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Community Members Hold Meeting to Address Appalachian State University Growth, Impact on Boone and the Health of the Community

Community members gathered at the Watauga County Library on October 27th for a Town Hall type meeting.

By Harley Nefe

Community members have been actively speaking up about concerns over the growth of Appalachian State University and the corresponding effects it has on Boone. 

Most recently, engaged individuals got together in person and via Zoom to discuss the topic at an organized town hall meeting at the Watauga County Library on Wednesday, October 27 from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

Sponsored by community members, ClimAct and the Appalachian State chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the forum allowed for community members, faculty, students and Town Council candidates to converse not only about university growth, but about housing, sustainability and the health of the community as well.

According to a press release promoting the event, “A healthy relationship between university and community depends on mutual understanding and respect of each constituency by the other. Recently, however, Appalachian State University seems to have grown increasingly unresponsive to the needs of Boone and its citizens.”

The press release continued to say, “Driven by enrollment concerns dictated by the UNC Board of Governors and state politicians, Appalachian has tried to control local real estate in ways that raise problems for sustainability, housing justice and the community’s well-being.”

Attendees of the meeting included university personnel along with other individuals unaffiliated with App State, who shared each of their own perspectives on the topic. 

“Both groups reciprocate the sincere desire to learn from each other and to work together to find common solutions to shared problems,” said Clark Maddux, App State professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies.

Maddux along with one of his colleagues, Brian Burke, a sustainable development professor at App State, organized the town hall meeting.

Coverage of Town Hall Meeting

Maddux started the forum about university and town relations by saying,”This is a topic that many know has increased in urgency over the past few years given the continued growth of Appalachian State University.”

He then began the meeting by providing a brief history and background of the topic to frame the discussion.

“This divide that many of us have experienced and continue to experience in our lives, is worth remarking as an old one,” Maddux said. “Tensions among the members of the community and of the university have been around at least as long as universities themselves.”

He went further on to explain, “Universities from their inception were organized in ways that distinguish them from the cities where they were situated and placed them under the rule of different authorities.”

However, he said App State also has its differences among other universities.

“What Appalachian was in its beginning — an institution designed specifically for the people of this area — it no longer is,” Maddux said. “At the same time, citizens of the area promote an exceptional degree of loyalty to the university. The good will encouraged by that attitude may be one reason relationships between Appalachian and Boone have worked so well for so long and why so many people who live here continue to be optimistic about the future of the university and the town. In addition, it is common for faculty to remain here at Appalachian throughout their careers and to retire here … They can easily find themselves aligning with others wondering if the university should continue to expand as it has in the past two decades.”

Maddux concluded his remarks by saying, “We have to change if we want the future to be different from the past. We have to have conversations we have not historically had, and we have to ask questions we’ve been reluctant to pose. More of the same will simply not do … Universities that begin with a premise of continued growth based on performance funding models imposed on them by boards and legislatures that do not live in the town where the school is situated are going to cause conflict with their communities whether they want to or not. Adversely, towns that simply seek to restrict universities will find themselves in a reactionary mode rather than working strategically. These are not easy issues, and they are not easily resolved, but I do believe if we can find common cause, we can do better than we have in the past.”

Kellie Reed-Ashcraft, who formally was a professor in the social work department of App State and retired recently in July to focus full time on community work, was the next speaker of the evening. She provided some data on the population and poverty in Watauga County for context and to act as a foundation for the discussion.

Referencing the 2020 Census, she shared that Watauga County has a population of 54,086 people, including App State students on and off campus. The figure does not include seasonal residents. Also according to the Census, Watauga County has a poverty rate of 21.4%. The poverty rate for North Carolina is 13.6%.

Other statistics that Reed-Ashcraft shared included information from the North Carolina Justice Center. The estimated total employed workforce for Watauga in 2021 is 28,815 full-time workers. Of those workers, 10,151 or 35% commute into the county every day.

Reed-Ashcraft then gave a brief overview of the housing situation in the area and growth of App State.

“In terms of calculations, there are 32,637 dwelling units considered in the county, and of these, 34% or 11,224 were vacant,” she said. 

Reed-Ashcraft further said the county’s total population of 54,086 represents a 6% increase since the 2010 Census, and the current student enrollment was 20,641 students during the 2021 fall semester, which is the largest enrollment to date.

“We certainly know that when you have that kind of growth in the student population in the county, it’s just going to exacerbate housing issues that are already in existence,” she said. “But what’s also important to note, and this is something near and dear to my heart as a social worker, is it’s going to exacerbate those issues even more greatly for those of our residents who are most vulnerable and are of no to low income. So, when we see some of the housing solutions today, some of the large-scale student developments around town, one of the concerns for me now as a community resident is that we don’t have an overall strategic plan that actually looks at the context of how to meet our overall needs.”

Reed-Ashcraft concluded her remarks by saying, “This kind of development is obviously going to contribute to a number of unintended consequences, like lowering the availability of rental units for other residents in our communities.”

Following Reed-Ashcraft’s comments, other members of the audience were able to speak up about the topic.

One speaker introduced herself as an Appalachian native as her family has been in the area for 300 years.

“I’ve had to watch for the last 25 to 30 years, Appalachian people get up and leave, and we are not transient people,” she said, with tears in her eyes. “We have been here for 300 years because we do not leave; we suffer. We will suffer starvation; we will suffer anything. If we leave, it’s because we are forced out. And between the town of Boone and Appalachian State University, and yes, I’m mad, I’ve watched my ethnic group of people be forced out of Watauga County.”

The speaker went on to say, “The cost of living in this county is driven by money made somewhere else. You cannot survive working three jobs in this county, even with a college degree. I was homeless when my first grandchild was born, even with three jobs … It’s flat out exploitation of this county. Not one town person is from Watauga County, and they’re making decisions for me and my family. We are being exploited … Appalachian State was placed here to help Appalachian people … yeah, they came to help alright … We don’t live here anymore, and in 100 years from now, there will not be one sign of my culture left … We’re being displaced in the foothills of Appalachia, so that people can pretend to be Appalachian and get a good view, and none of the money goes back to the Appalachian people.”

Other attendees of the town hall meeting brought up concerns over the growth of the population’s impact on traffic management with thousands of cars commuting within and outside of the county on the roadways.

One speaker said, “Many of us requested that the enrollment of ASU be capped at 10,000 several years ago. ASU was once a blessing to our town and county, but our mountains are not conducive to building highways and other infrastructure needed for a large university. Edward Abbey once said, ‘Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.’ Our elected officials must put pressure on the board of governors to reduce the size of ASU or have a satellite campus. Let’s concentrate on quality not quantity.”

A faculty member in the audience also spoke up and said, “I think faculty, for the most part, do strive to be community members, even if we recognize that most of us are not from here originally. We feel extraordinarily frustrated, to the point of despair, about the complete and utter lack of response that we have from the administration of the university. My view of the institution has changed by being involved with these people because essentially, they don’t want to engage with you. They have an agenda. They don’t want to talk to community members. They don’t want to talk to students. They don’t want to talk to staff, and they don’t want to talk to faculty. There’s a mistake that sometimes people sort of see faculty and administration as somehow aligned, and that is not even remotely the case right now.”

One attendee asked if App State was going to hear the frustrations and concerns discussed, or if the meeting was “just an echo chamber.”

In response, Clark Maddux said, “One of the reasons we were happy to arrange this and do this is if this is the beginning of being heard in a way the town has not been heard before, students have not been heard before, faculty have not been heard before, if this is the beginning — then I think it’s accomplishing something.”

Brian Burke added, “This may be a first meeting, not the last, right. This may be the beginning of unity, right? This may be the beginning of people coming together to be heard and to make changes and to stand up for folks who have a right to be here and to live well, right? I think those are some concrete ways in which this will be heard.”

A link to the full video and audio recording of the meeting can be found here: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1NLQf7eeWmD2uCpzXMywOOx7rYgWVGuf6

App State’s Response

After the meeting, High Country Press reached out to App State for comments and received the following response from Megan Hayes, who is the Associate Vice Chancellor and Chief Communications Officer:

The university supports the freedoms of speech and assembly as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

As evidenced by regular meetings which have increased in frequency in the last 19 months, with faculty  staff and student groups, Appalachian State Chancellor Sheri Everts and her leadership team are also committed to engaging in conversations with campus representatives from departments and groups from across the university.

  • Over the summer, Chancellor Everts and Provost Heather Norris hosted a three-week comprehensive leadership workshop for chairs of academic departments, to ensure these campus leaders have access to important resources and information needed to foster the success of their students and faculty.
  • This semester, Chancellor Everts and Provost Heather Norris are continuing their practice, begun in Summer of 2020, of meeting with faculty from academic departments, joined by deans and other university leadership team members.
  • Chancellor Everts also began hosting weekly small group discussions this semester, which provide opportunities for leaders from Faculty Senate, Staff Senate, the Student Government Association, academic department chairs and deans to meet with the Chancellor and her leadership team.
  • Engagement with community leaders continues as well: last week, Chancellor Everts hosted local leaders in education, business and government gathered together with campus leaders for the university’s regular Community Leaders Breakfast.

These meetings, and countless other conversations with faculty, staff, students and community leaders, help inform the decisions campus leaders are making for our university.

Cost of living challenges have affected members of the campus community for many years, and they have recently been exacerbated by changes in the housing market. The university recognizes that available, affordable and easily accessible housing is critical to our ability to recruit and retain talented faculty, staff and students. Earlier this fall, the university surveyed faculty, staff and students to gain additional information about the current housing and transportation needs and preferences of faculty, staff and students. The input will help inform future planning efforts.

Town Hall Organizer’s Reaction

After receiving the statement from App State, High Country Press touched base with Clark Maddux, organizer of the town hall meeting.

“Everything she pointed at with some measure of pride is vacuous,” he said. “She doesn’t listen. She doesn’t value or protect time honored traditions of shared governance.”

Maddux continued to say, “Whenever any faculty member, or group of faculty members, decides  that we are going to do anything that could appear faintly critical of the chancellor, the Board of Trustees or the Board of Governors, we ask ourselves, do we need to hire a lawyer? And what is she or what is the board going to do in retaliation? That says a lot about the environment that she creates … She’s had six years to become a partner with this community. And all of the so-called conversations and listening sessions and programs that she holds have clearly not done that. She has not created a partnership with this community. And so I think it’s up to faculty who care about the community to do that.”

When asked about his thoughts on the town hall meeting, Maddux responded with, “We were very pleased with it. We heard so many powerful stories from both the community and the faculty. We came away with it with a kind of renewed sense that the community really does want to partner with the University. It does want to work with the University and sort of figure out solutions to very difficult and complex problems. And so we were all very heartened by the presence of the students, townspeople and faculty who were present and the contributions that all of them made.”

There will be a follow up meeting to continue the topic of university and town relations on December 3, with logistics still being finalized.

“Our hope will be to assemble an even larger group and to start working toward a few concrete goals/actions,” Maddux wrote to attendees in an email. “We are committed to action that is designed by all of Boone and that serves all of Boone.”

For individuals who are interested in getting involved in the matter, they are encouraged to reach out to Clark Maddux (madduxhc@gmail.com) and Brian Burke (nature.justice.brian@gmail.com) for further communications.

Kellie Reed-Ashcraft speaks to the attendees
Clark Maddux moderated the discussion at the meeting.
Many attendees shared comments and asked questions durning the town hall meeting.
Brian Burke