Remarks from the September 24, 2021 Meeting of the Board of Trustees

Friday, September 24, 2021

Board of Trustees
Friday, September 24, 2021

Remarks by Sheri Everts, Chancellor

Good afternoon, and thank you, Chair Lampe, for your leadership of this Board.

I’d like to begin my remarks today by acknowledging the contributions of former Chancellor John Thomas, who passed away at the beginning of the month. Chancellor Thomas was a beloved member of our campus community who served as chancellor of App State from 1979–1993. He championed the importance of teaching and research going hand-in-hand, and his legacy of innovation and service will remain a central aspect of our campus culture for generations to come. Those who were fortunate to know him remember him as kind, thoughtful and community-focused. He was my trusted mentor and dear friend, and he will forever occupy a special place in my heart and in the heart of our campus community.

As you entered the Student Union today, you were able to experience something we have dearly missed on our campus until recently: the buzz of activities related to a fully in-person semester. In addition to classes, homework, group projects, club meetings, and socializing on the mall or in other favorite spots on or off-campus, we are back to holding events! Safety week, Constitution Day, Founders Day, an amazing outdoor concert with Luke Combs and home football games are helping us find some semblance of normalcy in our lives again.

I am pleased that many of you were able to join us for so many recent events and celebrations, including our dedication of the Jerry Moore Plaza, our “Queen City Takeover” expertly hosted by Alumni Affairs, Family Weekend, and, of course, Founders Day, which offered an opportunity to understand, embrace and more fully celebrate our rich and diverse university history.

Earlier this month, our university Police Department recognized its fourth class of graduates from the program’s summer Appalachian Police Academy. Fourteen new recruits are now on their way to entering the criminal justice job market with college degrees, North Carolina law enforcement certifications, AND up to two years of policing experience in a program that values and prioritizes diversity and inclusion.

Tomorrow, we will hold a long-awaited celebration to commemorate the graduates of the Class of 2020, in person. This group of graduates earned one of the most significant achievements of their lifetimes amid the challenges of a global pandemic. While we held a virtual ceremony for them in 2020, we continue to applaud their grace and unwavering resilience and we look forward to celebrating with them — in person! In fact, you may be able to hear them ringing the Founders Bell as we speak — this is a new tradition the Class of 2020 is beginning for all graduates moving forward.

Last night’s victory over Marshall was further evidence of our position as a leader in the Sun Belt Conference. As Vice President of the Sun Belt CEOs, I am excited about the future of the Sun Belt, and App State’s standing in the conference.

It was not so long ago that the COVID vaccine was simply a hope, our best tools for fighting the pandemic were distance and face coverings, and nearly half of our classes and almost all of our meetings and events were virtual.

Certainly, we are feeling much more optimistic, but we are still actively managing our COVID recovery and response efforts.

It’s been 617 days since we first began monitoring COVID-19 and 497 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 and I have been actively engaged in ensuring the university’s preparation, response and recovery efforts for 617 continuous days. Since January 16, 2020, most of my team have 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.

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 are requiring weekly COVID testing of all unvaccinated students and employees, and FEMA was on campus this week offering free vaccines on Sanford Mall.

We have also awarded $100,000 in scholarships to vaccinated students — and numerous other prizes to students, faculty and staff — as an expression of our appreciation for prioritizing the health and well-being of themselves and the entire campus community.

Our students are sharing their stories and their reasons for getting vaccinated, and we know that peer-to-peer messages make a difference. I know we all appreciate these students helping us with our vaccine efforts. Here’s a preview of some of the recent short messages we are sharing on social media and in other settings.

I’d like to thank Bailey and the Student Government Association leadership for working closely with our communications team to help share these and other important messages.

The rates of students and employees who are getting vaccinated and reporting their vaccine status are steadily increasing. Requiring weekly testing is continuing to push the numbers in the right direction. We report campus testing and vaccine data — as well as active case counts — publicly on our COVID data dashboard each Monday. Each Friday, I provide interim updates, so our campus community has the latest information at the beginning and end of each work week. This morning, I reported an increase in our student vaccination rate to 58%, and our employee vaccination rate remains steady at 94%. Our on-campus testing numbers continue to increase: so far this week, we have tested 1,496 members of our campus community with a positivity rate of 1.3%.

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. We will continue making data-driven decisions, informed by public health guidance.

Regular communications remain a key priority during this time of continual change. Over the summer, Provost Norris and I hosted a three-week, comprehensive leadership workshop for chairs of academic departments. We discussed 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. The Provost and I have, at the invitation of department chairs, continued our practice of attending faculty meetings to learn more from the academic departments about their priorities, successes and vision for the future. Additionally, my leadership team and I are holding regular meetings with Faculty Senate, Department Chairs, Staff Senate, the Student Government Association, Graduate Student Senate, Deans and others as needed, for small group discussions. These are important opportunities for open dialogue, and while much of the current conversations have been pandemic focused, we have also engaged in discussions about research priorities and resource allocation.

As we manage the effects of the pandemic, students continue to place trust in App State. 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.

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 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, when I came to App State, 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.

National rankings also make the case for our caliber and distinction as the premier public undergraduate institution in the Southeast. App State continues to rank among the nation’s “Best” and “Top” colleges, according to U.S. News & World Report, The Princeton Review and Forbes magazine. These national publications recently recognized App State for its academics, innovation, benefits for student veterans, and programs to enhance the first-year experience.

For the second year in a row, App State tops U.S. News & World Report’s list for Most Innovative Schools. We earned number-two slots in undergraduate teaching and best colleges for veterans, and placed third among top public schools in the South. For five consecutive years, our university has led the nation in National Board-Certified Teachers. Our student-athletes have posted 18 consecutive semesters with a collective GPA of 3.0 or above.

These successes are the shared accomplishments of our faculty, staff and students, and I’d like to take a moment to applaud their significant successes, especially under the extraordinarily challenging circumstances of the last 18 months.

The entire App State community has been celebrating the latest victory of our solar vehicle team, Team Sunergy, as they competed in the 2021 American Solar Challenge. This rigorous competition tests the limits of groundbreaking sustainable technology, problem-solving skills and teamwork. Immediately after their second-place win at the international 2021 Formula Sun Grand Prix, Team Sunergy finished in first place for multi-occupant vehicles — winning all three stages from Missouri to New Mexico, clocking 965 miles and also earning awards for teamwork and electrical design. Team Sunergy competed with grace and finesse against elite universities — including MIT, University of California, Berkeley and Georgia Tech — in tests of skill, strategy, endurance and engineering expertise. Our team excelled among a roster of highly elite institutions with celebrated engineering programs. I am extraordinarily proud of their ingenuity, perseverance and teamwork.

What began in 2013 as a class project to build a solar-powered golf cart blossomed into an interdisciplinary team that has earned the respect and admiration of the entire international solar racing community. Since App State began competing in solar vehicle competitions in 2016, we have earned top awards in each and every race in which we have competed. This year, we are designing championship rings for the team, which we will present to them very soon.

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 first-place champion Solar Vehicle Team, learned from Professor Baker Perry about his latest climate research and met with several of the academic Deans to hear 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 and 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.

As we laid out our vision for the future, we also shared the cost-of-living challenges of Boone and the surrounding area, and demonstrated our position in the UNC System funding model. (I’ll remind you, we’re at the bottom of the funding model.) Faculty and staff salary increases are key to our ability to recruit and retain talented academic professionals to App State, and I regularly talk with our legislators and members of the Board of Governors about this.

As the legislative budget process progresses, we are optimistic about the outcome for App State.

Making the case for our deserving faculty and staff is NOT a difficult task, as they continue to set standards for excellence. Our staff are improving the campus experience every day:

  • Reviewing and improving our IT infrastructure;
  • Implementing an innovative new electronic textbook rental program;
  • Relocating our Career Development Center to a new, beautifully appointed location in the heart of campus and expanding its hours and services and including more diversity-focused career initiatives; AND
  • Fostering a safe and welcoming environment for our students to thrive.
  • Our Climate Action Plan, developed by 13 different groups comprised of students, faculty, staff and administrators, is serving as a roadmap to guide App State towards climate neutrality.
  • We are also making headway in the areas of transportation, purchasing, waste management and land use planning. The Office of Sustainability has a wealth of information on its website regarding these initiatives, and regularly adds new information about these and other important initiatives.
  • In January, App State and App’s electric utility, New River Light & Power, which serves nearly 9,000 residential and commercial customers in and around the Town of Boone, will begin purchasing its electricity from Carolina Power Partners. This new partnership opens greater renewable energy opportunities, and we will immediately increase our renewable energy purchase portfolio from just under 2% to 15%. With this conversion, we also anticipate a cost savings of about half a million dollars.
  • Our newest residence hall, Laurel Creek Hall, opened this summer, and is the third of four new residence halls to be constructed as part of a major three-phase housing project near Kidd Brewer Stadium. The 152,000 square foot, 640-bed residence hall was completed on time and under budget, and was built according to Green Built Alliance standards, which are even more stringent than LEED certification standards.

    This year we also dedicated our university’s first residence hall for transfer students, Mountain Laurel Hall, which also houses offices and staffing to provide greater support to transfer students. As we actively work to streamline and expand transfer-specific services, including housing, these efforts support our strategic enrollment and retention initiatives identified as part of the UNC System’s strategic plan. Importantly, for some of our transfer students, a strong residential component is central to their academic experience. We have made real and powerful differences for our transfer students, and the numbers bear this out. We are proud that one in four Mountaineers begin as a transfer student and our retention rate for transfer students remains close to 80% — which is well above the national average.

    Our faculty are engaging our students in important research.

    • Dr. Baset Hamza, assistant professor in the 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 some 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 add that the value of an App State education speaks TO the excellence of faculty and staff in teaching, research, creative endeavors and service. Each day, our faculty and staff find new and engaging ways to support and mentor our ambitious and supportive community of students.

    In case you haven’t seen it, I’d like to quickly play an App State video, which helps share some of the excitement and pride we all feel about the university.

    Thank you for your continued and robust support of the important work taking place on our campus.

    Mr. Chair, this concludes my remarks