in January, we celebrated our first Inclusive Excellence Awards.

Within nine weeks, we had pivoted to virtual working and learning scenarios as we simultaneously developed policies, processes and strategies for managing a global health crisis. I doubt any of us can count the number of times we have heard or used the words “unprecedented” or “uncertain” this year.

Indeed, we faced many situations the likes of which our university has never seen. As we were shifting students to remote learning, faculty to remote teaching, and staff to remote working, we also administered emergency funds to our students, faculty and staff who were facing significant financial hardship. The work of our IT and Center for Academic Excellence teams, our Auxiliary Services staff, our Human Resources Director Mark Bachmeier and his team, and our Dean of Students team has been incredible this year. We continue to rely heavily on them, asking them to do more each day, and they continue rising to the challenges before them.

Over the course of a few short weeks, we re-built an entire university infrastructure – even as we were using it. We faced new unknowns and increasingly difficult challenges each day; and we saw our worst fears realized when tragedy struck and one of our students, Chad Dorrill, died due to COVID-19 complications.

I would like to sincerely thank you for your support and advocacy for our university during this tumultuous year. I would also like to thank:

  • My senior leadership team for their around-the-clock work to ensure we had infrastructure and resources at the ready, as we faced new and daunting challenges on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis.
  • Our deans, associate vice chancellors, vice provosts, department chairs and staff managers also deserve our thanks for their extensive preparation, which mitigated risk to the greatest possible extent and allowed us to continue to further our academic mission, providing a classroom experience to students who needed it, and flexibility to students and faculty who needed remote learning options.
  • Our faculty and staff, most of whom shifted to working from home – though many also continued to come to campus – have earned our thanks for ensuring the greatest possible continuity for our students as well as for their colleagues. Several of our staff members, in particular, experienced furloughs and/or re-assignments this year.
  • Our students and their families, many of whom experienced significant misfortune and hardship as a result of this pandemic, have earned not only our thanks, but our respect. They have demonstrated their determination to succeed, and their grace under pressure as their schedules, course delivery methods, and fundamental college experiences changed; as well as exhibiting courtesy for one another as they complied with the many new restrictions in place to preserve the health of our community. They have adjusted to incredible challenges in their daily routines. Many lost their jobs. Their college experience has included unprecedented levels of isolation; yet they adapt – and continue protecting themselves and others. They are learning to lead and to serve in a world that has been fundamentally changed, with preparation from an institution that prioritized providing them the best and safest possible learning experience under some of the worst circumstances our university has ever encountered.

We have a structure in place that gives us the key data we need to make informed decisions. This is thanks in large part to our Environmental Health & Safety and Emergency Management Director, Jason Marshburn. Jason has done an incredible job managing countless logistics for the 317 days since our COVID-19 campus planning discussions first started, and the 279 days since we formally activated our emergency operations center to coordinate our preparedness, response and recovery efforts. His efforts were assisted by an operations team led by Vice Provost Mike McKenzie and Associate Vice Chancellors Matt Dull and Nick Katers, which coordinated more than two dozen project-specific planning teams that assembled in the spring and developed and executed their plans throughout the summer and fall.

Last semester, we conducted the majority of the tests administered in Watauga County. Since the start of the semester, we have administered more than 29,000 COVID-19 tests to students, faculty and staff, with an overall positivity rate of 3%. Our significant levels of surveillance testing provided important data for better decision-making, not only for us, but also for our public health partners. 

Testing data, combined with contact tracing, give us a better picture of where and how to respond, including how best to direct resources. Even at the height of this semester's active case count in early October:

  • We knew we had no in-class transmission;
  • The spread of the virus was contained within the university community; and
  • Our meal support and use of our quarantine/isolation space remained at very small levels.

Our COVID-19 dashboard has been a critically important communication tool. We launched it this summer, and in fact, were one of the first universities in the state to do so. This semester, we refined the data presentation with input from our faculty. Working closely with local public health, we update our dashboard daily. 

A ranking tool created by two professors at Yale University College of Medicine includes our dashboard. App State’s dashboard earned the second-highest ranking among North Carolina institutions. Our ranking is equal to that of UNC-Chapel Hill (and because of our daily updates, outranks that of Duke University).

We regularly review the data we provide and how we present it so the members of our university community, and the general public, can easily access and understand the information provided. 

Each week, I augment the information on the dashboard with additional reports. I send my weekly updates, as well as weekly campus operations updates, to faculty, staff, students and student families. Each month, I send updates to alumni as well. All of these communications are published to our COVID-19 website.

We were able to assess and share this important information with Interim President Roper, President Hans and their UNC System leadership teams, state and local public health, our campus community and our students’ families in regular meetings, daily dashboard updates, and in scheduled weekly communications. UNC System leadership support has been invaluable in securing important resources, including a steady supply of rapid-response COVID-19 tests, and testing equipment for our Student Health Service team.

I also meet with my senior leadership team daily, with President Hans regularly, and you all are well aware of the regular conversations I have with you, as well as members of the Board of Governors – thank you, Governor Byers – and with elected officials, and members of our town and county leadership. My leadership team is also engaged in regular meetings with System leadership and their counterparts at other System institutions, as well as with state and local public health officials. In each of these interactions, we have worked to ensure our university has the resources and support in place to respond and adjust to continually changing circumstances.

Our significant planning, preparation and leadership involvement allowed us to avoid taking the “one-size-fits-all” approach of moving all courses to remote instruction in the fall.

  • Our faculty demonstrated their commitment to our students’ educational success in many ways. Importantly, their flexibility allowed the Academic Affairs team to work with individual students on their course delivery needs. I have received countless emails from students and their family members expressing their appreciation for faculty who have responded to their needs. I’d like to thank Vice Provost Mark Ginn and Vice Provost Jacqui Bergman in particular for their extensive work with students and faculty, which allowed us to take a customized approach to course delivery. We finished our semester with 55% of our classes being delivered fully remotely and 45% being taught in hybrid or fully face-to-face formats.

  • The Student Affairs, Business Affairs and Academic Affairs teams worked together to assist students in opting out of their housing contracts, reducing density in residence halls in a way that provided the option for those students who needed, or wanted, to move to all-remote instruction and return to their family homes to do so, while also retaining an on-campus experience for those who needed it. By the end of this semester, we had about 73% occupancy in our residence halls, and again, many grateful emails from students and their families who appreciated having choices available in order to make the best decisions for their individual situations.

As we wrap up this semester, we had some of the busiest testing events – and the lowest positivity rates – of the year. At our exit testing events during the last two weeks, we administered more than 5,200 COVID-19 tests, with a positivity rate just under 1%. As of today, we are not using any of our quarantine/isolation space inventory, and our meal support remains at very low levels. 

Our students’ adoption rate of wearing face coverings on campus has been nearly universal.  Wiping down their workstations has become a standard habit. They created peer-accountability programs, and while there were some parties and group gatherings, we did not see major super-spreader parties. These facts were shared repeatedly by regional media outlets.

Our support for the greater community continues. This year our staff have prepared and delivered more than 10,000 quarantine meals to campus as well as to community members.

As we prepare to celebrate our ultimate success – our students’ upcoming graduations – there are other successes I want to be sure we acknowledge. Many of you have heard me say that higher education doesn’t celebrate our successes enough, and we have had some significant ones this year.

We achieved a major milestone in university history when we passed the 20,000 enrollment mark. This achievement is even more important within the context of the financial challenges presented by the global pandemic. Our strong enrollment history meant that we entered the pandemic from a strong financial position. This has allowed us to make COVID testing widely available, to re-assign staff members who might otherwise have faced furloughs, and to maximize the Federal Stimulus funding we received to provide as much direct assistance as possible to our students. Exceeding 20,000 is a turning point that has also allowed us to work with the UNC System on assigning a new peer group for App State, so our reference institutions for resource allocations will be more relevant to the Appalachian of today.

We increased enrollment in significant strategic access areas as well, including with rural and first-generation students, and a record 18% of our student population identifies as racially and/or ethnically diverse. Since I arrived in 2014, we have increased our total underrepresented student population by 56%, and we have nearly doubled our first-year underrepresented enrollment — a 97% increase. I am incredibly proud of the work our faculty, staff and students have done to help realize these numbers, and I encourage our university to celebrate them, even as we continue to set ever-higher standards for our institution-wide diversity and inclusion initiatives. 

We cut the ribbons on our newest residence halls, Raven Rocks and Thunder Hill, as well as the North End Zone facility. These projects will be key to recruitment and retention of talented students as we see the population of traditionally aged undergraduate students diminish in the near future. It is important to note that these projects are allowing us to move forward without impact to our academic budgets. The North End Zone project is funded through private donations and revenue sources. The residence halls project is a public-private partnership that is projected to save the university more than $73 million over the cost of developing the property on its own. Both of these projects are possible because of Millennial Campus designation, which as you know, allows us the flexibility to not only enter into agreements with private firms, but also to keep all revenues related to leasing space in the properties – an option that may become even more critical for us in the near future. Thank you for your forward-thinking approach and advocacy for these and other Millennial Campus designations that will allow us to be innovative and pragmatic as we plan for a post-pandemic future.

We welcomed the recipients of Appalachian’s premier signature scholarships — a group of 24 students who exemplify Mountaineer values and ideals, and we are excited to see these students thrive at App State! 

At this year’s virtual Appalachian Energy Summit, we announced that institutions and affiliates in the UNC System surpassed the goal they set in 2012 of avoiding $1 billion in energy costs by 2020 and are on track to achieve $2 billion in avoided costs by 2025. I applaud Chief Sustainability Officer Dr. Lee Ball and the Office of Sustainability for their continued leadership of this important initiative.

App State received recognition in Forbes Magazine as one of 19 universities selected to join an ongoing project aimed at developing more inclusive faculty recruitment, hiring and retention in STEM disciplines, and our university police department hosted and sponsored a bias training session for App State and High Country police officers. Fifteen members of the university and local police forces are now certified to provide implicit bias training to other sworn officers and officers in training.

App State senior student-athlete and offensive lineman Cole Garrison, an exercise science major, is headed to the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine — the next milestone on his journey to become a surgeon. Cole is nationally recognized for his scholastic achievements, known for his community service and, this summer, he scored in the top 13% on the Medical College Admission Test. Cole credits App State’s excellent professors, state-of-the-art facilities and access to resources as helping him and other students excel. Importantly, he also recognizes his App State athletics scholarship as critically important as he factors in the cost of going to medical school. Cole is one of the many students that helped App State earn the highest graduation rate in the Sun Belt Conference for the second year in a row. 

Our faculty have continued to see success and media attention for their research:

  • Dr. Sandi Lane, associate professor in the Department of Nutrition and Health Care Management, has contributed her expertise on the effects of COVID-19 on nursing homes across the state of North Carolina.
  • In a recent interview with Forbes Magazine, Dr. Rajat Panwar, associate professor in the Department of Management, drew upon his expertise in forestry and business sustainability to discuss the effectiveness of different methods for reducing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.
  • Dr. Brooke Christian, assistant professor in the A.R. Smith Department of Chemistry and Fermentation Sciences, has co-authored research that could yield a more cost-effective storage and delivery method for drugs and vaccines that eliminates the need for refrigeration.

Work continues on our new residence halls as well as on Sanford Hall, and we are also making steady progress with the Child Development Center expansion project. You will recall zoning and annexation into the town of Boone were approved this fall. We expect to announce a contractor for the project in a few weeks, and we are eager to get the project completed. Being able to increase the capacity for the center, which has a long waitlist, by an additional 40 to 50 children, will make a tremendous difference for our students, faculty and staff with young children.

Laurel Creek hall, our next residence hall scheduled to open in the fall, is well underway. Framing is in progress, the roof is in the beginning stages, and workers are simultaneously installing mechanical work, plumbing, electrical and the fire suppression systems. Design is underway for New River Hall, which will replace Justice Hall in phase three of this project in Fall 2022. 

Work on Sanford Hall is progressing, and we are excited to be so close to opening new classrooms and common areas next semester! The renovated building will house the Department of English and feature improved classrooms and larger offices, as well as more common areas and collaborative workspace for students. Classrooms and common areas on the lower floors will be made available first, followed by office spaces on the fifth floor.

As we look forward to these milestones, I know you are aware that logistical planning for the Spring semester has been underway for many weeks. As we continue to navigate the incredible challenges before our industry, state, region and university, the safety of our community and our academic mission remain our guiding principles, and we will continue to rely on data to inform our decision making.

In many ways, Spring semester will look and feel similar to this fall. In August, every student, staff and faculty member received three washable, reusable face coverings. Next semester, they will each get five. We expect the new designs and the three-ply and adjustable ear loop features to make them even more popular than the ones we distributed in the fall.

We will continue with a robust COVID-19 surveillance testing schedule, including required entry testing for all students living in residence halls, and we are engaging in wastewater testing research with our residence halls, to help us further refine our targeted testing strategy. Daily health self-assessments will continue to be required for all faculty, staff and students prior to leaving their residence halls or coming to campus. All cleaning and sanitizing procedures and distancing requirements will remain.

Course delivery methods will be similar, although there will be more synchronous courses for those taking remote classes. We do expect to have fewer class cancellations for weather, since many classes can now pivot to remote learning.

We recognize that feelings of isolation, loneliness and anxiety can become heightened in the colder and darker months, and we are working on ways to facilitate the community connections our students need, while also following safety guidelines. You’ll see on this slide a concept for some outdoor campfire locations we are installing on campus. These will allow students to gather, roast hotdogs and marshmallows, listen to music and enjoy the outdoors, while staying physically distanced, but socially connected.

Our regular meetings and engagement with UNC System leaders, and with state and local public health officials, will continue. We will be involved in administering COVID-19 vaccines, and have already been engaged in conversations with state and local public health officials so we will be ready when the time comes to distribute the vaccine.

We will also continue building upon the important diversity and inclusion initiatives we have underway, and I’d like to thank our Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Willie Fleming for his leadership in this regard, and especially thank Chair Lampe and Trustee Reaves for dedicating their time and efforts to our Diversity and Inclusion Accountability Team. We appreciate your guidance and support as we continue this important work.

Looking ahead to fall, and encouraged by news of a COVID-19 vaccine, we are also encouraged by our very, very preliminary enrollment reports, which show increases in submitted and completed applications of more than 10% compared to this time last year. Provost Norris will want me to remind everyone that these are still very early days (I hope I said “very” enough for you, Heather!), but as we all anticipate the budget challenges we know are coming, it is nice to be able to look to some positive signs.

We have been forever changed, but we will return to the traditions of college life at App State, building new memories upon those currently dominated by Zoom meetings, face coverings and hand sanitizer.

We anticipate the days when our football stadium will again be full of cheering fans, when the Schaefer Center will be filled with the sights and sounds of patrons enjoying performing arts events, when students will gather together in study spaces, when classrooms will be full, and when Founders Day, Homecoming and Commencement will again be held in person.

When we emerge from this pandemic, the words “App Strong, App Resilient” will hold new meaning, and carry a new sense of pride.

Thank you all, again, for your continued support and leadership, through the challenges we have seen and those yet to come.

Mr. Chair, this concludes my remarks.