Remarks from the March 26, 2021 Meeting of the Board of Trustees

Friday, March 26, 2021

Board of Trustees
Friday, March 26, 2021

Remarks by Sheri Everts, Chancellor

Good Afternoon,

It has been more than a year since this board began meeting virtually to comply with COVID safety precautions. Four hundred and thirty-two days ago, campus planning discussions first started around COVID-19, and it has been 380 days since our Emergency Operation Center formally activated to coordinate our preparedness, response and recovery efforts.

I cannot express how proud I am of the efforts of our staff, in particular, to help keep our campus safe and healthy, our operations running and our university strong and prepared for post-pandemic operations during the most challenging year in university history.

To date, we have conducted more than 52,000 COVID-19 tests on campus. Our positivity rate has remained well below the county and state rates throughout the spring semester, and we have had no documented cases of transmission in the classroom.

Our campus is very, very ready to get back to normal operations, and with the supply of vaccines reaching our campus, I am relieved and encouraged. We will begin vaccinating all students who live in residence halls and apartment buildings at our clinic next week, and will continue to operate our clinic as Group 5 eligibility opens in the state. Our clinic has the capacity to vaccinate 1,500 people each day. At our first clinic on March 11 and 12, we vaccinated 680 faculty, staff, students and community members. Yesterday, our clinic vaccinated nearly 300 people in four hours, and next week, we expect to receive 2,000 additional vaccines. Of the 16 UNC System campuses receiving allotments next week, App State is among the three who will receive the largest allotments. I am so very grateful to Jason Marshburn and his Emergency Management team, as well as the staff in Wellness and Prevention Services, Student Health Service, and the Campus Dining staff in particular who were re-assigned to work with the university’s COVID-19 response team. These individuals have worked tirelessly to prepare for the time when we could begin vaccinating our campus and community, and they were literally dancing at our first clinic!

The incredible work that has gone into setting up and staffing our vaccine center includes students and staff in the Convocation Center, and Department of Nursing faculty and students. Dr. Michele Rudisill, a clinical instructor in our Department of Nursing, oversaw the student nurses during the clinic as they joined our many university frontline health care workers in a critical moment in the history of our university, our state and our nation.

Members of the Dean of Students Office, the Appalachian Police Department, our Parking and Transportation personnel and volunteers from campus also have been assisting in our on-site clinics, and I know you join me in thanking them so very much.

The hundreds of individuals involved in our COVID response and recovery efforts will tell you they are simply doing their jobs, but they are all heroes in the fight against COVID-19. 

After two virtual-only commencements, we are thrilled to be able to offer an in-person option for our May graduates. Graduates who wish to participate will walk across the commencement stage in their regalia, have their names read aloud as they receive their diploma covers and have their degrees conferred by me in person. In order to maximize safety and allow for guests to attend, our preliminary schedule, which is designed to provide an in-person commencement opportunity for 3,000 students, is to have three ceremonies each day for five days — a total of 15 ceremonies. Currently we have 2,442 registered, and they want to be here! I really do love commencement! We will livestream all in-person ceremonies, and I will also confer degrees virtually on May 7 for those who wish to celebrate with their loved ones remotely.

I know we are all excited about fall semester for so many reasons. Last month, as we were looking ahead to vaccine distribution, I announced our upcoming fall semester will look more like fall 2019, pending continued success with the vaccine rollout. We will be launching several community campaign efforts, including radio PSAs, billboards, social media badges and giveaways to encourage our community to get vaccinated. 

We will, of course, continue to set the standard for excellence with safety and cleaning procedures. We are busily planning for in-person classes, on-campus work, fully occupied residence halls, fully operational campus dining, and resuming events and activities. We are diligently developing return-to-work safety protocols, in alignment with UNC System guidance. The most recent System guidance recognizes that employees who have been working remotely need to return to work safely to prepare for normal operations in the coming fall semester. Of course, our vaccine center will be a significant asset in our ability to have our employees who have been working remotely return to their offices, classrooms, and work environments very soon. 

I know we are all very excited for football season! Yesterday, we were thrilled to announce the Homecoming game date, and are looking forward to celebrating a football alumni reunion at the Oct. 30 football game as well. In addition to all of the planning Doug’s team has happily underway, I know Stephanie Billings and her team are also already busily planning alumni events.

This year, we earned the distinction of being one of only 10 universities that won FBS bowl games and made the NCAA Tournament. Our women’s basketball team made us very proud this season as well, and our student-athletes continue to be successful this spring season, on the field and in the classroom. Given the challenges presented by COVID-19, we can all be particularly proud of them and their accomplishments.

We continue to support all of our students as they manage the challenges presented by the pandemic on top of the standard pressures and demands of college life. I would like to thank Dr. Alex Howard and his teams in Wellness and Prevention Services, Student Health Service, Counseling and Psychological Services and University Recreation for the incredible work they have been doing to engage and support our students. Additionally, our Career Development Center’s relocation to the Student Union and its enhanced programming to support our students and help them find jobs is more important than ever.

We are in the process of distributing a second round of federal funding — about $8 million to nearly 18,500 of our students. I’d like to thank Associate Vice Chancellor Sharon Bell and University Treasurer Timothy James and their teams, as well as our Financial Aid team. They have streamlined a bureaucratic process and worked hard to develop an equitable process that helps our students receive this federal aid as quickly and as easily as possible. 

As our country struggles with societal challenges, our university community feels the effects. Last week, our Chief Diversity Officer, Dr. Willie Fleming, shared an important message with the Appalachian Community in support of Asian Americans. His words were especially meaningful, as he called upon the entire App State Community to stand together in solidarity to help bear the burden so many Asian Americans have borne unsupported. My own family has experienced firsthand this intolerance, prejudice and discrimination, and I greatly appreciate his call to action.

Our Diversity and Inclusion Accountability team also met yesterday. Presenters were faculty members Dr. Jamie Parson, Dr. Greg McClure and Dr. Elizabeth Bellows. These members of our Inclusive Excellence team shared progress on their team’s initiatives to assist faculty with curriculum and course development, as well as assisting departments with developing their infrastructure, knowledge and capacity to strengthen their overall diversity and inclusiveness. I appreciate the work of this team a great deal. They are helping make fundamental, institutional changes that are needed and required of a university of our size and scope.

The Appalachian Police Department has developed the Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement Unit to help build meaningful relationships and trust between APD officers and campus and community members from underrepresented groups. The unit is led by alumna Cashae Cook, who was appointed diversity, inclusion and community engagement officer in January. This is another important step in the university’s work to graduate professionals who are leaders in their fields and who will make wonderful changes in the industry.

I am very pleased to share that App State has earned the No. 6 spot among large public schools receiving the Top 10 Military Friendly® Schools honor for 2021–22. This national designation recognizes U.S. higher education institutions for their support of and resources for student veterans and active-duty military members. We advanced two positions above the No. 8 ranking we received last year! For more than a decade, App State has been recognized for being in the top 15% of colleges, universities and trade schools in the country that are doing the most to embrace military students, and to dedicate resources to ensure their success in the classroom and after graduation. This is an accolade shared by many units across our university whose work honors and values the contributions of our military students, faculty and staff, and who work daily to strengthen services and resources that support our military community and their families.

The work of our faculty has worldwide impact. Dr. Baker Perry, who many of you will remember was recently featured in a National Geographic documentary about his expedition to set up meteorological stations on Mount Everest, is continuing his groundbreaking climate research, and is also inspiring young scientists around the world.

Recently, a 4-year-old boy from Brazil named Max has, in the words of his father, “become fascinated with all things Everest, climbing, and especially Baker Perry” after seeing the National Geographic documentary. Max calls Baker Perry his “superhero,” and dresses up in a Baker Perry outfit, complete with wearing a COVID face mask, which he says is part of his climbing gear. Dr. Perry recently sent Max and his sister a video telling them about what it was like to climb Everest, why he did it, and encouraging them to study and work hard to accomplish their goals. You will recall that Dr. Perry is also the great-great-grandson of two of our founders, D.D. and Lille Shull Dougherty. He certainly continues their legacy of inspiring young people to follow their educational dreams, and he makes us all proud to be Mountaineers.

At the beginning of this month, we completed our most successful iBackAPP campaign yet. Many of you were iBackAPP Champions and I thank you for your involvement. It was a day of much-needed fun, celebration and making Mountaineer connections across the country and the world. Vice Chancellor Barghothi reported to the Foundation Board yesterday that we surpassed all prior donor and fundraising numbers to raise $259,000 from more than 2,600 donors. Significantly, 311 of those donors contributed to App State for the first time. I congratulate Jane and her team for making this day such an important success for App State students, faculty and staff.

After a year without a new state budget followed by 12 months of major disruptions in university operations and their personal and professional lives, our staff and faculty are very attentive to the current budget discussions taking place in Raleigh. We greatly appreciate UNC System President Hans prioritizing faculty and staff salaries as one of the System’s key operating budget priorities.

As you know, on our campus level, I continue to advocate for legislative budget increases, as well as for appropriate staff and faculty compensation. We have been fortunate to have had several recent visits from state legislators and have greatly appreciated the time they have taken with us to have more extensive conversations. In these meetings, my leadership team and I regularly champion the tremendous quality of work, research, scholarship and creative endeavors taking place on our campus. We expect to see renovation and restoration prioritized by the General Assembly, and are sharing our priorities for the possibility of one-time funding for these projects.

We share stories of our faculty and staff working to make a difference in our classrooms and community — and their far-reaching impacts across our state and region. We pair these high-impact stories with key information about App State that reinforces our peer group and comparison institutions to help make the case for appropriate funding. My team and I are not alone in this advocacy work. I want to take this opportunity to thank Governor Byers, Chair Lampe and Trustee Blackburn for their longstanding advocacy for App State. As Chair Lampe and I have shared with Staff Senate and other campus groups, exceeding 20,000 in enrollment this year was an important turning point that 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 App State of today. 

In April, members of the university’s leadership will share our annual budget briefing and strategic initiatives with campus. My leadership team and I began holding these annual, public budget presentations in 2016 in order to engage campus input in this important process. I look forward to these presentations each spring — they are a time for members of our campus community to be involved in the beginning of each year’s budget process, offer a chance to ask questions, and also provide important reporting on resource allocation.

Over the last incredibly difficult year, we have seen unprecedented expenses due to the global pandemic. We have been forced to furlough Athletics employees, reduce occupancy in our residence halls, cut sports programs, and direct much of our resources towards our COVID response and recovery efforts. 

Earlier today, our Chief Sustainability Officer, Dr. Lee Ball, presented a bridge strategic plan to the Academic Affairs committee. In early fall 2020, Interim Provost Heather Norris and Vice Chancellor for Business Affairs Paul Forte charged a faculty and staff working group to develop this plan as a bridge from the most recent University Strategic Plan. Lee, and Heather Langdon, Executive Director of Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning, led the working group to develop this plan. It is designed to guide the university through our current time of financial and social uncertainty, and to provide guidelines for the university's next five-year strategic plan. The bridge plan is an important, pragmatic step in planning for App State’s future. I know you join me in thanking Lee, Heather and the many others who came together to help our university pivot and respond to the circumstances of the pandemic.

We remain future-focused, and I would like to thank you for your support as we continued and completed several construction projects over the last few months. As you know, the funding for these projects could not be re-allocated, and completing them not only helped support the local economy, but also positions us to continue moving forward as an institution. It also allows us to emerge from the pandemic stronger and ready for what the future holds for the higher education industry post-pandemic.

Last summer, we opened our new residence halls on time and on budget; we are meeting today in our new, state-of-the-art end zone building, and yesterday we were thrilled to officially celebrate a newly renovated Sanford Hall, which serves, on average, 4,600 students per day and holds more than 100 offices for faculty and staff. Major construction on our Child Development Center will be completed in August, and by October of this year, the center will be able to welcome 40 to 50 additional children — on top of the nearly 70 they already serve! 

Our focus on the future includes exciting and innovative academic initiatives as well. Last month, I was thrilled to announce a multimillion-dollar sponsored contract between App State and Banfield Pet Hospital to develop a first-of-its-kind, four-year, online degree program for licensed veterinary technicians. We are proud to engage in a forward-thinking partnership with the leading provider of preventive veterinary care in the U.S. to address the market demand for skilled, veterinary professionals, especially in rural areas. We are developing a visionary academic program that will advance the profession and elevate the role of licensed veterinary technicians. Students will be eligible to apply in August, and the program’s first class will begin in less than 18 months.

This partnership with Banfield signifies App State’s ability to grow strategically, focusing on serving the needs of the state and the region with exceptional academic programs.

It also aligns with the UNC System’s strategic priorities, which include access to education and degree completion for rural, first-generation and low-income North Carolinians. It also supports the myFutureNC goal of ensuring that by 2030, 2 million North Carolinians will have a postsecondary degree or credential that meets the demands of our businesses and industries.

2021 is the final year of reporting for the UNC System’s five-year strategic performance benchmarks as set in 2017. Based on data provided by the UNC System office in December 2020, we are on track to meet or exceed all of our goals. Among our prioritized goals, we are performing particularly well in rural and first-generation enrollments. Notably, our rural student enrollment exceeds the System’s strategic plan benchmark for this year by more than 300 students, and we are above our benchmark goals for low-income completions.

In areas designated for improvement:

  • we are above the benchmark goals for low-income enrollments;
  • we have surpassed our final target in undergraduate degree efficiency — a measure of enrollments per degrees awarded;
  • to date, we can report $28 million in external funding from grants and contracts, which far surpasses the system’s strategic goal of $18.3 million by 2022; and
  • we have surpassed our goal to sustain our five-year graduation rate, which has reached 78.6% in the last year. 

These achievements speak to the dedication of our all of our faculty and staff to ensuring student success, and I know you join me in thanking them for their steadfast commitment.

Before I conclude my remarks, I would like to thank Tom Van Gilder, who is serving in the role of interim associate vice chancellor. As you know, this role was previously held by David Hayler. We appreciate David’s 32 years of leadership and service to App State, and wish him well in his retirement. Tom has worked in various IT roles at App State for 23 years. For the past five years, he has served as the director of learning technology services within the Center for Academic Excellence. In the last year in particular, Tom has shown his ability to help our university utilize technology to adapt and change quickly and under difficult circumstances. I know you join me in thanking Tom for his willingness to serve in this new role.

Additionally, I would like to thank Marie Hoepfl, who is serving as acting dean of the Cratis D. Williams Graduate School. Dr. Hoepfl joined Appalachian’s faculty in 1997 and had a distinguished career as a faculty member in the Department of Sustainable Technology and the Built Environment, and served as a graduate program director and chair of the Graduate Academic Policies and Procedures Committee before being appointed to associate dean of the Graduate School in 2019. We thank Marie for her advocacy of our campus and online graduate education, and for serving in the role as acting dean. Dr. Mike McKenzie has transitioned fully into his new position of vice provost of academic program development and strategic initiatives. We appreciate his outstanding leadership of the graduate school since 2018 and his exceptional COVID response and recovery work over the past year.

As we look to a post-pandemic future, the future of App State is bright. Your support through this most difficult time has been an important touchstone for those who have worked tirelessly to lead our institution through the most turbulent times in its history, and for me personally. In the face of adversity, the many successes of our students, faculty and staff inspire us all. This outstanding university community deserves a strong, vibrant institution that will carry forward the legacy of innovation, resilience and increased access to education for North Carolina’s citizens. Thank you for helping us shape and strengthen this legacy for future generations.

 Mr. Chair, this concludes my remarks.