A rare sighting of a white squirrel at Western Carolina University has workers there abuzz.

The squirrel has been spotted a number of times, and is clearly not albino because it doesn’t have pink eyes, said Roger Turk, grounds superintendent for WCU’s facilities management department.

There is a large population of 1,500 or so white squirrels in Brevard, a unique phenomenon intrinsic to that area. Sightings are unusual outside Transylvania County, although not entirely unheard of. Whether the white squirrel in Cullowhee is an offshoot of that population, or simply a variation of the Eastern Gray Squirrel living at WCU, isn’t known.

Jim Costa, a WCU biology professor and director of the Highlands Biological Station, said it’s possible the white squirrel strain from Brevard migrated to Cullowhee — but it might also be a separate strain that evolved on its own.

“Squirrels disperse over the generations, but the one sighted on campus did not necessarily originate in the Brevard population — it may have, or it may be a color variant that arose recently in the local population,” said Costa.

A couple of years ago, Costa saw a white squirrel between Cashiers and Highlands, but that’s the only time he’s seen one very far from Brevard.

“As you can imagine there’s a pretty stiff penalty for being a white squirrel in an area with loads of hawks and such, but they manage to hold their own in Brevard,” Costa said.

In Brevard, the white squirrels have a distinctive black cap and black saddle that WCU employees aren’t reporting seeing on their white squirrel.

“The markings are noticeable,” said Madrid Zimmerman, director of the Brevard Main Street program.

Regardless of its origins, the sighting at WCU has been exciting for those lucky enough to catch a glimpse. The white squirrel has been seen around the baseball fields and the greenhouse and at least once, by an off-campus witness, near St. David’s Episcopal Church behind the Ramsey Center.

WCU’s Turk hasn’t seen the creature himself, but several of his employees have — and they’ve gotten good, long looks at the animal, he said.

“It’s been seen six to eight times,” Turk said. “So far they’ve only seen the one.”

Lynn Warner of Heart of Brevard said it isn’t that unusual for them to field calls from excited individuals who’ve seen white squirrels outside of Brevard.

“People call and say, ‘I’ve seen one,’” Warner said. “And they’re fascinated.”

But when you’ve got as many of the creatures as Brevard does, it’s hard to overly impress the workers in that town.

The white squirrel population in Brevard, according to annual white squirrel counts, is growing larger, Warner said. They currently make up a significant percent of the squirrel population there; some biologists believe the white color might one day dominate over gray-colored squirrels, she said.

The 2010 count recorded 37.1 percent white-versus-gray, the highest yet on record, in Brevard, well above the 14-year average of 28.1 percent, according to Brevard’s White Squirrel Research Institute.

One of the prime viewing sites for white squirrels is Brevard College. The town and college are so proud of their white squirrels Brevard holds an annual White Squirrel Festival and a Squirrel Box Derby.

Brevard residents commonly — and happily — put out birdseed for the white squirrels, Zimmerman said, but they try to discourage the gray squirrels from feasting.

“We all brake for white squirrels. We think twice for gray squirrels,” she said, only seemingly in semi-jest.  

The story behind the population in Brevard seems a mixture of fact and lore.

According to history, the white squirrels there originated from a circus truck that overturned in 1949 near the home of a man in Madison, Fla. (this according to www.whitesquirrels.com). He gave two white squirrels to another individual, who bequeathed them on Barbara Mull, a longtime resident of Brevard.

She kept them inside and hoped they might breed, but they didn’t. In 1951, one of the white squirrels escaped outdoors. Not long afterwards, Barbara’s father let the other white squirrel free. 

Before long, white squirrels were seen about Brevard. And now, at WCU.

 

Brevard takes its squirrels seriously

A town ordinance states: “The entire area embraced within the corporate limits of the city is hereby designated as a sanctuary for all species of squirrel (family Sciuriadae), and in particular the Brevard White Squirrel. It shall be unlawful for any person to hunt, kill, trap, or otherwise take any protected squirrels within the city by this section.”

A bank robbery at the N.C. State Employees Credit Union last week in Cullowhee saw a series of recent safety measures at Western Carolina University suddenly transform into the real thing.

In 2007, a shooter went on a rampage at Virginia Tech, resulting in universities across the nation reviewing and implementing safety protocols such as the ones WCU put into action.

The Cat Tracker, a WCU notification system previously used only to report class cancellations and scheduling changes because of weather, was activated. Sirens on campus sounded, and local and university law enforcement officers shut the campus down until a suspect, a WCU junior from Hendersonville, was arrested at his nearby apartment.

The lockdown meant students and faculty across campus were ordered to stay in rooms or buildings they were in. This precaution also applied to the standing-room only crowd gathered in the Ramsey Center’s hospitality room for a press conference unveiling the university’s new athletic director — a crowd that included Chancellor David Belcher.

Norman West, a real estate agent from Cullowhee, accepted the several-hour lockdown with patience, as most in the room seemed to do, saying he understood the necessity for the procedure. He did worry about making it to a funeral he’d planned to attend.

“Last time I remember something like this was a bomb scare in college,” West said.

The shut-ins included a number of reporters from news outlets across Western North Carolina. They were covering the athletic director announcement, ensuring the lockdown received ample and detailed coverage across the region as the journalists witnessed it first hand.

WCU Spokesman Bill Studenc described the lockdown and other safety measures that were instituted following the 10:20 a.m. robbery on Dec. 14 as proceeding “fairly smoothly.” He said that campus leaders planned to review the situation and correct any problems.

Some business owners on the Catwalk near campus complained that WCU’s radio station did not provide an alert, causing confusion as the sirens howled, and leaving restaurants still accepting and serving customers with doors open and unlocked.

Robin Lang of Catnip Café said those on the strip finally learned what was happening via the notification system, which consisted of text messages, voice calls and emails. There were reports, Studenc said, of  “some members of the campus community (who) did not heed the shelter-in-place advisory and were moving about on campus. As part of our post-incident evaluation, we will be looking at this issue and work to find additional ways to address it.”

 

Suspected robber used plastic gun

Deputies arrested student Brian Anthony Edwards, 21, of a Hendersonville address, on armed robbery and possession of stolen property charges. He was arrested at his apartment on Pointe Lane in Cullowhee at 12:45 p.m., a little more than two hours after the robbery.

Edwards robbed the credit union of $3,343 using a plastic gun, according to court papers on file at the Jackson County Courthouse. In the warrant issued for his arrest, the “gun” was described as closely resembling an automatic-style weapon.

Bank employees reported to police that the robber had run from the credit union on foot, and that a dye pack given to him in the stolen money exploded, according to a search warrant application written by Jackson County Detective John Buchanan.

Eyewitness descriptions of a getaway car matched an SUV found parked at “The Peaks” apartment complex.

“Jackson County deputies spoke to the owner of the vehicle and after an interview the owner of the vehicle confessed to robbing the bank, and the money was inside the apartment,” Buchanan wrote.

An inventory of items seized during a search of Edward’s apartment and vehicle included a black plastic gun under the SUV’s front passenger seat, clothes that appeared to match descriptions of ones worn by the robber also in the SUV, and a black mask on a bed in the apartment.

Edwards was jailed in lieu of a $250,000 secured bond.

Randy Eaton has been selected Western Carolina University’s new athletics director and the man designated with rescuing the school’s floundering football program.

He was greeted last week by a throng of Western Carolina University coaches, administrators, faculty and staff. Some students also turned out to meet and greet Eaton.

Abraham Faison, a freshman from Burlington and a member of WCU’s track team, was among those Dec. 14 in the standing-room only crowd in the Ramsey’s Center homecoming room. Faison said he hopes Eaton can turn around a football program that has experienced a decided losing streak. This year, the team won one game, and the last winning season was 2005, when WCU’s football team went 5-4.

Eaton promised the crowd to hire a new football coach by Christmas.

“I came because I wanted to show my support,” Faison said, adding that he also wanted to meet the man chosen to lead all of WCU’s sports programs, including track and field.

Eaton, 50, most recently served as senior associate director of athletics at the University of Maryland.

Eaton’s first job is to replace former Football Coach Dennis Wagner, who posted an 8-36 record in his four-year career at WCU. Wagner was forced out last month, sent on his way with a $300,000 settlement for having his contract terminated. WCU, trying to find the key to a competitive football team, has now bought out the contracts of three football coaches in a row.

A football coach could be named as early as this week, with the university Board of Trustees meeting Wednesday to consider a name.

Eaton replaces Athletic Director Chip Smith who was fired in October, paving the way for Chancellor David Belcher to hire Eaton.

The new athletics director will receive $160,000 a year under the terms of a contract that runs through June 30, 2016.

“What impresses me most about Randy is his unwavering commitment to the student-athlete and the fact that he understands that the word ‘student’ is the most important part of that hyphenated term,” Belcher said. “He is totally committed to the concept that these young people who come to our university are students first, and athletes second. That’s not to say that Randy does not want success on the fields and courts of play, because he shares the same expectations of excellence that I have for all of our sports teams.”

Belcher touted Eaton’s “passion for winning.”

Shawn Dholakia, a student manager for the WCU men’s basketball team, said he attended the meet and greet because he’s excited about a possible new and positive direction for WCU athletics.

“I’m interested in athletics, and I’m involved in it,” Dholakia said. “I wanted to hear what he had to say.”

 

Randy’s resume

WCU’s new athletic director Randy Eaton until last week was serving as the senior associate director of athletics at the University of Maryland. He joined the Terrapins’ athletics program in 2003 as associate director in charge of business operations. At Maryland, he was the No. 2 administrator in the athletics department and oversaw a $60 million annual operating budget. He served as interim director in 2010 and recently assumed additional responsibility for new revenues, facilities and operations.

Eaton, in addition to his stint at Maryland, also has held positions at the University of Houston, Texas A&M University, East Tennessee State University, Ohio State University and the University of Texas at San Antonio, and with the Ohio Glory of World League Football.

Just one day after being named Western Carolina University’s athletics director, Randy Eaton was shopping for purple-colored clothing at the school’s gift shop.

He had figured out, in a mere matter of hours, that at WCU employees are expected to dress in purple — and lots of it. The Catamount colors are purple and gold.

Though not wearing purple probably isn’t a firing offense, and technically at least your choice of dress colors isn’t tied to receiving tenure, if you don’t follow the “Power of Purple” unofficial dress code you’re going to feel mighty lonely in crowds of your coworkers here. Not to mention those “Purple Fridays” when employees are encouraged to participate by dressing — you got it — in purple.

Peer pressure operates at any age level.

Eaton, like other coaches and sports types here, has it relatively easy. He can simply walk into the on-campus gift shop and buy athletic apparel sporting the school’s logo and consider himself a fashionably dressed chap about campus. Other men at WCU, even administrators and professors or staff, don’t have it all that difficult, either. Sure, it’s a bit of a chore to find purple ties, but they are out there for the purchasing, including right here in Sylva.

“You can get this stuff at Walmart,” said Bill Studenc, the head of WCU’s public relations department as he fingered his purple tie.

Pity the poor women at WCU, however. You just aren’t going to find haute couture at a box store. They are instead left to scour the earth for purple.

“Anywhere I can get my hands on it, I buy it,” said Jennifer Brown, WCU’s associate athletics director. “Belks, T.J. Maxx, wherever.”

“Yes, it is power shopping with a goal in mind,” agreed Sue Arakas, an Asheville native who serves as associate commissioner for the Southern Conference. She was here to welcome Eaton to his new post at a press conference and reception last week.

Arakas, who must make visits to all 12 universities in SoCon, buys a variety of clothing to meet each school expectation. On this day, she was sporting a purple top, hurriedly purchased for this visit to WCU — one must be careful not to show up in, say, the blue and white colors of The Citadel when visiting this rival campus. If all else fails, Arakas reaches for pink.

“That’s nobody’s colors,” she said in explanation. And, unlikely ever to be — what self-respecting football team is going to dress out in pink?

WCU Assistant Women’s Basketball Coach Jonelle Streed has learned during her three seasons here that there’s a simple, and inexpensive, way to meet WCU’s purple-fashion madness.

“Just go black, and buy and wear purple undershirts with it,” Streed said.

But one must be careful with black, said Jill Ingram, who works in public relations for the university. Pair black with the WCU school-color gold, and you might find yourself burned at the stake or something along those lines. Black and yellow is arch rival Appalachian State’s school colors.

Ingram was suffering deeply at this event from an unmistakable, never-to-be-forgotten fashion faux pas: she’d forgotten about the Eaton event, and arrived not in the obligatory purple, but in a raspberry-sorbet colored sweater.

Never fear, Ingram said, she does have purple-colored clothing in her closet.

“Every time I go to consignment or thrift, I look for purple,” she said nervously as she defended herself from possible censure.

Purple items, in these days of massive university layoffs, are probably more easily available in Jackson County’s used clothing shops than ever before.

Ingram, like other women at the event, expressed awe and a certain measure of envy over Susan Belcher’s ability to not just stylishly wear purple, which she certainly does, but to actually accessorize each outfit. On this day, Belcher was dressed in black with a purple top and purple earrings, a purple necklace and a Liz Claiborne purple handbag.

Belcher’s husband, David, became chancellor this summer. Belcher immediately understood that unlike at their last school posting, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where the school colors of maroon and silver were rarely worn outside of sports events, purple dominates at WCU — from the classroom to the ballroom.

“I look everywhere for it now,” Belcher said. “When I see purple, and if it’s affordable, I buy it. You can’t go overboard, you can’t wear too much purple at WCU.”

Fortunately, Belcher said, purple is “in” this year, allowing her to stock her closet for possible drought years in the future.

SMN: The $300,000 to the football coach represents at least three professors’ salaries. Is this cost worth trying to have a winning football program? Why pump this kind of money into athletics compared to academics in this day and age of massive economic constraints?

Chancellor David Belcher: “As I’ve said many times in my visits across Western North Carolina communities in recent months, I view athletics as a very important part of the university, for several reasons.

First, athletics plays a role in the development of student-athletes who participate in sports, providing them with leadership skills and helping instill in them foundations of teamwork and discipline that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Thus, athletics experiences are part of their educational pursuits.

Second, athletics is a critical component of the overall student life experience by helping ground students in the campus community and keeping them engaged in the university outside of the classroom. Third, athletics also helps keep alumni and friends connected to the institution, giving them something around which they can rally.

And fourth, athletics, just like the arts and cultural events, serves as a front door to the university, offering an entry point for folk in the community and the region who might not otherwise have a reason to set foot on our campus.”

The price tag of transforming Western Carolina University’s losing football team into a winner — or anything less than a total embarrassment to Catamount fans — keeps rising, leaving students, alumni, faculty and staff at odds about whether the cost is just too high.

So how much is too much?

WCU recently paid $300,000 to buy out the latest head football coach deemed a loser. Dennis Wagner is the third straight coach WCU has bought out since 2001. And now, WCU wants to kick more than $1 million into the salaries of a new athletic director and for a replacement football coach.

Punt already, some students said this week: It’s just not worth it, particularly when students are facing a just announced, almost certain to be implemented $399-a-year increase in annual tuition and fees.

Other students, however, are calling for a push toward the end zone: a winning football team, they argued, is an integral part of a student’s university experience.

Chancellor David Belcher makes that argument, too.

“I feel that a successful athletics program is critical to a university,” he said in an email interview with The Smoky Mountain News. “And football, while just one part of an overall athletics program, is an important and visible component. In our region, it is fair to say that football is the most visible sport.”

 

High costs keep escalating

A typical WCU undergraduate student living on-campus and eating at the cafeteria can expect to pay $11,775 next year. Of that amount, $688 from each student will help fund the university’s athletic programs — a $71 increase when compared to last year.

By comparison, Wagner received $940,000 via WCU’s coffers for the four years he was on the job, including the $300,000 contract termination settlement.

“I just don’t think the football coaches should get paid what they’re paid,” Joshuah Gross, a WCU student said bluntly, shaking his head over the amount of money Wagner pulled down.

Gross ran out of money to attend WCU and is headed to a local community college to continue his education. He works at Rolling Stone Burrito on campus to earn his living.

“The team is terrible, and here they are planning to sink even more money into a failing program,” Gross said one day last week. “The professors are suffering — they need to redirect that money into other areas, like into the engineering department.”

WCU administrators have seen cash-strapped North Carolina cut the university’s budget $32 million since the 2008-2009 year.

Senior T.J. Eaves, the student body president at WCU and a former high school football player, views the situation differently than Gross, his former university classmate.

“To the student body a good team is very important. It directly contributes to the student experience,” Eaves said, adding that he believes most students “were excited for a change in the program.”

And, Eaves emphasized, most students supported Chancellor Belcher’s decision to make changes, including paying a failed football coach that $300,000 buyout fee.

Belcher didn’t shy from confirming that he was hired by WCU with certain expectations when it comes to the football team.

“In my conversations with the search committee, and later with the Board of Trustees, it became clear that improving the performance of the athletics program would, indeed, be an expectation of the next chancellor,” Belcher said. “And that expectation meshes perfectly with my expectations. I expect excellence in athletics, including football, just like I expect excellence in academics, in our Honors College, in our marching band, in everything we do at Western Carolina.”

 

Making tough decisions

WCU’s football program has been on a decided losing streak, winning only two or three games a year and garnering some nine losses. This year it won only one game. The team’s last winning season was 2005, when WCU went 5-4.

“My roommate and I went every time they were home playing this season,” said graduate student Tim Willis. “And the football team was really bad. That’s not an opinion, that’s a fact. Nobody at Western gives a (expletive) about the football team — we are all there for the marching band. They are just great.”

Willis wants to see WCU pump money back into academics, not sports.

But it just isn’t that simple, Faculty Senate Chair Erin McNelis said. Prior to joining the Faculty Senate, McNelis said she hadn’t really understood the budgeting formulas universities labor under.

There’s different pots of money, and “that’s not money we (academics) could have had anyway,” said McNelis, a math and computer science professor. “And, while my interest is predominantly academics, I recognize that students’ educations include more than that — we have an engagement component.”

Academics are funded primarily through the state and tuition. But athletics have their own funding stream, including ticket sales, sponsorships and donations.

The lion’s share — $5 million of the $8.4 million athletics budget — comes from the $688 fee assessed to each student to pay for sports.

The university also kicks in $1.2 million, justified as institutional support because it goes toward scholarships for student athletes and to pay the salaries of coaches who also teach academic courses. The university plans to phase out this funding over the next four years, however, making athletics self-sustaining.

Jason Lavigne is chair of WCU’s Staff Senate and a database administrator for the university. He’s also a WCU alumnus, and a fervent believer in building the university’s football program.

“Like it or not, the football team is a big face of the university,” Lavigne said.

 

Alumni pride means big bucks

Coach Wagner’s exit followed an undistinguished 8-36 record, including a recent 51-7 shellacking during homecoming by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team. That horror led to outcries from alumni, which helped in the forced exodus of Athletic Director Chip Smith, who had previously extended Wagner’s contract. The WCU Board of Trustees, it should be noted, had endorsed the contract extension.

Fred Cantler, WCU’s longtime senior associate athletics director for internal operations, came out of retirement to serve as interim director of athletics. WCU is expected to name a new athletics director Wednesday, Dec. 12.

“Not all of a student’s collegiate experience is inside the classroom,” Cantler said. “It’s very important that the university’s programs are successful.”

One huge reason is financial, university leaders acknowledged. Happy alumni make more frequent, and substantially larger, donations.

“Obviously, the more success that teams are having on the fields and courts of play, the more likely alumni and other donors are to contribute toward those programs,” Belcher said. “It’s human nature to want to rally around a winner. But more important than winning, I think, is being sure that we are able to field teams that are competitive … (that) translates into both a larger number of donors and into higher amounts of donations over time.”

Laura Leatherwood of Haywood County has three degrees from WCU. She served on the search committee tasked with picking the university’s replacement athletics director.

Asked whether WCU had difficulty finding anyone willing to take the job, Leatherwood laughed and replied “no” — there were many eager candidates, she said, adding that the selection they made should prove an excellent one.

Leatherwood said athletics, along with other university programs, help students with “professional development, personal development and their networking” abilities. It helps build “good character,” she said. And, like so many others, Leatherwood emphasized that the university experience isn’t isolated to academics.

Betty Jo Allen, president of the WCU Alumni Association, could have been singing a duet with Leatherwood. Allen lives in Lincolnton and drove here to WNC to attend every home game played in Cullowhee this season.

“I’m a big supporter of the team,” said Allen, who attended WCU from 1964 through 1968. “I love athletics, and I love football.”

Allen taught in North Carolina’s public school system for 37 years. She emphasized that what is often lost in the argument about football at WCU is that the arguing is about kids — the football players are students, too. They might be losing games, but they are still just young adults trying to find their ways in the world, Allen said.

She added that it should be noted that the cumulative grade point average of WCU’s football team for spring semester 2010 (2011 fall semester still being under way), was the highest in recent memory.

That said, Allen still wants a winning football team as much as anyone associated with WCU.

“I want us to be competitive,” she said. “In everything. I want it all.”

Asked if the price tag is simply too high when academics at WCU are suffering from what Belcher himself has described as “staggering cuts,” Allen hesitated, then said: “I’m just really glad I’m not the one who has to make those kinds of decisions.”

 

WCU athletics by the numbers

• $8.4 million Total athletic budget

• $1.4 million Athletic Departent deficit over four years

• $400,000 projected deficit for this year

• $1.275 million Amount contributed by university

• $5 million Amount raised through student fees

• $688 Student fee assessed this year

• $71 Increase in per student fee over last year

• $252,000 Amount from ticket sales

• $55,000 Decrease in ticket sales compared to last year

• $19,000 Decrease in sponsorships/royalties compared to last year

• $4,500 Decrease in novelty/program sales compared to last year

• $2.46 million Amount spent on athletic scholarships

Western Carolina University hired a new athletic director this week who will face the daunting challenge of turning the college’s losing football team around.

The official announcement will be made on campus Wednesday morning with an appearance by the new AD.

The new AD will face the tall order of rebuilding the football program — something that his predecessor failed to do and by all accounts is the reason he isn’t there anymore.

Sports has seen a renewed emphasis under Chancellor David Belcher, who pledged to improve the athletic department when he took over this summer.

“Athletics is a front door or front porch to the institution,” Belcher said last month during a kick-off for the athletic director search. “Athletics provides visibility for the university, it grounds students in the institution, and it is a way to keep in contact with donors and alumni.”

Belcher called the hiring an “important decision.”

A 15-member search committee culled through 75 applications for the athletic director position during the month of November, a recruitment process aided by the hired consulting firm Collegiate Sports Associates.

The search committee narrowed the field to seven candidates for interviews. Their top two finalists were passed along to Belcher last week, who made the final pick. While names have not been released by the university, the Asheville Citizen-Times and WLOS have reported that Tom Kleinlein, the deputy athletic director at Kent State, and Randy Eaton, Maryland’s senior associate athletics director for new revenue, facilities and operations, were finalists.

Belcher then held a conference call meeting of the WCU Board of Trustees Monday morning to get approval for the salary, benefits and contract being offered for the new AD. While the choice of who to hire is Belcher’s, the contract terms must be approved by the trustees. The salary will be $160,000 with a five-year contract until June 2016.

After the meeting, Belcher formally extended the offer, and it was accepted.

 

Game on

Job No. 1 for the new athletic director will be hiring a new football coach. It might not be as easy as it sounds. Since 2001, WCU has sent three football coaches packing before their contracts ended for losing too many games.

The most recent causality was former coach Dennis Wagner, forced out just before the last game of the season. The assistant head coach met a similar fate.

In four years, Wagner won only eight of the 36 games the team played. This season was the worst, however. Wagner won just one game this year — a statistic that ultimately brought the athletic director down as well.

Former Athletic Director Chip Smith was blamed at least in part for the football coaches’ failures — or at the very least for keeping the coaches around despite their poor showings. In his seven years at WCU, Smith twice supported extending the contracts for coaches who were later fired. And in both cases it cost the university, which had to pay out settlements for terminating the coaches’ contracts.

While WCU is paying Wagner $300,000 for the two years left on his contract, the negotiated settlement is less than the full amount his contract called for — a compromise both sides felt was in their best interest.

During the athletic director search process, Belcher said he wanted someone who could “hire, retain and mentor excellent coaches.” But it will also take financial savvy and a good PR face.

WCU is running a $400,000 deficit in its athletic program this year, fueled in part by declining attendance at games, declining sponsorships and even fewer sales of programs and souvenirs.

“We need someone who can build a strategically designed budget, who can manage very carefully the limited resources we do have while also playing a major role in bringing new resources to the table,” Belcher said. “We must grow our resources, in partnership with others, through fundraising, increased ticket sales and additional sponsorships.”

 

A timeline of  WCU sports turmoil

• Oct. 25: Athletic Director Chip Smith is fired after eight years in the position.

• Oct. 31: Assistant Head Football Coach Matt Pawlowsk is fired.

• Nov. 13: Head Football Coach Dennis Wagner is forced out, getting a $300,000 settlement for time left on his contract.

• Dec. 14 New athletic director is named.

• TBA: New head football coach named.

 

Stay tuned

A press conference announcing the new WCU athletic director will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 14, in the Hospitality Room of the Ramsey Center. Check www.smokymountainnews.com starting at 11 a.m. for updates. A community meet-and-greet session will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 14, at O’Malley’s of Sylva.

Western Carolina University students likely will shell out an additional $399 in tuition and fees to attend school next year, an increase in dollars that some on campus said will be hard for them to come by.

It’s likely to be most difficult for students such as Kayla Damons. A Tennessee resident who transferred to WCU last year, Damons faces the daunting task of paying higher out-of-state tuition requirements.

Damons, a biology major, said she expects she’ll be some $30,000 in debt after gaining an undergraduate degree. A tuition and fee hike, she said, certainly won’t help ease that burden.

“It’s really kind of scary,” Damons said, taking a short break to chat from her job at the Mad Batter restaurant in Cullowhee, where she works to pay her way through school. “But then there’s nothing you can do about the cost if you want an education.”

It’s not just students who are worried. Mad Batter owner Jeannette Evans said she believes there’s a constant trickledown occurring in the local economy, and that a tuition and fee hike at WCU also won’t help local businesses such as her restaurant.

“It seems you have to do more and offer more just to stay at the status quo,” such as offering additional menu items and keeping earlier and later hours, the 14-year restaurant owner said.

This year’s expected increase follows campus-wide discussion on the issue among students, perhaps the first time that sort of direct budget participation by the student body has taken place here. The University of North Carolina Board of Governors must approve WCU’s proposed tuition and student fee hike, however, before it becomes policy.

With the proposed changes approved by the trustees, WCU’s total cost of attendance in 2012-13, including on-campus housing and the most-popular meal plan, would be $11,775 per year for a typical N.C. undergraduate, according to WCU spokesman Bill Studenc.

 

The decision wasn’t unanimous

T.J. Eaves, student body president, helped broker something of a compromise on the proposed increase. Eaves and Sam Miller, vice chancellor for student affairs, co-chaired a campus committee on the proposed tuition and student fees.

The increase easily could have been steeper than the 3 percent eventually arrived at. And some trustee members said, for the long-term well-being of the university, that it should have been.

Severe financial constraints — WCU has seen the state cut more than $32 million since the 2008-09 fiscal year  — have left the school scrambling to pay bills. WCU isn’t alone. The UNC system, because of budget cuts across North Carolina, authorized universities such as WCU to begin to “catch-up” with rates charged at similar-type institutions.

A study by the UNC General Administration showed that WCU is charging $1,360 less per year for tuition than the “least expensive quartile of peer institutions.”

Under a graduated plan approved by WCU’s trustees by a 9-2 vote last week, 15 percent of the $1,360 “catch-up” increase would be implemented in year one, 20 percent in year two, 25 percent in years three and four, and 15 percent in year five.

Two of the trustees urged the university to play catch-up over four years instead of the five agreed upon. Trustee Pat Kimberling said that would add an additional $48 to each student’s bill annually, for a $447 increase.

“The job of the Board of Trustees is to look after the long term well-being of the university,” Kimberling said. “The students who voted on this proposal will be gone … sometimes, in a custodial position, you have to make hard decisions.”

Trustee Carolyn Coward, who joined Kimberling in voting against the adopted recommendation, added that she believed “that we need to take advantage of this opportunity as quickly as we can, because we may never have this opportunity again.”

 

Listening to the students

But Trustee Wardell Townsend said the board needed to show students they were willing to listen.

“The students are not just our wards, they are consumers. And they are paying for a product,” Townsend said, adding that by accepting the students’ compromise proposal, the trustees “tell the student body that they are truly invested and that we truly hear them. They spoke; we made the adjustment.”

And that, Townsend said, would result in a “true dialogue” among administrators, the Board of Trustees and the university’s students.

What went unsaid is that by adopting the student-forged compromise, the board of trustees would endorse a new method of leadership being instituted at WCU under new Chancellor David Belcher. He took over this summer with promises to build transparency and cooperation into the system by including all stakeholders in university issues.

After a five-week search, Western Carolina University has found its new director of athletics.

Randy Eaton, former senior associate director of athletics at the University of Maryland, was announced as the new director at a press conference Wednesday. Eaton will earn $160,000 a year.

“What impresses me most about Randy is his unwavering commitment to the student-athlete and the fact that he understands that the word `student' is the most important part of that hyphenated term,” said Western Carolina Chancellor David O. Belcher, in a news release. “That’s not to say that Randy does not want success on the fields and courts of play, because he shares the same expectations of excellence that I have for all of our sports teams. He has a passion for winning, and for winning the right way.”

Eaton, who will start effective Dec. 14, has acted as senior associate director of athletics at the University of Maryland and the athletics department’s chief financial officer since June 2008. He oversaw a $60 million annual operating budget and served as interim athletic director at Maryland in 2010.

He also has held positions at the University of Houston, Texas A&M University, East Tennessee State University, Ohio State University and the University of Texas at San Antonio and with the Ohio Glory of World League Football.

Laurie Oxford’s department is getting smaller; some of her former co-worker’s offices sit empty.

Oxford, an assistant Spanish professor at Western Carolina University, spoke at a public forum about university cuts Monday on how multi-level reductions have affected the Arts and Sciences department, which has eliminated several faculty positions and all of its Chinese classes.

“Wherever the money is, it’s not in Arts and Sciences,” Oxford said, half-joking.

Losing a person means more than simply having one fewer coworker.

“They mean considerably fewer class choices (and) in general, a much less effective program,” she said.

Oxford warned the audience of more than 200 students, politicians, professors, administrators and other community members that soon other departments will begin to look like the Arts and Sciences if states and universities continue to make sweeping cuts. WCU administrators must cut about $30 million from next year’s budget.

Larger class sizes, higher tuition, fewer course offerings and laid-off faculty members brought the crowd together.

The forum was part of a statewide, student-led “Cuts Hurt” movement that attempts to lay out what the decline in education funding really means. The approved state budget will cut more than $400 million statewide in higher education spending.

The budget cuts passed by the Republican-led General Assembly were “as extreme as they were unnecessary,” said Gov. Bev Perdue, in a video to attendees of the WCU forum.

Perdue vetoed the budget bill earlier this year, but the General Assembly overrode her veto.

“You’ve seen these cuts, and you understand the damage that has been done to the core of North Carolina,” Perdue said.

Like colleges and universities across the country, WCU has faced its own budget crisis and had to raise tuition and make across-the-board cuts in order to balance its budget. Last week, university administrators presented their recommendations for tuition and fee increases to its Board of Trustees. They had originally planned to raise tuition by 17 percent during a four-year period but changed those numbers after meeting with students.

“We heard you, and we went back to the drawing board,” said Sam Miller, vice chancellor of Student Affairs.

Instead, tuition will increase by 13 percent during a five-year period. When combined with fees, the total cost of attendance will increase by almost 7 percent.

“We think that it is still unfortunately higher than we’d like to do,” Miller said, tempering that sentiment by adding that the increase will help balance the budget and maintain academic quality.

Several students spoke during the forum about how tuition increases affect them.

Emily Evans, a single mother and senior at WCU, said she knew that university administrators were doing their best to minimize the impact of the budget cuts but bemoaned the need to increase already high tuition costs.

“When is the last time your Pell Grant went up?” Evans asked.

Students must take out more loans to cover the cost of education. Student loan debt in the U.S. will surpassed the $1 trillion mark this year.

“This is a big problem, not just for students like me,” Evans said.

Some students are forced to put their education on credit cards, which have high interest rates. Fewer students will ultimately graduate as college becomes tougher to afford.

“Anybody in this room could predict that those students aren’t going to finish,” said N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill.

Lawmakers have turned their back on education and that needs to change, he said.

“We have got to turn this state around. It’s going the wrong direction,” Rapp said.

Throughout the event, speakers urged students to register to vote and to create videos of themselves talking about why education is so important to them and how they have been affected by the cuts. The videos will be posted to the “Cuts Hurt” Facebook page.

“People will listen to you,” said Andy Miller, a WCU student and one of the event organizers. “Your voice matters and important, important people are listening.”

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