Between the two of them, daughter Alison “Ali” Howie is clearly holding up better than her mother, Paula Dennis.

“I’m an emotional wreck,” Dennis openly admits after queuing up her vehicle in front of Scotts Dorm. Her husband, Howie’s stepfather, pulls up behind her — Dennis laughs a bit when it’s gently pointed out that her daughter has supplies enough to sustain her through a doctorate degree, not just a single year of college.

Bottled water. Shampoo. Sheets and blankets. Laundry detergent. Snacks. Cleaning items. Clothing. Books. Pens and paper.

It’s move-in day for freshman at Western Carolina University, and Howie is one of 1,450 freshmen and first-year students enrolled for classes. The cars and trucks, and yes even a few U-hauls, stretch in lines as far as the eye can see.

“We’ve been planning and buying for the past three weeks. Well, really, all summer,” Dennis says.

Howie, a self-described “very independent, very organized” 18-year-old from the Mount Pleasant area, hands off a tidily labeled box to a man in shorts with a baseball cap turned around on his head. There’s a lot of help on freshman move-in day at WCU. Professors and staff have turned out in force to ensure their new charges enjoy these first moments on campus.

“You earn brownie points for the labels,” the man says pleasantly. Howie just nods in brief acknowledgement, not yet realizing that this extra pair of arms belongs to WCU’s new chancellor, David Belcher.

SEE ALSO: Faculty packs overflow balcony to hear new chancellor’s opening address

Howie, if she’s nervous, isn’t showing it. She’s got one thing on her mind: maintaining at least a 3.6 grade point average as a nursing major. And that’s one of the main reasons this academically minded young woman chose WCU — because when you get right down to it, there’s not many distractions to be found.

There’s no college scene — nothing close to the much-ballyhooed Athens, Ga., or iconic Chapel Hill — not even a Boone-for-Appalachian State type college town.

In fact, there’s no town at all in Cullowhee, unless you count the handful of businesses that make up the “Catwalk” near the center of campus — a few restaurants, a bank and a laundromat. Or on old Cullowhee road, a tattoo parlor, a hair salon, and a car body shop.

This isolation suits Howie just fine.

“I can drive to Asheville if I really want all that,” she says. “That’s part of the reason I like it.”

 

Numbers alone no longer count

The University of North Carolina system is changing how universities are allotted money. It’s no longer just about sheer enrollment numbers — more students equal more dollars, so round ‘em up, cowboy. Instead, in the name of accountability, the state is increasingly eyeing retention and graduation rates.

The graduation rate is the percentage of people actually graduating from college. The retention rate, on the other hand, is something that reflects the student body’s overall interest in what’s being offered by the college — the number of students who start at that school who go on to the next year, or years, at the same college.

The student retention rate at Western Carolina University stands at 74 percent, with Belcher recently noting the school needs to pay particular attention to the freshmen-to-sophomore retention rate.

The graduation rate at WCU is low, at an estimated 28 percent in 2010 for fourth-year students, at 46.8 percent for fifth-year students, and 51.6 percent for sixth-year students.

Former Chancellor John Bardo, who retired this summer, often blamed retention and graduation problems, in part at least, on the lack of a college town here at Cullowhee. There’s simply nothing to keep students on campus or coming back each year, according to this theory. In the absence of a college town, Bardo suggested the university build one itself. He forged a vision in his final year for a “town center” built on campus and then leased to restaurants, shops and the like. His plan included a strategy for legalizing alcohol sales for the new “town center,” another aspect of student life now lacking.

As Bardo maintained, the lack of a hip college scene might well feed into university’s graduation shortcomings. But it’s equally clear from incoming freshman that WCU also attracts many students — such as Howie — because of the rural, intimate, anti-urban feel of the campus.

The town center plans have gone on hiatus with the arrival of a new chancellor. And, given the possibility of Jackson County voters next May legalizing countywide alcohol sales — which would suddenly make Cullowhee an attractive market for new restaurants and bars — the very need for a university-driven “town center” might prove unnecessary.

“I like that it isn’t too big,” says Hannah Wallis-Johnson, an incoming freshman from Asheville who is following her mother, Sharon Wallis, to WCU as a student.

Sharon Wallis commutes to WCU in pursuit of a pre-nursing degree; she persuaded her daughter to give this Jackson County university a hard look.

SEE ALSO: Students — and their wallets — return to Jackson County

Wallis-Johnson did just that, and to her surprise (who really wants one’s mother to be proven right, after all), found she loved it: few distractions to disrupt academics, and just an hour’s drive from all the fun in her hometown. That means she can actually drive home for dinner with family, or to entertainment with friends in Asheville, whenever she wants.

“Here, you have to make an actual decision to go out,” Wallis-Johnson says, citing what some might view as void as, instead, a positive.

 

First-day jitters

Across the hall, Allison Cathey of Haywood County chose WCU for similar reasons. Familiarity with the mountains, in her case, too, didn’t breed contempt — she loves them, and says she never plans to leave them.

Cathey graduated from Haywood Community College, and is excited about this nearby transfer to WCU. She shakes her head when talking about WCU skeptics, those who maintain the school should offer its students a full plate of fun to go with an academic diet.

“The people who say there’s nothing to do in Cullowhee — well, that’s silly,” Cathey says. “I don’t think a town center is really necessary.”

Mother Doris Cathey adds that while she wouldn’t have attempted to influence her daughter’s college choice, WCU is, in fact, the only university her daughter applied to attend.

“This is where she wanted to go,” she says.

“This is where I want to be,” Allison Cathey emphasizes.

On the next floor up in Scotts Dorm, Bryce Hedrick looks and acts nervous. He openly admits to a full-blown case of the jitters — Hedrick, from Thomasville, worries about doing well in his classes.

His mother, Shannon Hedrick, says this is the first time her son has really been away from home.

“This is a big deal,” she says, adding that she’s happy with her son’s decision to attend WCU.

“I like the fact that they seem so focused on the education of the kids,” Shannon Hedrick says.

Her son, like the other freshmen, is enthusiastic about WCU. Many of his friends went to East Carolina University, but Bryce Hedrick says he welcomes the relative isolation of his new home.

“I just really felt like I could focus better here,” he says in explanation.

Western Carolina University and the Cullowhee area could prove the decisive battleground in the coming debate about whether alcohol sales should be legal countywide in Jackson, and not just confined to the towns of Sylva and Dillsboro.

Ikran Mohamed, hurrying to class one day last week, said that when it comes to whether she believes the sale of alcoholic beverages would hurt or help Cullowhee and student life in general at Western Carolina University, she might be speaking while under the influence of the history paper she was carrying to class.

Her paper was on the history of drug addiction and trafficking in the U.S., including alcohol — and Mohamed’s findings weren’t positive. Only a light drinker herself, the Charlotte native said she believes (at least this morning, the paper in hand and fresh on her mind) that it might well be best if the sale of alcoholic beverages remains confined to neighboring Sylva.

“If it’s closer to campus, it’s easier to get,” the rising junior said, adding that she has particular concerns about underage drinking escalating on campus if beer and wine could be purchased at package stores, bars and restaurants in Cullowhee.

Next year, Jackson County voters will get to decide on the issue of countywide alcohol sales. Only two counties in the mountains, Buncombe and Clay, currently allow the sale of beer, wine or liquor outside town limits. Henderson County voters, like Jackson residents, get to vote on the issue next year.

A majority of Jackson County commissioners confirmed last week that they plan to put the question to voters on the ballot next year, either during the May primary or the November election.

The area of the county most likely to experience profound changes if the referendum passes is Cullowhee. Before his retirement earlier this summer, then Chancellor John Bardo pushed for the neighboring Village of Forest Hills to annex part of campus, vote in the sale of alcoholic beverages, and help him create an actual college town where students could find more to do at night than get a tattoo.

Because these days, unless they head up the road to Sylva, a tattoo parlor is about the only thing open near campus past 9 p.m.

“Exactly — that’s it,” said Philip Price, a nursing student from Raleigh and a rising junior. “But I don’t really care. I’m not too much of a drinker.”

Neither is Perry Fotopoulos, an environmental health major with a concentration in pre-med, who hails from nearby Franklin. In fact, Fotopoulos doesn’t drink at all. But he believes that it’s unrealistic to think most students won’t drink, because most do — “and it would be a little safer” if they didn’t have to drive to imbibe at a bar, Fotopoulos said.

That’s important to Eileen Calvert, too, who for the last 15 years or so has been busy giving students and faculty at WCU haircuts at her Cullowhee salon, Hairport.

“It’s ridiculous they don’t have beer here,” Calvert said, who lived for a time in Athens, Ga., where there is an active and vibrant campus nightlife for students at the University of Georgia to experience. “And, it’s inconvenient you can’t buy it here. There would be a lot less leaving this community to party if there were beer, and it would keep money here in our own town.”

A new strategic plan for Western Carolina University will include ideas and voices from the local community, new Chancellor David Belcher promised Jackson County’s town and county leaders.

In a wide-ranging address at a breakfast gathering held late last week at the county’s senior center, Belcher spoke on themes of cooperation, partnership and engagement. He said Jackson County’s residents could rely on him and his wife, Susan, to be visible and active members of the community.

“You are going to see us out in the community because we want to be part of the community,” said Belcher, who started in his new role July 1. “We know that WCU does not exist in a vacuum. We are a part of Jackson County, and Jackson County is a part of us. Whatever we do, we need to do together. We don’t want you to consider us that monster down the street. We want you to consider us part of you.”

Belcher took over from Chancellor John Bardo, who retired this summer after 16 years in the top university post. Belcher came to Cullowhee after serving as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Strategic planning will start this fall and take up to a year to complete. The new chancellor is familiar with the process: he completed two such plans for the University of Arkansas, one just a few days before he made the move to Western North Carolina.

“My planning processes never stop at the edge of campus,” Belcher said. “We must go out into the community to get input from our external partners. We want our community partners talking with our people on campus about their vision for the university. …We take this very seriously, because you have as much at stake in the university as we do.”

 

Shaky relations

The relationship between WCU and Jackson County at large could be described as strained at best.

Bardo, though he took steps during his long tenure to strengthen ties with the surrounding community, at times came in for criticism on that point, too: for not participating in day-to-day local affairs, for being absent on important political issues taking place in the university’s home county of Jackson and, most often heard, for reportedly spending much of his time at a second home in Raleigh.

Despite his critics, Bardo took some concrete measures. With Sylva, for example, by bringing WCU’s homecoming parade back to downtown in 1996 — it had pulled out in the mid-1950s.

Danny Allen, a Sylva commissioner, said the relationship between the town and WCU is very important, and that the two entities “could both benefit the other.” Allen said he believes the student population at WCU is a great, untapped economic resource for Jackson County, and that he’d specifically like to see a small shopping outlet built that targets the 9,000 student-body population.

It will take work to improve the relationship between WCU and the greater community, which has “been bad at times,” said Suzanne Stone. Owner of the Cullowhee restaurant Rolling Stone Burrito and a member of the Village of Forest Hill’s town board,

Stone said she was optimistic about Belcher, saying he seems sincere in his efforts to improve relationships off campus. Stone said the new chancellor responded within 10 minutes to a welcoming email sent from a collection of business owners along what’s known as “The Catwalk” in Cullowhee, a gesture she said she and the others on the strip greatly appreciated.

Stone said the business owners are specifically interested in developing some kind of card for students to encourage them to patronize local businesses. The CatCard, the official WCU identification card, also serves as students’ meal-plan card through Aramark Dining Services, so that’s not a viable option for other establishments.

“We, too, want to talk about developing a relationship,” Stone said of Belcher, “and we would love to talk with him about the future of Western and our role going forward.”

 

What about that Town Center?

Bardo drew the ire of some local business owners and buy-local proponents by pushing for franchise-type establishments to come into Cullowhee.

Belcher, in a separate interview with The Smoky Mountain News, said “my own preferences are for the unique,” and that he has “no predisposed feelings about building this campus community with a bunch of chains.”

Still, that’s what must be decided during a visioning process that he’s promising will include people from the community, Belcher said.

Bardo had developed a schematic and vision for a 35-acre commercial development on campus he called “Town Center.” Bardo pictured a built-from-scratch college town with buildings that would be leased to restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores and even a specialty-style grocery store.

The new chancellor did emphasize that targeting specific businesses and exact enterprises for recruitment falls outside what he considers the purview of his job as WCU’s top leader.

Also up for debate is the role of Forest Hill, a small town across the highway from campus, in the plans for Town Center.

Bardo had asked leaders of Forest Hills to expand its town limits to include the property where Town Center would be built. The major reason: to allow businesses populating the new Town Center to sell alcohol. Alcohol sales currently aren’t allowed in Cullowhee, since the county is dry and Cullowhee isn’t its own town.

But Forest Hills is, and Bardo saw it as, the ticket for Town Center’s development. He wanted Forest Hills to legalize alcohol sales, then annex the site for Town Center, paving the way for the type of restaurants and bars usually associated with a college campus.

The university might no longer have a need for Forest Hill’s help, however. County commissioners have announced plans to hold a countywide vote on whether to legalize alcohol sales across the county in 2012. (See story on page 10.)

Clark Corwin, a council member for Forest Hills, said the small, incorporated village located cheek to cheek with WCU “backed off” the project once Bardo announced his resignation. The town has scheduled a retreat at the end of September to conduct its own visioning process, Corwin said.

Belcher, for his part, said he’s not yet “in any position at this point to throw any of those ideas out, or embrace them.”

 

Want to meet the new chancellor?

Western Carolina University Chancellor David Belcher will meet with alumni and friends from Jackson County from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 2, in the new Jackson County Public Library in Sylva.

It is the first stop on a “get acquainted tour” that will take WCU’s new chief executive officer to 15 stops during a four-month span, from Cherokee and Bryson City to Atlanta and Charlotte.

The tour is designed to assist Belcher in the process of crafting a vision for the next phase of development for the university by soliciting ideas and input from alumni, benefactors, legislators and community leaders. The sponsor of the Sylva event is MedWest Health System. 828.227.2455 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to RSVP.

The General Assembly’s budget would cut funding for a professional development center for teachers in Cullowhee by nearly half what it was allocated last year, slashing the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching from $6.1 million to $3.1 million.

Leaders at NCCAT stopped short of declaring that such a sizeable cut would force them to shutdown. But they do say that without additional funding, the 25-year-old institution will have to severely cut back on services. NCCAT and its 82 full-time and part-time employees, to a large degree, will have to transform, and quickly, to survive into the future.

A likely short-lived reprieve came with Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto this week of the Republican-crafted $19.7-billion budget. Perdue’s proposed budget had called for only a 10-percent cut to NCCAT and the elimination of eight positions.

On the heels of ever-dwindling state backing the past few years, even Perdue’s proposed cuts would have been difficult to absorb, said NCCAT Executive Director Elaine Franklin. She left her job at Western Carolina University in April to oversee this neighboring institution.

Since July 2008 and not including this current fiscal year, NCCAT has seen its funding cut $1,886,821 by the state.

Perdue is unlikely to win her budget battle with the Republican-controlled legislature over the budge. NCCAT could join the ranks of casualties brought on by diminished state funding, with little time to plan or make requisite program changes. Franklin said that would severely damage NCCAT, and disregard the 25-year investment into it that the state’s taxpayers have made.

 

‘Vitally important,’ or boondoggle?

Supporters tout NCCAT’s ability to help keep thousands of pre-kindergarten through 12th grade teachers in the state’s classrooms. Envisioned and pushed through by then Gov. Jim Hunt in 1985, at its height about 5,000 teachers a year came to either Cullowhee or to its smaller sister campus in Ocracoke for seminars and programs. The number in the past few years has been closer to 2,800 teachers, a cutback that is the visible result of dwindling funds.

The programs are interdisciplinary, targeting the environmental and biological sciences, technology, humanities, arts, communication and health.

The teachers who attend NCCAT are transformed professionally and seem visibly reenergized about teaching in the state’s classrooms, said Regina Ash, director of instruction for Swain County Schools.

“NCCAT is important to our teachers, and because of that, I think it is vitally important to our students,” said Ash this week. Her duties include overseeing professional development for Swain County’s educators.

Ash said one of the most critical services NCCAT provides is helping to underscore that teachers are important, and to give them visible evidence that others value them as professionals. The seminars are free, and NCCAT (via state dollars) has even paid for substitute teachers to take over during teachers’ absences.

That type of spending, however, goes to the crux of the criticism NCCAT has attracted in such lean economic times as these. And so does the very appearance of NCCAT, a stunning facility that features state-of-the art equipment and such perks as a small fitness center. On the walls hangs a large modern art collection — never mind that it’s on permanent loan, and cost nary a taxpayer penny; “boondoggle” is the word some have used. Staff at NCCAT still feel the sting of an article published in 2009 by the right-leaning Carolina Journal, a Raleigh-based publication targeting North Carolina’s political scene. Headlined “Teacher Paradise in Jackson County Attracts Scrutiny,” the reporter noted:

“… the center’s rambling stone buildings and finely manicured landscaping could be mistaken for that of an upscale mountain resort. And it offers a range of amenities to match. The grounds feature an idyllic lake, nature trails, and garden complete with covered picnic tables, benches, and fountain. A detached lodge has 48 individual living quarters and includes private bathrooms, common areas with access to outdoor patios, kitchens stocked with snacks, wireless Internet, and even a Hershey’s Kiss on each teacher’s pillow in the morning.”

 

Fighting for NCCAT

Given the harshness of NCCAT’s detractors, the names of some of its supporters might just surprise you. Numbered in the institution’s fan base? That fiscal conservative, no-apologies-for-it, newly elected Republican member of the state legislature, Sen. Jim Davis of Franklin.

Davis recently toured the NCCAT facility in Cullowhee. He heard and believes the pitch staff there make: that an investment in NCCAT is an investment in the state’s teachers, and one that pays off big for the children of North Carolina.

NCCAT reports a 96.9 percent average annual retention rate for teachers who participate in the professional development it offers. This compares to 87.9 percent statewide and 83.2 percent nationally from 2004 through 2007.

But hard times result in hard choices, Davis said while back in his home district this past weekend and in Sylva to attend the new library grand opening. NCCAT was lucky to get even $3.1 million, said Davis, who voted for the budget that cut NCCAT’s funding.

“It was a fight,” Davis said, adding that he believes anybody who actually takes the time, as he did, to “go out there and see it, and find out what they really do” will come away “convinced it is a good program.”

So what does the future hold for NCCAT? That’s difficult to say right now, because planning in these uncertain times is practically impossible, said Tina Wilson, director of business services.

“How can we plan?” Executive Director Franklin asked rhetorically.

One simply does the best one can, added Peter Julius, an NCCAT center fellow who helps design programs, and a former Swain County teacher. Programs are usually planned out six months ahead; Julius is simply warning people that everything hinges on the final state budget.

Franklin believes NCCAT, if it can claw up from that $3.1 million in state funding, can still survive and prosper.

“We do fully realize that this is a difficult budget for North Carolina,” she said. “(But an additional infusion of dollars) would give us the time to do better planning, strategic planning.”

And transform the institution into what must become NCCAT’s future, she said: an organization that relies on private fundraising to pay portions of the bills. Franklin said she has no doubts that NCCAT supporters will open their billfolds and wallets to ensure the institution stays afloat.

But NCCAT must, she said, have a bit of wiggle room to make that transition.

“A dog is an amazing thing,” says Orval Banks, smiling wryly and adjusting his faded gray ballcap.

He’s explaining the techniques he uses to train dogs, but really, he says, you don’t train a dog. It knows what it’s doing, and you’re just teaching it to communicate with you and teaching yourself to understand its subtle language. Because, you see, a dog is an amazing thing.

Banks runs a company called Southern Pride Search and Rescue Dogs, so he knows something about dogs.

He’s a wizened character, in plaid shirt and jeans, whose name often gets mistaken for Wilbur. He’s not sure why. He’s pretty soft-spoken but knows more than most in his field about what makes a good search dog.

“Train, train, train,” says Banks, chuckling slightly.

And he’s been training dogs now for more than 20 years. His dogs are cross-trained, both in search and rescue and what law enforcement refer to as search and recovery, when they’re looking for remains instead of people.

Rescue, though, says Banks, is his first job.

“I like to get them trained on finding the live people first because that’s a priority. Dead people are not going anywhere,” says Banks.

Still, though, recovery of remains are accounting for more and more of his calls these days, around 50 percent.

Banks isn’t a Haywood County native — he was born in Yancey County and moved around in his younger days — but he’s lived here now for 35 years, and it was 40 years ago that he got into search and rescue, mostly as a volunteer.

A few weeks ago, Banks helped out at a training day for cadaver dogs and their handlers held at Western Carolina University, though he’s loathe to use the word ‘cadaver,’ favoring the less abrasive ‘human remains detection.’

Unlike a lot of that crowd, and the cadaver dog world generally, he’s not from a law enforcement background. He keeps at it four decades later for the love of finding that which was lost.

“If you ever find a little four-year-old kid that’s been out there a couple of days and it’s getting dark, and the temperatures are about freezing, it makes it all worthwhile, you get kind of hooked on it,” says Banks.

And he’s good at it, too, which he puts down to the intensive amount of training that he does with his dog, about twice a week.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t train but once every two or three months and then wonder why they never find anybody,” says Banks. “Every time you go out with your dog, you learn something about your dog.”

The training at WCU was held at the school’s Human Identification Lab.

They used to call it the body farm, but now they stick to FOREST, which stands for Forensic Osteology Research Station. Basically, it’s a place for scientists to study how the human body deteriorates under certain conditions. And it’s only the second of its kind in the country, so when it offers a workshop for cadaver dogs, it’s a pretty popular draw.

They had to turn away 27 handlers who wanted to bring their dogs.

“They get the opportunity that they don’t ever get anywhere else, of letting their dogs see a full cadaver,” says Banks. “It’s good to expose the dog to that, to put everything in perspective to the dog, [to say], ‘OK, this is what you’ve been looking for the whole time.’”

And, says Paul Martin, who helped run the workshop, the scent of real people is different than what you can train on elsewhere.

“You have the ability to work with scents you’d never have the ability to do,” says Martin. He, unlike Banks, comes from a law enforcement background, but agrees with him that much of training is about learning the dog, and letting the dog learn the handler.

“Part of it is identifying the animal behavior patterns,” says Martin.

Banks agrees.

“The biggest problem is that a lot of handlers don’t train enough to be able to read their dogs. You’re teaching a dog and teaching yourself to communicate with each other. The dog knows what he’s doing. A lot of people think they’re teaching a dog to smell something dead,” said Banks, but they’re really learning to notice when the dog does.

According to Martin, things have changed in the field over the last ten years. Human remains detection, or HRD, is becoming more in-demand.

“The specialty has evolved over the last 10 to 15 years,” says Martin. “It’s such a complex field. We’re asked to find the one drop of blood, to find the remains that have been buried for 10 years, to find the remains that have been scavenged.”

And, like Banks said, half his work now is in HRD, because, he says, it’s just a lot harder to get lost these days.

“About 12, 15 years ago, we were at the peak, we were doing about 100 [search and rescue] callouts a year,” says Banks. “But people are starting to get GPS units, cell phones, and there’s getting to be so many people in the woods, you have to work at getting lost anymore.”

There are those now, he says, who are getting in to the field for the wrong reasons — for the prestige, for a certificate that they feel somehow validates their dog for breeding — but many, like himself, are in it to help.

And after 40 years of searching and 20 years with a dog by his side, he doesn’t think that’ll change anytime soon.

Backpackers who take on the challenge of hiking in the Southern Appalachian Mountains can attest to the fact that hauling a pack up a steep mountain trail is much more difficult than carrying one on level ground, and some Western Carolina University faculty members and students have put that notion to the test.

A study that involved volunteers carrying a pack while walking on a treadmill set on an uphill grade was used to test the “energy mile” theory first proposed by the late American mountaineering legend Paul Petzoldt. Overseeing the project was Maridy Troy, an assistant professor in WCU’s health and physical education program, and Maurice Phipps, professor of parks and recreation management, who also knew Petzoldt as a friend and mentor.

Phipps first met Petzoldt and found out about his energy mile theory in 1982, when Phipps, a young immigrant from England, went on a Wilderness Education Association training trip in Wyoming’s Teton Mountains that was led by the renowned outdoorsman.

Petzoldt first proposed his theory in his 1976 book Teton Trails to help backpackers plan trips and calculate their energy needs on mountain trails. “Petzoldt defined one energy mile as the energy required to walk one mile on the flat. He recommended adding two energy miles for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain, so a person hiking one mile and 1,000 feet upward would use the equivalent of three energy miles,” Phipps said.

Petzoldt’s energy mile theory was just a reflection of the mountaineer’s “gut feeling,” Phipps said. The theory had never been tested in a laboratory before the study began in WCU’s Exercise Physiology Laboratory in the spring of 2010, Phipps said.

To determine the validity of the theory, the study measured the energy cost and perceived exertion for walking on flat ground, with and without a 44.5-pound backpack, and up an elevation gain of 1,000 feet, with and without the backpack, through the collection of metabolic data, Phipps said.

Twenty-four student, faculty and staff volunteers, including 12 males and 12 females, went through four testing sessions as the research continued into fall semester of 2010. The study results showed that the additional energy cost for ascending 1,000 feet ranged from 1.34 to 2.02 energy mile equivalents, for an average of about 1.6 miles, compared to Petzoldt’s use of two energy miles for each 1,000 feet. The range revealed by the study was due to the “hikers’” personal weight differences, Phipps said.

“It is remarkable that Petzoldt’s energy mile theory is so close to the actual energy cost measured during our study,” Phipps said. “In the field of outdoor education, it’s important for leaders to include an estimation of energy requirements during the planning of hiking trips.”

Phipps said the energy required for hiking up steep mountain trails would vary for individuals and groups, and the variables of the trail would also factor in, but he recommends that backpackers stick with Petzoldt’s idea of adding two energy miles for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain when planning trips.

Petzoldt, the founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School who is considered to be the father of outdoor education in the United States, later amended his theory, stating that 1,000 feet of elevation gain is equivalent to four miles worth of energy for trail novices with expedition packs in the Tetons. Petzoldt suggested adding three energy miles — instead of two — per 1,000 feet of elevation gain in the North Carolina mountains when he visited the WCU campus to teach a WEA expedition course in 1987, Phipps said.

An article detailing the study titled “The Validity of Petzoldt’s Energy Mile Theory” has been published in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education and Leadership.

After a decade-and-a-half of stable leadership — a situation almost unheard of within the greater University of North Carolina system —Western Carolina University is about to embark on a whirlwind of change.

In addition to the replacement of Chancellor John Bardo by David Belcher of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, who starts July 1, a bevy of top positions at the university are filled, for now, only on an interim basis. This includes the provost (WCU’s second in command) and the university’s vice chancellor of administration and finance.

Also coming open? Six of the 13 members of the WCU Board of Trustees are up for appointment or reappointment. This includes Chairman Steve Warren and Vice Chairman Charles Worley, who have served two- and four-year terms respectively on the board, meaning they cannot be reappointed as trustees.

The governor gets four appointments; the UNC Board of Governors appoints eight of the trustees, plus the president of the student government is automatically placed on the board.

This board of trustees and Bardo met for the final time last week. In an emotional meeting that left Warren and Bardo, at times, choking back tears, the outgoing chancellor said he truly believes WCU’s best days are before it.

“These 16 years (as chancellor) represents a quarter of my life,” Bardo said. “This was about trying to make a difference in lives of people.”

The average tenure of a UNC chancellor is four-and-a-half years.

Warren spoke of Bardo’s “incredible vision” that transformed “the spirit of the campus.”

“Everything we ever wanted for this university is now within our reach — everything,” Warren said.

To honor Bardo, the board of trustees voted to name the university’s Fine and Performing Arts Center after the retiring chancellor.

In a related matter, Faculty Senate Chairman Erin McNelis told the board of trustees that this faculty leadership group would consider a resolution for more openness when it comes to a chancellor search.

This resolution would seek for the finalists’ names to be made public, so that the final selection would become “an open process,” she said. This is routinely done in many states, but North Carolina allows universities to opt to keep chancellors’ searches secret.

Six years ago, amid great fanfare, Joe Kimmel pledged $6.9-million dollars to Western Carolina University.

Based on that pledge, with payments expected to come in over an eight-year period, WCU went forward with a new school: the Joe W. Kimmel School of Construction Management, Engineering, and Technology.

Kimmel’s ability to pay WCU, however, abruptly ended in December 2009, when his company, Asheville-based Kimmel & Associates, went into bankruptcy. He stopped at $1.43 million — more than $5 million short of the original pledge to WCU.

The date of the last payment isn’t known. WCU would not release the payment schedule.

Chapter 11 bankruptcy afforded Kimmel and his wife, Cynthia, legal protection to try to reorganize their finances, both personally and for Kimmel & Associates. The company recently came out of bankruptcy proceedings. But it remains unclear whether Kimmel will, or even would be allowed under terms of his bankruptcy emergence, to fulfill the remainder of his promise to WCU.

The Kimmels said they had $7.2 million in personal assets and $15.8 million in liabilities. Kimmel & Associates listed $2.1 million in assets and $7.2 million in debts, according to federal bankruptcy filings.

Kimmel did not return a phone message seeking comment, with an employee at his company declining on his behalf.

 

Construction industry crashes

Kimmel & Associates is an executive head hunting search firm founded in 1981 that is focused on the construction industry. Kimmel & Associates could at one time — and did — boast of a national client base of more than 100 companies.

Pairing a construction-management school at a university seeking national prominence in the field with a construction head-hunting firm must have seemed a match made in heaven — particularly given Kimmel’s nearly $7 million dowry.

With an additional $3.5 million in matching state money secured as a result of Kimmel’s generous gesture, WCU promised to create a first-class educational program.

“We expect this pledge, combined with additional public and private support, will result in a school that will place Western on par with the nation’s finest institutions of higher education in preparing students for careers in construction management and related fields that are critical to the emerging economy of the state and the nation,” Chancellor John Bardo said in a press conference at the time.

Kimmel generosity didn’t stop with WCU. He and his company made contributions to numerous organizations in WNC, including the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Asheville Art Museum, Buncombe County Medical Society’s Project Access, Humane Society, Center for Diversity Education, Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministries, Meals on Wheels and the Fine Arts League of Asheville. Kimmel also established in 2004 a fund that provided $1,000 scholarships for students in construction fields.

“Giving and serving is the nucleus of the world, when the world is right,” Kimmel noted in a company newsletter as he reflected on his donation to WCU.

That was then; this is now. The world, at least the world according to Kimmel & Associates, soon wasn’t right.

Not even close: The housing boom, which seemed to promise ever-increasing profit margins to a construction industry left almost giddy by that prospect, instead crashed. Kimmel and his firm saw business dry up, virtually overnight, as builders were forced to put their measuring tapes up and hammers down.

In 2007, Kimmel & Associates was pulling in gross revenue of more than $19 million, bankruptcy documents show. That number dropped to $16.4 million in 2008, and by the following year, the company had dropped to $8.6 million.

Kimmel & Associate’s gross monthly income in 2009 still amounted to $625,000. But, with total monthly expenses coming to $626,047, Kimmel’s company was $1,047 a month in the red.

“Collapse of the construction industry” is the single reason given as a contributing factor in Kimmel & Associates fall into bankruptcy, according to documents.

 

School nuts & bolts

Today, the Kimmel School offers six degree programs in two departments: construction management and engineering and technology. There are state-of-the-art laboratory facilities; and about 300 students enrolled to take advantage of them.

The Kimmel contributions have gone toward endowments for distinguished professorships, student scholarships and program support for the construction management program, including allowing students and faculty to expand their participation in academic competitions, national conferences and industry meetings, said Bill Studenc, a WCU spokesman.

WCU landed a big-name, politically connected dean in March of 2008 when Robert K. “Bob” McMahan Jr. came on board. An astrophysicist, McMahan came to the university from his previous position as then North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley’s senior adviser for science and technology.

It wasn’t just WCU that Kimmel & Associates left in the lurch. UNC Asheville, where six of Joe and Cynthia Kimmel’s seven children attended school, built the Kimmel Arena — the health and wellness center was the result of a $2-million pledge from the couple. Last year, a UNCA official told the Asheville Citizen-Times that half that amount had been received.

 

WCU optimistic

A full assessment of the Kimmel School financial outlook is difficult to ascertain. When asked directly whether the school would be given a different name to more accurately reflect the true giving-picture, Clifton Metcalf, WCU vice president for advancement and external affairs, responded in a written statement:

“The university has taken a long-range view in our relationship with Kimmel & Associates,” he said. “We have been confident that Kimmel, one of the nation’s premier firms in recruiting executives for the construction industry, would rebound as economic conditions improved generally and as construction activity, specifically, accelerated. That appears to be happening now, and there is no intention to rename the school.”

Metcalf’s assessment of Kimmel & Associates’ ability to fulfill its pledge might be more hopeful than realistic.

The bankruptcy plan called for Kimmel and his wife to sell their $1.2 million in gold jewelry and 100 acres in Madison County, plus turn over to debtors the leases on two properties — the business itself on Page Avenue in Asheville, and a beach house in Folly Beach, S.C., used by customers and employees. Even leases on the company’s fleet of cars were up for grabs.

What do Harrill Residence Hall at Western Carolina University, the Cherokee Central School System, the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center in the Smokies and the firehouse in Sylva have in common?

Each of these projects help make a whole: they are part of a burgeoning green-building trend in Western North Carolina that, in recent years, has seen sustainable commercial construction become less of a niche and more of the norm.

“It is definitely becoming mainstream,” said Lauren Bishop, campus energy manager for WCU, where a green retrofitting of Harrill dorm is under way and the earth friendly Health and Human Sciences Building was recently completed.

These green buildings use less power and water, are often built in a pre-existing footprint, produce less waste and use recycled materials. Most incorporate more natural light and fresh air than standard commercial buildings.

Some are certified sustainable, others are not: LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification is the recognized standard (see sidebar on LEED certification). But that stamp of approval comes at a recurring annual cost and a whole lot of paperwork.

SEE ALSO: The price of being certifiably ‘green’

As George Stanley, projects manager for Southwestern Community College, put it when describing the non-certified but sustainable Conrad G. Burrell administration/bookstore building under way there, one can have a perfectly fantastic pedigree dog without having in hand the actual pedigree papers.

With or without the certification, WNC architects and local governments are paying increasing attention to sustainable building practices.

 

Not just green: healthy

Scott Donald is a principal architect with Padgett and Freeman Architects. The Asheville company drafted the plans for the massive new campus that’s home to Cherokee Central Schools, as well as the tribal emergency operations center. Both are LEED certified, but Donald said that he would try to bring environmental sustainability to the projects even without the certification, just because it’s his professional habit.

“This office has been doing that since the early 70s,” Donald said. “It’s really just environmentally conscious architecture.”

The schools in particular are chockablock with sustainable measures. It’s a sprawling, 473,000-square-foot campus that houses kindergarten through high school and incorporates green technology at every turn. There are waterless urinals, daylight sensors in every room to maximize natural light and minimize the artificial light used, underground cisterns stowed beneath the schools’ courtyards that can hold 60,000 gallons of rainwater for irrigation and toilet flushing. And, the school is heated by 450-foot geothermal wells that were drilled beneath the school to make use of the earth’s warmth.

The project cost $140 million, but Yona Wade, director of the school’s cultural arts center, said the benefits are worth the extra money spent to LEED certify the buildings. The measures will save the school system money in the long term  — $10 million over 40 years, according to Donald.

In Cherokee, the impetus for green building is largely rooted in a 2009 environmental proclamation made by Principal Chief Michell Hicks. He directed the tribe toward greater care for the environment in its policies.

“It comes from wanting to be good stewards of what we have,” Wade said. “This has got to be the building that will last us. We’ll probably never do this again.”

 

The sun and the wind are free

O’Dell Thompson, a Sylva architect, has chosen not to take the classes and pay the fees necessary to get LEED certified. But he designs in an environmentally friendly manner “because that’s the right thing to do.”

“I do a lot of houses, churches and stuff,” Thompson said. “With all of my clients, I encourage them to take advantage of the things that are free — the sun and the wind.”

Thompson was the architect on Sylva’s new firehouse.

He remembers that when Sylva leaders were developing the concept for the new firehouse, then Mayor Brenda Oliver emphasized, “no matter what, it should be as environmentally sensitive as possible,” Thompson said. “So that was one of our goals from the outset.”

Last fall, the firehouse was completed. Not too many years ago the obviously sustainable building might have seemed incongruous in this mountain town of just 2,500, with its large solar panels displayed prominently on the roof. But these days? It really hasn’t occasioned much comment.

There is a solar pre-heating hot water system that heats water to circulate under the slabs where the fire trucks rest when not in use. This saves propane costs — you can’t let a fire truck, full of potentially lifesaving water, freeze during the winter. The slab retains heat because it has thermal mass, which helps keep temperatures warmer.

Up to eight solar tubes help with lighting the firehouse. So much so, Thompson said a butterfly baffle had to be installed near the television so that the firemen could see the screen. The building is south facing, and there’s an overhang to prevent heat buildup in summer and accept heat during the winter.

There are photovoltaics, which is a method of generating power by converting solar radiation into direct current electricity. There are no batteries being charged, the electricity generated simply offsets any electric costs.

The firehouse is metal, meaning parts of it were probably recycled; the men’s room has a waterless urinal to save on water use.

The building avoids the use of volatile organic compounds in the paints or carpet.

“It’s not just green,” Thompson said. “It’s an environmentally healthy structure.”

 

Green building helps bottom line

Tim Chapman is the associate director for facilities in the office of residential living at WCU. He’s a practical kind of fellow, one who clearly understands and appreciates the virtue and necessity of the bottom line.

“We’re a business,” Chapman said. “Everything we do must be done in sound business terms.”

Each of the 13 buildings he helps oversee is an individual “cost center,” meaning they have to cost out each year, bringing in enough money to offset expenses. But these days, that doesn’t exclude incorporating green practices — in fact, sustainable building techniques can save you money, Chapman said.

“The desire has been there for years, but the manufacturing process and science (of green building) is catching up,” he said.

WCU has reused sites instead of eating up more green space as it has entered a new building phase in recent years. More green space, in fact, has been added on campus.

There also have been such innovations as a central chilling plant to cool the buildings on the campus quad instead of separate units, and on-demand hot water heaters.

And Harrill dorm, a 38-year-old residence hall being upgraded and improved, will be the ultimate sustainable “showpiece” on campus, Chapman said.

Work has started on the 400-bed dorm, which should be completed by next summer. The $15 million project will include extensive upgrades to outdated heating, ventilation, air conditioning, electrical and plumbing systems.

Plans call for the installation of a rooftop rainwater collection system to provide water for flushing toilets, solar panels to supplement water heating and geothermal wells for heating and cooling.

WCU Architect Galen May said the new dorm will also allow students to be highly energy conscious. An energy monitor will be added to each pair of floors that will allow students to monitor their energy consumption.

A dashboard will be in the lobby so that all residents can view energy consumption throughout the entire dorm.

“It’s our responsibility to set a good example, and to teach our students about this aspect,” Bishop, the campus energy manager, said.

May said Harrill would serve as a learning tool for students. And, perhaps, it will serve as one for the region, too.

By Quintin Ellison and Colby Dunn

 

 

LEED ‘green’ buildings in WNC

• Cherokee Emergency Operations Center, Cherokee

• Ravensford School Project, Cherokee Central Schools

• Registered (in process of LEED certification)

• One single-family home in Bryson City

• Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center – Cherokee

• Haywood Community College, Creative Arts Building – Clyde

• Two single family homes in Franklin

• Unitarian Universalist Fellowship – Franklin

• Best Buy – Waynesville

• One single-family home – Sylva

• Cherokee Operations Center – Whittier

• Harrill Hall renovations – WCU

• WCU Health and Gerontological Building – Cullowhee

Source: U.S. Green Building Council

A proposal to set up a special track for Western Carolina University’s crème de la crème — the honor students on campus — failed recently to win approval of a majority of the faculty’s leaders.

The thumbs down by the university’s Faculty Senate came amid concerns of elitism, questions about need, doubts the proposed program was rigorous enough, and fears of overcomplicating the system.

There were worries that, if the special liberal arts track was adopted by the Honors College, students in general might become confused about which classes exactly were needed for them to successfully graduate. Some faculty said they were afraid other colleges at the university would follow suit in setting up individual liberal studies programs, creating enormous bureaucratic difficulties for the university.

Additionally, some faculty leaders said they felt it was premature to propose a new honors path while the university is in the process of an overall review of its liberal studies curriculum.

The vote by Faculty Senate last month was two in favor, 24 against, with one abstention.

“There’s some really creative and great ideas here,” David McCord, professor and head of WCU’s department of psychology, told Honors College Dean Brian Railsback before he listed a litany of concerns. “I’d like all of our students, and not just honors students, to take benefit from this.”

McCord added, however, “the issue of multiple general education programs is deeply concerning to me,” describing the proposed changes as a possible Pandora’s box, making it “a completely impossible puzzle” for students to piece together what’s required for graduation.

“I respectfully disagree,” Railsback said. “I think it would work.”

Railsback, in material written to brief his fellow faculty on the proposal, noted that honors programs across the country vary. Among the least developed are colleges like WCU where honors students parallel the liberal studies program. Students are afforded some designated honors classes, extra interaction with professors, and even customized courses and degrees — yet are still confined by the university’s liberal arts requirements. Others fully substitute the university liberal studies program, such as the program at Portland State, Ore., for example.

Some universities create labor-intensive programs that replace the curriculum with studies customized between the student and advisor.

Railsback said that he believed WCU’s 13-year-old Honors College should move toward this “as a natural part of its evolution.”

“WCU Honors students are a distinct group of high-achievers who need a liberal studies curriculum tailored to their abilities,” Railsback said.

The genesis of the proposal dates to 2007-2008, when the Honors College Board of Directors (made up of honors students) and the Honors College Advisory Board (made up of professional outside of the university) met and agreed upon “learning outcomes” for the Honors College curriculum.

The groups were considering what exactly a WCU Honors student knows when they graduate from the Honors College, and what was needed to be competitive with graduates from elite private colleges.

The specialized track would have included required service learning; a study abroad option or required second language study; required undergraduate research; a required internship, co-op, or appropriate “capstone” experience.

Laura Wright, an associate professor in WCU’s English department and director of graduate studies, worried about the risk of removing honors students from the university’s classrooms with other students.

“I worry what happens to our non-honors students when they are not interacting with our best students,” she said.

Railsback said that he did not believe the specialized curriculum would stop honors students from continuing to be part of the general school population. He said that elitism has been an area of concern since the creation of the Honors College, and something WCU has carefully avoided.

 

The select few

There are between 1,300 and 1,400 honors students at Western Carolina University, or about 14 percent of the undergraduate residential population.

Those who entered the Honors College as first-term freshmen in 2008 averaged a 4.3 weighted cumulative high school GPA and scored 1803 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, compared to a 3.3 high school GPA and 1485 on the SAT for non-Honors students at WCU.

Honors students at WCU average a first to second year retention of 84 percent, compared to 71 percent for non-Honors students. Honors students average a 3.51 cum WCU GPA, compared to a fall 2008 average for all non-Honors students of 2.51.

The Honors College has its own residence hall for those choosing to live on campus and its own yearbook.

A portion of their courses are designated as Honors courses, or they can work with professors to add extra components to regular courses. They can swap out required intro-level liberal studies coursework with more advanced courses. They can even create customized degrees, are eligible for undergraduate research grants and have access to pre-professional programs.

Source: Honors College Dean Brian Railsback, WCU Website

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