State of the University Address

Friday, August 26, 2022

Good afternoon, and thank you, Provost.

I appreciate the opportunity to speak to all of you and provide an update on the state of the university during this first convening of faculty and staff for the academic year.

Isn't it a gorgeous day? Our campus is vibrant and more beautiful than ever thanks to the work of our staff, who help prepare and support our faculty and students, supporting our academic mission in countless ways and with numerous and diverse talents. Faculty are in full swing, bringing life, energy and enthusiasm to classrooms, laboratories and learning spaces, and our students are engaged and eager to begin a new semester and enjoy the full college experience.

This “back-to-school” energy and excitement on campus has a new feel to it, after five semesters of COVID precautions that inhibited our interactions and adversely affected the mental health of so many members of our university community. 

COVID safety remains a top priority. With new guidelines and procedures in place, our vigilant and proactive focus is now on reducing the severe effects. 

Vaccines and boosters are critical to keeping our campus as healthy as possible, and they are readily available on campus and in the community. Please ensure you are vaccinated and boosted, get tested if you feel sick or have been exposed to COVID, and if you test positive, follow CDC and university isolation guidance and precautions for people who have COVID. Our university COVID website is linked from the App State homepage, and it is regularly updated. I want to thank Jason Marshburn for all of his hard work.

Census Day, the point in time used for official enrollment counts, is Sept. 2. Soon afterwards, we will release official enrollment numbers. Preliminary — and I emphasize these are preliminary — preliminary data indicate strong enrollment, with an increase in underrepresented students. I look forward to sharing these data with you soon.

There is much to celebrate as we begin the academic year, and I will highlight a few accomplishments today.

I’d like to begin by introducing our new Vice Chancellor of Finance and Operations, Dr. Dan Layzell. Dan, would you please stand for a moment?

Dan is responsible for administrative oversight of finance and administration, campus services, facilities management and human resources. He brings a career of nearly three decades in higher education and a decade of policy and legislative experience to this role, as well as classroom experience as teaching faculty.

Prior to coming to App State, Dan served as Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration and Chief Financial Officer at Louisiana State University, where he was the Chief Financial Officer for the University’s statewide operations, as well as the Chief Financial Officer of LSU’s flagship campus in Baton Rouge. During his tenure at LSU, he also served as Interim President and CEO of the LSU Foundation for seven months. Prior to LSU, he served as Vice President for Finance and planning at Illinois State University, and before that, he was Associate Vice President for Planning and Administration at the University of Illinois.

His extensive experience will be of great benefit to App State as we advance our mission to increase access to education for the people of North Carolina. Please join me in welcoming Dan.

It’s a good time for Dan to join App State, as we begin this academic year with an unprecedented level of funding support from the state legislature!

We saw the best biennial budget in university history. Employee compensation included a 6% across-the-board salary increase, as well as authority to give additional recurring merit and equity increases and one-time bonuses to eligible employees. Last year, we took full advantage of every opportunity to increase compensation. We will continue to leverage every opportunity that legislative and UNC System authority and available funding allow, to increase compensation for every employee.

Additionally, we were allocated more than $139 million, including $54 million for the Innovation District, and $9 million for the App State at Hickory Campus.

It’s worth noting here that North Carolina regularly ranks among the top five states in the nation for funding public higher education, and we appreciate the support of our elected officials. In the last year, we hosted more legislators on campus — at athletics and other events — than any other UNC System school. This week, in fact, my leadership team and I welcomed several to App State meetings and events. We currently have two members of the U.S. House of Representatives, four members of the North Carolina Senate and seven members of the North Carolina House of Representatives who are App State alumni, and they are working for us every day.

Members of the Board of Governors also visit our campus regularly, and we have given extended tours to several of them. These visits give us opportunities to share our points of pride and the successes of our faculty, staff and students. We also speak directly to the challenges of recruiting and retaining talented faculty and staff in a resort community. Our new peer group and Carnegie Classification are some of the results of these conversations, which continue.

In June, App State’s Board of Trustees approved our new strategic plan, which was developed through a comprehensive, transparent and collective effort led by our University Planning and Priorities Council. For each of the plan’s strategic priorities, we will utilize metrics, benchmarks and procedures to assess impact. We will communicate the overall impact with annual updates. Our assessment tools will include:

  • a universitywide financial plan;
  • a climate action plan;
  • a strategic plan for the research and creative endeavors enterprise;
  • a diversity, equity and inclusion plan; and
  • a comprehensive fundraising campaign.

I look forward to advancing App State under this new, thoughtful mission — one recognizing the university as a long-established public institution that honors our founding commitment to educational access and excellence and our rural mountain heritage through teaching, research and service.

Our strategic performance metrics are, of course, tied to those of the UNC System.

In January 2017, the Board of Governors unanimously approved a five-year Strategic Plan for the UNC System. The Plan called on the UNC System to achieve goals in access, student success, affordability and efficiency, economic impact and community engagement, and institutional excellence and diversity. 

These are the metrics we committed to in 2017 (there are two slides, so I will go through both of them with you).

As you can see, we have exceeded our rural enrollment goal. Prior to COVID, we were on track to meet or exceed the other goals on this slide. Unfortunately, when students were given the option, during COVID, to drop courses without penalty, we lost significant ground in these areas that it is not possible to make up in the final year of assessment. The data do not take those circumstances into account.

In our areas identified to improve and/or sustain, we exceeded our goals significantly. These are the areas in which circumstances were more within our control.

The System Strategic Plan was “refreshed” in the 2021–22 academic year, and we can expect to see a strong emphasis on degree efficiency, and some additional metrics related to addressing mental health, better serving adult students (including veterans and military-affiliated North Carolinians) and reducing student debt.

It is abundantly clear that the new funding model will be tied to these and any newly established performance metrics.

Conversations about potential new performance metrics are still in progress and will continue between campuses and the Board of Governors in the coming weeks.

This year marks the best fundraising year the university has had in a decade, crossing the $36 million mark, with nearly $31 million in cash gifts. The Appalachian Fund, College of Fine and Applied Arts, Reich College of Education, University Libraries and An Appalachian Summer Festival had record fundraising years. 

We are raising money for scholarships, endowed professorships and academic programming. Many of these gifts support, recruit and retain our best and most talented faculty. Last spring, for example, we received a $2 million endowed professorship in early child literacy. 

Since my arrival at App State, my goal has been to grow endowment gifts in support of major strategic initiatives and professorships. In the last eight years, we have had a 36% increase in professorships, and our endowment portfolio has more than doubled, to $150 million.

Our elected officials, Board of Governors members and donors are eager to support App State because of the incredible achievements of our faculty, staff and students.

This year, the Walker College of Business’ Master of Business Administration program was ranked among the world’s best by CEO Magazine for the fifth consecutive year. The scores incorporated a range of data points, including quality of faculty, international diversity, class size, accreditation and faculty-to-student ratio. The Walker College of Business has the highest, full-time undergraduate business enrollment in the UNC System and I stress this every time I speak with our Board of Governors and state officials. In addition to international recognition for its MBA program, Walker College is consistently named as one of “The Best Business Schools” by The Princeton Review.

The College of Arts and Sciences achieved accreditation for its online Bachelor of Science in Veterinary Technology with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, and we have welcomed approximately 100 students into the inaugural class this semester! This program began as an idea in my living room in 2019. My dog, Olive, (who is featured in this ad — she works for treats!) provided us with real-world inspiration as we studied data showing current and projected shortages for skilled veterinary professionals in the rural areas of our region and beyond. 

Last year, App State signed a multimillion-dollar sponsored contract with Banfield Pet Hospital to support the development of this innovative program, which will elevate the role of licensed veterinary technicians in the workplace and set new standards for the profession.

The degree combines Bachelor of Science credentials with veterinary technician licensure and on-site clinical training. Our graduates will be prepared for meaningful employment in the growing profession of veterinary medicine and will be prepared for career advancement, whether they are new to the profession or already working in the field.

App State’s curriculum is the first of its kind. It will become a model for developing veterinary professional talent and will help meet shortages for skilled veterinary professionals in the rural areas of our region and beyond.

Last spring, we congratulated our fourth class of graduating mini-Mountaineers from App State’s first lab school, the Appalachian State Academy at Middle Fork, in Walkertown. The graduating fifth graders worked very hard, supported by their families and the dedicated Academy teachers and staff, and they have bright futures ahead of them. As they advance to middle school, we all look forward to seeing what they achieve.

Earlier this week, we cut the ribbon on our second lab school, the new App State Academy at Elkin. The teachers, principal and staff, supported by the Superintendent and the School Board, are so excited to start school next week they are just about jumping up and down! We are now the only UNC System institution to operate two lab schools. The Elkin Academy will serve approximately 100 students in second through fourth grades. We really appreciate the strong and steady leadership from Dean Spooner and her amazing collaborative team in the Reich College of Education for their work with these academies, which are becoming models for student success across the state.

In the College of Fine and Applied Arts, Dr. Shanshan Lou, Associate Professor of Communication-Advertising, was selected for a prestigious Fellowship with the UNC System. Dr. Lou, whose research areas include New Media Technologies, is one of only three faculty in the System selected for the Fellowship. Dr. Lou specializes in digital teaching and learning and designs and implements online courses. When App State was forced to flip classes online on short notice during the pandemic, she was a faculty champion who provided support and assistance to her colleagues. During her yearlong appointment, Dr. Lou and her colleagues also appointed to the fellowship will research applied teaching technologies and provide recommendations for how these technologies can be implemented in the UNC System.

In the Hayes School of Music, Dr. John Ross, associate professor has been named a quarter-finalist for the 2023 Grammy Music Educator Award. The Grammy Music Educator Award recognizes current educators who have made a significant and lasting contribution to the field of music education and who demonstrate a commitment to the broader cause of maintaining music education. Dr. Ross is Director of Bands, conducting the Appalachian Wind Ensemble and the Appalachian Concert Band, and frequently guest conducting the Appalachian Symphonic Band. He also teaches courses in wind literature and band techniques. Semifinalists will be announced next month, and the recipient will be announced during the 2023 Grammys in January. I congratulate Dr. Ross on this level of recognition and wish him the best of luck in the competition.

This spring, the Board of Governors approved App State to begin a new Master of Science in Occupational Therapy program, which will be offered through the Beaver College of Health Sciences’ new Department of Rehabilitation Sciences. Through this program, we will help address a critical lack of occupational therapists in Western North Carolina. Students who want to live and practice in the health care professions in rural areas need to learn at rural, higher education institutions. This program, which will begin in fall 2024, will ensure students will be able to receive a cost-effective master’s degree that will allow them to live, work and practice occupational therapy in North Carolina, and in particular, in the rural areas of our state. 

In July, Team Sunergy brought home a second-place finish in the 2022 American Solar Challenge, beating a roster of highly elite North American institutions with engineering programs. The team also earned the Electrical Design Award — beating out MIT — for the second straight year. With a history of podium finishes in international racing competitions since 2016, Team Sunergy represents the best of App State innovation and dedication to making the world better for future generations.

This summer, I hosted your academic Department Chairs and participated in a three-week summer institute, which offers opportunities for academic department chairs to engage with one another, as well as with members of my leadership team, for in-depth discussions about topics ranging from funding for the university, to enrollment goals, to diversity and inclusion strategies, and much more. The discussions were rich and collaborative, and I thank Provost Norris and her leadership team, in particular Vice Provost of Faculty Policies and Development Neva Specht and Dr. Susan Colby, Interim Executive Director for the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning for Student Success, for presenting this important professional development opportunity for the academic Department Chairs.

These individuals demonstrated passionate and unwavering commitment to the success of our students and steadfast support of App State faculty. We are so fortunate to have such an outstanding group of chairs leading our academic departments; thank you for all you do. 

Our student-athletes have achieved a significant milestone, marking the 10th consecutive year that App State student-athletes have earned a cumulative grade-point average above 3.0.  Congratulations to our student-athletes, and thank you to the faculty and staff who have taught and supported them as they worked to achieve academic and athletic success.

Many of us are looking forward to the upcoming football season. App State football ticket sales have broken records since the announcement of our upcoming schedule. The much-anticipated season opener against UNC-Chapel Hill next Saturday is sold out (I hope you already have your tickets — but if you don’t, I am giving away two at the reception after this meeting). Director of Athletics Doug Gillin and his team have worked with many areas across campus, including the Emergency Management team, App State Police and Student Affairs — as well as in the Town of Boone — to ensure the best possible experience for fans, our team, the visiting teams, our guests and the greater community.

This summer, the Presidents and Chancellors of the Sun Belt Conference gathered for the conference’s annual CEO meeting, the first as a 14-member football conference. Southern Mississippi, Old Dominion, Marshall and James Madison University are bringing incredible talent and old rivalries to the league, and we look forward to beating them all in the challenging and exciting seasons ahead! The benefits to our student-athletes are significant, including shorter travel times, meaning less time away from their classes.

I am very, very excited to share that the Child Development Center expansion is complete. The center opened its new classrooms, nearly doubling its capacity. Renovations included five additional classrooms, kitchen and laundry facilities, a playground and additional parking and sidewalks.

Under the direction of Moriah Stegall, our center has become accredited and earned the highest possible licensure rating of five stars, making it one of the most sought-after child care facilities in the community. This expansion will help meet the high demand for child care with exceptional quality care for the children of staff, faculty and students. I am well aware that there is still much unmet demand and continue to explore future solutions.

Last month, we opened the doors to New River Hall — on the far left of this picture. This is the final residence hall in our phased, public-private-partnership residence halls project. The project, which we began in 2019, has replaced nearly 1,800 beds in six outdated residence halls and has added 500 additional beds. The final component of this project is the demolition of Eggers and Bowie residence halls, which will be replaced by approximately 150 new surface parking spaces in the spring.

After breaking ground in March on the first academic building of the Innovation District, we continue to move forward.

The Innovation District will bring together expertise across disciplines and facilitate collaborations on campus and with the communities throughout the region, extending the university’s mission of teaching, research and service. This project is an ambitious enterprise that will have a lasting and powerful impact on the entire region.

Phase One of the project will include:
A Conservatory for Biodiversity Education and Research. This facility, funded — as I mentioned earlier — with a $54 million allocation in the current fiscal year, will include cross-disciplinary collaboration and encourage K–12 partnerships.

Paired with the adjacent Nature Preserve, the conservatory will advance knowledge surrounding the natural and cultural history of the Southern Appalachian region, allowing the App State Community and visitors to:

  • understand the natural history and economic importance of our region’s biodiversity; and
  • gain a heightened appreciation of the research and creative endeavors being conducted at App State.

The conservatory will build on existing opportunities available through the Department of Biology’s teaching and research facilities. Our targeted opening date for the conservatory is fall 2025.

Phase One will also include employee housing, funded through a public-private-partnership, that will not rely on state funds, or any capital from the university. Our resort community location adds financial pressure in an already tight housing market. During my first days on campus, employees let me know they were often “priced out” of housing in Boone, and many live in other counties, and even Tennessee, in order to afford homes for themselves and their families. I have long had pressing concerns about how availability of affordable housing impacts the recruitment of a talented workforce. Now, with Millennial Campus designation and support from our Trustees and our Board of Governors, I am pleased we will have more affordable options to help meet our employees’ demand for housing. Construction for the faculty and staff housing is slated to begin in winter of 2023.

The third aspect of the Phase One District Concept is a zero-carbon energy system that will begin to transition our campus away from steam power. App State has a long-established reputation as a leader in the renewable energy space. Because of this, there are organizations that are interested in working with us on this innovative project, and we are exploring renewable energy options that will establish a national example for sustainable energy solutions. This project will also be a public-private-partnership, requiring no state funds or university capital. The design for the energy system is expected to be finalized in fall 2022, with the system becoming operational in summer 2024.

The biennial budget also included $25 million for renovations to Peacock Hall. Construction will begin in fall 2023, and the addition to the building is slated to open in fall 2025. While it will not be in the first phase, we want to daylight Boone Creek as part of this project as well, which will transform a parking lot into a place for education and natural inspiration, while also improving the resilience of our natural ecosystems.

Also, $15 million was included in the budget for renovations to Wey Hall: $10 million for renovating facility systems and $5 million for repairs to the building’s roof and exterior. Wey Hall was built in 1976 and has never been renovated. It lacks fire suppression and sprinkler systems. Other major building systems are also reaching the end of their useful lives, including plumbing, elevators, and electrical, heating and cooling and ventilation systems. We are very pleased to have the funding for this important renovation project. Wey Hall’s renovation is scheduled to begin in 2023 and be completed in fall 2024.

In 2020, a UNC System STEM Capital Planning Study projected that App State will need approximately 132,000 square feet of space dedicated to science, technology, engineering and math in order to meet projected demands by 2030. In this study, we looked at replacing I.G. Greer with a multistory STEM building in the heart of our campus. Unlike Sanford and Wey halls, I.G. Greer is not a building we would be able to cost-effectively renovate. A new STEM building would expand the classroom capacity of the entire campus, adding lecture classrooms and expanding teaching and research laboratory space. Additional research space would allow faculty mentorship in undergraduate and graduate research. This is a priority funding project for the future that I mention to the Board of Governors and members of the General Assembly every chance I get. 

We are moving forward with plans for opening the Hickory Campus to students in fall 2023. 

The City of Hickory has been incredibly welcoming to App State. Signage has been going up on the building in recent weeks, and Hickory’s mayor, Hank Guess, actually sent me the small photo at the bottom corner of this slide of the sign going up on the 321 side of the building. You might also notice how much brighter the building looks than in the fall when we bought it — the City of Hickory cleaned the exterior of the building for us a few months ago!

Partnerships with the City of Hickory and other local government, education, civic and business leaders in the area will be key to meeting the educational needs of the region. We have held several listening sessions with many constituency groups representing Hickory and the surrounding areas, with more planned. These have included members of the General Assembly, representatives from local government entities, higher education, K–12 schools, business, civic and community development leaders. In April, we held our first Hickory Community Leaders breakfast, during which we had many engaging discussions about what the area needs from a state university. In July, I convened the first meeting of the App State at Hickory Advisory Council, which has representation from key leaders in the Hickory area.

Many of the discussions and listening sessions we have had so far have involved advancing educational attainment for the Hickory area. Common themes that have emerged include innovation, arts and culture, recreation, child care, student support and academic areas that include business, education, health care, engineering, design and building sciences. There are also numerous possibilities for the Hickory area to engage with the university’s sustainability initiatives.

As we prepare to open the App State at Hickory Campus to students in fall of 2023, we are taking the information from these listening sessions and meetings and aligning them with the academic goals, missions and opportunities in each academic college. Our program offerings will be strategic, thoughtful and collaborative.

I will keep you apprised of the progress regarding the App State at Hickory Campus in my weekly messages to campus.

You can learn more details about all of our current and future major infrastructure projects by visiting the university homepage and clicking on the block that reads “What’s in App’s Future?”

Before I close my remarks today, I would like to recognize the 2022–23 class of the Chancellor’s Academic Leadership Development Program. I began this program soon after my arrival in 2014, to identify, broaden, strengthen and develop academic leadership at App State, and this is our sixth class. This class of 14 joins a diverse group of 60 other faculty and staff who have completed the program, engaging in formal assistance and training while exploring and developing their leadership capabilities. I understand you all just came from a meeting! We are excited to have you begin your program. Would you please stand and be recognized?

Thank you all, for your dedication to App State. We wish you a terrific year ahead!

The state of the university is strong, and App State is on a trajectory of excellence that will continue for generations to come.

We continue to innovate in response to the needs of our state and region, and we remain true to our founding mission: to provide access to education. 

Thank you for the work you do each and every day to help sustain this mission for past and future generations.

Have a fabulous year!