Remarks from September 13, 2021 Faculty Senate Meeting

Monday, September 13, 2021

Faculty Senate
Monday, September 13, 2021

Remarks by Sheri Everts, Chancellor

Good afternoon, and thank you, Louis.

I’d like to begin by thanking you for your collaborative leadership and partnership, which began within minutes of your election as the new Faculty Senate Chair.

Thank you, also, for the invitation to speak today. As I look back to a year ago, it seems like it has been much longer than 365 days.

In Fall 2020, we began a new year having reached a landmark enrollment goal by exceeding 20,000 students, yet we had few students on campus. The COVID vaccine was simply a hope, and our best tools for fighting the pandemic were distance and face coverings. As a result, nearly half of our classes and nearly all of our meetings and events were virtual.

It’s been 606 days since we first began monitoring COVID-19 and 486 days since we first activated the Emergency Operations Center and began our response efforts, which have evolved into response and recovery efforts. I want to spend just a moment reflecting on these numbers. My leadership team has been actively engaged in ensuring the university’s preparation, response and recovery efforts for 606 continuous days. Since January 16, 2020, most of them have had not had a single day in which they were unplugged and disconnected from the 24/7/365 crisis that is COVID-19. I want to thank them in this setting for this work. It is never-ending. Each day brings new information which requires adjusting, changing, and continuing to respond to the effects of a global pandemic. COVID respects no weekends, no holidays, no birthdays, no family emergencies. It is relentless. My leadership team has risen to each and every challenge — from the smallest details to the greatest tragedies — and I applaud their continued professionalism, grace under pressure and stellar work, which is often a model for their colleagues across the UNC System and beyond. They are here to support and sustain your work as a Senate, and the work of the faculty, as you also continue to adjust and work within the daily constraints imposed by the global pandemic.

As we enter a fully in-person academic year, the pandemic is still very much with us, but now we have a powerful tool against the worst effects of COVID, and the benefit of more information each day about how the virus behaves and the efficacy of the vaccine. We cannot eliminate the risk of COVID, but with a vaccine that reduces the severity of the illness and lowers the stress on our medical system, we have the ability to keep the university, our community and our state open and fully functional. As you know, I cannot mandate the vaccine, but we are working to develop a number of ways to incentivize our university community to get vaccinated and report their vaccination status to the university.

We have seen a steady increase in the number of students, faculty and staff who are getting vaccinated and reporting their vaccine status. Our recent move to requiring weekly testing is continuing to push the numbers in the right direction. As you know, we updated our campus data dashboard each Monday, and in my Friday messages, I provide interim updates, so campus has the latest information at the beginning and end of each work week. I reported to campus on Friday that our testing numbers last week were higher than in any week so far this semester. Today’s data dashboard update shows that we conducted nearly 2,000 tests last week, with a four percent positivity rate. Our reported vaccination rates increased last week, which we expected when we announced the weekly testing mandate for unvaccinated students, faculty and staff. The number of students who have submitted proof of vaccination status – which, by the way, we verify with state public records – has increased to 56 percent. The rate of all faculty and staff who have attested their vaccine status is currently at 92 percent. These are important favorable trends during a time in which we are working to balance a return to pre-pandemic activity with the reality that the pandemic is still very much a part of our lives.

Our goal is to keep classes in person. We all know how important the in-person learning experience is. At this time, the data and research support keeping classes in person. We will continue making data-driven decisions, informed by public health guidance.

During the summer, Provost Norris and I hosted a comprehensive leadership workshop for chairs of academic departments, presented by the Division of Academic Affairs. Over three weeks, Department Chairs spent time with members of the university’s key leadership team, discussing topics that ranged from diversity and inclusion, to sustainability and climate resilience, to campus safety, internal and external communications, the legislative budget process, COVID safety and much more. It was an important opportunity for engaging conversations, and I look forward to these workshops becoming a regular event for these key campus leaders. In the coming weeks, Heather and I will, at the invitation of department chairs, continue our practice of attending faculty meetings to learn more from the academic departments about their priorities, successes and vision for the future.

Additionally, the Provost and I are scheduling new meetings with the Chair of this Senate, as well as the with the Chair of Staff Senate, Vice Chancellors, Deans and others as needed, including Jason Marshburn, for small group discussions.

At the end of last month, we welcomed UNC System President Peter Hans to campus. During his visit, President Hans met with the members of our champion Solar Vehicle Team, learned from Professor Baker Perry about his latest climate research and met with several of your Deans to learn about key academic priorities and projects.

He also toured Sanford Hall and Levine Hall, where he saw evidence of App State’s smart and capable stewardship of state funding in building and enhancing academic buildings. We also showed him I.G. Greer, so he could see a bit of what still needs to be done. We took him to the site of the future Innovation District, so he could envision the potential of the site for expanding and enhancing App State’s curriculum, embracing multi-disciplinary collaborations on campus and with the community. We shared App State’s vision for serving the region through the Innovation District with increased student engagement in research, creativity, innovation, design thinking and entrepreneurship.

We also clearly laid out the cost-of-living challenges of Boone and the surrounding area, and pointedly demonstrated our position in the System funding model.

At the end of the day, he was visibly impressed with App State’s faculty, staff, and students; he was clear about our position on the funding model and he saw what we are capable of, given opportunity that matches our caliber and our distinction.

This is the same refrain I regularly repeat to legislators and members of the Board of Governors. As the legislative budget process progresses, in the last two weeks in particular, I have utilized numerous opportunities to advocate for faculty and staff salary increases.

Making the case for our caliber and distinction was not difficult, as we shared key new accolades, which are YOUR successes, including our ranking as Number One for “Most Innovative Schools” and Number Two for “Best Undergraduate Teaching” by US News, among many others.

We also shared some of our latest census numbers, which also represent incredible successes on your part. The data is evidence of the trust students continue to place in App State during a global pandemic.

While the academic profile of our students remains constant, our total enrollment of 20,641 and our steady increases in the enrollment of underrepresented, transfer and App State Online students also reflect our university’s commitment to making higher education accessible for all students.

First-year enrollment growth has broken a new record at more than 4,000 students, undergraduate enrollment is up nearly 3%, and graduate student and App State Online enrollment are each up more than 6% from 2020. As I have mentioned before, this growth in App State Online students is where we expect to see more future growth, as the capacity to grow in Boone, even at a slow and steady pace, becomes more limited.

Underrepresented student enrollment has reached an historic high. Just over 19% of the total first-year population identifies as underrepresented, an increase of 5.7% since last year. We have more than doubled our first-year underrepresented enrollment since 2014 and, in the same time period, we have increased our total underrepresented student population by 66%.

Enrollment from rural populations has surpassed our goals set with the UNC System three years early with 34.3% of in-state, degree-seeking undergraduate students from rural populations. First-generation undergraduate students compose 32% of the undergraduate student body, AND

The transfer student population has grown by nearly 5% since last year.

The growth we have seen in all of these areas is critically important to the future of App State. It directly impacts our financial stability and our ability to attract and retain high-caliber students who will go on to live, work and make positive contributions to their communities —in North Carolina and far beyond.

While many colleges and universities are seeing dramatic declines in enrollment, and are making incredibly difficult financial decisions as a result, App State is operating from a position of strength, and has continued to thrive, even while managing the incredible stresses and challenges of the global pandemic. We welcomed three new deans who are already well into their new leadership roles, and we are celebrating the successes of our faculty, who continue to set standards for excellence:

  • Dr. Baset Hamza assistant professor in App State’s Department of Computer Science, received a National Science Foundation Grant to fund his work in making data centers more efficient. His goal is to improve and speed up performance, as well as reduce the carbon footprint and impact of data centers on the earth’s resources. His grant-funded work began in February 2020 and will continue through early 2022.
  • Dr. Lakshmi Iyer, professor in the Department of Computer Information Systems and acting associate dean of graduate programs and research in the Walker College of Business, is performing research aimed at fostering gender equity in Information Technology. Through a three-year project funded through the National Science Foundation, Dr. Iyer, in collaboration with four other women IT faculty from universities across the country, will help identify and eliminate organizational barriers that prevent diverse, female IT faculty from fully participating in the field and advancing to the rank of full professor.
  • Dr. Matt Estep, plant geneticist and associate professor in the Department of Biology, has begun a five-year study to examine the genetic diversity and sustainability of local endangered plant populations which are vulnerable to extinction due in part to climate change, land development and outdoor recreation. His project, funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, will help federal conservation efforts.

These are just three of the many remarkable stories we have to share about the work of App State faculty, and the work of our faculty continues to attract attention. We have seen a marked increase in earned media for the university, as well as in positive social media engagement, that is directly attributable to academic success stories. This exposure helps add to the trust families across our state — as well as legislators making funding decisions — place in our institution.

I have heard many people say the value of an App State education speaks for itself. I would say that the value of an App State education speaks TO the excellence of our faculty in teaching, research, creative endeavors and service. Each day, faculty find new and engaging ways to support and mentor our ambitious and supportive community of students. We have an important day of celebration of this important work coming up, so I’d like to close my comments today by encouraging you to attend our Founders Day Celebration on Friday. It is a day to celebrate the work we are doing, collectively, to carry forward the legacy of our founders, 122 years ago.

As we’ve discussed, Louis, I’ll be happy to take any follow up questions via email or at today’s reception. Your agenda is quite long, so I will sign off now.

Thank you for your time today, and for your work every day.