App State faculty votes “no confidence” in Chancellor Sheri Everts

The Appalachian State University Faculty Senate passed a resolution expressing “no confidence” in Chancellor Sheri Everts Monday — a rare move in UNC system history.

As Policy Watch reported last week, the stemmed primarily from the school’s decision to reopen to in-person instruction and on campus living during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The vote was 23 in favor of the “no confidence” resolution, 12 against and 6 abstaining.

The move came the same day UNC-Chapel Hill announced it would move undergraduate classes entirely online after recording 135 new COVID-19 infections after one week of classes.

Dr. Michael Behrent, chair of the ASU faculty senate, said Monday’s meeting was “a substantive, serious, and open-minded discussion,” despite differences on the faculty over the “no confidence” vote.

“But on a day when faculty warnings about the dangers of reopening in a pandemic have proved prophetic, UNC administrators are showing they are bad at reading symptoms in more ways than one,” Behent said. “Over the past year, I have reached out to the chancellor, the members of the Board of Trustees, and others in university administration with the sole goal of expressing faculty anxieties and frustrations about the university’s direction. Many of these concerns predate COVID, but the pandemic has brought them to a fever pitch. Their response has been at best dismissive, at worst punitive.”

“Instead of addressing problems on their campus and actually leading, they prefer to obfuscate, spin, and blame the messenger,” Behrent said. “The no confidence vote was avoidable. If faculty and administration are going to work together to get our institutions through this crisis, administrators must show a willingness to learn from their mistakes.”

“I think the core of the problem is that faculty do not feel the chancellor has prioritized academics, has advocated for the faculty, or has encouraged shared governance,” Behrent said. “Many faculty have seen their real income decline over the past decade. Whatever the merits of the chancellor’s decision to grow enrollment to 20,000 students, faculty felt they were largely left out of that discussion, which has a significant impact on their work. Finally, faculty feel that they were left out of much of the decision-making related to COVID (at least until they objected) and that communication has been poor (as exemplified by nontransparent communication about a recent COVID outbreak in a campus child care center).”

The Senate also voted on a resolution holding Everts and the UNC Board of Governors “responsible for any illness and death resulting from COVID-19 as a result of reopening campus in spite of clear warning signs available to all and over the objections of the faculty.”

The vote on the second resolution was 18 in favor, 14 against and 6 abstaining.

Behrent said that many faculty understand that the real source of most of their discontent — from financial decisions to the reopening plan — is not just Everts, but the North Carolina legislature and their political appointees on the board of governors.

“But does this mean campus administrators should be completely silent?” Behrent said. “At a moment when we’re all recalling the power of the Civil Rights movement, it’s worth remembering that UNC Chancellor Bill Friday spoke publicly against the Speaker Ban law, which was basically designed to prohibit civil rights advocates from speaking on UNC campuses. Blind obedience to authority is not really a value we promote as part of our public culture. Why do we take it for granted when it comes to university leaders, of all people?”

Shortly after the vote Everts sent an email to faculty. She did not acknowledge the outcome of the votes, but explained that senior level administrators did not attend the meeting on advice of legal counsel because members of the Senate are named plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the UNC System over what they say are unsafe working conditions in the pandemic.

Everts also reminded the faculty that the school’s Board of Trustees had previously voted expressing their confidence in her.

Everts’ email in its entirety:

Dear Faculty,

We have received a media inquiry about today’s Faculty Senate meeting.
Before responding, we want to communicate directly with the faculty.

We are aware of the resolutions that were on the Aug. 17 faculty senate
agenda. Two members of Faculty Senate, including the Senate
Parliamentarian, are named plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the
university, the UNC System and Gov. Roy Cooper. While university
administrators typically attend Faculty Senate in support of shared
governance, in light of the above and on the advice of counsel, no
senior level university administrators attended today’s meeting.

On May 26, the Board of Trustees unanimously voted “in support for
Chancellor Everts, Provost Norris, Vice Chancellor Forte and Director of
Athletics Gillin.” During this meeting, Chair Blackburn stated, “As we
continue to navigate COVID-19, it is imperative that we all work
together to keep our university’s mission moving forward while helping
keep our community safe. I would like to thank Chancellor Everts, her
leadership team, faculty, staff and students – the entire university
community – for their efforts to achieve the core mission to educate
students in the safest way possible given the challenges presented.” On
July 6, the Trustees passed a “Resolution of Confidence in the
Leadership of Chancellor Sheri Everts.”

We have greatly enjoyed the individual meetings with academic
departments, and have found they provide an important opportunity for
direct and unencumbered communication with the faculty at large. We will
use continued departmental meetings, as well as regular email updates,
to communicate directly with all faculty regarding important matters and
initiatives underway. We need and want your input and will continue to
seek it.

You are finding creative ways to continue our core academic mission, and
we value you and the work you continue to do under increasingly
challenging circumstances.

Thank you.

Sheri Everts, Chancellor
Heather Norris, Interim Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor

Faculty were disappointed with the response.

“I wish Everts would acknowledge that we have a problem here rather than engaging in the very same behavior that got her the no confidence vote in the first place,” Behrent said. “I believe that most faculty on our campus want to support their chancellor. I know this from conversations with many faculty. In many ways, she is a good fit for the university and many people were excited when she began in 2014. The way she has lost faculty support is an unforced error. Blaming the faculty and shooting the messenger are only going to make things worse. I am surprised that with so many high level administrators, they can’t get this simple fact. It is not hard to earn the good will of the faculty. You just have to try. I hope she reverses course and makes a good faith effort to earn back faculty support this time.”

With the news of Chapel Hill’s shift online, some faculty at ASU believe their school isn’t far behind.

“I taught today, and, in fairness, my building seemed safe, there was little crowding, my students were socially distanced and all wore masks; I was provided a mask and there was abundant hand sanitizer available,” Behrent said. “Credit where credit is due.”

“But this doesn’t change the core fact that we’re bringing 20,000 young people from across the state (and beyond) to a town with a 20,000 year round population,” Behrent said. “I don’t know what will happen, but few of my colleagues doubt we’ll go the way of Chapel Hill.”

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