Appalachian Perspective: Dr. Lori Gonzalez

Hosted by Appalachian State University's Chancellor Kenneth E. Peacock, Appalachian Perspective cable television program has featured prominent and interesting North Carolinians, the university's leading academic and public service programs, and other topics of statewide interest. Episodes air across the state on cable operators' community access channels. The 30-minute program is a production of the university's Office of University Communications.

National publications consistently praise Appalachian for its quality education. Now, a new top administrator is taking the university's academics to an even higher level of excellence. Dr. Lori Gonzalez joined the Appalachian family in the fall of 2011. A native of Kentucky, she's a licensed speech pathologist and a former dean of the College of Health Sciences at the University of Kentucky.


The following is a presentation of Appalachian State University.

Chancellor Kenneth Peacock: National publications consistently praise Appalachian for its quality education. Now, a new top administrator is taking the university's academics to an even higher level of excellence. Dr. Lori Gonzalez joined the Appalachian family in the fall of 2011. A native of Kentucky, she's a licensed speech pathologist and a former dean of the College of Health Sciences at the University of Kentucky. We'll meet this educational leader coming up on Appalachian Perspective.

(Introduction music)

KP: Welcome to Appalachian Perspective. My guest today is Appalachian's new Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Dr. Lori Gonzalez. Welcome Lori.

Dr. Lori Gonzalez: Thank you.

KP: It's great to have you here. Now tell it to us like it is. What was it about Appalachian that would attract your attention? You, a very revered, popular dean and a leader at the University of Kentucky, to say "I would leave my old Kentucky home and come to Appalachian."

LG: It was a big decision. A big life decision. I actually wasn't looking or a job. Didn't even think about "Should I move to the next step?" But many years ago my husband and I were having a conversation talking about where we might go. And I said, you know, if anything ever came open at Appalachian, I'd like to look at that. I knew this school by reputation. I'd visited here. So he was the one who sent me the ad from The Chronicle. And I'll tell you, it took him a little talking for me to think about leaving my old Kentucky home. But then once I sent it in and ended up after the airport interview, I had to have the job. I had to have the job. It was a great interview. A great group of people on the search committee.

KP: Great. Good. Well we're glad that you got the job and we're certainly glad you're here. Now it's only been like 11 months right? Since you've been here.

LG: 10 months and 4 days.

KP: 10 months and 4 days. Okay good, but you're not really counting.


KP: Well during that time, what has been the most fun thing that you've done?

LG: Well the most fun thing has been meeting all the people. You know, when I was doing the campus interview, the thing that I noticed on the campus was a true spirit. That sounds a little hokey but it's really true. When you met with students, when you went into different faculty groups you could really tell people wanted to be here. And that, that was remarkable to me. So the most fun thing has been getting to know people a little bit deeper. And find out exactly why they're interested in Appalachian and what it is about the campus and the community that makes them love it here.

KP: Well in your job, with all the responsibilities you have, the main thing is the academic affairs part. The title is Executive Vice Chancellor which gives you authority over all to some extent here. But the main thing is academics. And that means it's time for Appalachian's strategic plan. So what's the process for you to plan and say "What will Appalachian be like academically in 5 years, 10 years?"

LG: Well I'm very lucky that I came in following a Provost who had done this process very well. So Stan Aeschleman had had a number of working groups that had lots of recommendations for where the campus should go in a number of areas. In academic programming, in quality, in research, in taking care of the environment, and in our service mission. So we're going to start with those reports because, given where we've been from about the time the strategic plan started until now in terms of budget, there have been a number of sort of strategic initiatives that we have not met. Because really we couldn't target them because of funding. So I'm going to start there, but I've presented to the Board of Trustees to get their input and the question was, where do you want Appalachian to be in 2017? What do you want us to be known for? If there was a bumper sticker, what will it say? And I met Saturday with the alumni council. So we want to get broad input from everyone, but you can't take everyone's input and put it in a plan. So we will be forming the university's priorities and planning council that will have input from all over the campus. We will have members participating on that council and they'll help guide the process to develop the plan that we hope to have approved by about June or September of 2013.

KP: Great. Good. Well you know one of the phrases that we have used at Appalachian for a couple of years with the beauty of this region—"Mountains of Opportunities."

LG: Yes.

KP: So what do you see, with the fresh eyes and new approach, what do you see as the opportunities, these mountains of opportunities that we're so proud of?

LG: Well the first issue that I'd like to focus on that I think there's lots of opportunities and untapped potential is in research. I believe Appalachian has a chance to make a huge difference on the region and the state by looking at applied research. And some of our applied research would be in the area of environment, in the area of energy and health care and sustainability. All those things that make us a little bit different than all the other schools in North Carolina. So when I look at opportunities, I'm looking for opportunities that maximize what we're already doing to set us apart from other institutions and those are some of the core initiative areas that I think we should target.

KP: You mentioned that word "sustainability." And we have just completed on campus this first UNC system sustainability and energy savings conference that we're very proud of. You were on the leadership committee and steering that and planning that. Where do you think that's going to take us? How do you feel about that?

LG: Well, it's a little ironic, but we kept saying there was so much energy at the energy conference. Because we, in our groups, I was on the academic integration subgroup. Each group came out charged, energized, ready to go and tackle this issue from every perspective. But coming from academics, the perspective that has to take precedence is academics. If Appalachian cuts its energy bill by 90 percent, that would be great for Western North Carolina, for the system, and for Appalachian. But if we don't teach our students about being sustainable members and advocating for sustainability, the country will have missed the opportunity. And so I think it has to be led by faculty and students and then the energy savings will come from things happening at Appalachian. But then these students will take it out to their world and will really be able to transform in this area.

KP: How do you think that Appalachian got this great honor of hosting this, from the UNC system perspective? I mean, when you just think about Appalachian you think about the beauty of the region and all, certainly, and the strong academic programs that we have, but right off you just don't think about Appalachian being a campus that focuses on energy and sustainability. How did it happen?

LG: What happened is it became a value for the campus. The one thing that I love—One of the many things I love about this campus is when something is of value, and something is a core value, it becomes action. So I call it, when I leave and people say "Well how have you gotten all of these sorts of national recognitions without much money and without the resources that you need?" And I say this is a can-do campus. If there is a value, they're going to find a way to make it happen. And that happens across a lot of different areas. Undergraduate research is an important value for this campus and this year we broke the record in the number of faculty and the number of students participating in undergraduate research. There wasn't more money to put into that program. We couldn't pay more mentors to do it, but people step up and do it. Energy matters. We bring students here that are concerned about the environment and want to make a difference and they can come to a campus where we are demonstrating it, we are leading it, and then we are educating our students to go and do the same thing.

KP: So sustainability, you would say, is one of these mountains of opportunities as we face it.

LG: Absolutely.

KP: What else?

LG: Research. For sure.

KP: Research. For sure.

LG: And research is one that we are not as far along, so with sustainability, I think we walk the walk and talk the talk. And in research we have a way to go, but we also have two things on campus that I think will allow us to move forward very quickly. There's a spirit of collaboration here. So it isn't always my division, my discipline, my department. People work really well across departments. And the way we'll make our mark in research is on interdisciplinary research. So we can bring people together. And we have majors that do that. Sustainable development does that. Environmental sciences, they will come together across many disciplines. Our new fermentation science program that starts in the fall is interdisciplinary. And so as we look to build those linkages across departments, we can grow research in an applied way and that's how we'll make our mark. But we have further to go with that but it's nice to have a stretch goal as well as one we're on our way, already making progress.

KP: So the mountains in the future are sustainability, research, perhaps fermentation science. What about international?

LG: Well that's going to be our focus for the next five years with our quality enhancement program. Our regional accrediting body requires us to do a quality enhancement plan and so the campus did a very thorough vetting process and came up with internationalization. We already do it well. We rank really highly in the number of students that go abroad for short-term study abroad. But we have to focus on students studying for an entire semester or an entire summer out of the country. And so that's going to be our focus in terms of one, getting students to other countries, or as Jesse Lutabingwa says bringing the world to Appalachian. And so we'll make sure that all our students have some sort of experience with individuals from different countries whether the students are able to study abroad or we bring people back to campus. That's an exciting thing and that was actually one of the things that attracted me about Appalachian because you do it very well already. And I think there's ways that we can grow the programming. We just signed a new agreement with a university in Beijing that we can have our students come and their students will come and study with us. We have a new program in communications in Mexico, so students will come from Mexico after their first two years and finish their program here which will give our students access to people from different countries so that's a very exciting thing. And it's something that there seems to be a lot of passion on campus for just in general.

KP: What about also, talk a little about the Honors College and the new facility there. That's something I see very exciting, but just share with the viewers what's happening.

LG: Well, you know, we will open in October the, it's called Appalachian Hall but it's the Honors and Engagement Village. So our honors freshmen go in Cone Hall. Our honors upperclassmen will go in Summit, brand new Summit. And then Cone has been renovated and so it makes this quadrangle all focused on honors. The students from both residence halls can flow freely between both halls and then they can also go into the annex, which is Appalachian Hall. It's going to be a visible mark that the university is committed to that and we have been committed for a long time but when you erect bricks and mortar it says, "This matters to the campus." And so it's going to be a great recruiter for our students and our students, we continue to move the bar higher and higher on the quality metrics of those students. And then on the output end, to show that Appalachian is value added, our students are going to medical school, top pharmacy schools, dentistry, law school, all sorts of graduate schools across the United States at some of the most prestigious institutions. So it's working.

KP: Get back to your personal love, health sciences. The new college that we have here at Appalachian, the leadership you're providing for it now, what do you see for that?

LG: Well, when you look at anything that lists the top 10 or 20 professions into the future, many of those are health professions. We're all getting older, as much as we would like to not agree with that, and we're all going to need health care services and rehab services. And so I see the opportunity for us to grow more professional programs here and to move forward in health sciences. I was in a health sciences college that was in nine different locations and then we got a new building. You think well that's nice to get a new building but it changed the whole tenor of the college. We had collaboration, you had hallway conversation and got a lot of things done that would not have happened with everyone in these discreet locations across campus. So my hope is that we can someday soon be successful with the building because in this case the building becomes the catalyst for all the interdisciplinary work. And health care professionals need to learn to deal with other health care professionals. Otherwise, we'll graduate a great social worker who's never worked with a nutritionist or anyone in exercise science or athletic training or communication sciences and disorders. And health care has to be a team approach. The patient's in the center with everyone working together. So there's lots of opportunities there. The building is one way we can physically get there and if we don't have that we have to make a conscious effort to bring those disciplines together. Our new collaboration that's in the works with Wake Forest will allow us to begin to do that. When we sign the agreement with Wake Forest and they bring their physician assistant studies program up here, their PA students will work directly with our speech language pathologists, with our exercise science and athletic trainers, and with our social workers and management people so that everyone sort of learns to focus on the patient as a team.

KP: You mentioned the PA program from Wake Forest coming up here and offering courses and working. When will that begin?

LG: Well we hope that we get the agreement signed within the next month or so and I think that the first student body will come up here in the fall of 2013. We have renovations to do to University Hall that Wake Forest will cover that expense and that's where they'll be housed for their classes, which will be delivered through synchronous technology so that students at Wake and students at App will be taking classes at the same time. But it's those co-curricular things that will bring our students together with those students. And we were just getting that going for about two years when I left UK and we were, our students were competing in national competitions as interdisciplinary team members and that's where we want to go with Wake and Appalachian.

KP: And the enrollment in health sciences continues to increase?

LG: Yes. And it will continue to increase.

KP: And the quality of students coming in...

LG: Yes. Continues to go up. As a matter of fact the nursing program has exploded. And we will be building an M.S.N., a masters of science of nursing, and they are putting together an online program for individuals that have gotten a nursing degree from a community college and now those individuals that want to get a bachelors degree. And that will be an online program because those people are working in hospitals, nursing homes and clinics and they are not going to come up the mountain to take our program. But if we offer it online they can stay at work and complete the program and get the next credential, which is a really cool career ladder if you think about it. We don't have a lot of those here at Appalachian where you get some degree in a profession at the community college level and then finish here with a bachelor's degree. And so that's a nice way for us to collaborate with the community colleges.

KP: Another area for which you have responsibly is enrollment management, and thus admissions, so what does the incoming class for Appalachian look like for this fall?

LG: It's the best class that we've ever admitted.

KP: Great!

LG: And I hope if I'm here next year I can say the very same thing about the next class.

KP: Good.

LG: Our metrics on ACT scores, SAT scores, high school GPA are all higher then they ever have been. As is the percentage of underrepresented students.

KP: Super.

LG: And we've have record applications from transfer students with most of them being from the community college. And that's a really important part for our future enrollment management. We want to really look to the community colleges to get two year transfers into Appalachian. So it's been a successful year. As a matter of fact, as you're aware, it's been a little bit more successful than we anticipated. We had a higher yield rate, which is the students that apply, are accepted, and pay a deposit, than we have ever had before. It started out at 41 percent and we had some melt, students who are now aren't coming, and we're down at 39 percent for the yield. And that is up 5 percentage points from just two years ago. So more students are signaling with their pocketbook that they want to come to Appalachian and that's an exciting thing.

KP: Yeah that is. That's a great sign. And we certainly know that they are coming for the strong academic programs that we have. That's the reason that they should be choosing Appalachian.

LG: Well what's really fun is when you go to open house and these students are coming in and you say, "What major are you thinking about?" And they'll tell you their major and you'll say, "What are the schools that you're looking at?" And they go "Well Clemson, Davidson, Harvard, State, and Appalachian, but Appalachian's top on my list." Those are the ones I run into a lot. So we have a lot of interest from the top students. And they're interested in majors, minors, double majors, international travel, environmental issues, and all those things.

KP: Very encouraging for the future.

LG: It is. Exactly.

KP: We've been through, like every school in North Carolina, I think every school in the nation, we've been through some tough, challenging financial times. And so then you sort of have to sit back for some time and say, "Are we the right size?" as an institution. How do you with your fresh eyes and new approach, how do you feel about that?

LG: Well I think that it's important for us to figure out what the growth trajectory will be because before the economic downturn, we were on a trajectory that was taking us up, up, up and I think that when I was talking to the alumni council on Saturday I said I think what you're going to see is that trend line going a little bit flatter than we thought. Because we are primarily a residential campus, primarily, we want to make sure freshmen live on campus. That's part of the transformational experience of undergraduate education. If we grow too much we end up sending those freshmen off-campus into apartments. Fine for a sophomore, I prefer that the sophomores stay on campus, fine for upperclassmen, but freshmen really need to be on campus to be close to the library to build those friendships that give them the cohort that they will be friends with throughout their 4 years here. So we have to balance that very carefully and we have an entire council that that's all they do is looking at right-sizing the campus. And it has people that have space management on it, that have housing, dining, and then have our undergraduate education program and several faculty on that. What size we'll be will depend on where we go with any kind of online education, if we opt to do that very much. But we kind of have to balance all these other things to see what size we want to be in 5 years, in 10 years.

KP: We have some great academic programs now. Pretty much the right size until we do some more studying on it. But, the future. What do you see as being the programs that we'll add, not keep, the ones that we want to add to? Everything changes. So what's your vision?

LG: Well I'd like to have a conversation with the campus on where we want to go with doctoral education. If you think about it we have one doctoral degree on campus, but there are potential programs that could grow doctoral education in one of two ways. We could grow them with clinical doctoral degrees or professional doctoral degrees where someone becomes the master clinician. An example of a professional degree is physical therapy. It's a doctoral degree but it's not the traditional PhD, doctor of philosophy. So I think there's lots of room for growth there, which goes with our applied education sort of thought. But there are programs that can probably mature to true doctoral programs. But to do that you don't just want to become, just let programs grow. We want to decide strategically which programs are ready because it's going to take investment in those programs to really make that happen. We don't have anyone ready today to move to a doctoral program without new resources coming in. And so because of that we have to be a little bit more strategic and more thoughtful than to just say "Oh I'm ready to go." And so I think that's what we'll start this fall to decide what our path will be for doctoral education.

KP: Good, good. Okay. Well also, back to the right sizing a little bit. In North Carolina we've had lots of questions asked to say, you know, "Can you get by with less?" From an administrative stand point, mid-management determines what we keep hearing. From your perspective, comparing Appalachian to University of Kentucky, I realize the difference here, but how do you think that we are? Are we fat? Are we slim? Are we about right? What?

KP: I think that we are very, very thin in terms of enough people to get the job done. Now the advantages, people get the job done. So I think we actually suffer from our success. So we are thin, we get the job done, so they think that new resources aren't needed. But what happens, and particularly what happens when you have tougher economic times, is you don't have, people are taking on many, many more responsibilities because we lose someone, we're not going to add someone back into that position. So two other people take on those jobs. And I think that, given the fact that everyone has been feeling the pinch from the downturn, people are a little afraid on campus. They've been doing more, more work, at the same level without any chance for a raise for the past number of years. So I think that that's the difference. And I would imagine when I looked at studies of administrative level employees compared with the whole system, we're really down at the bottom of that list so we are thin. So what you say when you talk about right sizing the campus, we have to right size the staff and we have to figure out where we are the thinnest and put more people there and figure out what efficiencies could be made that would impact the student experience if we had more people in certain jobs.

KP: Well say we want to try to get that right, because it's all about serving the campus, the faculty, the staff and the students. That's what we're all here for. So what new administrator types do you see coming to Appalachian in the near future?

LG: This is if I had my way that would be some of the things I would be thinking about. We just hired the chief information officer. And while that's not a new position, it's a brand new person coming in with a brand new perspective. We hired Cathy Bates from the University of Arizona who is very excited to come and she will be here August 27. She was our top candidate and we were really glad to get her. I would actually like to start a search in the fall for a vice provost for research to really make us walk the walk and talk the talk. Currently, that function has been handled by a person who is also responsible for the entire graduate program at Appalachian. So it's one of those cases to where it's too much for one person to do. And so I've been in conversations with that individual in the graduate school and so that position will probably come on board with a search starting in the fall. And then another position that isn't really a new position because we will always have a faculty member do it is an academic ombud. An ombud is a person who serves as a mediator between faculty and students should any issues arise. So if a student wants to contest a grade but is concerned about going and talking to the faculty member alone, then the ombud helps broker that conversation and really teaches a student how to approach a faculty member appropriately. Also, when faculty members have to deal with serious issues like plagiarism or cheating in the classroom, the ombud is the person that they can go to to get information about how to handle that whole problem. We don't have that here at Appalachian. It sort of falls to one person one time and another person. It's more of an ad hoc process. And I think by identifying one person whose job is to be the liaison between faculty and students will help make the experience for both parties much better.

KP: I know that you're a person who does the homework. You don't come in and just shoot from the hip. You're prepared. You're ready for any meeting or any topic that comes up. But you can't always get it always right. What surprised you about Appalachian? And I know you did your work before you came, but you get here and something just had to surprise you a little bit.

LG: My main surprise, the main thing was how Appalachian is funded. And you've heard me mention this. I've mentioned this to people all along. I said the place that I was before, if we were good stewards of our dollars, and had money at the end of the year, we got to keep it. Which is not what happens on this campus. You can keep something like 2 percent of what you hold back. That is a game changer in terms of planning ahead when you have to spend the money in one-year increments. It changes how you decide strategic decisions. During the energy summit I was approached by our two alumni who helped us get it started and they said if we were to go to the legislature and say what's the top thing you need? I said well we need a college of health sciences building, but the one transformational decision would be if the legislature and the general administration would let us keep money on campus that we save. We would be able to work on deferred maintenance. We would be able to invest into the future in a way that we haven't been able to do. I'm shocked at the quality here given the funding model. That was my biggest plan. So when they said, Lori, how will you grow research here? I said well, I'll use the fund balances and I'll do this and this and this. And the whole time they're going no, no. You can't use the fund balances because we don't keep fund balances. So that was the biggest shock to me.

KP: Okay. Now tell me, I know you have a wonderful son, I've met him a couple of times. Where is he? Tell me a little about his level of interest in where he is.

LG: I know, yes. I think this is why people hired me, so I can tell people that my son is a freshman. He just finished his freshman year at the University of Michigan. Have you heard of Michigan?

KP: Yes, I have. I've been there a time or two. Yeah.

LG: I thought you might have (laughs).

KP: And his major is?

LG: He is trombone performance and music composition.

KP: Okay so he's a music student.

LG: Yes.

KP: At Michigan, and you are the chief academic officer at Appalachian State that has the phenomenal Hayes School of Music that's here.

LG: Exactly.

KP: I guess there's a little parenting that needs to be done here.

LG: I guess you're right exactly (laughs). I will say he accepted Michigan even before we thought about coming to Appalachian. It's been kind of a funny little ice breaker for people because it somehow brings back memories for people whenever I mention the University of Michigan.

KP: Right. Yeah.

LG: He took a class at Appalachian this summer though. Said it was one of the best classes he has taken in philosophy.

KP: You see that should be a sign.

LG: Exactly (laughs).

KP: Well Lori thank you for being a guest on Appalachian Perspective and thank you for the leadership you are providing our campus. It's delightful to have you here. It's wonderful working with you. But I appreciate, mostly, the great things you are doing for the academics on this campus. It's great to have you here.

LG: Thank you. I'm really glad to be here. I appreciate it. Thanks.

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