Chancellor search begins: Community forums to be held; search will be confidential

The 21-member committee charged with finding the next chancellor of Western Carolina University kicked off the search process with an all-day meeting Friday, Jan. 19, to discuss the task ahead and their role in completing it.

“You were all selected for this committee because you bring something special and creative to the process, and I’m going to ask that during this process that all of us put aside any personal prejudice we might have, any personal political leanings we might have,” said Pat Kaemmerling, co-chair of the committee and chair of the WCU Board of Trustees. “When we’re together, we belong to the Purple Party, and our job is to work together to find the best possible candidate we can to lead our university in the future.”

The search was made necessary by former Chancellor David Belcher’s decision to go on medical leave Dec. 31 when treatment stopped working on a brain tumor he’d been battling since April 2016. Belcher doesn’t expect to return to the position when his leave is expired, and while Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar is serving as acting chancellor in his absence, she has already announced that she doesn’t plan to apply for the permanent position.

The search committee contains a wide-ranging membership, including representatives from the Board of Trustees, university faculty and staff, the Alumni Association, the student body and the community at large.

“These mountains are sacred to me, and I mean that as much in my heart as the Cherokee do in their hearts,” said committee co-chair Bryant Kinney. “This is the economy of this region, and I would say that today this university means as much to the economy of the region as it ever has. We have got to do a great job with this search.”

The number one key to doing a great job, committee leadership told the group, is keeping the search confidential.

“We want to get the best people in this search,” Kinney said. “We don’t want anyone not to put their name forward because they’re worried about losing their current job.”

However, the community will still have significant input into the process. Before creating the leadership profile that the search consultant will use to locate candidates, the committee will hold a series of public forums to find out what qualities the community believes to be important for WCU’s next leader. The committee is currently working to set dates for these forums.

“When we finish that process we will have a picture of what everybody’s looking for, so we will take the alumni and the staff and the community and the students — all of those comments — and see what are our common goals,” Kaemmerling said.

Some members of the committee voiced concern about that process, saying that they’d like to see more opportunity for faculty to give input on the candidates as the search narrows.

“It’s a little bit of a mixed message to faculty when we can have open searches for faculty and deans but not for the most important person on our campus,” said Vicki Szabo, associate history professor at WCU.

However, Jerry Baker of Buffkin Baker — the firm managing the search — was quick to defend the confidential process, calling confidentiality the “standalone most critical issue to a successful search.”

“I assure you that those sitting presidents and chancellors (interested in applying) will not jeopardize the good reputation and quality of work they have done early in the process,” Baker said. “Let me equally assure all of you that we will be very careful and very thoughtful and very diligent and dig deeply to learn all we can about the men and women included in the process.”

All search committee meetings will be subject to open meetings laws, but any discussion referring to specific candidates will be held in closed session. Any breach of that confidentiality will be taken seriously, said WCU’s General Counsel Shea Browning.

“If I breached confidentiality, I feel that I would be looking for another job,” Browning said. “So just remember that. If you breach, it may be your removal.”

The exact structure of the search process could take various forms, but for comparison Kaemmerling told the committee how it was done during Belcher’s selection in 2011, a search process that also used Baker’s firm. In that instance, the committee narrowed the applicant pool down to eight or 10 candidates, and the entire committee traveled to Atlanta to meet those people at the airport for an in-person interview. From there, they selected four or five to invite for a campus interview.

In the end, the search committee must find three applicants that it believes would do well if offered the job, passing those names along to the Board of Trustees for approval. Those names would then go to UNC President Margaret Spellings, who would make the final selection and send her decision to the Board of Governors for approval.

“The next chancellor will have big shoes to fill, but he or she will also have a model to emulate,” Spellings said in an address to the committee. She had planned to be there in person but attended via Skype due to icy roads. “Chancellor Belcher has been a fearless and transformative leader, no doubt about it.”

But, she reminded the board, they must remember that their job is not to look for another David Belcher.

“We’re not looking for David Belcher. We’re looking for someone who is different for these times and will have his or her unique strengths,” she said.

In her address, Spellings outlined her own list of characteristics that the committee should seek in Belcher’s successor. The next chancellor should be a “leader with unwavering integrity,” a person with “tremendous people skills,” someone who will partner well with the area’s K-12 schools and the entire university system, someone who relates well to students and enjoys spending time with them and someone who can strike the right balance between academics and athletics — and, “perhaps most importantly, someone who values staff and faculty and the critical role they play in the lives of students.”

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