Remarks from the September 16, 2022 Meeting of the Board of Trustees

Friday, September 16, 2022

Good morning and welcome to a very exciting weekend on App State’s Boone campus!

Sunday night, I returned from College Station, Texas, after our football team won a tremendously important game for App State, beating Texas A&M, who was, at the time, ranked sixth in the nation. This week, College GameDay, ESPN’s popular college football pregame show, is broadcasting from App State’s campus for the very first time. The national publicity for our university earned by these student-athletes and their coaches is unparalleled in our university’s history, and it brings with it prestige and recognition for the entire App State campus. We will be able to put an actual dollar value on it once the weekend’s shows have aired, but we can confidently say that the earned media from this national spotlight on App State multiplies our advertising budget by hundreds of millions of dollars. We expect to see increases in enrollment, fundraising and additional media interest in the work of our faculty, students and staff as a result.

Many of the faculty I have spoken with this academic year have commented on the energy and excitement in their classrooms, and you can feel it walking around campus. This year has a new invigoration, after five semesters of COVID precautions that inhibited our interactions and adversely affected the mental health of so many members of our university community.

In my State of the University remarks to campus last month, I shared that COVID safety remains a top priority. Vaccines and boosters are critical to keeping our campus as healthy as possible, and I am so pleased that this week, we began offering the latest COVID vaccine at our student health center. Students and employees who get a COVID vaccine or a booster on campus will receive a $50 Amazon gift card, which has been a very popular incentive!

National publications are beginning to announce their college rankings for 2022-2023. College rankings by U.S. News & World Report, The Princeton Review, Forbes magazine and Money.com have recognized App State for academics, innovation, benefits for student veterans, programs to enhance the first-year experience and other aspects affirming App State’s position as an educational leader — for both the nation and the Southeast.

  • The U.S. News and World Report “Best Colleges” rankings list App State at No. 1 in Most Innovative Schools for the third consecutive year; and No. 2 for Best Undergraduate Teaching and Best Colleges for Veterans for the sixth consecutive year. This year, we were No. 3 in Top Public Schools in the South, and also No. 6 for Best Regional Universities in the South.
  • App State also earned “Best College” designations by The Princeton Review, and we are featured in their 2022 “Guide to Green Colleges” for having exemplary commitments to the environment and sustainability.
  • Forbes magazine ranked us among “America’s Top Colleges” for 2022 — placing App State in the top 10 in North Carolina public and private schools.
  • Money.com placed App State in its “Best Colleges in America” rankings for 2022, and also ranked App State third among North Carolina public schools and sixth in their 2022 “Best Colleges in the South” rankings.
  • Our strong history of recognition as a Military Friendly school remains. VIQTORY, the industry standard for military rankings in higher education, will recognize App State for the 14th consecutive year when they release their rankings next month.

These rankings highlight the valuable work of our faculty to fulfill our mission of teaching excellence, of our staff to ensure students are supported throughout their academic careers, and of course, of our students’ success. While the rankings only tell a small part of this story, I am glad to see their work recognized by these major publications. 

Census Day, the point in time used by the UNC System for official enrollment counts, was September 2.

  • Our overall enrollment remains strong, at well over 20,000.
  • For the eighth year running, we have the most diverse student body in university history. This year’s student population represents an increase in underrepresented students over last year and a 66% increase since my arrival to App State in 2014. This year’s first-year class has more than doubled in underrepresented students since 2014.
  • First-generation students represent about one-third of our undergraduate student populations.
  • Rural students represent about one-third of our total student population.
  • The population of App State Online students is growing significantly. At 9% of our total student body, this group is up nearly 8.8% from last year, and we expect that trend to continue.
  • Our 4-year and 6-year graduation rates are both up from 2021.

You will recall that at your last meeting in June, you approved App State’s new strategic plan. Our new mission was then approved by the Board of Governors later that month. For each of the plan’s strategic priorities, we are building and utilizing metrics, benchmarks and procedures to assess impact, and we will communicate the overall impact with annual updates.

Our assessment tools will include:

  • A university-wide 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 a new, thoughtful mission that was developed through a comprehensive, transparent and collective effort led by our University Planning and Priorities Council. Our new strategic plan recognizes App State 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 five-year Strategic Plan for the UNC System called on System institutions to achieve ambitious 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. 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.

I have shared with our faculty and staff that the System Strategic Plan was “refreshed” in the 2021-22 academic year, and that 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.

Upon arriving at App State in 2014, I immediately recognized major employee compensation issues (and a history of App being under-resourced in general). From my first day on the job, I have made it a priority to advocate for a new salary structure and funding model from the UNC System, AND find every pocket of recurring funds to address employee compensation.

The best biennial budget in university history, 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.

In total, over the last nine months, all eligible faculty will have received an increase of at least 6% (across the board), and as much as 11% (with highest merit). Some have realized even more than 11%, with equity and inversion adjustments applied.

As you know, different rules apply and different opportunities are available for faculty and staff. My leadership team and I are currently reviewing opportunities to leverage the Labor Market Adjustment Reserve for staff in the 2022-23 year.

We greatly appreciate the support from our State legislators — thank you Representative Pickett — and Governor, from the Board of Governors — thank you Governor Byers  — and from this Board as we continue leveraging every opportunity allowed by legislative and UNC System authority AND available funding, to increase compensation for every employee.

Last fiscal year marked 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 all had record fundraising years.

Since my arrival at App State, my goal has been to grow endowment gifts in support of major strategic initiatives and professorships. You will recall that last spring we received a $2 million endowed professorship in early child literacy.

In the last eight years, we have had a 36% increase in professorships, and our endowment portfolio has more than doubled, to $150 million.

I am very, very excited to share that the Child Development Center expansion is finally complete! The expanded facility is licensed for 55 additional children, nearly doubling its capacity. Renovations included five additional classrooms, kitchen and laundry facilities, a playground and additional parking and sidewalks.

With the highest possible licensure rating of five stars, it is one of the most sought-after child care facilities in the community. This expansion is helping to meet the high demand for child care with exceptional quality care for the children of staff, faculty and students. We are well aware, however, that there is still much unmet demand, particularly for infant and toddler care, and we continue to explore future solutions.

New River Hall — on the far left of this picture — is also complete and students have been happily living there since August. 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, which you can see is taking place right outside these windows, is the demolition of Eggers and Bowie residence halls. They 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. In July, the Board of Governors approved the pre-development letter of intent, and our pursuit of public-private-partnership agreements, for the district’s first phase. (Thank you, again, Governor Byers!)

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, which will facilitate 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. Construction for the conservatory is slated to begin in summer 2023, with a targeted opening date of fall 2025. (Thank you, again, Representative Pickett.)

The P3 projects in Phase One will include employee housing that will not rely on state funds, or any capital from the university. As you know, 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, some even in 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 this board and our Board of Governors, I am pleased we will have more affordable options to help meet our employees’ demand for housing.  As you can imagine, this has also been wildly popular with our employees! Construction for the faculty and staff housing is slated to begin in winter of 2023 and conclude in 2025. 

The third aspect of the Phase One District Concept, also a P3 project, 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 require 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 2025.

We are, of course, thrilled with the last biennial budget, and we continue to showcase our needs for the next budget. One of the most pressing is to replace I.G. Greer.

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 — it does not have good “bones.” 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 that I mention to the Board of Governors and members of the General Assembly every chance I get.

Plans for opening the Hickory Campus to students in fall 2023 are moving forward.

The City of Hickory has been incredibly welcoming to App State, and they are very excited about College GameDay coming to App State! Signage has been going up on the building in recent weeks, and more is coming. The City of Hickory cleaned the exterior of the building for us a few months ago, making the building much brighter than it was last fall, when we bought it!

Partnerships with the City of Hickory and other local government, education, civic and business leaders in the area have been key to ensuring the programs we offer on the Hickory Campus will meet 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 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.

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. Every one of them is planning to come to App State — their college in the mountains.

Last month, we cut the ribbon on our second lab school, the new App State Academy at Elkin. You see Chair Shepherd and Governor Byers in this photo – thanks to you and to the others in this room who joined us on that very hot day to celebrate this terrific milestone! The teachers, principal and staff, supported by the Superintendent and the School Board, were so excited to start school they were nearly jumping up and down!

The Elkin Academy serves approximately 100 students in second through fourth grades.

We are now the only UNC System institution to operate two lab schools. We greatly appreciate the strong and steady leadership from Dean Spooner and the 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 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.

Our academic department chairs are helping share the big picture planning, and all of the related work with the faculty. This summer, I hosted the academic department chairs, and participated in a three-week summer institute, an initiative I began on this campus in 2021. This professional development program 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.

At the beginning of each academic year, I share a state of the university address with faculty and staff. As I reported to them last month, 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.

I’d like to close my remarks today by sharing our most recent App State commercial, which is nationally and regionally televised, and which is getting some extra play over the next few days!

Thank you for supporting our students, faculty and staff, and thank you for believing in our vision.

Madam Chair, this concludes my remarks.