Update from Appalachian State University — week of Aug. 31–Sept. 4

Friday, September 4, 2020

This afternoon, I gave my annual remarks at the opening meeting for faculty and staff for the academic year. For this week’s update, I am sharing my remarks below. I also encourage everyone to read the latest operations update, which includes important information, and to please take advantage of the pop-up testing events that are coming up on:

  • Saturday, Sept. 5
  • Thursday, Sept. 10
  • Saturday, Sept. 12
  • Saturday, Sept. 19
  • Saturday, Sept. 26

These testing events will be held from 12–5 p.m. in the Rivers Street Parking Deck. Visit the university’s COVID-19 Testing page for information on upcoming testing events and on-going testing for students, faculty and staff.

I wish you all a safe and restful weekend.

Sheri Everts, Chancellor

Remarks from the Fall 2020 Faculty and Staff Meeting:

As I reflect on my comments to you at this time a year ago, it is hard to fathom how much has changed since last September.

I want to begin by saying thank you to our faculty and staff.

Each week of the Fall 2020 semester we complete is a significant accomplishment. Since March, we have re-envisioned, re-imagined and re-defined the university experience at App State. In the last six months, we have had to re-create what took those who came before us more than 120 years to develop. This effort has been nothing short of superhuman for our staff and our faculty.

I applaud your work, and I am not alone in doing so. I have received countless emails, phone messages and even hand-written letters expressing appreciation for this work. From the smallest detail — and there are so many — like the placement of hand sanitizer and signs, to the massive efforts of technology implementation and coordinating new course delivery methods, you have not only risen to each challenge, you have met it head on, innovating at every turn.

We are on day 227 of campus planning for COVID-19, and day 189 of formal coordinated preparedness, response and recovery efforts. In my weekly messages, as well as the weekly operations updates, we share with campus and the families of our students the latest information about our continued campus response, planning and recovery efforts.

  • Over the summer months, more than 100 of you personally called nearly 16,000 incoming and current students to see how they were doing and connect them to any needed resources. Though not every call was answered, you connected with more than 7,000 students and their family members.

  • You established the Mountaineer Emergency Fund before the CARES Act was passed, raising money and distributing it to students who were facing dire circumstances due to the pandemic. I know many of you contributed to this fund. Thank you. Since then, you used this fund and also quickly established other mechanisms to distribute more than $10 million in private and federal funds to assist thousands of our students.

  • Deans and Department Chairs worked tirelessly to ensure faculty and student course delivery needs were met, and they continue to do so. This semester, 48% of our classes are being delivered fully remotely, 32% in hybrid modes, and 20% are being delivered fully face-to-face. In March, Department Chairs began assessing and meeting course delivery preferences for fall, and they continued to respond to changing faculty and staff needs associated with the changes with Watauga County Schools. This process is again underway for spring. As faculty know, this involves multiple communications from Department Chairs to faculty, and continual re-assessments as they work with Deans to develop optimal plans for each department. This is a highly customized approach, and I appreciate the tremendous amount of work our Department Chairs in particular have dedicated to developing a course delivery mix that offers the right balance for our faculty and our students.

  • The Office of Research awarded internal grants to eight multidisciplinary faculty teams exploring COVID-19 research related to the spread of the virus in nursing homes and social distancing on greenways and trails, among other topics. In recent weeks and months, we have also seen media coverage of the COVID-19-related research of Dr. Becky Battista, professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Science and director of the Office of Student Research; Dr. David Nieman, professor of biology and director of Appalachian’s Human Performance Laboratory at the North Carolina Research Campus; and Dr. Maggie Sugg, assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Planning.

  • The Appalachian State University Academy at Middle Fork, our UNC System K-5 lab school, has faced equally challenging decisions related to COVID-19. Ultimately, the academy decided to hold its first nine weeks of this semester virtually, and they have provided materials and devices for 250 students, allowing almost every child to connect on the first day of school. Of note, all but two teachers returned this year, and the two new teachers are both Appalachian graduates — a testament to our high-quality teacher preparation programs.

On August 5, when Governor Cooper announced the extension of Phase 2 “Safer at Home” through Sept. 11, he also emphasized that universities are returning students to classrooms. He acknowledged the importance of opening schools and institutions of higher education, saying, “Education must go on.” Higher education is indeed an essential function, and we are ensuring education goes on.

The safety and well-being of our students, faculty and staff — and of the greater community — remain at the forefront of every decision. We are very fortunate to have a strong partnership with AppHealthCare, our local public health agency, as well as support from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the UNC System. This coordinated planning accounts for a multitude of scenarios, risk assessments and mitigation strategies. Regardless of their course delivery methods, our students’ attendance shows they value an Appalachian education and the experience — no matter how changed — that comes with it. We have witnessed behavior that indicates most students are concerned about their health and the health of other students, as well as faculty and staff.

They are wearing masks, maintaining physical distance and using the hand sanitizer stations. Those who are violating the Governor’s Executive Order for gathering sizes face student conduct charges from the university. We suspended one fraternity prior to the first week of classes. The App State Police Department and Boone Police Department are building on their strong partnership — we are assisting with monitoring, responding to and addressing off-campus gatherings that violate requirements related to COVID-19. While we are taking every violation seriously, I want to emphasize the majority of our students are respecting one another, abiding by the rules that are in place to protect our community and protecting others by following the Three Ws. I know you all join me in thanking them for exercising responsible behavior and respecting the other members of our community.

Our collective efforts so far are making it possible for us to remain on campus. Today’s numbers show we have 50 active cases, which means people who are currently in isolation due to a positive COVID-19 test. Our quarantine capacity is currently at 81, and we have the ability to add more as needed. In our first two weeks of classes, between Student Health Service and our pop-up testing sites, we tested 1,573 faculty, staff and students with a positive test rate of 3.6%, or a total of 58 people. I am pleased to report we will soon have pop-up testing available every Saturday, thanks to a partnership with Mako Medical. We will soon add these metrics to the dashboard on our university coronavirus website. I’d like to take a moment here to thank the many, many people who have been involved in the preparations involved in bringing our students and faculty back to classrooms and labs, and our staff back to on-campus work. Many of you are still working remotely and overcoming many challenges to do so. Thank you for what you have done, and what you continue to do, to keep our campus up and running. I see the incredible efforts you are putting in each day, and I want you to know how appreciated you are by me, by the leadership on and off of our campus, and by students and their families. Thank you so much.

Managing the effects of this global pandemic consumes so much of our daily bandwidth, yet it is important to celebrate milestones and successes. Yesterday, we celebrated Appalachian’s 121st year at the annual Founders Day celebration. We had to adapt our event — as we are adapting everything these days — but we retained what was most important: Celebrating our founders, B.B., D.D. and Lillie Shull Dougherty and honoring the family that envisioned a future where a quality education was accessible for all.

As visionary as they were, I often wonder if they imagined the impact they would have on the citizens of North Carolina. The first, groundbreaking class of 53 students at Watauga Academy started down a path to be followed by thousands. Today, more than 134,000 alumni are living across the state, nation and world today, benefitting from — and sharing the benefits of — an App State education.

What an incredible accomplishment.

Now, we sit at what indeed may be the most pivotal moment in our university’s history since those first 53 students arrived on our campus. How we face the challenges before us now will define us for decades — and perhaps the next 121 years.

  • We are learning new ways to build connections and continue the high-quality faculty-student interactions for which App State is known.

  • We continue to serve rural populations, increase diversity and develop opportunities for first-generation students to access an App State education.

  • We continue to attract and retain high caliber students who graduate and embody the promise of higher education as they make positive contributions to communities across North Carolina and beyond.

We have reached an important milestone in our enrollment growth, and I am pleased to report that despite the challenges and uncertainties brought on by the global pandemic we have continued our average 5-year growth rate of 1%–2%, and we continue to set enrollment records.

Our enrollment for fall stands at 20,023! This represents an enrollment increase from 2019 of 3% in undergraduate students, 11% in graduate students and 18% in graduate and undergraduate students who enrolled in App State Online degree programs. New online graduate students have increased by nearly 30% from last year. Overall, first-to-second-year retention rates exceed the national average by 12 percentage points.

  • Our rural student enrollment stands at nearly 6,000 rural students, which is more than 300 students above the University of North Carolina System strategic plan benchmark for this year.

  • 34% of the total undergraduate population, or 6,100, of our students are first-generation college students.

  • A record 18% of the total student population is racially or ethnically diverse.

  • We have increased our total underrepresented student population by 56% since 2014.

  • Since 2014, we have seen a 97% increase in first-year underrepresented students, nearly doubling that enrollment in six years.

We also know that financial assistance is critically important for many of our students. I am proud that from 2014 to 2019, gift aid for underrepresented students nearly doubled, now standing at more than $18 million.

These accomplishments speak directly to the tremendous efforts of our faculty and staff. You continue to deliver top-quality educational experiences for our students, despite the incredible challenges presented by a global pandemic unlike anything our university has encountered.

This is the point where, if we were sitting in a room together, I would lead the applause for your success. I did ask UComm if they would add in some applause sound effects… but in all seriousness, know that I applaud you and appreciate your work, which has long-lasting benefits across the State of North Carolina and beyond.

As we become a more diverse campus, we are broadening the ways we can become a more inclusive campus. Amidst a turbulent national landscape, we see our students respond to national events, and we focus on what we can do — here on our campus — to continue moving forward, building on the work done by those who came before us, and the work we have done together. It takes all of us to do this work. Trustees, alumni, faculty, staff and students are all passionate about moving our university forward, making it better for those who are here now and those who will follow the path forged by our three founders, the 53 students who started their first days here 121 years ago, the faculty who taught them, and the many people who have stood courageously and opened doors for those who are here now, and those who will come after them, like:

  • Barbara Reeves Hart, who was the first African-American to earn a master’s degree from Appalachian in 1965;

  • Dr. Carolyn Anderson, a 1969 alumna who was the first African-American, full-time faculty member at Appalachian; and

  • our Chief Diversity Officer, Dr. Willie Fleming, a two-time alumnus ('80, '84), who helped found the Appalachian Gospel Choir, the Black Student Association and the Black Faculty and Staff Association.

The Chief Diversity Officer’s Advisory Board is also working diligently on a campus-wide Comprehensive Diversity Plan that will encourage, on an ongoing basis, each university unit to accomplish the university’s strategic goal of embracing diversity of thought, belief and community. The plan is informed by the university’s strategic plan, the 2017 Inclusion Infusion Study, the annual Inclusion Infusion Summer Diversity Institute and research and discussions by the Chief Diversity Officer’s Advisory Board. It is currently being vetted by focus groups across campus and will be shared with the campus community before the end of the semester. As a dynamic and living document, the Comprehensive Diversity Plan will evolve over time as goals are met and new goals are established. I would like to thank Willie and the Chief Diversity Officer’s Advisory Board for their work on this plan.

Members of the Chancellor’s Cabinet are also responsible for addressing the themes and priorities that have been collectively identified with the BlackAtAppState Collective. My Cabinet members and I have met with members of the BlackAtAppState Collective on numerous occasions in the last six weeks. Moving forward, accountability meetings will be held monthly. Cabinet members will report on progress and challenges related to the initiatives within their areas of responsibility so the Accountability Team can provide feedback, discuss challenges and help celebrate successes. Dr. Fleming has provided updates on this work in his regular messages to campus, and he will continue to keep the university community informed of this work.

Black Lives Matter. This moment in our history is more pivotal than any of us have ever faced in our careers, and perhaps our personal lives as well, and it is more important than ever that we work through our challenges as a community. Together, we can overcome these challenges and create a stronger university for generations of Mountaineers to come.

Building physical infrastructure supports and empowers the vast human potential on our campus. Yesterday, we celebrated the openings of our newest residence halls, Raven Rocks and Thunder Hill — tremendous milestones as we build infrastructure that supports and elevates Appalachian’s educational mission. Construction remains in progress on Laurel Creek Hall and design is underway for New River Hall, which will replace Justice Hall. As you are likely aware, demolition of Justice Hall began in June, and we expect it to be complete in October. The residence halls project is a long-overdue, innovative public-private partnership, which is allowing us to save more than $73 million over the cost of developing the property on our own.

Work also continues on Sanford Hall, with classrooms and common areas on the first floor on schedule to be open in time for spring 2021 classes. The renovated Sanford Hall will house the Department of English and feature improved classrooms and larger offices, as well as more common areas and collaborative workspace for students. The Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, which also had been in the building, will remain in the renovated L.S. Dougherty Hall, where it moved last summer.

I'd also like to provide an update on the expansion of plans to increase the capacity of the university's Child Development Center, which serves App State faculty, staff and students.

Access to quality child care is critical for our university community members and is key to our ability to recruit and retain highly qualified faculty, staff and students and to allowing students to continue their education as they raise and expand their families. It is also critical to the ability to return our students to classrooms and our faculty and staff to work.

Our planned expansion will allow us to accommodate an additional 40-50 children and will include a new drop off area, parking, sidewalks and exterior playground space.

I expected we would be announcing the opening of the center’s expansion by today. Unfortunately, we’ve seen some setbacks in progress with the Town of Boone over zoning for the project. Our Business Affairs and Student Affairs teams have, in true App State style, continued to work through the problem with the town, and we believe we have found a zoning solution that will allow us to move forward with the expansion project. The Town of Boone Planning Commission made a recommendation to the Town Council and we expect a vote from the council in the coming weeks.

I will conclude my remarks where I began them — by thanking you for your extraordinary efforts to create new ways to keep as much the same as possible. While we do everything differently now, we are successful because of who we are — the App State Community that cares for one another, puts our students first and, above all, prevails in the face of adversity.

We are the premier public undergraduate institution in the state of North Carolina.

Thank you.