Remarks from the December 3, 2021 Meeting of the Board of Trustees
Board of Trustees
Friday, December 3, 2021
Remarks by Sheri Everts, Chancellor
Good morning. On behalf of the entire university community, I’d like to extend a warm welcome to you, Madam Chair, in your new role as Board of Trustees Chair, and offer my thanks to you for your leadership.
We began this semester with the continuing care and concern associated with gathering for a full campus experience during a global pandemic.
We have come through this semester with incredible success. We can attribute that success to a solid practice of making data-driven decisions, the benefit of established COVID safety protocols, a campus community that wants to be part of the solution and most importantly, a vaccine to inhibit the spread of the virus and diminish the impact of breakthrough cases. With 17 active cases in student and employees, we are seeing lower rates of positive test results than at this time last year, when we had 68% occupancy in our residence halls and 55% of our classes being taught in a fully remote format.
The rate of students who are fully vaccinated is 70%, and for employees that rate is 83%, significantly higher than Watauga County’s rate of 58% and the state rate of 57%, although we are encouraged to see those rates rise as well. Our residence halls remain at full capacity and in-person events are regularly taking place on campus.
We have been able to hold in-person events, including Homecoming festivities, during which we recognized our Fleming Scholars with a reception in their honor. We hosted the Board of Governors on campus for a tour and research showcase that culminated with many of them joining a stadium full of Mountaineer football fans for a nationally televised win over a ranked Coastal Carolina. We honored our veterans with a week of special events, and live music concerts have included not only the very high-profile Entertainer of the Year Luke Combs concert in September, but also many events by our Hayes School of Music students and faculty, including concerts celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month, and the annual Holiday Scholarship Concert. Basketball season is underway, and fans are energized by a terrific season last year, a strong start to the season this year, and opportunities to watch the games in person.
While we are still vigilant with safety precautions, watchful of the data, attentive to the science, and alert to information about new variants, more of our emergency operations are dedicated to recovery than to pandemic response.
By this time last year, I had a well-established team that I called my “COVID Council.” This is not one of those leadership opportunities people apply to become part of for professional development or career progression. This group was formed out of emergency need, and consists of Provost Norris, Vice Chancellors Hank Foreman, J.J. Brown and Jane Barghothi, Emergency Management Director Jason Marshburn, Chief Communications Officer Megan Hayes and me. We met every day, seven days a week — sometimes multiple times each day — to manage each new crisis, respond to each new decision made at national, state or local levels, and to review new data. Through every evening, every weekend, every holiday, we remained in constant contact. Our families became used to us leaving the dinner table, stepping away from birthday celebrations, and being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Jason — in particular — was delivering meals and medicine to students on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Only very recently have our meetings moved to once a week. When we began our COVID response operations 688 days ago, I don’t think any of us knew how often or how closely we would be working together. We have become a team that trusts one another implicitly, challenges one another as needed, and supports one another as we have faced the worst situations imaginable. I thank this team for their tireless energy, their unparalleled professionalism and their impeccable integrity.
While our COVID Council was the core decision-making team, many others have ensured our students, faculty and staff are supported during the incredibly difficult challenges of the pandemic, including:
- Our student health team, especially Dr. Alex Howard, Dr. Taylor Rushing and Margaret Bumgarner;
- Our counseling teams for students and employees;
- Our Dean of Students team, especially Judy Haas and the case management team;
- Our campus dining team, many of whom were re-assigned to perform COVID response duties;
- Our campus services team under the leadership of Nick Katers;
- Our Academic Affairs leadership team, especially the Vice Provosts, Deans and Department Chairs;
- Our Department of Nursing faculty and students, who were on the front lines of our vaccine clinics; AND
- So many, many others.
Because of the dedication and hard work of these individuals and their teams, App State earned renewed trust from our legislature, UNC System leadership, public health agencies, local government and non-government agencies and business owners across the region, as well as current and prospective students and their families.
This trust led to record enrollment, expansion into the Hickory area and the best state budget support in recent university history.
I’d like to extend my thanks to this board and the Board of Governors, particularly Governor Philip Byers, for your advocacy and support, and to the members of the General Assembly and Governor Cooper, for the budget that will:
- provide well-deserved bonuses and across-the-board salary increases to our employees;
- allow us to break ground on the first building of the Innovation District;
- renovate classrooms and offices for enhanced student learning, AND
- continue improving the resilience of our natural ecosystems through the daylighting of Boone Creek, among other exciting projects.
On November 19th, we announced that App State will expand with a campus in the City of Hickory.
I’d like to thank Vice Chair Ricks and Board Secretary Tommy Sofield, as well as Trustees Chesson and Wyatt for being in attendance at the announcement event. Our dear friend and Board of Governors member Philip Byers, a tireless advocate for App State, was with us in spirit, and I know we all appreciate his support for this project. Notably, we also had representation from the United States Senate and House of Representatives and members of the General Assembly, in addition to Mayor of Hickory Hank Guess and many members of the Hickory City Council, and Commissioners from the three counties Hickory spans.
For more than a year, I have said that given the limitations in Boone, future expansion for our campus will be online or outside of the Boone area. Hickory is a vibrant, growing city that serves rural, Northwest North Carolina, and it is the largest metropolitan area in the state that did not have a major, public university campus. This partnership will allow App State to continue the mission we have had since 1899 — to increase access to education for the citizens of North Carolina.
The building was most recently the headquarters of Corning Optical Communications. At five stories and nearly 226,000 square feet, the building is now officially the largest owned by App State. It features large, open spaces, a cafeteria, and nearly 700 parking spaces, as well as nearly 16 acres of land.
Located less than two miles from the Hickory airport and four miles from Interstate 40, the future App State Hickory Campus has frontage along U.S. Highway 321. The campus is close to downtown Hickory and two regional hospitals, and is only a short drive from the second North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics campus, which will open next fall in Morganton.
Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory, Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute in Hudson and Western Piedmont Community College in Morganton are all within a 30-minute drive, and all three are partners in the Aspire Appalachian Co-Admission Program, which provides a seamless pathway for students enrolled at partner community colleges to complete their degrees at App State.
Prior to the announcement of App State’s future Hickory campus, our deans toured the building with Provost Norris, Vice Chancellors Foreman and Barghothi, other members of my cabinet, and me. We had a rich and engaging discussion about the possibilities for cross-disciplinary, cross-college collaborations. Our university leaders also enjoyed opportunities to discuss the needs of the area with government and local academic leaders.
In the coming weeks and months, we will continue the conversations with the Hickory community and we will seek additional input from the university’s academic leaders to determine the best options for program offerings and utilization of this much-needed space.
We will also perform an audit of the building to assess energy and efficiency needs, and we have already begun conversations with city leadership about ways we can work together to advance our shared sustainability goals.
The City of Hickory has welcomed us with open arms, and Mayor Guess even presented me with a key to the city!
Media coverage of our announcement reached every corner of the state, and garnered more than 12 million views within 48 hours.
Our future Hickory campus has the potential to be the most significant advancement in App State history since becoming a UNC System institution in 1967. The possibilities are endless!
There are two very important people to whom we owe thanks for paving the way for this expansion:
- Leroy Lail is known for his ongoing advocacy of educational expansion in Hickory, particularly during his time on the UNC Board of Governors. When I arrived in Boone in 2014, Leroy immediately initiated conversations with me about the possibilities for App State in Hickory, and he and I have been working together to bring an App State campus there ever since.
- Former Trustee Don Beaver has also been a steadfast champion of this project, and his sage advice has been invaluable.
The influence of App State’s stellar faculty is making real and powerful differences across our state and nation.
App State has partnered with Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools on a five-year, multi-million-dollar school principal pipeline initiative funded by the Wallace Foundation. The project goal is to raise student achievement in urban public schools. Research indicates that sound school leadership is second only to teaching in improving public K–12 education and student success. Of the eight, high-needs school districts across the nation chosen for this project, only one is in North Carolina. Through this initiative, App State faculty from the Reich College of Education are working closely with Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School District leaders to develop and implement a pipeline for strong K–12 leadership. They are developing coursework, resources and training to select and prepare school principals to be effective leaders who can ensure the success of students from diverse backgrounds.
Dr. Sarah Evans, assistant professor in the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences, is leading undergraduate researchers in their study of permafrost in Alaska. Their work is helping to determine how the patterns vary in a changing climate.
Their research is funded by a $690,000 National Science Foundation grant. Dr. Evans is partnering with faculty at Idaho State University and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Using the results, Dr. Evans and Marta Toran, Outreach Coordinator and Lecturer in the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences, will create educational outreach activities for rural K–12 students and communities throughout the Southern Appalachian Mountains and a central stretch of the Rocky Mountains in Idaho.
Last month, Chief Sustainability Officer Lee Ball, Dr. Dave McEvoy, Chair of the Department of Economics, and Dr. Martin Meznar, associate dean for global and civic engagement in the Walker College of Business, represented App State at the 26th annual United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. This global collaboration of world leaders and influential business, academic and civic change agents is described by the United Nations as the biggest and most important climate-related conference in the world. Drs. Ball, McEvoy and Meznar are working to include our students in future conferences and are exploring ways App State can employ this significant global platform to address the threats of climate change and build resilience — on our campus and beyond.
App State’s Student Support Services staff have secured funding from the U.S. Department of Education that is expected to reach $1.7 million over five years. The grant is supporting first-generation and low-income college students at App State. Our Student Support Services program, which has helped retain and graduate these students for nearly 50 years, provides students with academic support, specialized instruction and proactive advising, and career development and financial literacy coaching. It also includes scholarship aid. The program’s latest Annual Federal Performance Report showed that 97% of the student participants entered the fall 2021 semester in good academic standing, and that student participants have improved graduation and retention rates. With nearly one-third of our undergraduate students eligible for exceptional financial need, this program is a critical component in our ability to change lives in North Carolina with access to education.
Scholarship aid, both need-based and merit-based, allows us to further this important mission begun by our founders in 1899.
Gifts and pledges received for the 2021 fiscal year totaled nearly $25 million, up more than 14% from 2020, and new commitments exceeded $28 million, an increase of nearly 8% from 2020. For the current fiscal year, we have closed four, $1 million gifts thus far. For this fiscal year, we are just over $1 million ahead of where we were this time last year in gifts and pledges received.
Alumni engagements, which include in-person meetings, activities and events, exceeded more than 2,500 to date for this semester.
Our investments are also performing well. For the 2021 fiscal year, we saw a 39% return on the Foundation’s endowment pool. This is an historic high.
Jane and her team, in particular, Executive Director of Alumni Affairs Stephanie Billings, are doing an incredible job. Thank you, Jane and Stephanie and their teams!
As part of Phase Three of our new residence halls project, New River Hall is well underway and construction of the building is on schedule to be completed in July — in time for students to move in for the Fall 2022 semester. New River Hall replaces Justice Hall, which was demolished over the summer and early fall. Demolition of Gardner and Coltrane residence halls was completed last month, and that area is being developed for surface parking. New River Hall will have 750 beds in a modern, air-conditioned building with a mix of suite-style and apartment-style units. As an added health and safety measure, we are phasing out large bath and shower areas shared by multiple students in our new residence halls, which lowers the risk of exposure to illness.
Our new and improved Career Development Center’s location in the heart of the Student Union is supporting the center’s enhanced programming, evening hours and expanded services — including more diversity-focused career initiatives — to help better meet the needs of our students. The new center features:
- open seating and work areas for students;
- multipurpose spaces for engagement with Career Guides and peer leaders; and
- interview rooms so students can engage with employers in professional settings.
Our Child Development Center expansion project is making headway. Excavation work for the expansion site area is complete and footing work is underway.
The expansion will add five additional classrooms, a kitchen, laundry facilities, and additional parking and sidewalks around the new and existing buildings. The sections of the pre-fabricated building are expected to arrive within a few days. Once construction is completed, the process for obtaining inspections and additional permits required for child care certification will begin.
The center currently provides care for 68 children from infancy through pre-school, and will be licensed for 55 additional children.
The recently passed state budget includes $54 million in the current fiscal year to begin work on App State’s Innovation District. Our future Innovation District is an ambitious enterprise that will have a lasting and powerful impact on the region. This exciting, long-term project has been included in the university’s master planning since 2016, and numerous faculty and staff have worked to develop a vision for it with input from students and alumni. The Innovation District will embrace multiple disciplines and include collaborations both on campus and with the community. It will bring together expertise found in the Appalachian Energy Center, the Center for Appalachian Studies, the Research Institute for Environment, Energy, and Economics, the Center for Entrepreneurship, and the Small Business and Technology Development Center.
The first building of the Innovation District will be the Conservatory for Biodiversity Education and Research, which will serve as a vital link between the campus and the regional community through education, research and outreach. New facilities also in discussion include:
- spaces for research, teaching and demonstration;
- greenhouse rooms;
- workspace for multidisciplinary projects;
- renewable energy labs;
- conference rooms; and
- expanded exhibition and studio spaces.
I’d like to thank Hank Foreman, in his role as Vice Chancellor of External Affairs and Strategic Initiatives, for leading this important project, and also Corporate and Foundation Relations Director George Baldwin for his work in helping coordinate the current planning process.
In September, I reported to you that next month, 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. This effort is the result of many people across the university working to renegotiate energy contracts as part of our overall commitment to reduce our use of fossil fuels. As part of these efforts, we are also working on an agreement that will convert the purchased electricity for Leon Levine Hall to 100% solar early next year.
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.
The University’s Planning and Priorities Council has been holding listening sessions with campus and meeting with key constituency groups, including the Faculty Senate Executive Committee. They will use the feedback from these sessions to inform the initial drafts of the plan next semester, and will again seek feedback from campus prior to presenting the plan to me, and then to you, for final approval.
Last month, my COVID Council and I concluded a series of meetings we have held each week with leadership representatives from Faculty Senate, Staff Senate, the Council of Chairs, Deans and the Student Government Association to discuss COVID operations. We also discussed what we might expect to see in the spring semester.
- We remain collectively focused on using our mitigation tools to decrease the spread and the impact of COVID-19 on our campus — the most important being the vaccine.
- We will continue our efforts to increase vaccination rates, require testing for those who aren’t fully vaccinated and maintain enhanced cleaning and sanitization measures.
- We will continue to make data-driven decisions and follow CDC and state and local public health guidelines.
- Our faculty, staff and students have shown they are conscientious and considerate, and we are confident they will continue to do what it takes to keep our campus and community as safe as possible.
I know many of us will be leaving this afternoon to travel to the Sun Belt Football Championship game in Louisiana. After Saturday’s win over Georgia Southern, we head into the post-season with a 10-and-2 season, and Doug and Shawn assure me we’re ready for a win over the Ragin’ Cajuns tomorrow. I will note that only four FBS programs have won more than nine games every season since 2015: Alabama, Oklahoma, Clemson and App State.
I will also note that last month, App State was awarded the Institutional Graduation Rate Award for having the highest overall graduation rate in the Sun Belt Conference. This award recognizes the academic success of not only our student-athletes but of all of our students, and it speaks directly to the culture of academic excellence at App State. We are so proud to lead the conference with our overall graduation rate. Congratulations are in order for our outstanding students, faculty and staff for achieving this honor.
If you are looking for a way to support our students, faculty and staff during this holiday season, I encourage you to consider two giving opportunities in particular:
- The Mountaineer Food Hub and Free Store is a campuswide effort, coordinated by the Office of Sustainability, to address food insecurity within our campus community. It serves primarily students, but is also open to staff and faculty, and has become an even more important resource during the COVID pandemic. The food hub provides staple foods, fresh produce, bread, breakfast items and personal care products. In addition to its main location in the Office of Sustainability, there are satellite locations throughout campus, and the Office of Sustainability ensures they all stay stocked. The “free store” also carries interview clothing, winter gear, school supplies, household items and various other goods.
- Additionally, Our AppKIDS program, which is organized by our Staff Senate, supports local children in need with an annual shopping trip, providing them with winter clothing, school supplies and hygiene items. Using donated funds, App State faculty and staff volunteer their time to host the children, spending the day getting to know them, and ensuring they are able to take home items that they need, and I am honored to provide each child with a book. For many of the children, this event is the only time of year they are able to get new clothes. This year, a generous donation allowed us to ensure that each child could also choose a gift for themselves. Those of us who have volunteered to spend time with these children can tell you it is one of the most rewarding experiences a person can have. It has been going strong for 41 years, and has helped generations of local children. Some of our staff who were beneficiaries of this program as children, now volunteer as shoppers.
If you wish to support these important efforts, you can do so at give.appstate.edu or you can speak with Jane after the meeting today.
In closing, I would like to invite each of you to attend our Fall Commencement ceremonies one week from today, on Friday, December 10. Nearly 1,700 graduating students will participate by walking across the commencement stage to honor one of the most significant achievements in their lifetimes. This is the ultimate celebration of the work we all do together, and the reason we are all here. It is without a doubt, my favorite time of the year.
We will hold three ceremonies (reduced a bit from our Spring Commencement and university record of 13 ceremonies!)
- At 9 a.m., we will hold a ceremony for graduates of the Beaver College of Health Sciences and Walker College of Business.
- At 1 p.m., we will hold a ceremony for graduates of the College of Arts and Sciences, Hayes School of Music, and Reich College of Education.
- At 5 p.m., we will hold a ceremony for the College of Fine and Applied Arts and the Williams School of Graduate Studies.
Each ceremony will be livestreamed for those who cannot attend in person.
As we near the completion of an incredibly successful semester, I would like to thank each of you for your unwavering support of App State’s students, faculty and staff. We have much to celebrate in 2021, and much to anticipate in 2022 and beyond.
Madam Chair, this concludes my remarks.