Athletics, smathletics; new chancellor will care about academics, too

Athletics won’t trump academics in the selection of a chancellor for Western Carolina University, committee members charged with hiring a new top leader assured worried professors this week.

“I don’t want you to be concerned,” said Jerry Baker, head of Baker and Associates, a search firm being paid $75,000 to guide the 16-member selection committee through the process. “We won’t let any one voice out shout the others.”

The comments came at the outset of a four-hour public comment session organized by the selection committee. Faculty, staff, students and alumni, community members and supporters of intercollegiate athletics were each given hour-long slots.

Vicki Szabo, a member of the history department, said recent news coverage of the search had given her and others the impression athletics might dominate, or play a larger role than merited, in the selection.

Committee members were dismissive of the news coverage in question, published recently in the Asheville Citizen-Times.

“I’d take it for whatever it’s worth at face value, it is the Asheville Citizen-Times,” said Kenny Messer, a WCU alum and past president of the Catamount Club, which helps raise money for WCU athletics.

Charles Worley, an Asheville lawyer and former mayor of that city who, in his time, has been on the receiving end of less-than-flattering coverage (which is not the same as less-than-accurate coverage), saw an opportunity to educate listeners regarding media coverage in general and newspapers in particular.

“You know how newspapers do,” Worley said in an ominous tone of voice. “They tend to pick on things and take it out of context.”

After that, chairman Steve Warren opted for a gentler approach, reminding those in the audience — and possibly his selection committee — there must be a balance struck in the hiring of a replacement for Chancellor John Bardo, who is retiring next summer after more than 15 years.

“Athletics plays a role at this university, and the new chancellor needs to understand this. And everybody else,” Warren said, before quickly adding that academics would of course remain a top priority.

Debate about the role WCU plays in the region it serves also surfaced. Many professors and staff members emphasized a unique ability of the university to help Western North Carolina and its people. By preserving the culture and environment, saving the ecosystems, and so on — plus providing “the children of the mountains” with an opportunity to receive a quality higher education near home. Some, however, spoke to the need for WCU to be visible on a national, even international scale, and to focus on being a topflight academic institution.

Fred Hinson, senior associate vice chancellor of enrollment management, has been at the university for 45 years. He spoke against hiring someone who needed on-the-job-training. WCU, along with other universities in the UNC system, are facing the prospect of draconian budget cuts.

“We’re at a stage here at the university … (where we) need experience,” Hinson said. “We don’t need a lawyer or a business leader at this time.”

Several faculty and staff members discussed problems with morale. They said a chancellor, in these hard times (low salaries in general, no pay raises in several years, a poor retention rate, key leadership positions unfilled, potentially massive budget cuts looming) must recognize and reward staff in other ways. Recognizing their hard work and dedication, allowing professionals to be professionals, and such intangibles were mentioned.

David Claxton, in WCU’s department of health, physical education and recreation, told selection committee members faculty and staff members have generally had a “great relationship” with the university’s provost (that post is currently open, too).

Claxton added, “sometimes it has been harder to communicate with our chancellor.”


Want to be heard?

There is a questionnaire posted on the Western Carolina University search committee website: Anyone can participate. This allows for comment on the “state of the university,” preferred priorities of the chancellorship, suggested background of candidates and other pertinent issues.

The next meeting of the selection committee is scheduled for 3 p.m. Monday, Dec. 6, in the Hospitality Room of the Ramsey Center. Meetings are open to the public, and can be closed only for reasons specified in the state’s Open Meetings Law.

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