Western Carolina University’s well-liked leader Chancellor David Belcher has been diagnosed with a small brain tumor, he announced last week.
David Belcher, Western Carolina University’s 11th chancellor, warned a crowd of 200 on hand last week for the pomp and circumstance of his installment ceremony that the state of North Carolina must not dally in protecting its educational assets.
Other states are now raiding universities such as WCU and cherry picking the top faculty, staff and administration, he said. The assaults on the University of North Carolina system have been made easier because salary increases haven’t been given at some institutions, including WCU, in nearly four years.
WCU alone has experienced some $30 million in cumulative budget cuts during that same time period. This has resulted in few professors and larger classes than was once the case, and staff and administration have more duties because empty positions have been eliminated or gone unfilled.
“Some of our best and brightest, staff as well as faculty, are leaving Western and walking out of North Carolina,” Belcher said. “While hiring at the moment in this state is limited and our flexibility to retain talent virtually nonexistent, universities in other states are raiding us with abandon. It is not a pretty picture, and if North Carolina is serious about coming through this economic crisis with the competitive advantage to which it has grown accustomed, this situation must be addressed.”
The comments were made to a crowd that included many local and state politicians, plus UNC President Tom Ross and other members of the UNC system. Belcher, in a discussion with WCU’s Faculty Senate in the days leading up to his installment, promised to be “provocative” during the speech and to use the limelight as a bully pulpit for the university.
“We are certainly at a moment of fundamental change and challenge,” he said.
In additional remarks that prompted spontaneous applause from his faculty and staff members in the audience, Belcher promised to fight for pay raises for his WCU employees.
“The economic crisis has necessitated difficult situations for all — we get that,” he said. “But, inasmuch as North Carolina’s future prospects are directly tied to the strength of its public universities, we must address faculty and staff compensation issues. I pledge to you that Western Carolina and I will be squeaky wheels in search of grease.”
Belcher did not simply dwell on the negative, however. The new chancellor spoke of a bright future for the university he now heads, and of the regional role he believes that WCU plays.
“Western Carolina University will never be — nor should it ever be — the leader in meeting regional need. But it can and will be a leader in that endeavor,” Belcher said. “Western Carolina will partner with local communities, industries, nonprofit organizations, elected officials and civic leaders to meet individual needs throughout the region.”
Belcher emphasized that under his leadership WCU “will be a catalyst for regional thinking and regional competitiveness and regional cooperation and regional solutions,” saying “the time of town versus town, county versus county, and city versus city competition is over.”
Regions compete with regions to attract business, industry, investment, tourism, talent, and the creative class, the chancellor said.
Erin McNelis, chair of the university’s faculty senate, said she believes that Belcher “embodies the spirit, the leadership and the excellence” inherent in WCU. She added that the chancellor has “reinvigorated” a sense of spirit at WCU and in the community with his honesty and transparency.
Others from the community liked what they heard, too. Mary Jo Cobb, a Tuckasegee resident who turned out to listen to and watch the installation, was appreciative.
“I’m certainly very interested in him being involved like this with the community,” Cobb said. “That’s my priority and he really seems to be reaching out.”
Former Forest Hills Mayor Irene Hooper also attended the installation. Her father attended the university when it was actually an academy. Hooper said she’s enjoyed Belcher’s visible presence in the community and that “Cullowhee would be nothing without WCU.”
“I just hope he’ll be able to accomplish all our dreams,” Hooper said.
WCU alum Betty Jo Allen drove in from Lincolnton to attend the ceremonies.
“I think people have really embraced him,” she said of Belcher, adding that former Chancellor John Bardo laid a “fantastic foundation” for the university.
“But now, this is Dr. Belcher’s season,” Allen said.
• Commitment to access to education and student success.
• Commitment to meeting regional needs.
• A pledge to focus.
• An emphasis on excellence.
• A promise to take care of WCU’s employees.
• To convene a consortium of WNC community college presidents, school superintendents and leaders from other education organizations such as the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching in pursuit of real seamless education, kindergarten through college degree.
• To make the No. 1 philanthropic priority raising funds for endowed scholarships to make a university education accessible for capable students in perpetuity.
• To organize an annual, summer, regional tour for institutional leaders to ensure that the university stays in touch with the region it serves. Some administrators will be included but leaders more refers to faculty, staff and students.
• To initiate a leadership academy for faculty and staff. This professional development opportunity will not be designed to produce future administrators, though it may.
• To pursue development of its Millennial Campus as a national model for institutions serving rural regions. The university bought 344 acres to serve for private-public partnerships. Belcher has said that he anticipates the arrival of health clinics and doctors’ offices, where students could work and learn in a private-public set-up anchored by the new 160,000-square-foot, $46 million health and human sciences building.
For the first time perhaps in its 123-year history, faculty, staff and students at Western Carolina University are helping develop a priority list that will shape the coming year’s budget.
“This has been a first pass at a new, and hopefully more open and transparent, budget process,” WCU Chancellor David Belcher told members of the university’s faculty senate last week.
Groups of stakeholders in the process — the administration, faculty and students — have been meeting to discuss the next fiscal year budget. The amount of money WCU will get from the state won’t actually be known until this summer. Last year, it wasn’t clear until August. But, Belcher emphasized that he wanted to initiate the process when everyone was still actually present on campus and not wait until dorms and classrooms were empty.
During the past month, two large meetings were held in which a series of framing questions were asked to define the issues facing the university. Belcher described the responses as “fascinating,” adding that they included instructional capacity, research and potential engagement with the outside community.
Educational issues emerged as the No. 1 priority of all involved, Belcher said.
“I think it was a very good process. Personally it was enlightening,” he said, noting that the budget decisions made and the rationales behind those budget decisions would be posted for public review.
Faculty Senate Chair Erin McNelis said for her part the clearest priority that emerged “was about students in the classroom and supporting the classroom.”
She asked if the meeting notes could be made available online, which the chancellor agreed to do.
Belcher did emphasize that the recommendations being reached by members of the administration, faculty and students aren’t necessarily “the gospel,” that WCU administration would have to work within the budget’s constraints. WCU in the past four years has experienced $30 million in cumulative budget cuts.
Phil Sanger, director of the WCU’s Center for Rapid Product Realization, emphasized that in his view “program prioritization” at WCU is key to good budgeting.
“We can’t make good decisions without knowing where to direct our efforts,” Sanger said.
Jason Lavigne, chair of WCU’s Staff Senate, said that in his 13 or so years at the university that this had proven the most enlightening budget process he’d experienced.
The driver for growth at Western Carolina University and the Cullowhee could come via the Millennial Campus, but what to do with the 344-acre tract across the highway, and how to do it, remains elusive.
When the university bought the tract in 2005, doubling the doubling the size of WCU’s property holdings, some criticized the move as out-of-keeping with the university’s mission, unrealistic and wasteful of taxpayers’ dollars.
Former WCU Chancellor John Bardo had a sweeping vision for this Millennial Campus: He talked about melding academics, research, private industry, business and student housing into one vibrant entity.
New Chancellor David Belcher has inherited his predecessor’s blueprint, but has a tough job of actually making it happen during these hard-knock economic times. Belcher, however, indicated last week that he might be eyeing private enterprise to help jumpstart the project.
“That will be a great asset for the region, but that kind of development is going to have implications,” Belcher said. “You suddenly have a booming population … businesses will follow.”
The university has the right, under state law, to initiate the type of private development Belcher envisions on this Millennial Campus as long as WCU adheres to its academic mission. Belcher said that he anticipates the arrival of health clinics and doctors’ offices, where students could work and learn in a private-public set-up anchored by the new 160,000-square-foot, $46 million health and human sciences building.
He did not say whether WCU is now actively recruiting such private development.
The intention is for the health and human sciences building to serve as the cornerstone of a retirement, aging and health “neighborhood.” It would be a place where students and faculty would study and teach alongside a mixed-use area with the Belcher-envisioned private health-care providers, medical-device companies and specialized clinics.
The health and human sciences building is scheduled to open for classes this fall.
Belcher has put together a taskforce to study and think strategically about the university’s Millennial Campus. The group has been meeting since January.
Seven years ago, using $2.87 million in state bond money, Western Carolina University bought 344 acres of land across the highway. The idea was to build a Millennial Campus, a showcase of how academics, research, private business and housing could be combined to enhance education.
To date the potential of the Millennial Campus has gone largely untapped. The mostly flat tract is home to just a single building: the $46 million health and human sciences building, set to open for classes this fall.
A new education building was next on the list, but has been sidelined because of funding shortfalls in the state budget.
University officials have estimated that up to 75 percent of the land, extending from the property line of the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching past the Jackson County Airport and along Little Savannah Road, is suitable for building. The land is across N.C. 107 from WCU’s main campus.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
• $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
A 36-member commission charged with developing a new strategic plan for Western Carolina University is on a tight timeline: Chancellor David Belcher wants the guiding document in the board of trustees’ hands next June.
The commission, a mix of university employees, local business leaders and prominent figures in the community, held its first meeting last week. Belcher described the commission as “a unique gathering of people.” He noted the university’s last strategic plan was implemented in 2008. Belcher urged the group to focus closely on “what we are going to do; what we’re not going to do.”
“This is big picture stuff,” Belcher said. “(The plan) should be ambitious, but achievable.”
Commission member Kenny Messer, a WCU alum who serves as a business manager for Milliken and Company, a South Carolina-based textile and chemical manufacturer, said that in his opinion, financial needs and funding were going to drive the development of a strategic plan for the university.
North Carolina has cut WCU by $30 million in a three-year period. More cuts are expected as the state continues to grapple with a sour economy.
Among the group’s first tasks will be developing a “SWOT,” or a document outlining the university’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.
The last SWOT was prepared by a university strategic planning group for 2009-2010, and now is somewhat outdated, said Melissa C. Wargo, WCU assistant vice chancellor for institutional planning and effectiveness. Wargo is heading The 2020 Commission for the university.
That SWOT predated heavy state budget cuts, and the arrival of Belcher in July after longtime leader John Bardo retired. It had been stamped “Internal Use Only” and was never shared with the public, but was released to The Smoky Mountains News last week after it was requested. The document included a rather candid assessment of WCU’s weaknesses. Here’s some of the findings in the four SWOT areas.
• Strengths: student access to faculty and undergraduate research opportunities; a growing national and international reputation; a mature and experienced faculty and competitive student costs relative to other University of North Carolina schools.
• Opportunities: an increasing demand for online programs and untapped faculty expertise that could be diverted into public service.
• Threats: continuing state budget cuts loomed big, as did increased competition for students in higher education and marketplace competition for qualified staff. The university also noted accountability in the form of exit exams for students as a threat, geographic location resulting in limited social interaction for students, inadequate infrastructure and more.
• Weaknesses: A lack of administrative transparency topped the list of weaknesses. Others included non-competitive salary and recruitment practices, poor undergraduate retention and graduation rates, ineffective organization communication tools/practices, no institutional plan to address diversity concerns and issues.
• WCU will pursue strategically controlled enrollment growth.
• The quality of the student body will increase.
• The economic instability within the state will continue.
• The university’s role in, and focus on, Western North Carolina will remain strong while its influence grows across the state and region.
• Fundraising and alternative revenue streams will become increasingly more important.
• State funding will be tied to performance.
• Sept. 21: 10:30 a.m. until noon, Macon County Public Library, Franklin.
• Sept. 26: 3 p.m. until 5 p.m., Jackson County Public Library, Sylva.
• Sept. 30: 2:30 p.m. until 5 p.m., Waynesville, place to be determined.
• Oct. 20: 1 p.m. until 5 p.m., Cherokee, place to be determined.
Meetings also being held in Asheville, Hendersonville and Murphy.
Western Carolina University is facing, at best, an austere financial year.
Chancellor David Belcher, in his first address to faculty and staff, was blunt about the financial difficulties facing the university. He warned his new employees that all spending would be scrutinized, and said they must fully and satisfactorily justify any new programs and course offerings, particularly electives.
The state, when all was said and done, cut WCU’s overall budget by 13.4 percent. While university leaders were prepared for an economic wallop, they were caught off guard by the sudden yanking of another $2 million they’d planned on. This happened when the state didn’t let universities use money left over from the previous budget year. The plan had been to use this carry-forward funding, as had been a usual financial practice at WCU, to help cover ongoing expenses, Belcher said.
Combine the $2 million with the other state cuts, and WCU found itself with a total $4.85 million overall deficit.
“We cannot run a university this way,” the new chancellor said, explaining that the university’s top officials balanced the budget by whittling away at expenses. This included money set aside to maintain WCU’s information-technology infrastructure.
“Send your most positive thoughts to our IT system,” Belcher told his employees. “It cannot malfunction this year.”
Many in the crowd chuckled — and it really was a crowd, so many faculty and staff showed up for what is generally a beginning-of-the-year formality a balcony was opened in the fine and performing arts center’s auditorium to handle overflow. Belcher added in a serious tone: “No, I’m really not kidding.”
“The budget situation remains uncertain,” he said. “But I assure you that we will make it through these tough financial times.”
Belcher emphasized the need to raise enrollment numbers — which leads to increased state money and tuition money — but doing so while not lowering the caliber of students the university accepts. Additionally, with the state now heavily emphasizing retention and graduation rates, a shift in emphasis must take place, he said.
“Improving our retention rate is everybody’s responsibility,” he said.
But Belcher told faculty he wanted to shed his “reactionay mantle” that defined his first two months on the job. He planned now to throw himself headlong into crafting a new strategic plan for the university. The chancellor urged faculty and staff to join him in taking ownership of WCU.
“The strategic planning process is an opportunity to identify what we will pursue and what we will not pursue,” Belcher said. “In light of the current conditions, we cannot be all things to all people. Everything cannot and will not be a priority.”
The strategic planning process will be led by a steering committee called the 2020 Commission, and will include participation from various stakeholders on campus, such as faculty, staff and students. And, he said, from the external community – alumni, donors, and business and community leaders.
The target is to have a plan ready for presentation to the Board of Trustees at its June meeting 10 months from now.
“Achievement of such a plan will require rejection of myopia and commitment to the good of the whole,” Belcher said. “We will be guided by our commitment to student success – the success of every student. And we will retain that value that has defined us for years, an external focus and external engagement.”
Belcher announced the formation of the Chancellor’s Leadership Council, a group composed of about 40 campus leaders from the faculty, staff, student body and administration.
He also unveiled a more inclusive budgeting process designed to provide additional input into decision-making and enhance transparency. That process will include an annual budget hearing that will involve the newly formed leadership council. Belcher also asked Faculty Senate and Staff Senate to consider the creation of a joint budget and planning committee to ensure that faculty and staff concerns are integrally involved in the budget process.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.