Criticism, questions surround Everts’ decisions

BOONE — In the weeks since Cindy Wallace was dismissed as vice chancellor for student development, a chorus of critics questioning Chancellor Sheri N. Everts’ staffing decisions and leadership continues to grow louder.

Multiple individuals and groups have called for greater transparency in university decisions and a clear picture of Everts’ vision for the university, while some are seeking answers about the future of campus services and development and the role of new leaders on campus, including recently appointed acting Chief of Staff Debbie Covington.

The critics include a group of at least 60 people who have organized behind an effort called “The Appalachian Way,” which includes alumni, retired staff and faculty, students, ASU supporters and others. The group established the website and an email address,, and invited students and alumni to share their views on the ASU experience.

“We call ourselves The Appalachian Way because collectively we have experienced the love and the passion that being a member of Appalachian State University entails,” the group announced in a statement released June 22. “We were taught that The Appalachian Way wasn’t just a paid-for experience at a university, but it was a community and a feeling that everyone felt, and still feels after leaving. Collectively we … are concerned about the direction we are seeing Chancellor Sheri Noren Everts take Appalachian State University in.”

The group said it is standing up to ask questions and investigate “a series of concerning issues … particularly and most recently the replacement of very successful and very beloved members of the administration.”

The release went on to list a number of high-level administrative departures from ASU since Everts became chancellor in July 2014. On the website, the group asks, “What is Chancellor Everts’, the board of trustees’ and other leaders’ vision for Appalachian State University?

Questions about vision

One member of the “somewhat anonymous” group is Joni Petschauer, an ASU alumna and retired professor and program director. Her husband, Peter Petschauer, is also a retired professor and program director, and the two are donors, as well, having made financial contributions and gifts to the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts.

“Appalachian is a place that has given me a life,” said Joni Petschauer. “I worked here and loved it and felt empowered to do good things. That’s what I want The Appalachian Way to reflect.”

Petschauer said she wants to see clear thinking about university plans that is transparent and inclusive of all campus stakeholders.

The group’s aim is to “not attack, but to ask,” she said.

“If lots of people know we’re trying to talk about something, then we talk about it. That’s what the group is about,” she said. “We wanted to take a lot of hurt energy and make it positive.”

Petschauer acknowledged that Wallace is a longtime friend and colleague of hers. But, she noted, the group members know that “we don’t need to spend any time trying to reinstate Cindy,” nor are they calling for Ken Peacock to return. “That’s not on the table, and we know that. What we’re stressed about is what is going on? Why would something like that be a surprise to all of us? And where are we headed?”

On June 24, ASU acting Chief of Staff and spokeswoman Debbie Covington shared remarks that Everts gave to the ASU board of trustees last week — some in response to the questions from The Appalachian Way.

Everts has reached out to a group member but had not heard back as of late last week, Covington said.

“Since inception, the university has had one vision — putting students first by providing access to a quality education,” Everts said in the remarks. “This tradition is important to me, and I have worked to honor it by working with the entire Appalachian community to continue building upon our distinctive identity and core values. Ultimately, the reason our stellar faculty and staff come to work every day is to realize this vision, which can be summed up in one key phrase: We put students first, always, and together we are building a bright future.”

Everts pointed to communications in fall 2015, including remarks at a staff and faculty meeting, as examples of her vision and priorities for the campus, which she said were developed after months of listening in her first year as chancellor. The listed priorities included support for faculty and staff; wellness, health and safety; diversity; sustainability; global learning; student research; community and civic engagement; fundraising; and slow and steady enrollment.

Petschauer said she was glad to hear Everts state that students are first in her vision, but that the vision must be reflected in actions. Some criticized Everts for not meeting in person with students who occupied the administration building in protest of House Bill 2 earlier in the spring. On April 11, Everts met with three of the protest leaders and released a statement in opposition to HB2, which was among the protesters’ demands.

“I was surprised of the reticence of the chancellor to meet with the students … that was frustrating to me,” Petschauer said. “That’s where the rubber meets the road. When students are upset about something, meeting with them — that’s where leadership shows up.”

A staffing shuffle

A number of the leadership changes to which the group refers have occurred in the past six months. Among them are the retirement of Vice Chancellor for Business Affairs Greg Lovins on April 1 (though he accepted a new position at South Carolina’s Landers University); the naming of Willie Fleming as chief diversity officer, a role formerly held by Bindu Jayne, ASU’s associate vice chancellor for equity, diversity and compliance; and the dismissal of Wallace, who served 12 years in the vice chancellor’s position and 32 years at ASU.

Reached by the Watauga Democrat in the days after the dismissal, Wallace declined to comment on the matter. But the announcement of her departure sparked a firestorm of comments and letters, with many condemning the move while some defended the chancellor’s right to make it.

Daniel Tassitino, a student, former student government vice president and intern in Wallace’s office, penned a widely circulated open letter to UNC system leaders on June 8, criticizing what he described as Everts’ lack of visibility on campus, a reported disagreement between Everts and Wallace over the rebuilding of Winkler Residence Hall and the way in which Wallace was dismissed. A corresponding petition on the website has thus far garnered more than 2,000 signatures asking for Everts’ removal as chancellor.

Soon after, ASU Faculty Senate Chairman Paul Gates sent a letter to media outlets in response to Tassitino’s letter, defending the chancellor.

“Sometimes when we write things in anger, emotions can cause us to muddle or misrepresent the facts,” Gates said. “Being the chancellor of a university is a complex job that serves multiple constituencies: students, faculty, and staff on the campus, but also the trustees, the Board of Governors, the legislature and the citizens of North Carolina.”

“To suggest that the chancellor has been hiding or is trying to ‘save face’ fundamentally misunderstands the complexities of the position,” he continued. “To accomplish these tasks, it is necessary that an organizational leader be supported by a team that she has confidence in. It must be the chancellor’s call regarding who is best suited to perform those tasks, especially at the senior level.”

The ASU chapter of the American Association of University Professors, however, has called for transparency in leaders’ decisions at ASU, which it said is essential for the collegial operation of the university as well as for campus morale.

“We believe that a university administration that takes inclusive governance seriously will be less exposed to institutional instability and community frustration resulting from unexpected and seemingly arbitrary administrative changes,” the chapter said in a June 14 statement.

Last week, Everts announced a shuffling of staff in the chancellor’s office as of July 1, with Chief of Staff Randy Edwards assuming the role of interim vice chancellor for university advancement, Covington moving from an executive assistant’s position to active chief of staff and director of marketing and Hank Foreman — currently chief communications officer and senior associate vice chancellor for University Advancement — being named senior associate vice chancellor for arts engagement and special assistant to the chancellor for strategic initiatives.

In addition, Vice Chancellor for University Advancement Susan Pettyjohn is set to retire June 30, and University Police Chief Gunther Doerr will retire Aug. 1.

“We have welcomed new faculty and staff and we have seen others retire or reach for the next opportunity in their future,” Everts said in a June 17 alumni newsletter.

“Change and transition can be challenging for any organization, including colleges and universities,” Everts said further on June 24. “We have dealt with changes in leadership at Appalachian during all administrations, and our community has always moved forward together.”

Dino DiBernardi, who retired as an administrator in the Division of Student Development this academic year after 39 years at ASU, said he absolutely supports and recognizes Everts’ right to decide who her team is, but with regard to Wallace, he feels the transition could have been handled better.

“For student development staff, I think it was very disruptive to find out that your boss was gone immediately, with no opportunity for explanation or understanding,” he said.

DiBernardi said he feels staff morale has been negatively affected by recent changes.

“I think folks are feeling a little disenfranchised right now, and they’re afraid to use their voice, because they feel like there’s a culture of retribution on campus. That may not be the case, but that’s how they’re feeling,” he said. “In the absence of good transparent decision making, people make up their own reality.”

Covington says role is not permanent

Multiple sources have questioned the role of Covington and why someone without a background in higher education has been promoted to such an important role at Appalachian State.

As part of the transition in the chancellor’s office, University Communications was moved out of the Division of University Advancement and instead reports directly to the chief of staff and the chancellor’s office.

Covington came to ASU two years ago after retiring from a career in marketing with the banking industry. Prior to joining Appalachian in 2014 as director of marketing and engagement for the Walker College of Business, Covington held several senior leadership roles for more than 15 years with First Union National Bank, Wachovia Corporation and Wells Fargo.

Speaking June 24, Covington emphasized that she has not been appointed as a permanent chief of staff at ASU, noting that an “acting” position serves as a placeholder until a permanent replacement is found.

Covington said she does not believe it is unusual for chiefs of staff at other universities to have different career backgrounds, nor is it uncommon for marketing and communications to report to that office.

Covington said she views the position as a “troubleshooter” and someone who serves to represent the university’s story.

Others have pointed to the fact that Covington’s husband, James, was elected in December 2015 as a member of the ASU Foundation board of directors and have questioned whether that represents a conflict of interest.

Covington noted that she and her husband asked university leaders at the time whether or not the appointment would be a conflict of interest.

“If so, he would be more than willing not to do that,” she said. “At any time, James would step off that board if it became a problem. He’s doing it for the good of the community. His goal is to raise money for the organization.”

She added that she and her husband, who is also retired from the banking industry, have maintained contacts in Charlotte and New York who could contribute their time or money to Appalachian State, and that the two are comfortable maintaining a professional confidentiality about certain matters, having once worked for the same organization.

Private partnerships?

Another issue discussed among those expressing concerns is whether or not Appalachian State is studying privatization options for campus services and development.

ASU leaders have studied the option of outsourcing food services and other university services to private businesses in the past, but have decided to maintain university control over these services, which employ many people in the community.

The university already is looking to increase partnerships with the private sector in constructing campus facilities.

Last week, the ASU board of trustees voted unanimously to approve a request to the UNC system Board of Governors for an 87.96-acre expansion of ASU’s designated millennial campus areas. The area includes all residence halls on the west side of campus, as well as Kidd Brewer Stadium.

Millennial campus designation allows public universities to enter into agreements with private sector firms to develop properties, facilitates issuing bonds to finance development of the properties and allows the university to keep all revenues related to leasing space in the properties.

The UNC system Board of Governors has already approved millennial campus designation for the former Broyhill Inn property, identified as the site of a future Innovation Campus, as well as the Beaver College of Health Sciences and University Hall properties.

By Anna Oakes

Watauga Democrat (6/29/16)