Economic development and tourism officials, joined by other prominent business owners and executive officers, gathered for the tour, which began with featured speaker, Chancellor Kenneth Peacock. He established the overall tone of the forum by reiterating that the university is facing tougher times with a leaner budget compounded with certain infrastructural needs. At the beginning of the year, the university saw a sizeable chunk of $10.2 million cut from its budget and became more distraught to learn of what Gov. Bev Perdue envisions for next year’s finances.
If her fiscal planning holds true, the university may lose up to 30 faculty members next year, which could also mean the elimination of more course sections. If fewer sections of classes are offered, Peacock said, students will likely take longer to complete degrees. Ashe County’s Director of Economic Development Pat Mitchell said that the longer it takes for local students to finish the degrees, the longer the county will have to wait to feel their immediate impact in the local economy and workforce. She also explained how negative impacts to the university’s budget could have a trickle down effect on the local economy even if the change is subtle.
“I don’t think we’ll see a direct negative impact but when any institution of higher learning, such as Wilkes Community College or Appalachian State University, is impacted negatively financially in the budget then it certainly can affect the types of programs and services offered to us. Although the citizen may not immediately notice that impact I think it certainly does exist,” said Mitchell.
Mitchell believes that any regional university such as ASU “holds a significant value in the economic development” of the community it serves, not only in the education of local students working toward degrees but also the institution’s departments that could develop partnerships with local businesses and industries.
The community’s willingness to partner with the university was obvious during the questioning and answering segment of the forum. McFarland Publishers’ Company Founder Robert Franklin expressed interest in having some of his employees continuing their education at the university in certain areas of interest such as the humanities or fine arts. Mitchell explained that this type of partnering could “significantly benefit” the local economy. Peacock and other university officials said that the university is currently working on the implementation of a similar program that would allow citizens to take courses for non-degree seeking students. More information on this program should be available in the coming weeks.
A regional university’s impact on the local economy, Mitchell explained, could also be felt through its connections with commercialization and innovation.
“The time may come one day for partnerships with the chemistry or maybe the physics departments to actually help an individual or entrepreneur commercialize a product,” said Mitchell. “That hasn’t happened yet but certainly could in the future.”
Despite the grim news of more budget woes for the upcoming academic year, Peacock did hit on some bright spots in the university and the talent it is drawing from in the community. Appalachian’s fledgling school of health sciences will be looking to add programs for advanced degrees in the near future and Mitchell emphasized that this new college of medical professions has the potential to provide “additional health care availability to the region.”
The university is also drawing from a deep talent pool to fill its Honors Program, which will formally become a college this July that is comprised of some of the brightest minds that Ashe County High School has to offer. According to www.appstate.edu, the honors program offers the most academically gifted students the chance to participate in smaller and more rigorous classes. University officials believe that this creates a more intellectually stimulating learning environment for student to fulfill their long-term goals. Program Director Dr. Leslie Jones said that most of these students are looking to one day to return to the county and contribute the upward mobilization and advancement of the economy through their chosen profession. This type of talent retention, Mitchell explained, may be key to advancing the local workforce.
“Some young people, regardless of what they have in their local community, are going to go off and see what the rest of the world has to offer,” she said. “We accept that normal attrition. But we also need to make sure we have opportunities in the local community for returning grads who may be looking to open a business or providing a service to the community.”
Overall, she said, the key to maintaining a successful partnership with the university will also come from the county’s ability to examine its existing economic infrastructure and seeing how that can be benefited by App’s expanding program and degree base.