Remarks from the March 25, 2022 Meeting of the Board of Trustees

Friday, March 25, 2022

Remarks by Sheri Everts, Chancellor

Good morning. There is much to report today, and I appreciate your indulgence as I share some of the incredible progress and success we have had so far this year.

Today marks the 800th day since we first began planning, preparing and responding to COVID.  I am so proud of how our staff, faculty and students came together as a community to persevere. Together we managed the most significant crisis our university has ever faced. While we certainly didn’t all agree at all times, we kept our focus on making data-driven decisions and our goal — always — was to do what was best for our students.

Over the last two years, the university has donated nearly 20,000 meals for university and local community members who were in isolation or quarantine due to COVID; we conducted more than 93,000 COVID tests - free to the individual, for students, faculty and staff; and administered more than seven thousand vaccines to students, faculty, staff and community members.

We held our first COVID immunization clinics last Spring, and by January of this year, 90%  of App State employees and more than 81%  percent of students were verified as having been fully vaccinated.

While no one is saying the global pandemic is over, we are finally seeing the other side. The CDC has downgraded Watauga County’s COVID-19 Community Level to “Low,” they did that last night, and last week, Governor Cooper announced that the state is shifting its approach from crisis response to disease management, utilizing important tools, including the widely available COVID vaccines, treatment options, testing and personal protective equipment. We remain attentive to our campus data, as well as state and national trends and public health guidance. The university’s approach is in alignment with guidance from the federal, state and local levels: People may choose to mask at any time, and those with symptoms, a positive test or exposure to someone with COVID-19 should wear a face covering. Vaccines continue to be the most important and effective tool we have to mitigate serious risk, and we continue offering vaccines, testing and face coverings free of charge to students, faculty and staff.

Last week, students, faculty, staff, business leaders and community members came together for the Walker College of Business’ 63rd Boyles Distinguished Lecture, which featured Pam Mars Wright as the keynote speaker. Many of you were in attendance — and I thank you so much for joining us!

Pam spent the morning with female student leaders in the Walker College of Business, engaging in conversation and sharing her breadth of knowledge in navigating many aspects of the business world.

She then joined us for a luncheon, during which senior marketing major Isabella Riley addressed the audience of university and community leaders. Isabella described the many ways in which her Appalachian Experience has set her up for success, and — as we hear from so many of our students — how our dedicated faculty and staff have gone above and beyond to help her along the way.

For the afternoon’s signature event, about 2,500 students, faculty and staff were able to hear Pam’s insights about successful business strategies and lessons she has learned from being in a multi-generational family business. She shared many examples from the beginning of her career, to her time as chair and director of the Mars Incorporated board of directors — which governs the $40 billion business owned by the Mars family — and director on the Board of Banfield veterinary hospitals. We are so fortunate to have had Pam on campus, sharing her time and expertise. It was a fabulous day, and the perfect return to the series after COVID forced us to put so many of our in-person events on hold.

As you know, Pam became engaged with App State through our esteemed Vice Chair of the Board, her husband and alumnus Trustee Ricks. App State has benefited greatly from the generosity of both Pam and Mark, who worked with us to develop an innovative partnership between Banfield Pet Hospital and App State.

You will recall that last year, I announced a multimillion-dollar sponsored contract with Banfield to support the development of a four-year, App State Online degree program for licensed veterinary technicians, which will combine Bachelor of Science credentials with veterinary technician licensure. We will provide a four-year degree with on-site clinical training that will prepare students for meaningful employment in the growing veterinary medical profession, and lead to career advancement opportunities for those already working in the field.

A team of App State faculty, staff and external collaborators has worked to develop the curriculum, which is based on the American Veterinary Medical Association standards. App State’s curriculum will become a model for developing veterinary professional talent. It is the first of its kind, and will help meet shortages for skilled veterinary professionals in the rural areas of our region and beyond.  We are proud to engage in this innovative partnership, which will advance the profession and elevate the role of licensed veterinary technicians. And we are thrilled to welcome the program’s first class this fall!

App State has a strong legacy of preparing educators to lead and serve, and we remain steadfast in our commitment to recognize the promise of each student. This commitment is carried forward by the educators who teach in classrooms across the state and nation. For the sixth year in a row, App State has retained the #1 position in the nation for the number of alumni who are National Board-Certified Teachers. This accomplishment speaks to the dedication of these stellar professionals, particularly during these incredibly challenging times, and we admire and celebrate their commitment to education. Congratulations Melba.

App State educators are building on the success of the App State Academy at Middle Fork lab school. In August, we will open our second laboratory school, in partnership with Elkin City Schools. The new App State Academy at Elkin will utilize a “school-within-a-school”, and will serve approximately 100 students in second through fourth grades. App State will be the only UNC System institution to operate two lab schools. We have seen strong and steady support from the Board of Governors and the North Carolina General Assembly for the App State Academy at Middle Fork lab school, and we greatly appreciate the trust placed in us to replicate this model in other North Carolina school districts.

This trust translates into important financial support for our academic enterprise, and led to the creation of App State’s named, distinguished professorship of early child literacy, which will be housed in the Reich College of Education.

The individual who holds this position will teach in the college’s teacher preparation programs and conduct research in early literacy to advance the field and establish a strong presence for the college in the state and nation as a leader in reading instruction. This education professorship will be funded by a $2 million gift to the College of Education from the C.D. Spangler Foundation, and we greatly appreciate the Foundation, and its director and Board of Governors member Anna Spangler Nelson, for their investment in the education of young people in our state.

The Spangler Distinguished Professorship of Early Child Literacy is the most recent endowed professorship. Since my arrival in 2014, App State has added eight new, endowed professorships, and we expect to add more.

The current market value of our distinguished professorship endowments is $41 million, which includes funding received from the state in support of these positions.

This funding allows the university to provide a higher salary and more research dollars to accompany the prestigious title of endowed or distinguished professor. It also rewards top faculty for outstanding contributions in academic work, excellence in the advancement of learning and student attainment, and exceptional leadership and service to the profession.

These professorships make real and powerful differences in the lives of our students, and are among the many ways private and public funds combine to support our institution.

App State’s ninth annual iBackAPP giving celebration is scheduled for April sixth and seventh, and we are inviting all Mountaineers to serve as iBackAPP Champions. This is a fun way to support the university while inspiring others to do the same. Champions make a gift, dress in their favorite App State gear and share on their social media accounts the reasons why they “Back” App. I always enjoy reading the many reasons people support App State — the reasons range from fun to touching, and all are very inspiring. We hope you will join in the fun in April.

We are on track for the best fundraising year in App State’s history, and I’d like to take a moment to share some of the accomplishments of our students, faculty and staff — a few examples of the kinds of successes you and many others are supporting.

Dr. Michael Reddish, an assistant professor in App State’s A.R. Smith Department of Chemistry and Fermentation Sciences, has been awarded a grant from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center to study medications proposed to treat triple-negative breast cancer. Approximately 10 – 20% of breast cancers are triple negative, and triple negative breast cancer has the least number of treatments and the least effective treatment options. In his lab at App State, Dr. Reddish and his team are testing medications in hopes of finding one that minimalizes adverse side effects. 

Several App State students are assisting Dr. Reddish in his work, including Ethan Harris, a senior from Clemmons and Noah Arnold, a senior from Mount Pleasant, both of whom are double majoring in biochemistry and cellular/molecular biology.

Dr. Andrew Koricich , Associate Professor in the Higher Education program in the Reich College of Education, and the Executive Director of the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges, is among a national group of five researchers who developed and recently launched a tool that uses evidence-based criteria to define what it means to be a Rural-Serving Institution. This groundbreaking tool utilizes publicly-available data and tools to help advance research for rural serving and regional institutions of higher education. The potential for this tool and its associated research is tremendous, as the criteria for federal higher education policies and funding appropriations do not employ common data sets or a consistent definition to determine which institutions are rural-serving. This work has been recognized in national mainstream, as well as national higher-education media outlets, and is sure to help shine a brighter spotlight on the contributions rural-serving institutions are making in the higher education landscape.

We are also celebrating the recent recognitions of App State faculty by the UNC System Board of Governors.

App State musicology professor Dr. Reeves Shulstad, earned the 2022 Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching. This award was established by the board in 1994 to highlight the importance of teaching and recognizes the extraordinary contributions of faculty members Systemwide. Dr. Shulstad will receive a commemorative bronze medallion and a $12,500 cash prize, and will be recognized during Spring Commencement. Dr. Shulstad is committed to student mentorship, undergraduate research and inclusive excellence — all pillars of an App State Education — and she has earned the respect of her colleagues and her students. We are all so pleased the Board of Governors is recognizing her extraordinary contributions with its Excellence in Teaching Award.

At the campus level, Dr. Joseph Bathanti, professor in the Department of English, is the recipient of App State’s Excellence in Teaching Award, and will receive a $1500 cash award. College awards, which come with a $1,000 cash award, were earned by:

  • Jeana Klein, Professor in the Department of Art;
  • Brooke Hofsess, Associate Professor in the Department of Art;
  • Andy Bellemer, Associate Professor in the Department of Biology;
  • Theresa Redmond, Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction; and
  • Jason Xiong Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Information Systems (who earned his Master’s and PhD at University of Nebraska, Omaha where I used to be).

Each of these outstanding faculty has demonstrated the highest levels of excellence, engaging and mentoring students in order to provide a transformative App State experience.

This July, App State will host the 2022 Appalachian Entrepreneurship Academy aimed at preparing the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders and thinkers.

This is a two-week, free residential program for high school students, who will develop and implement their own business ideas and then present them to an audience of entrepreneurs in a pitch competition.

Faculty and staff at App State received more than $260,000 in grant funding to support this experiential learning project, which is designed to cultivate creativity and develop skills that are essential for entrepreneurial success.

The project is a partnership among App State, the Appalachian Regional Commission, the National Consortium for Entrepreneurship Education, and STEM West in Hickory. App State’s project leaders are:

  • Tracie Salinas, professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences and director of App State’s Mathematics and Science Education Center,
  • Corinne Smith, director of App State’s GEAR UP program, and
  • Doug Thompson, assistant director of curriculum and instructional design in App State’s College Access Partnerships.

App State’s Police Chief, Andy Stephenson, has been named one of six national finalists for Campus Safety Director of the Year for his outstanding leadership skills, ingenuity, selflessness and overall achievement. Chief Stephenson is among an elite group of campus safety leaders who are being recognized for, among other criteria, their excellent community relations, extensive involvement with the public, fostering high officer morale and motivation, even under difficult circumstances and implementing innovative solutions in the face of complex problems. Congratulations, Andy, on this recognition. To those of us who are fortunate to work with Andy every day, this recognition comes as no surprise.

As evidenced by many of you on this board and in this room, App State students become successful and respected alumni. We recently profiled several members of App State’s National Pan-Hellenic Council fraternities and sororities — historically Black Greek-letter organizations. Seven of these sororities and fraternities are currently represented at App State, and our NPHC Alumni are foundational to App State’s history. These alumni, including Trustee Reaves, were notable student leaders who have continued a legacy of leadership and service both on and off campus. As alumni, they continue to open doors and create possibilities for the generations who follow them, and we are proud to celebrate their contributions to App State, their communities and beyond.

Our solar vehicle team is still energized by their success in 2021, in which they secured a first-place win — clocking a total of 964.8 miles, winning all three stages of the race from Missouri to New Mexico, and also earning awards for teamwork and electrical design. Their trophy is on display, and I hope you will have a chance to see it up close, although it’s so big you can’t miss it from across the room!

Team Sunergy students are outstanding representatives of App State with a history of excelling among (OK— I will just say it— a history of BEATING) a roster of highly elite institutions with engineering programs, such as Georgia Tech, UC Berkeley and MIT. Team Sunergy is the epitome of true Mountaineer spirit and I am extraordinarily proud of their ingenuity, their perseverance, their teamwork, and their kindness.

This summer, they are heading to Topeka Kansas to compete in the Formula Sun Grand Prix track race, before defending their trophy in the American Solar Challenge road race, which follows the Oregon Trail to Twin Falls, Idaho. We are confident they will continue their legacy of success.

The beginning of 2022 marked an important milestone in App State’s climate action plan. 
The transition to a new power provider for our university-owned utility company, New River Light and Power, is complete. Our new energy contracts, effective this year, are allowing us to not only increase our renewable energy purchase portfolio from just under two percent to eighteen-point-three percent, but also to realize a cost savings of about half a million dollars. We are also negotiating with the power provider for other university buildings to convert the purchased electricity to renewable sources.

This move is a clear demonstration of many units across the university working cooperatively to effect major purchasing changes that have economic and environmental benefits. It also includes an important commitment from the student-led, student-funded Renewable Energy Initiative, which voted to contribute $50,000 toward the university’s renewable power purchases.

Because New River Light and Power is also the energy supplier for the majority of the Boone area, including about 25% of the municipal operations for the Town of Boone. This new energy contract is allowing the Town of Boone to meet its climate neutrality goals, and it also makes available flexible options for New River Light & Power’s 9,000 residential and commercial customers to purchase renewable power for their homes and businesses.

As Provost Norris and Chief Sustainability Officer Lee Ball have shared with campus, the University Planning and Priorities Council has been developing the strategic plan that will guide App State through the next five years. The UPPC, as we call it, is a group of nearly 60 individuals representing faculty and staff from every college and division, and includes the heads of Faculty Senate, Staff Senate and Student Government. Listening sessions open to the entire campus were held last November, followed by meetings with constituent groups that included Faculty Senate, Staff Senate, the Student Government Association and Alumni Council. Feedback from these listening sessions is being incorporated into the draft of the plan right now. It will be shared with campus for feedback again soon, and the final version will be presented to the Board for approval in June. I extend my appreciation to everyone who has been working on this plan — it has been a comprehensive, transparent and collective effort that has allowed everyone who wants a voice in the process to have one. We continue to encourage campus participation as the plan is finalized in the coming months.  Thank you all for your incredible amount of work.

As you know, UNC System leadership is also preparing to update and refresh the current System strategic plan. Earlier this week, faculty, staff and students joined a virtual Town Hall event hosted for our campus by the UNC System. Faculty, staff and students joined the event, and the comments shared were insightful and constructive. Feedback from our campus included:

  • Considering the long-range impacts of the pandemic;
  • Developing creative methods for reaching new students and ensuring their educational attainment goals using delivery methods that fit their needs;
  • Resourcing the mental health and wellbeing of students;
  • Preparing students to become leaders who recognize that career and professional development is a lifelong process;
  • Building upon the UNC System’s most recent initiatives to foster a more diverse and inclusive environment within its institutions, particularly the UNC System Racial Equity Taskforce and Black Male Achievement programs;
  • Strengthening campus efficiency strategies that support our sustainability, resilience, and climate goals;
  • Ensuring metrics will not adversely impact the goals of growing institutions like ours; and
  • Implementing an economic impact study to better understand and share the return citizens of our state are earning on their investment in public higher education. 

I think the last time we did an Economic Impact Study was 2015 and a lot has changed since then.

It was a rich and engaging discussion, and the System’s Strategy and Policy team appreciated the thoughtful input from our campus. Senior Vice President for Strategy and Policy Andrew Kelly specifically addressed the comments regarding carbon neutrality strategy and racial equity brought forward from our students, which was supported with ideas for action items by our Chief Sustainability and Chief Diversity Officers.

The UNC System is the process of updating its metrics for the current strategic initiatives Strategic Plan Dashboard, which measure its five-year Strategic Plan goals. Based on data provided by the UNC System office in January 2022, App State has exceeded our prioritized goal of increasing rural enrollments, our improvement goals of increasing low-income enrollments, overall undergraduate degree efficiency and research productivity. We have improved our five-year graduation rate by nearly 5.5%, exceeding our goal by 3%. By Fall 2021, App State’s research and development sponsored program awards and licensing income exceeded $35.5 million.

We have prioritized innovative research and creative endeavors, which has benefited the community and positioned App State as a leader among its peers. App State faculty and staff are regularly called upon for their expertise in areas as diverse as human performance, rural health care, international leadership training, student health and safety, and sustainability and resilience.

Our Millennial Campus projects involve repurposing decommissioned property and re-envisioning inactive building sites, allowing the university to think strategically about how to operate as a campus while also meeting regional needs in the long term.

A key example of this, and a long-held goal, is App State’s Innovation District. This afternoon, we will — at long last — break ground on the first academic building of the Innovation District! The Conservatory for Biodiversity Education and Research will serve as a vital link between the campus and the regional community through education, research and outreach.

The Conservatory is the FIRST academic building of the Innovation District. Other facilities that are also in discussion include:

  • spaces for research, teaching and demonstration;
  • workspace for multidisciplinary projects;
  • renewable energy labs;
  • conference rooms; and
  • expanded exhibition and studio spaces.

We also asked the design firms submitting proposals to include faculty and staff housing into the Innovation District Master Plan, as one way to help address housing shortages that affect our ability to recruit and retain talented faculty and staff.

The multi-phased development concepts we are reviewing are forward-thinking and comprehensive. Going beyond what is our standard — to build LEED-certified buildings — we are reviewing concepts for a Zero-Carbon District. This means the buildings in the Innovation District will be highly energy efficient, and powered by carbon-free, renewable energy sources. This will not only lower the environmental impact of the buildings, it will also help make them more financially viable.

This project is a long-held goal made possible with a biennial budget allocation of $54 million in non-recurring funds in the current fiscal year to begin work on App State’s Innovation District project. At App State, we have a well-earned reputation for being shovel-ready when funding for buildings is allocated, AND for completing them on time and on budget. We are thrilled to get this project underway, and I know we all look forward to this afternoon’s event. You all know I love a groundbreaking! In fact, the only events I love more are commencement and ribbon-cuttings!

It’s been a little more than two months since Governor Cooper signed into law the biennial budget bill, in which our representatives in the General Assembly included the Innovation District, and more allocations for App State than ever before. I’d like to express continued thanks on behalf of the university community, to this board, and the Board of Governors, particularly Governor Philip Byers, for your advocacy and support. This IS the BEST budget in App State’s university history.  Thank you all.

In addition to allowing us to break ground on the first academic building of the Innovation District, this budget provides well-deserved salary increases for our employees. Faculty and staff received a 2.5% increase this fiscal year, and will receive another 2.5% increase next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Since I arrived at App State, I have been committed to leveraging any authority granted to me by the legislature and the Board of Governors to increase compensation for our employees, and I remain dedicated to doing so. Once the budget was passed, I worked with Provost Heather Norris, Vice Chancellors Hank Foreman, J.J. Brown and Jane Barghothi, and Interim Chief Financial Officer Sharon Bell to review our university-wide budget. As a result, in addition to the budgeted legislative increases, we identified a pool of funds to provide additional merit-based increases of up to 5% for faculty and other employees who are exempt from the State Human Resources Act, exercising the maximum discretionary authority provided me by the UNC System. I will continue to prioritize employee compensation, and will leverage authority and funding to do so at every opportunity.  Thank you again Governor.

The budget also funds renovations of classrooms and offices for enhanced student learning. It includes $25 million, which is earmarked specifically for renovations to Peacock Hall, and we will begin the academic expansion of the building this year. We will also begin the planning for daylighting of the Boone Creek, a project that will transform a surface parking lot into a place for education and natural inspiration, while also improving the resilience of our natural ecosystems. As we transition more of our surface parking to parking decks, we will gain parking spaces… and also new tailgating locations!

Also included in the budget is $15 million for Wey Hall renovations and nearly $21 million for Duncan Hall renovations — both academic buildings.

Our newest residence hall, New River Hall, is on schedule to be completed, with 750 beds, in July. In the Fall 2022, students moving into New River Hall will live in a modern, air-conditioned building with a mix of suite-style and apartment-style units. You will recall we are phasing out large bath and shower areas shared by multiple students in our new residence halls, which students prefer — and which has the added benefit of lowering the risk of exposure to illness.

We are also eagerly anticipating the completion of our Child Development Center expansion, which will allow licensure for nearly 125 children. I’ve been updating you on this Center for quite some time, and I am very pleased that we’ve overcome several hurdles related to the expansion, and it will be completed in May. The center currently provides care for 68 children from infancy through pre-school. The expansion will include five additional classrooms, a kitchen and laundry facilities.

There is a tremendous demand for childcare in this area. Our Child Development Center has earned the highest possible licensure rating of five stars, making it one of the most sought-after childcare facilities in the community. Our expanded facility will help meet this demand with exceptional quality care for the children of our students, faculty and staff.

Next month, we will extend our tradition of hosting community leaders with a community leaders breakfast in Hickory. We had a terrific event with High Country community leaders earlier this month, which we held in this room. We were able to showcase this beautiful space, while engaging in conversations with representatives from the North Carolina Federal delegation, members of the General Assembly and local government officials, as well as leaders from education, business, and community development. The Hickory event will be held in our new building, and we will follow it with a tour of the building for legislators. We have been warmly welcomed by the Hickory community, and look forward to discussing opportunities for the future of the App State campus in Hickory with the area’s community leaders.

Before I close my remarks, I’d like to update you on some personnel matters:
We are concluding our national search for the Vice Chancellor for Business Affairs, and will be making a determination in the coming weeks. Our plan is to announce the new Vice Chancellor in April. The national searches for the Chief Diversity Officer and Chief Audit Officer are progressing, and I expect to provide you with timelines for the completion of those searches very soon. We are also concluding the national search for the Dean of the Walker College of Business, and expect to make an announcement about that appointment very - very soon.

I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank the faculty, staff, students and those of you who are serving on these committees. It is a major commitment, and your work will have an important and lasting impact on the future of App State.

I also have some bittersweet news to share about our Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of Wellness and Prevention Services, Dr. Alex Howard. We are excited for him, and sad for ourselves, because Alex is leaving App State to take the position of Vice President of Impact for Health and Wellness at the private foundation, Dogwood Health Trust, in Asheville. Dogwood Trust’s mission is to dramatically improve the health and well-being of all people in Western North Carolina.

Alex has been a key member of Vice Chancellor JJ Brown’s leadership team since 2015. He has solidified App State’s holistic approach to student wellness, has contributed to the faculty by teaching courses in the College of Health Sciences and has been an incredibly important adviser as we have navigated through the COVID pandemic. His experience, many talents, mentorship and counsel will be greatly missed by countless students, faculty, staff and administrators. We will also miss him for his sharp wit, keen insight and compassion. Thank you, Alex, for your leadership at App. We know you are well-prepared to be a key leader at the Dogwood Foundation and your influence will continue to have a positive impact on our state and our region. We will greatly miss you.

Finally, a quick reminder of a few upcoming events I hope you will join — in addition to today’s groundbreaking.

On Tuesday, the App State Baseball team will play UNC-Asheville at the L.P. Frans Stadium in Hickory — home of the Hickory Crawdads. The first pitch will be thrown at 6pm. Stephanie Billings and her team have put together a full Mountaineer fan experience, which includes reserved seats, and an all-you-can-eat buffet in a specially reserved Mountaineer Picnic area. The weather forecast is looking lovely, and we’ve provided each of you with a customized “Hickory 23” t-shirt to wear to the game, denoting when we will begin classes in Hickory.

I have to also mention our softball team, which is currently tied for fourth in the conference standings, they play their next conference game tonight at 7pm at the University of Louisiana Monroe. While we won’t be able to attend that game in person, they’ve played a terrific season so far, and I know we are all pulling for them with just over a month to go in their season.

It may be hard to believe, but Spring Commencement is just six weeks away, on May 6 & 7. After two years of modified, re-scheduled, online and socially distanced Commencements, we are looking forward to returning to our regular schedule with no guest limits! I’m also pleased to announce that the official App State regalia is environmentally conscious and made in the USA. Our new line of graduation wear is made of fabric produced from one-hundred-percent post-consumer recycled plastic bottles. An average of 25 plastic bottles are used to produce each cap and gown. Margaret McCoy and the Commencement team are ensuring that official regalia is available for every graduate, regardless of their ability to pay.

We have had so many successes since we last met in December, and I am excited about the promise ahead. Your support of — and advocacy for — App State’s students, faculty and staff continues to be critical to our institutional success.

Thank you for your work for App State, each and every day.

Madam Chair, this concludes my remarks.