By Mata Hari, guest-posting:
“Houston, we have a problem.” This is the message about Appalachian State that concerned faculty and students delivered at a town hall held on campus on Sunday evening.
Panelists and audience members described a campus climate of “fear,” in which students are “silenced” by the administration and faculty told to “sit down and shut up.” They told stories about an administration that uses Zoom to mute open discussion, that suppresses unfavorable reports on issues like diversity, that press-gangs deans into publicly denouncing faculty views that fail to tow the administration’s line.
The town hall, which was held in Belk Library and on Zoom, was organized by Appalachian’s Student Government Association (SGA), Faculty Senate, and Staff Senate. Its theme was the university’s direction.
The town hall was opened by Faculty Senate Chair Louis Gallien. The first panelist, Richard Rheingans, a professor of Sustainable Development, put the town hall in context. The students and faculty, he observed, are the university. They fulfill the university’s mission. The institution does not exist for the sake of administrators. And yet Appalachian’s administration seems entirely focused on congratulating itself on its own (dubious) accomplishments. It does little to support students and faculty. Rheingans asked: “What do you do when leaders don’t lead?” He noted that when you’re told to “sit down and shut up”—as faculty regularly are—it usually means it’s time “to stand up and speak.”
Bailey Gardin, the current student body president, recalled the administration’s handling of the Black at App State Collective, which issued a series of demands in July 2020. Gardin described the meeting that the Chancellor held with students of color on July 21 to address these demands. He called it “one of the most traumatizing meetings I’ve ever been a part of.” Chancellor Everts packed the meeting with around 40 individuals whose involvement had not been announced to the students (and were loyal to her). The students of color were, moreover, prevented from speaking at the virtual meeting because they were muted by the administration. More recently, the administration has failed to produce a “demand tracker” to monitor its commitment to meet the demands. And last November, the administration suppressed a report by the Faculty/Staff of Color Affinity Working Group, most likely because it included information about negative experiences these faculty and staff had experienced. “Racist tactics of tokenization and gaslighting” were, Gardin stated, a hallmark of Everts’ administration.
Bekah Nielson, an App State student with the Climate Action Collaborative, expressed many students’ frustration with the university’s tepid climate goals. The university has pledged carbon neutrality by 2050, which is no more ambitious than the national goal. The administration has shown, Nielson said, a “lack of sustainability, accountability, [and] transparency.” She emphasized that in fighting for genuine sustainability, students were not “fighting against university, but fighting for our home.”
Stella Anderson, a professor of management, discussed university funding, emphasizing the importance of ensuring that public higher education was appropriately funded by the state. She noted current efforts to change the funding model that determines the allocation of state monies, but observed that this change may only be marginally beneficial to Appalachian. She emphasized the importance of funding the university’s core academic mission. She reminded the audience that Appalachian’s Athletics program is not self-sustaining, as it is funded largely by making students pay an athletics fee—a fee that all students must pay as a condition of attending the university.
Todd Carter, a newly elected member of the Boone Town Council, was the last panelist to speak. He emphasized the importance of cooperation between the town, the county, and the university, while noting the aggressive sustainability measures the town has pursued.
The tone of the meeting was refreshingly optimistic. It was evident that the faculty and students were deeply committed to Appalachian and to its educational mission. But it was equally clear how much they felt the university’s mission was stymied by Chancellor Everts’ administration.
Some faculty recalled, for instance, that they had recently conducted a survey of faculty about the university’s policies regarding the omicron variant. They communicated the results directly to the faculty. But on January 10, all seven of the university’s deans (Michael Madritch, Sandra Vannoy, Melba Spooner, Shannon Campbell, Marie Hoepfl, Marie Huff, Dean, and James Douthit) sent an email to students stating: “It has come to our attention that some faculty might be sharing misinformation about university COVID safety protocols, procedures and decision-making that are inaccurate and potentially harmful.” The deans were ordered to send this email by none other than Chancellor Everts.
More recently, Megan Hayes, the university’s chief communications officer, criticized the press release about the town hall itself. Hayes, who reports directly to Chancellor Everts, wrote the following to the town hall’s organizers (the email was shared at the meeting):
I read a news story in the Watauga Democrat this morning in which Faculty Senate, Staff Senate and SGA are described as “governing bodies” for the university.
I wanted to let you know our team is reaching out to the editor to request a correction, as this is not accurate.
Additionally, you may want to correct the graphic you are using to publicize your upcoming event on Feb. 20, as I am sure it is not your intent to mislead the constituencies you represent, the public or the media that your organizations hold governing authority, or that you represent the university in an official capacity.
In addition to being astonishingly petty, Hayes’ email is simply wrong. The principle of “shared governance” upon which American higher education is founded means, literally, that bodies like Faculty Senate participate in governance. In no way were any of these bodies pretending to be the university’s chief executive officer or governing board. This red herring of an argument simply shows the administration’s churlish need to suppress any voice that might contradict its own.
Of course, as several town hall participants indicated, the core problem is that Chancellor Everts, lacking any support on campus or in Boone, depends entirely on the support she receives from the campus Board of Trustees and the System Board of Governors. Every single member of these bodies (except for the SGA President, who is also a trustee) has been chosen directly or indirectly by North Carolina’s gerrymandered, Republican-controlled legislature. Objectively, Chancellor Everts serves North Carolina’s Republican politicians.
It was clear from Sunday’s meeting that this is not the last time the university’s faculty and students will meet to press for their vision of the university.