Remarks from the September 29, 2023 Meeting of the Board of Trustees

Friday, September 29, 2023

Remarks by Sheri Everts, Chancellor

Thank you, Acting Chair Ricks, and good afternoon!

It’s hard to believe it’s nearly October already! It’s been a very busy beginning to the semester, and I thank you all for the many events you have joined us for since the semester began just over a month ago.

The first day of classes represents new beginnings for students, faculty and staff, and it’s always full of promise and excitement.

This semester, as we began our first day of classes, we crossed an important milestone. When we opened the Hickory campus to students on Aug. 21, we extended 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 also  demonstrates enormous support from the City of Hickory, our strong market position and 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 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 who 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, when I co-chaired the Higher Education Task Force for myFutureNC, we examined the state’s current and projected workforce needs. As part of this, we launched a statewide conversation about economic competitiveness, workforce development and educational attainment. Informed by this work, as many of you know, 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 to increase access to education for the people of our region.

Earlier this month, we celebrated 124 years of steadily building on this mission — a 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 here. 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 some 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.

That said, we understand that we can make a difference in the tight housing market. 

Guided by strategic planning, we plan to continue a process begun in 2015. Our goal is to provide the significant housing investments — to be achieved through cost-effective partnerships — that our campus has long needed and that the market increasingly demands. A recent housing study for Watauga County indicated that the county needs 1,700 units today to meet current demand for affordable housing. Since I arrived on this campus, I’ve been focused on increasing our inventory for student housing, and if you look out these windows, you can see the results of our first phase of that work, and it continues.

At the beginning of September, we issued a request for qualifications from developers for a public-private partnership to build new student housing, parking and potential student support facilities on the Boone campus, with a goal of adding approximately 1,850 new beds to our Boone campus housing inventory.

Our transfer students, in particular, will also benefit as this is a population that tends to enroll later than traditional first-year students.

We will keep you updated about this project as it develops.

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. Graduating with low — or no — student debt is critical for these families, who we must continue to serve. App State students graduate with debt loads that are well below the national average, and the loan default rates of our students are some of the lowest in the entire country. These are important factors for our prospective students and their families as they consider App State — among their many other options.

Each year at this time, national publications release their rankings for colleges and universities, and I’m proud to report App State is once again recognized as — among many accolades — a leader for our academics, innovation, value, benefits for student veterans and programs that enhance the first-year experience.

Notably, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and The Princeton Review recognized App State as among the best in the nation. In U.S. News & World Report rankings, we earned:

  • the No. 1 spot on the Most Innovative Schools in the South list, for the fourth consecutive year;
  • No. 2 in Top Public Schools in the South, breaking our four-year streak of being third in this category;
  • No. 2 in Best Undergraduate Teaching Programs among Southern Universities, for the seventh year in a row;
  • No. 2 in Best Colleges for Veterans among Southern universities, for the third year running; and
  • we advanced our ranking in the Top Performers on Social Mobility category by 33 positions in the Best Universities in the South category.

These accolades underscore our legacy as a leader and innovator in higher education, and they are a testament to the value of an App State education and to the efforts of the faculty and staff, who work each day to enhance the quality of our students’ experiences.

  • 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. 

Thousands of faculty and staff work at App State because they believe passionately in advancing the achievements of our students, and the numbers show that their 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.

Budget news from Raleigh is, once again, excellent for App State, and I extend my sincere thanks to our legislators for securing important appropriations for our university, as well as key compensation increases for university employees.

We greatly appreciate the UNC System Board of Governors and UNC System leadership, as well as this board, for supporting the funding priorities put forth by my leadership team. Together, we are working to ensure we can continue to expand access to an exceptional App State education for the people of our region.

The new biennial budget bill continues a record of historically significant support for our university and demonstrates the confidence in the work we are doing. This includes:

  • a 7% across-the-board salary increase, which will be broken downinto a 4% increase for this fiscal year and a 3% increase in the 2024–25fiscal year;

  • a minimum 10% increase in starting salaries for new nursing faculty;

  • salary increases for law enforcement officers; and

  • a 4% cost-of-living supplement for retirees.

The budget allocates more than $74 million in funding for App State's capital repairs and renovations and nearly $22.5 million in additional appropriations.

On behalf of the entire university, I extend heartfelt gratitude to our elected officials, our Board of Governors — thank you, Gov. Byers — our UNC System leadership and you, for your continued support of and advocacy for App State. I also thank our faculty and staff for their hard work and dedication to our students, which is being rewarded by the people of North Carolina.

App State’s future funding will also, as you know, depend significantly on our performance, as measured by the funding model approved by the Board of Governors last winter. This model incentivizes enrollment growth and student outcomes. We expect to have our 2023 evaluation early next year, and we expect significant allocation increases in year two and beyond.

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.

Guidance from the UNC System indicates that we cannot expect increased funding by way of tuition or fees increases. As many of you know, President Hans has promised to keep in-state tuition flat for the eighth year running — and we have every reason to expect that he will hold it constant well into the future. 

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 I carry to our state legislators every day, along with stories of our many accomplishments. 

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. Earlier this month, 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. Additionally, we provided a resource folder for faculty and staff on both campuses with important information about how to prepare and respond to the safety and wellness needs of the members of our university community.

Recently, the App State Police Department’s Police Academy graduated its sixth class, comprised of 24 recruits, as certified North Carolina police officers who began their service on App State’s Boone campus and in the local community. 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 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. 

Congratulations are in order for our general counsel, Paul Meggett, who has been selected as the 2023 recipient of the highest honor given to attorneys in the North Carolina — and the only award given by the State Bar Council — the North Carolina State Bar’s John B. McMillan Distinguished Service Award. Paul has demonstrated exemplary service to the legal profession and to our university. He will be honored at a ceremony in October. Congratulations, Paul!

In August, Dr. Zachary Farris, associate professor of public health and exercise science, was named the 2023 Sun Belt Athletic 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. We congratulate him on being recognized by the Sun Belt for his impressive work. 

This season, our football game day and major event operations are running smoother than ever, thanks to a change in our emergency management and event staffing strategy for football games, events at the Holmes Convocation Center and the Schaefer Center and other events in university venues.

Our new Mountaineer Medics program employs undergraduate and graduate students with Emergency Medical Technician credentials. These trained first responders are under the supervision of our full-time Emergency Management team, and they are making our response times faster and our campus safer while gaining practical experience in the emergency medical field and increasing access to pre-hospital care for our students, employees and visitors. I want to thank Jason Marshburn for developing this program.

Additionally, event logistics and implementation, including all crowd management, entrance and egress, bag checks, ushering and field access management, are now being sourced in-house. A new team of more than 200, most of whom are students, is making the experiences of fans and event patrons much more seamless and customer service-focused. This program, under the supervision of Jason Parker, director of the Holmes Convocation Center, is also ensuring our visitors receive a warm App State welcome. Jason is also working with Academic Affairs to include this hands-on work experience as part of our hospitality management program.

In addition to making for a safer, more enjoyable experience for event attendees, the medics and event management services are also cost effective, as we are no longer paying outside contractors to provide them.

So far, at home football games this season, nearly 7 tons of waste was diverted from the landfill and either recycled or composted, thanks to student and staff volunteers, who are clearly having a lot of fun while sorting trash! A big thanks to University Sustainability, Facilities Operations and App State Athletics for collaborating on this zero waste partnership. In addition to the environmental and aesthetic benefits, it also creates an educational service-learning opportunity.

This academic year marks the 39th anniversary of App State’s Chancellor’s Scholars Program.

The four-year, highly selective program is the most academically competitive merit-based scholarship at App State, designed for students with ambitious academic goals.

Chancellor’s Scholars receive full tuition, fees, room and board. They are provided with a wide variety of classroom, experiential research and study abroad opportunities, as well as academic mentoring in a living-learning community.

This class of Chancellor’s Scholars personifies App State’s commitment to academic excellence, leadership and service. These students exemplify a commitment to academic and community engagement, and I look forward to the real and powerful differences they will make within their chosen disciplines …

… and I’ll remind you all that our new student body president is a Chancellor’s Scholar. You may recognize him as the one on the right with the beard.

Our University Advancement team recently celebrated another banner year — having raised more than $40 million in fiscal year 2023. This success provides private funding for professorships, scholarships, infrastructure, operations, faculty and staff support and academic programs, among other areas.

  • In fiscal year 2023, 95% of our gifts were less than $2,500, and our average gift size was just over $1,000 — demonstrating the importance of gifts of every size.

  • I’m also proud to share that for this fiscal year, we are already on track to break records, as we are more than $4 million ahead of where we were at this time last year.

  • Our endowment is also holding steady at $150 million, having doubled since 2014, when I came to App State.

Thanks to generous support from our legislature, and the vision of this board, App State has 42 projects, representing nearly $300 million of capital improvements underway. This is 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 $54 million of state-allocated funds and the $7.5 million of conservatory funding authorized by the Board of Governors in March.

The Conservatory for Biodiversity Education and Research, a long-held dream, is becoming a reality. In the next two years, we will have much to share about the ways this facility will help realize a vision of bringing together expertise across multiple disciplines to conduct collaborative research, as well as encourage K–12 partnerships. The building will open in the fall of 2025.

Nearly 160 units of faculty and staff housing are underway, helping address a critical need in our ability to recruit and retain talented personnel. These 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 2025.

Both the Wey and Duncan halls projects will receive additional funds to support inflationary increases as part of this year’s state budget appropriations.

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 in the last biennial budget and $15 million in additional funding in the latest state budget. The first phase of the project is slated to be complete in summer 2026. 

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 game days. This project is expected to be completed in fall of 2024. 

Also this summer, we began Phase 2 of the Appalachian 105 property. As you may recall, Phase 1 — the Randy Marion Track Field and Facility — was completed in April. Phase 2 construction includes outdoor tennis courts, an outdoor softball facility and a team support building with locker rooms and a public restroom facility. Phase 2 will be completed next summer.

We will continue to develop the projects that were submitted to the UNC System as part of our six-year capital projects plan. Key priorities for future projects include:

  • Peacock Hall renovations;
  • replacing I.G. Greer Hall;
  • continued renovations of the Hickory campus; and 
  • academic building additions to the Innovation District.

I can’t say enough about how much we appreciate the support we have received from the state legislature for these and other projects so far.

Before I conclude my remarks, I’d like to take a moment to recognize Trustee Sofield. During the East Carolina game, we publicly recognized Tommy and his family for committing a generous gift in support of App State athletics facilities enhancements, including a new multipurpose indoor practice facility. As an App State student-athlete, Tommy distinguished himself among his peers as a leader by starting a small business that employed other students while carrying a full-time class load. Since graduating, he has become a pillar of the App State Community, well known for his kindness, generosity and his business acumen. In 2007, Tommy and his family took the lead on supporting a facility to provide better training opportunities for App State student-athletes. This additional lead gift will continue to foster our Mountaineers’ competitive drive to excel in their sports as well as in the classroom, and will contribute to the recruitment, growth and development of future student-athletes for many years to come. Thank you, Tommy, for your continued support and engagement with App State.

Earlier this month, as I shared much of what I’m sharing with you today in the State of the University report to faculty, staff and students, I also shared a quote I had come across, which 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 well-funded university, with higher employee salaries, as well as more diverse — 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.

A huge thanks to this board for what all of you do, each and every day, as members of this community. Your advocacy, support and guidance have ensured that we can — and do — grow together. 

Mr. Acting Chair, this concludes my remarks.