Remarks from the Fall 2021 Faculty and Staff Meeting

Friday, October 8, 2021

Fall 2021 Faculty and Staff Meeting
Friday, October 8, 2021

Remarks by Sheri Everts, Chancellor

Good afternoon.

Thank you for the opportunity to address you this afternoon. While this meeting is taking place a bit later in the year than is typical, I always look forward to the opportunity to provide you with a university update.

I’d like to begin my remarks today by acknowledging the legacy of former Chancellor John Thomas, a beloved member of our campus community who passed away last month. Chancellor Thomas served as chancellor of App State from 1979–1993. He championed the interconnections of teaching and research, and his legacy of innovation and service will remain a central aspect of our campus culture for generations to come. Whether you knew him or not, you were likely a beneficiary of his thoughtful leadership and community-focused kindness. He was my trusted mentor and dear friend, and he will forever occupy a special place in my heart and the heart of our campus community.

This semester has been busy, and has included so many opportunities to reconnect after lockdowns and periods of isolation that took incredible tolls on the mental health of so many members of our university community.

  • We celebrated the latest victory of our solar vehicle team, Team Sunergy, who 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. And WON FIRST PLACE in the American Solar Challenge for multi-occupant vehicles — winning all three stages from Missouri to New Mexico, clocking 965 miles, and also beating out the aforementioned universities (with their renowned engineering programs) for the competitions’ awards for teamwork and electrical design.
  • Kidd Brewer Stadium is once-again open to spectators and we welcomed Luke Combs to campus for a twice-postponed concert, and won our first two home football games. We’re looking forward having an in-person Homecoming celebration, which will include many academic areas, at the end of 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. Thank you, chief.
  • We celebrated our third annual Founders Day, which offered an opportunity to understand, embrace and more fully celebrate our rich and diverse university history…
  • And, we held a long-awaited celebration to commemorate the graduates of the class of 2020 in person.

A question we have had is whether our campus events and gatherings have led to increases in COVID cases. The county and campus data do not indicate this, nor do the contact tracing efforts that are taking place locally and across the state.

This morning, in my weekly message to campus, I provided you with the latest vaccination rates and active case counts that pertain to our campus. We update campus and the greater community at the beginning and end of each business week. This is one of several ways my leadership team and I are working to ensure our campus community has access to the data we are using to make operational decisions about campus. We are also meeting with leaders representing Faculty Senate, Staff Senate, the Student Government Association, Graduate Student Senate, academic Department Chairs and Deans.

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.

Now, we have a vaccine that reduces the severity of the illness and lowers the stress on our medical system. With the vaccine, we have the ability to keep the university, our community and our state open and fully functional. Worldwide and nationwide, we are seeing significant declines in new cases of COVID, as well as in serious cases that require hospitalizations. In North Carolina, cases are declining as well, and in Watauga County, the rate of positive COVID cases is the second lowest in the state.

Certainly, we are feeling much more optimistic, but we are still actively managing our COVID recovery and response efforts. In fact, my leadership team and many staff and faculty have been engaged in ensuring the university’s preparation, response and recovery efforts for 631 continuous days. From the smallest details to the greatest tragedies, these individuals have set new standards for professionalism, grace under pressure and stellar work, which is often a model for their colleagues across the UNC System and beyond. Please join me in thanking them for their work.

We will likely be managing COVID as a university and as a society for years to come, but with the vaccine, it will become less severe and easier to cope with.

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’s mobile vaccine clinic administered more than 140 vaccines when they were on campus last month.

With readily available vaccines and reliable information about its safety and efficacy, the most effective tool we have to influence those who are not vaccinated to get the vaccine is trusted peers and mentors sharing their stories. If you are vaccinated, please talk with your friends, your family members and those who trust you and share with them why you chose to get the vaccine. Here’s a preview of some of the recent short messages we are sharing on social media and in other settings.

The legislative budget process is progressing. It’s a complicated process, so I’m not going to walk you through every one of those steps. You can find it on the university’s Budget Central website. That said, we’re in the lower right portion of the chart – the blue diamond that reads “Governor’s option.” If all goes well, we will have a budget that includes faculty and staff raises next week. We are also hoping to see allocations for capital improvements to Wey Hall, Edwin-Duncan Hall and Peacock Hall in the budget. This could allow us to begin some much-needed renovations AND restoration projects, including the creek daylighting project in the Peacock parking lot.

We are excited about the possibilities for our Innovation District, which has been included in the university’s master planning process since 2016. Since that time, numerous faculty and staff, with input from students and alumni, have worked to developed an ambitious vision that will have a lasting and powerful impact on the region. By expanding and enhancing the university’s curriculum, App State, through this Innovation District, will broaden economic development opportunities for rural areas in Northwestern North Carolina, AND will advance graduates who are ready to join the workforce as critical thinkers and active participants in developing economically, environmentally and equitably sound communities. Building on the important work we have done as a campus in the last five years, I have charged a steering committee to ensure the master plan for the Innovation District is informed by the latest information, market trends and input from you. Provost Norris— along with Hank Foreman, in his role as Vice Chancellor for External Affairs and Strategic Initiatives— are leading this team, and I would like to thank them for carrying forward this important project, which has been many years in the planning phase. Thank you both.

Work on the university’s comprehensive strategic plan also continues, and I would like to thank the many people who have been engaged with the University’s Planning and Priorities Council, and especially Chief Sustainability Officer Lee Ball, for chairing the large and diverse team that is working together to review and re-envision our strategic directions for the future.

Across the country, App State is known as a leader among public educational institutions for our sustainability and resilience practices, and we continue making headway in the areas of transportation, purchasing, waste management and land use planning. A campus sustainability update will be shared in the coming weeks. Thank you, Lee.

Even as we were deep in the management of the global pandemic, 13 different groups comprised of students, faculty, staff and administrators, were able to finalize and publish the university’s Climate Action Plan, our roadmap guiding App State towards climate neutrality.

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.

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 of those declines, 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. And 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, which was the year 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 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, our staff and our students, and I’d like to take a moment to applaud your significant successes, especially under the extraordinarily challenging circumstances of the last 18 months.

The tremendous accomplishments of our faculty and staff range from sustaining the university through the most daunting challenges in recent history to operating the highest weather stations on the planet.

As part of a grant with the National Geographic Society, Professor Baker Perry, in the Department of Geography and Planning, is leading App State’s collaboration with citizen scientists in Nepal to operate and maintain the weather stations they installed on Mount Everest. This installation was just recently recognized in the Guinness World Records Book as the highest altitude weather station on land. As a matter of fact, this is one of three world records set by Dr. Perry’s expedition team. Next week, I will have the pleasure of meeting Panuru Sherpa and thanking him and his colleagues for the incredible work they have done in helping us maintain the equipment, especially while our team was unable to travel due to COVID restrictions.

Dr. Alex Howard, Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of Wellness and Prevention Services, and Jason Marshburn, our Emergency Management Director, were both publicly recognized for their stellar professional leadership during the COVID crisis. For their meritorious leadership, Jason was awarded App State’s W.H. Plemons Leadership Medallion in the spring, and Alex was awarded the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce’s “4 Under 40” award. In their roles at App State, they have collaborated with state and local public health agencies to develop and implement the COVID protocols we are following today. For 18 months, they have worked steadily, day in and day out, to ensure the members of our campus community are as safe as they can possibly be. Their teams meet daily, and they coordinate with dozens of others across campus, to develop, refine and implement the thousands of logistics involved in our COVID safety protocols, including testing, vaccinations, records submission, workplace and classroom safety, cleaning, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine logistics and assisting and supporting local public health with their COVID safety practices.

Before I close, I would like to provide a quick update on two national searches that I shared with Faculty Senate on Monday:

  • A national search for the Chief Diversity Officer will commence shortly. The search committee will include a variety of constituency groups, including representation from the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff and students. Invitation letters to serve on the search committee were sent out this week.
  • Additionally, we are finalizing the members who will conduct a national search for the Vice Chancellor for Business Affairs. This committee will also include representation from the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff and students, and the search will be underway soon.

One final reminder, please remember to join us for a reception immediately after this meeting, where I look forward to speaking with each of you individually.

Midway into the fall semester, we have so much to celebrate, and so much to be proud of. As our students and some of our faculty depart for a brief Fall break, I hope we can take this moment to reflect on how far we have come in a few short weeks. We began the semester not knowing what would be around the next corner, and while we are still dealing with many unknowns, the ground is beginning to feel a little more solid beneath our feet. Thank you – each of you – so very much for pulling together to help App State continue its success as the premier, public, undergraduate institution in the Southeast.