State of the University Address

Friday, September 15, 2023

Remarks by Sheri Everts, Chancellor

Good afternoon and welcome!

Thank you to those who are joining us today in person, as well as to the faculty, staff and students who are joining via livestream from the Hickory campus.

The annual State of the University Address is an important opportunity for us to come together as a university community as I share a review of some of the issues we are facing as an institution, along with key accomplishments and plans for the coming year.

When we opened the Hickory campus to students last month, we crossed an important milestone, extending the vision of increasing access to education begun by our founders, B.B., D.D. and Lille Shull Dougherty, from the mountains to the foothills.

This expansion comes amid a challenging higher education environment nationwide, with declining college enrollments and dozens of closures reported in recent years. It demonstrates a strong market position and tremendous support from the City of Hickory, as well as our steadfast belief in the power of higher education.

Ashlynn Caudill, a communication sciences and disorders major from Lincolnton, represented the inaugural class of students at App State’s Hickory campus at the opening ceremony and ribbon-cutting. Like many of our Hickory students, Ashlynn dreamed of attaining an App State education, but she needs to stay close to home. On the first day of classes, she spoke about realizing her dream to be a Hickory Mountaineer.

All of us here understand the power of higher education to change lives. Many of us can recite statistics that show how much more earning power college graduates have. Those of us who are, ourselves, first-generation graduates have lived it — we are the people that make up those numbers. We stand, amongst prevailing narratives that question the value of a college education — we stand as living examples of the difference a college degree makes, not only for ourselves but for each subsequent generation. Our firsthand experience makes us even more determined to use our influence to help others, especially students who are from rural areas, low-income families or who must work harder to access educational resources.

In 2018, I co-chaired the Higher Education Task Force for myFutureNC. This task force was made up of a broad range of key educational stakeholders. We examined the state’s current and projected workforce needs and launched a statewide conversation about economic competitiveness, workforce development and educational attainment. Informed by this work, we developed a goal of 2 million additional North Carolinians gaining a high-quality credential or postsecondary degree by 2030.

App State is a proud partner in this statewide goal, which aligns with our own founding mission.

Last week, we celebrated 124 years of steadily building on this mission, to increase access to education for the people of our region. With many of their descendants in attendance, we celebrated this bold and ambitious vision of our founders, which has led to our becoming a nationally recognized, premier public undergraduate institution.

While we have changed a lot since those first days, we have never lost sight of the reason we are all here — to provide access to higher education for the people of our region.

And I’m pleased to report that we’re doing better than ever in that regard.

This year, we broke records for overall enrollment, online, first-year and underrepresented students. Among the UNC System institutions, we had the highest increase in enrollment.

With more than 21,000 students, we’ve seen growth in first-year, transfer, online, first-generation, rural and underrepresented students. And we also welcomed more than 360 students on our Hickory campus.

While social media discussions would have us believe that the student population has exploded in recent years, the reality is that in the last 10 years, the population of students living in the Boone community has increased by only about 200 per year on average and has remained at or near 18,000 for the last three years.

Nearly one-third of our student population is from rural areas, and nearly one-third are first-generation college students. Those percentages increase significantly when looking at the student population on our Hickory campus.

Underrepresented students make up 19% of our overall student population — an increase of 77% since I arrived on campus in 2014. Of those students, 45% identify as Hispanic or Latine, and we’ve seen a 12% increase in this population over last year.

Serving these populations is particularly important to the health of our state, as myFutureNC’s latest educational attainment report shares that only about 1 in 2 of working North Carolinians ages 35 to 44 are earning a family-sustaining wage. And these statistics are exacerbated as we break them down by race, ethnicity and geography.

Importantly, we prioritize the success of our students:

  • from the faculty who work with them in the classroom, to the advisors who help them plan and meet their academic goals;
  • from the librarians who focus on ensuring they can access learning resources, to the counselors who focus on their wellness;
  • from the technologists who prioritize a seamless learning environment, to the allergy specialists in Campus Dining who ensure high-quality food is available for everyone; and
  • from the faculty who serve as club advisors, to the police who believe that safety begins with community-building. 

These are just a few examples of the thousands of faculty and staff who work at App State because they believe passionately in advancing the achievements of our students, and the numbers show that your efforts are working.

Our graduation rates and first- to second-year retention rates are well above the national averages. This is particularly significant given that one-third of our students are first-generation college students. And it is ultimately about completion — graduation of our students, in particular, in four years. 

Adults with degrees and credentials earn more over their lifetimes and contribute more to our local economies across the state. Each year, more than 5,500 students attain App State degrees. The good news for our state is that most of them stay in the state, contributing to the economies and communities of North Carolina.

Well over 100,000 App State graduates live and work in North Carolina, contributing to our growing economy and returning on the investment made in them by the people of our state. Employers tell us that our graduates have a competitive edge in the job market because they bring solid, discipline-specific knowledge, combined with a strong work ethic, problem-solving skills and a penchant for innovation.

The success of our students and graduates is also important for our future funding. North Carolina funds its public universities at a rate that beats nearly every other state in the union, and with this funding comes accountability.

App State’s strong enrollment will also play a key role in the new performance-based funding model approved by the Board of Governors last winter, which incentivizes enrollment growth and student outcomes. We will be evaluated using four main criteria, covering six metrics:

  • increasing undergraduate student success, as measured by our four-year graduation rate and the proportion of students who graduate compared to the total number of enrolled students;
  • increasing affordability for first-time and transfer students, as measured by their student debt upon graduation;
  • improving university productivity, as measured by expenses per degree; and
  • our four-year graduation rate for Hispanic students, which was our own campus-selected goal.

Our funding in the future will be based on how well we perform in these areas compared to our baseline and stretch goals. And we expect our allocation to be smaller the first year, with expected significant increases in year two and beyond.

Guidance from the UNC System indicates that we cannot expect increased funding by way of tuition or fees increases. Tuition has remained flat at UNC System schools for seven years — and as you may have heard, President Hans suggested eight years — and we have every reason to expect that will continue. Not only is meeting our strategic goals paramount, but we also must be prepared to demonstrate our effectiveness in providing the services included in student fees, which include athletics, educational and technology, health services, student activities, and safety and wellness resources.

Flat tuition and a 3% cap on fees is good news for our students but also places inflationary pressures on salaries and other operating expenses. This is a message my leadership team and I carry to our state legislators every day, along with stories of your many accomplishments. Like many others, I had hoped to be sharing good news from a biennial budget with you this week. I look forward to being able to do so soon.

I am encouraged by the conversations taking place in Raleigh about employee compensation. Since arriving 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. I will provide an update when we have more concrete information about the budget and how it will impact App State.

The safety and health of our university community is our top priority. If we are not safe and well, we cannot effectively teach and learn. While safety is a 24/7/365 day priority, September is a month in which we focus on safety education for our university community. On Wednesday, we held our annual Safety Festival on Sanford Mall, showcasing safety, health and wellness resources available to our students and encouraging them to practice preparedness in the event of an emergency. I encourage each of you here today to take with you a resource folder that provides important information about how to prepare and respond to the safety and wellness needs of the members of our university community. In the coming days, we will also deliver these folders to each office on both our Boone and Hickory campuses.

Last month, the sixth class of our App State Police Department’s Police Academy, comprised of 24 recruits, graduated and began their service on App State’s Boone campus and in the local community as certified North Carolina police officers. The academy is part of our Police Officer Development Program, which is the only program of its kind in North Carolina. The program equips students with the knowledge, skills and training to become police officers while completing their undergraduate or graduate degrees at App State.

When they enter the criminal justice system job market, these students will have — in addition to their App State degrees — two years of work experience in policing and North Carolina law enforcement certification and training. They will also have the exposure to different races, cultures, ideas and beliefs, all of which will serve them well as future police officers in their communities across the state. Thank you, Chief Andy Stephenson, for that inventive program. 

Last month, Dr. Zachary Farris, associate professor of public health and exercise science, was named the 2023 Sun Belt Conference Faculty Member of the Year. This annual award recognizes a faculty member for teaching, engaging and inspiring students.

Dr. Farris brings his personal experiences as a student-athlete into the classroom to support and educate all of his students. He is a former student-athlete who played both basketball and baseball, and he credits sports for paving his path to a successful career in academia. I congratulate him on being recognized by the Sun Belt with this honor. Please join me in congratulating him. 

Dr. Rahman Tashakkori, the Lowe's Distinguished Professor of Computer Science, has been working with a team of researchers in North Carolina and Belgium to help secure the future of the world’s food supply. This work is funded by a $1.1 million grant through the University of North Carolina System’s Research Opportunities Initiative. Combining observatory data with genetic data, their project studies the decline in the population of honeybees, which are responsible for a third of the food on American tables. In the coming months, 14 of the hives they have been studying on the Boone campus will be moved to App State’s Blackburn Vannoy Farm. There, studies will continue with trained citizen scientists, and the bees will continue to thrive while providing local honey to App State dining facilities.

Thanks to generous support from our legislature, App State has more than $278 million of capital projects currently underway — one of the largest infrastructure investments in the entire UNC System.

The first phase of the Boone campus Innovation District is underway, thanks to the generous $54 million state-allocated funds and the $7.5 million conservatory funding by the Board of Governors in March.

The first academic building in the district will be the Conservatory for Biodiversity Education and Research. The facility will allow for the bringing together of expertise across multiple disciplines to conduct collaborative research, as well as encourage K-12 partnerships. The building will open in the fall of 2025.

Through a public-private partnership project, nearly 160 units of faculty and staff housing are underway. One-, two- and three-bedroom units will be cost-efficient and will help meet the housing needs of App State employees amid housing scarcity and cost inflation in Boone. Units will be open in the fall of 2025.

The Innovation District’s zero-carbon energy system, another public-private partnership project, with renewable energy options, will power the Innovation District and help App State’s Boone campus transition away from steam power. The system will be operational also in the fall of 2025.

This summer, we began a full renovation of Wey Hall, which was built in 1976 and has never been renovated. The $17 million, comprehensive, full-building modernization has an estimated completion date of summer of 2025.

Over the summer, renovation construction also began in Edwin Duncan Hall. The nearly $21 million project includes adding and refurbishing elevators, repairing the building’s exterior, installing a new sprinkler system and completely revamping the HVAC system. It will be completed in the spring of 2025.

This semester, construction will begin on an addition and partial renovation of Peacock Hall. This project will help extend the life of the building by 30 to 50 years. App State received $25 million in legislative support for this project, and the university’s Building Leaders fundraising initiative has a $10 million goal that is also dedicated to this project. This phase of the project is slated to be complete in summer 2026. 

If you’re trying to keep track of all the project’s I’m talking about, you can also find them from App State’s homepage, at App State’s Future.

This summer construction of the Holmes Convocation Center Parking Deck began. The deck will offer approximately 600 spaces for faculty, staff and student parking on the Boone campus. One of the planned features for this project is an enclosed pedestrian bridge that will connect the parking deck with the Holmes Center, which I know we will all appreciate on rainy and snowy commencement days — doesn’t it almost always rain or snow now on commencement? This project is expected to be completed in fall of 2024. 

This semester, we will begin phase two of the Appalachian 105 property. Phase one, the Randy Marion Track Field and Facility, was completed last April. Phase two construction includes outdoor tennis courts, an outdoor softball facility, a team support building with locker rooms and a public restroom facility. Phase two will be completed next summer.

Last fall, we submitted a six-year capital projects plan for the university to the UNC System, which includes key priorities for future projects. These include:

  • continued renovations of Peacock Hall, to include a transportation hub and the daylighting of Boone Creek;
  • replacing I.G. Greer Hall with a state-of-the-art science, technology, engineering and math building;
  • continuing to add academic buildings to the Innovation District; and
  • future phases of renovations and construction on the Hickory campus.

Additionally, we are reviewing a recent student housing study, which will inform our planning and decisions about increasing the capacity for student housing.

As the state budget process progresses, we are carefully monitoring each development, as its outcome will be key to funding important new and continuing projects.

Recently, I came across a quote that reads: “A community is a group of people who agree to grow together.” 

Since I arrived on this campus just over nine years ago, our community has grown together. We’ve become a more diverse and more well-funded university, with a national reputation for innovation and teaching excellence. As we have grown and changed, we’ve remained true to our founding mission.

As we continue our critically important work, I look forward to continuing to grow together, as a community — one that now includes two campuses and even more capacity to meet the needs of the people of North Carolina.

I want to thank you for taking the time to join me for this important university update. I hope those of you who can will join me for a reception downstairs in the Solarium, and I look forward to continuing the discussions today and in the future. Thank you all for what you do each and every day for App State.