Update from Appalachian State University — week of Sept. 21–25

Friday, September 25, 2020

Today I shared university updates with Appalachian’s Board of Trustees. For my message this week, I encourage you to read my full remarks — available below. This compilation of updates and successes speaks to the tremendous thought and care that has gone into our university’s ongoing management of a global pandemic, and simultaneous efforts to elevate the Appalachian Experience.

As a reminder, the next pop-up COVID-19 testing event will be held tomorrow from noon–5 p.m. in the Rivers Street Parking Deck and the results will be updated on the university's COVID-19 Dashboard.

Thank you to the entire Appalachian Community for continuing to #ShowYourLove for our Mountaineers and the local community.

Sheri Everts, Chancellor

Remarks from the Sept. 25, 2020, Meeting of the Board of Trustees

Good morning and welcome to our board members and to Governor Byers, who are joining us in the room today as well as those who are joining via Zoom.

I’d like to begin by thanking Chair Blackburn for his exceptional leadership of this board during an extraordinary two years for App State. John, thank you for your dedication to our students, faculty and staff. I believe I can speak for everyone present when I say our appreciation of your dedication, service and leadership will continue long beyond your chairmanship of this board. Thank you.

I’d also like to recognize and thank Rob Gelber and his AppTV team for broadcasting today’s meeting. Our students are gaining important, real-world experience with today’s live broadcast, and I really appreciate their work, and Rob’s leadership.

It is anything but a typical September in Boone, but I am very pleased to say we do have students on campus making the very best out of their extraordinary challenges.

We are in day 248 of campus planning for COVID-19, and day 210 of formal coordinated preparedness, response and recovery efforts.

As you know, last week we announced three clusters of COVID-19 cases. Currently, we have seven total active cases in those three clusters. We are providing information on clusters on the data dashboard on our university COVID-19 website.

We also have three active cases in our football student-athletes and one active case in a volleyball student-athlete. These four students are recovering in isolation. The associated quarantines will, however, have an impact on those upcoming games. At this time, we will play tomorrow’s football game without several of our student-athletes and staff, but we will not have enough available players to be able to play the upcoming volleyball matches against Georgia Southern.

Each week of the Fall 2020 semester we complete is a significant accomplishment, and the safety and well-being of our students, faculty and staff — and of the greater community — remain at the forefront of every decision. 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.

Since last winter, we have been extremely cautious while doing our best to provide the most meaningful academic experiences possible. We began by bringing our students traveling overseas home. We continued by extending Spring Break. We purchased three face coverings for every student, faculty and staff member, and they are wearing them. We are encouraging teleworking to the greatest extent possible. We hired 50 additional staff for increased frequency of cleaning and regular sanitizing of high-use areas and residence halls. We brought GrubHub to Boone and food trucks to campus. We have tested more than 1,000 students nearly each week since bringing students back to campus. We have implemented daily health checks and we were among the first to beta-test and promote the state’s contact tracing mobile app. We partnered with local public health on a community public health campaign, designing the graphics for the Show Your Love campaign for three counties. More than 100 Appalachian staff members personally called nearly 16,000 incoming and current students to see how they were doing and connect them to any needed resources.

All of these efforts combined are a fraction of the incredible efforts of our staff, in particular, who have worked around the clock since March to support and prepare for the safest possible return of our faculty and students to classrooms and labs.

Our faculty have not only continued their teaching and research, they have elevated it. Eight multidisciplinary faculty teams are exploring COVID-19 research related to the spread of the virus in nursing homes and social distancing on greenways and trails, among other topics. Whether teaching face-to-face, fully online or using some hybrid of the two, faculty have adjusted their teaching methods to ensure excellence in our students’ learning experiences. Deans and Department Chairs worked tirelessly so faculty and student course delivery needs were met, and I appreciate their tremendous work to continue developing a course delivery mix that offers the right balance for our faculty and our students. This semester, 48% of our classes are being delivered fully remotely and 52% are hybrid or fully face-to-face.

We have just over 5,200 students living in campus residence halls, and they are adhering to occupancy limits in their living spaces and common areas. On and off-campus, our students have by-and-large risen to the challenge, following the 3 Ws and applying pressure on — and offering support to — one another as needed to ensure nearly universal adoption of our safety protocols. To date, we are one of the largest UNC System institutions still holding face-to-face classes, and the one with the largest undergraduate population still doing so.

Violations of our COVID safety policies, including not adhering to social distancing practices or face covering requirements, may result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination or expulsion and, indeed, we suspended one fraternity prior to the first week of classes. 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 3 Ws. We have had broad and comprehensive adoption of these practices with very few issues with compliance. Local and campus police reports also show few issues with large parties or group gatherings that violate Governor Cooper’s executive order. Media visiting our campus have noticed; visitors have noticed. Additionally, we have had no instances of traceable COVID transmission in the classroom and no faculty with COVID-19 this semester. Our students value an Appalachian Education and the experience — no matter how changed — that comes with it. I heard one student on a recent news report speak for many of our students when he said, “I want to be here. I don’t want to go home, so let’s get through this.” We are all weary with the effects this pandemic continues to have on our daily lives, but we cannot become complacent. It is our responsibility to remain diligent and disciplined. Doing so will keep our students and faculty in Boone and on campus, our staff and faculty employed and our local economy supported.

I have received countless emails, phone messages and even hand-written letters expressing appreciation for our diligence. From the smallest detail — and there are so many — like daily reminders to use hand sanitizer and wipe down workstations, to the massive efforts of technology implementation and coordinating new course delivery methods, our students, faculty and staff have not only risen to each challenge, they have met it head on. They are innovating at every turn and I’d like to take a moment here to thank them. I see the incredible efforts they are putting in each day, and I know you share my appreciation for them as well.

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 provided materials and devices for 250 students, allowing almost every child to connect on the first day of school. 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.

In addition to our partnerships with local law enforcement, 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. Our collective efforts so far are making it possible for us to remain on campus.

AppHealthCare, our local public health agency, provides us daily updates of active cases, which means people who are currently in isolation due to a positive COVID-19 test.

We are currently using less than 20% of our available quarantine capacity. Our quarantine space is located off campus, so we are not limited by on-campus space constraints.

As of this week, between Student Health Service and our pop-up testing sites, we have tested 6,151 faculty, staff and students with an average weekly positive test rate of 3.4%, or a total of 207 people. We have had pop-up testing available at least once each week since students moved in the week of August 10, and will continue to schedule them at least once each week for the foreseeable future. These large-scale testing events augment the 70-80 tests performed by our Student Health Service staff each weekday. The number of COVID-19 tests administered on-campus and the percent of positive results have been added to the metrics we are reporting on our university coronavirus website dashboard.

I’d like to thank, in particular, Dr. Alex Howard, interim assistant vice chancellor and director of wellness and prevention services, and his entire team, which includes Student Health Services, the Student Counseling Center, University Recreation, Wellness and Prevention Services, and a team of student wellness peer educators. Their phenomenal work is helping to support our students with the resources, support and recreation they need in these incredibly challenging times.

Managing the effects of this global pandemic consumes so much of our daily bandwidth, yet it is important to celebrate the many other successes that take place at Appalachian each day.

  • This fall, national publications U.S. News & World Report and The Princeton Review, and personal finance magazine Money.com, recognized Appalachian as one of the nation’s top-performing schools for its academics, value, innovation and student veteran services, among other aspects.
  • The National Science Foundation has awarded a nearly $1 million grant to Drs. Jennifer Burris, Andrew Bellemer, Brooke Hester, Claudia Cartaya-Marin and Willie Fleming to help increase the representation and advancement of women and women from underrepresented populations in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
  • An August 2020 report from the American Institute of Physics ranked Appalachian second in the country for master’s granting departments for the number of bachelor’s degrees granted per year.
  • We also made a remarkable announcement last week during this year’s virtual Appalachian Energy Summit: Working together, the institutions and affiliates in the UNC System have avoided more than $1 billion in energy costs, exceeding their goal set in 2012 by more than $30 million. I applaud Chief Sustainability Officer Dr. Lee Ball and the Office of Sustainability for their continued leadership of this important initiative. I am sure our institution will lead the way to the next milestone: $2 billion in avoided energy costs by 2025!

As you know, we have reached an important milestone in our enrollment growth, despite the challenges and uncertainties brought on by the global pandemic. We have continued our average 5-year growth rate of 1%–2%, and as the UNC System has reported, we continue to set enrollment records.

Our enrollment for fall stands at 20,023 students! 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 UNC 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, and
  • Since 2014, we have seen a 97% increase in first-year underrepresented students, nearly doubling that enrollment in the time I have been here.

We would be remiss not to be planning for budget reductions, and indeed, along with our System counterparts, we submitted some extreme budget scenarios to the UNC System upon request over the summer. While those scenarios are unlikely, we are expecting at least a 10% reduction next fiscal year. Academic Affairs is already documenting efficiencies. They recently completed a significant reorganization of the enrollment management and marketing functions across main campus undergraduate programs, graduate programs and App State Online programs. The resulting reorganization eliminates administrative level positions and makes use of the marketing platforms in University Communications, saving the university more than $900,000 annually. Our consistent and strong enrollment will continue to ready us for the budget shortfalls that are certain to come. Moving forward, we recognize we cannot continue to grow on-campus indefinitely, yet we take seriously our educational mission and responsibility to educate the citizens of the State of North Carolina. We are looking at areas that have growth capacity and market potential for both on-campus and online programs.

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, who continue to deliver top-quality educational experiences for our students, despite the incredible challenges presented by a global pandemic unlike anything our university has before encountered.

I applaud our faculty and staff and appreciate their 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. I know you are just as passionate as our students, faculty, staff and alumni about moving our university forward, making it better for those who are here now and those who will follow the path forged by the many people who have stood courageously and opened doors for those who are here now, and those who will come after us.

Black Lives Matter. At this moment in our history it is more important than ever that we work through our challenges as a community. Together, we can create a stronger university for generations of Mountaineers to come.

Our Chief Diversity Officer, Dr. Willie Fleming, along with his Advisory Board, is 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 numerous campus studies, discussions and research 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. I know you join me in thanking Dr. Fleming and the Chief Diversity Officer’s Advisory Board for their work on this plan.

The UNC System has also released a questionnaire to support the work of its Racial Equity Task Force, a special committee of the UNC Board of Governors. We are encouraging our faculty, staff and students to complete the survey by September 30. The results, along with many other initiatives in place across the UNC System, will help advance our efforts toward diversity, equity and inclusive excellence.

You will soon hear a Business Affairs Committee presentation that provides more details about our campus construction projects, but I will say I am so pleased we were able to celebrate the openings of our newest residence halls, Raven Rocks and Thunder Hill. These buildings are tremendous milestones as we build infrastructure that supports and elevates App State’s educational mission. The residence halls project is a long-overdue, innovative public-private partnership, which is allowing us to move forward without impact to our academic budgets, and which is saving 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, and on the North End Zone facility, for which we expect partial completion of the building by the third home football game on October 7.

I’d also like to provide a quick update on the progress with the Town of Boone regarding the expansion 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 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.

I expected that by now we would be announcing the opening of the center’s expansion, which will increase capacity by an additional 40-50 children. While we had some setbacks in progress with the Town of Boone over zoning for the project, our Business Affairs and Student Affairs teams continued working with the town, and found a zoning solution that will allow us to move forward with the expansion project. I am pleased to report the Town Council voted to approve annexation and zoning last Thursday.

Finally, an update on the on-campus voting location. Consistent with App State’s commitment to civic engagement, there will be an on-campus voting location for the upcoming election’s 20-day voting period. University staff toured campus locations with the Board of Elections over the summer, and we identified Holmes Convocation Center as an alternate location for this voting cycle. This was to better ensure safety and to avoid further disruption of the teaching and learning experience. After this process, the Board of Elections selected the Blue Ridge Ballroom in Plemmons Student Union. While the process to confirm the final location is still underway, Appalachian’s long-standing, nonpartisan commitment to hosting a voting site on our campus remains steadfast.

I will conclude my remarks by thanking you for your unwavering support of our students, faculty and staff. While we do everything differently now, we remain at our core, the App State Community that cares for one another, prioritizes safety and our academic mission, and, above all, prevails in the face of adversity.

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

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my remarks.