Western Carolina University Chancellor David O. Belcher urged faculty and staff to spend the 2016-17 academic year building on the momentum of the previous year, gearing up for implementation of the N.C. Promise tuition plan, and helping navigate complex budgetary waters.
In his annual Opening Assembly address to kick off the new school year Wednesday, Aug. 17, Belcher reviewed a hectic 2015-16. The year was punctuated by headline-making events such as a successful statewide bond campaign that includes $110 million for a replacement science building, a visit from new University of North Carolina President Margaret Spellings, increasing campus activism tied to issues of race and social justice, House Bill 2 and its implications for higher education, leadership transition in WCU’s development and alumni unit, and controversy over a proposed Center for the Study of Free Enterprise, he said.
Belcher spoke at length about WCU’s inclusion as one of three UNC system institutions selected by the General Assembly to participate in the N.C. Promise Tuition Plan, which will reduce out-of-pocket tuition costs for in-state undergraduate students at those three schools to $500 per semester beginning in fall 2018. The plan also will reduce the out-of-pocket tuition costs for undergraduate students from states other than North Carolina to $2,500 per semester at WCU and the other two UNC system schools – the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Elizabeth City State University.
“Let me make this perfectly clear. The N.C. Promise tuition plan is a bold and innovative approach to addressing access and affordability in higher education, and I applaud the General Assembly for tackling what is one of the definitive issues in higher education in our time,” Belcher said.
“I have heard much concern about the fear that N.C. Promise will make WCU look like a ‘cheap’ school and that our reputation will suffer accordingly. Hear me on this. I have no concern about this whatsoever. WCU’s reputation of high academic quality is in great shape and is increasing,” he said. “This rapidly increasing profile as an institution of high academic quality didn’t just happen. You are the people who have built an environment in which our students thrive, made high retention rates reality, nurtured our successes in undergraduate research, and worked with our first-generation, low socio-economic status students and helped them to punch their tickets to promising lives.”
Lower out-of-pocket costs for tuition does not change the actual cost of an education at WCU; the state of North Carolina will cover the difference in what students and parents pay and the actual cost, Belcher said. And lower tuition rates do not mean an open-door admissions policy and, in fact, will increase admission standards and selectivity, he said.
“The impact of N.C. Promise on WCU’s traditional mission is, frankly, what concerns me. However, I am confident that we, thoughtfully and intentionally, can figure it out. WCU started 127 years ago as the Cullowhee Idea to serve the people of Western North Carolina. This is a commitment we cannot and will not abandon,” he said.
The university cannot allow unfounded worries that N.C. Promise will somehow damage WCU’s reputation to derail its longstanding commitment to access and affordability, a commitment now solidified by inclusion in the tuition plan, Belcher said.
“When we have an opportunity to make an excellent four-year university education more affordable and more accessible for more students, do assumed concerns about institutional reputation related to a lower price tag really trump what’s in the best interests of our students? Is cost-related institutional reputation more important than affordability and accessibility for our students?” he asked.
“Who are we? We are a university whose reputation is built not on price tags that may match those of competitors, but on our excellent and dedicated faculty and staff, a superb student experience and steadily increasing student success metrics. If we take care of our students, the university’s reputation will take care of itself,” he said.
Belcher reminded the audience that the General Assembly did take “a much-needed step” in addressing salary increases for state employees through a 1.5 percent across-the-board raise, a 0.5 percent across-the-board bonus and a pool for bonuses averaging 1 percent. He also addressed budget challenges facing the university in the year ahead in the wake of $3 million in reductions to state appropriations because of mandated management flexibility cuts and last year’s failure to hit enrollment targets.
“Unlike prior years, we don’t have the luxury of any enrollment growth dollars to offset the management flex cuts. In addition, the cost of doing business increases each year, and fiscal responsibility compels us to set aside funds for potential reductions next fiscal year. The bottom line is that we have no new monies to allocate for strategic priorities on campus,” he said.
As part of the budget planning process in the spring, campus leaders identified $13.87 million in new budget requests that would help the university meet strategic goals, Belcher said. “The reality is, however, that we cannot fund the vast majority of these. We have tough choices to make,” he said.
It appears likely that WCU will strengthen its fiscal position in the year ahead if trends pointing toward record enrollment for this fall hold true, Belcher said. “This is excellent news, but I reiterate that we cannot take it for granted,” he said.
Belcher also recognized what he termed “the elephant in the room” – his diagnosis with a small brain tumor in the spring, followed by successful surgery to remove it and treatment that is still ongoing.
“Susan and I have been overwhelmed by the support from an army of people who have prayed for us, sent good wishes, emails, cards, words of encouragement and hilarious gifts,” he said. “We have been incredibly loved in and carried through this experience, and we are grateful. Before my diagnosis, I had no idea how many of our faculty, staff and students are dealing or have dealt with cancer themselves, and so many of these have shared their own stories with me, and they have inspired me.”
A complete transcript of the Opening Assembly, including remarks of the chancellor and Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar, appears below.
By Bill Studenc
OPENING ASSEMBLY VIDEO
Video from the event, including remarks shared by Chancellor David Belcher and Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar, is available HERE. The full remarks as delivered vary slightly from the written remarks shared below.
OPENING ASSEMBLY TRANSCRIPTS
Chancellor David Belcher:
Thank you, and welcome back to another academic year of promise at Western Carolina University focused on our students and their success. I trust that you have had a good summer and have found requisite time for rest and renewal.
I love the start of a new academic year. There’s a feeling of renewed energy and excitement in the air. There’s a sense of reunion as we reconnect with colleagues even as we welcome new faculty and staff to our university community. It’s a time when we embrace a new class of students who arrive at Western Carolina with all the hopes, dreams, excitement, anxieties and potential we’ve come to expect. It’s a time to celebrate the accomplishments of last year even as we look toward the potential of the one at hand.
And it’s a time of renewed commitment to our individual roles in creating the requisite learning environments in which our students can thrive. It doesn’t matter what roles we play – whether we facilitate learning in the formal environments of the classroom, lab, studio or through technology; advise and mentor students; help students figure out how to finance their educational pursuits; clean campus facilities; handle carpentry, electrical, plumbing or painting work to maintain our physical plant; advocate on behalf of WCU and UNC priorities with elected officials; maintain emergency management capability; cultivate philanthropic investment and alumni engagement; coordinate residence hall activities; secure internship opportunities for our students; recruit students; coach; maintain IT currency; tell the WCU story; produce reports for General Administration; serve on the Staff and Faculty Senates and the Budget Advisory Council; provide career counseling; or work with intramurals and student organizations…it does not matter – we are all united in this endeavor together, dedicated first and foremost to the educational needs of our students. I do love the start of the academic year.
Let me begin by addressing the elephant in the room – I’m bald! Susan and I have spent the last four months negotiating quite an unexpected journey, and as I shared with you in my recent update, this experience has gone about as well as it could. We really are optimistic.
However, while I intend to get back to routine as quickly as I can, I’m not fully there yet. I don’t have the stamina I had pre-surgery, and I anticipate that my new, 11-month chemo regimen will have hills and valleys. No one wants me back 100 percent more than I do, except perhaps Susan. In the meantime, our terrific leadership team is stepping up to support me to ensure that we don’t skip a beat.
Do let me address my speech challenge – anomic aphasia, difficulty retrieving words, the symptom that prompted my initial concern, which led to diagnosis. My situation has improved significantly. Both my surgeon and our own Nancy Helms-Estabrooks are optimistic. I still struggle at times, particularly later in the day. So, I ask your patience. If you don’t, I’ll put words in your mouth… once I remember them.
Susan and I have been overwhelmed by the support from an army of people who have prayed for us, sent good wishes, emails, cards, words of encouragement, hilarious gifts…like the do-it-yourself brain surgery kit Mary Arbaugh sent me and the emergency brain Vicki Szabo sent with these instructions: open tin, inflate, devise brilliant plan! It has worked ever since. We have been incredibly loved in and carried through this experience, and we are grateful.
Before my diagnosis, I had no idea how many of our faculty, staff and students are dealing or have dealt with cancer themselves, and so many of these have shared their own stories with me, and they have inspired me. I am thankful to them in particular.
Next to the budget update; you might prefer tumor tales – just sayin’.
Last year, you may recall that we were in budget limbo well into the fall semester. Well, one upside of an election year (and we truly do need any upside we can get this year!) is that our elected officials have extra motivation to complete business in a more timely fashion; thus, I am able to provide you more definitive budget information this year.
First, let me address the budget priorities we were able to accomplish last year. Let me remind you, though, that although we received enrollment growth funds from prior years of enrollment increases, we had to hold some of those enrollment growth funds in reserve last year to cover cuts we knew we would endure this year because we failed to meet enrollment projections last fall; effectively then, we had both one-time and recurring enrollment growth funds to allocate – the one-time monies were only available for one year before cutting that allocation. In discussion with my executive team and informed by conversations with the Chancellor’s Leadership Council and the Budget Advisory Council, we strategically allocated one-time funds for one-time purchases and recurring funds to a few critically important or high demand areas. Here are the major things we were able to do last year:
We continued our commitment to “Invest in Our People” by addressing salaries, adding faculty and staff positions in high-need areas, and engaging the issue of diversity at our university.
We implemented the next phase of our long-range salary plan, ensuring that all faculty and staff are up to a minimum of 77.5 percent of the salary labor market rate; creating a $25,500 salary floor; enacting tiered increases for those in the lowest salary bands to address compression; and providing small increases for most employees to make progress toward target market rates. In total, we directed roughly $850,000 toward salary increases. I am proud of our continuing efforts, though modest, to address salary increases. Our people are our most important resource and, as such, recruitment and retention of top talent will continue to top the list of priorities. We will take some time this year to evaluate our salary plan, with specific attention to addressing merit and performance.
I am also pleased that we were able to increase the number of faculty: in chemistry (two term faculty), math (one term faculty), biology (one term faculty), criminal justice (one term faculty), hospitality and tourism (one tenure-track faculty), and social work (one tenure-track faculty).
In addition, we funded critical staff positions: an associate director in Career Services, a budget director for the College of Health and Human Sciences, a director of admissions and a scholarships services director.
And this year we also took a significant step forward in advancing our diversity agenda by welcoming WCU’s first chief diversity 0fficer. Dr. Ricardo Nazario-Colon joined us this summer and has already begun to engage students, faculty and staff in programming and discussions. Ricardo, we are glad you are here and look forward to working with you to ensure WCU is an inclusive and welcoming environment for all.
In connection with our “Invest in our Core Resources” strategic direction, we allocated a significant amount of one-time funds toward our most critical repair and renovation priority, our steam plant, or, as I like to call it, our “steam museum.” We expended $2.1 million to install a temporary boiler to replace the oldest boiler in our steam plant, which died last year and which, incidentally, began service during the Truman administration. I wish that was an exaggeration, but, sadly, it is not. I am happy to report, however, that, with the installation of this new temporary boiler, I can no longer say that our ‘youngest’ boiler dates to the Gerald Ford administration. Next time you see anyone on Terry Riouff’s team at the steam plant, please thank them. They are the unsung heroes, keeping hot water and heat available on campus. In addition this year, we were able to fund some much-needed strategic renovations in Natural Sciences Building and Stillwell research labs ($300,000) and Career Services ($675,000).
To address strategic direction “Garner Support for our Vision,” we made recurring ($100,000) and one-time ($500,000) allocations for marketing initiatives including continued implementation of the new university website, expanded digital marketing strategies, and increased television advertising in Asheville and Charlotte. Robin Oliver and her marketing team have made great progress in expanding our brand.
In support of strategic direction “Fulfilling Our Educational Mission,” we made financial support for students a priority by increasing scholarship dollars ($500,000). Addressing affordability and access will be a continuing priority focus going forward.
We also directed one-time funds to complete some key IT projects, including Phase I of the Telecom Hut ($570,000) and the telephone VOIP implementation ($250,000).
Some of you may have wondered why we have never torn down the old Graham Building between Bird and Moore, which has been vacant for more than 10 years. Well, you may be surprised to know the haunted house-type basement in Graham has hosted for years a vital IT cabinet that has housed one of only two internet fiber lines coming into campus. The Telecom Hut project is the final step in removing all the vital infrastructure from the old Graham Building, which will now allow us to move forward in our plan to demolish that building.
Also, the VOIP, or Voice Over Internet phone project, is the next step in full implementation of our new campus phone system. Our current phone system is woefully outdated and vulnerable to interruption. The new system will be much more stable and flexible allowing for new features and the integration of our ubiquitous mobile phone environment.
And, finally, but unfortunately not sexy, we took care of mandatory increases such as: meeting our 2015-16 recurring legislative reduction, $789,798; fully funding faculty promotion increments, $58,000; fulfilling our commitment to the Cherokee Studies Program, $25,000; increasing utility costs, $98,000; addressing Biltmore Park lease increases, $130,000; and shared services contracts with General Administration, $200,000. We did make real progress toward our strategic priorities last year.
So, what’s in the final state budget for 2016-2017? The good news first. The N.C. General Assembly took a much-needed step in addressing salary increases for state employees. All permanent, full-time faculty and staff will receive a 1.5 percent across-the-board increase to their base salary and a 0.5 percent across-the-board bonus. In addition, we will receive funds for an average 1 percent merit-based bonus.
The N.C. General Assembly also took steps to reinstate the full UNC system’s proportional share of repair and renovation funds, which should mean an increase in WCU’s allocation of R&R funding.
Now, the disappointing budget news. WCU must absorb three significant reductions to our state appropriation in fiscal year 2016-17. First, our portion of the management flex cut to the UNC system mandated by the N.C. General Assembly is $1.15 million (recurring) and $98,000 (one-time). Second, WCU’s base budget will be cut by an additional $1.43 million as a result of not achieving enrollment targets in fall 2015. Third, WCU’s tuition budget will also be reduced by $356,000 as a result of the enrollment decline in 2015. Thus, the total cut to our budget this year is $3.03 million.
So, where does this leave us? Frankly, we find ourselves in a challenging situation. Our failure to hit our enrollment projections last fall resulted in a budget cut this year that was twice as large as we would have experienced otherwise. It also means that, unlike prior years, we don’t have the luxury of any enrollment growth dollars to offset the management flex cuts. In addition, the cost of doing business increases each year, and fiscal responsibility compels us to set aside funds for potential reductions next fiscal year. Bottom line: we have no new monies to allocate for strategic priorities on campus.
I said last year that we cannot take for granted that future enrollment growth is guaranteed, and that warning became painfully real this year.
There is good news: we expect a very healthy enrollment increase, possibly a record, this fall, which should result in enrollment growth funding next year. This is excellent news, but I reiterate that we cannot take it for granted.
So let me share with you our budget imperatives going into this year, with the understanding that we are taking a conservative approach until we understand better our final fall enrollment. The first imperative is pretty obvious: we have to cover the $3.03 million state appropriation reductions – we have no choice.
The second imperative: we have to meet mandatory and inflationary increases – commitments that WCU must fulfill. These include: faculty promotion increments of approximately $85,000; the final commitment of $25,000 to fully fund the Cherokee Studies Program; mandatory utility increases of $52,000; Biltmore Park lease expansion and increases of $50,000; shared services contracts with UNC General Administration of $75,000; and Internet 2 Consortium fees of $19,000.
The third imperative is to address campus budget priorities identified in the spring 2016 budget hearing process, wherever possible, though, as I said earlier, there are no new monies to allocate. Allow me to put the campus budget needs and priorities into perspective for you. In the spring, campus leadership put forward $13.87 million in budget requests, all of which, if funded, would help drive progress toward our strategic goals. The reality is, however, that we cannot fund the vast majority of these. We have tough choices to make.
The budget picture is daunting and uncertain – there’s no question about it. But I am heartened that WCU should strengthen its financial position because of enrollment growth this year, and I thank you for what you are doing to position the university to continue that positive growth.
So, we had something of an interesting legislative season this year. Allow me to discuss briefly several legislative actions that can have a significant and lasting impact on WCU, its budgets and our fundamental mission.
Many of you have followed the developments around the NC GAP legislation, which is designed to redirect students at the low end of our admissions profile to N.C. community colleges for two years before they could enter a UNC system campus. Earlier this year, the UNC system submitted a report on NC GAP to the General Assembly outlining serious concerns about its implementation and effect, and recommending a one-year delay to NC GAP as we study the potential impact. The General Assembly granted that one-year delay.
All of the UNC institutions will be working with the UNC system in support of its conversation with our elected officials. Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar and Vice Chancellor Sam Miller are leading the WCU effort to provide UNC system with information about the potential effect of NC GAP on our students and admissions.
Many of you probably watched with interest the proposal and evolution of the complex piece of legislation that began as Senate Bill 873: The Access to Affordable College Education Act. While the media and others focused almost exclusively on the provision in the bill, now called NC Promise, to lower tuition at several UNC campuses, let me address first some of the other important provisions in the legislation.
First, the legislation initially called for a drastic and devastating reduction in student fees, and we are delighted that the General Assembly eliminated this provision; however, the legislation does limit all UNC campuses to a 3 percent annual cap on student fee increases if the Board of Governors approves such requests. Many details of how this will be implemented are still unknown, but as we enter into the season of requests for tuition and fee increases, we face an environment in which we have far less flexibility to adjust tuition and fees to meet critical campus needs.
Second, the legislation also calls for all campuses in the system to enact a four-year fixed tuition plan for all new undergraduate students, beginning in fall 2017, that will guarantee their tuition will not rise in their four years. As you can imagine, just the sheer administrative challenge of implementing fixed tuition will be massive, including how we budget with flatter revenues while fixed costs continue to climb.
Finally, let me address the legislation’s provision that has been the subject of the greatest discussion, NC Promise. As I begin, let me make this perfectly clear: The NC Promise tuition plan is a bold and innovative approach to addressing access and affordability in higher education, and I applaud the General Assembly for tackling what is one of the definitive issues in higher education in our time. Let me highlight some of the expected outcomes and our very early thoughts on the impact this program will have on WCU.
Here are the bare essentials: The NC Promise program will reduce in-state students’ tuition, beginning in fall 2018, from approximately $2,000 to $500 per semester or from $4,000 to $1,000 per year, an annual drop by $3,000 for tuition. Out-of-state students will also see their tuition bills decrease significantly.
Note: the annual total cost of attendance for a WCU student is approximately $17,000 per year, a figure that includes not just tuition, the target of this legislation, but also includes fees, room, board, books and so forth. The effect for North Carolina students under the NC Promise, then, will be a reduction of the total cost of attendance from $17,000 to $14,000 per year. Still, that decrease will make a difference for WCU students, making a WCU education more affordable, and this will be good for WCU students.
So, what about the potential impact of NC Promise? First, the impact on funding. We were certainly concerned with the earliest iteration of NC Promise inasmuch as it did not provide full funding to offset loss of tuition receipts. That funding was included into later iterations of the legislation and into the budget, which addressed most of our concerns about NC Promise’s impact on our budget.
We do expect, however, that NC Promise will require a new look at how enrollment growth is funded at both the system and campus level, and this is an issue of uncertainty. We will also be diligent about working with system and legislative officials to ensure that WCU does not bear any financial burden in the implementation of NC Promise.
Second, impact on reputation. I have heard much concern about the fear that NC Promise will make WCU look like a “cheap” school and that our reputation will suffer accordingly. Hear me on this: I have no concern about this whatsoever.
A, the cost of an education at WCU will be exactly the same as it is currently. While an in-state student will pay $3,000 less than the total cost of attendance of $17,000, the state will cover that $3,000. The cost of an education at WCU will be exactly the same as it is currently.
B, WCU’s reputation of high academic quality is in great shape and is increasing. And, just for the record, this rapidly increasing profile as an institution of high academic quality didn’t just happen. I think it’s important to trust the people who have orchestrated it. And, that means each person in this hall today. You are the people who have built an environment in which our students thrive, made high retention rates reality, nurtured our successes in undergraduate research, and worked with our first-generation, low socio-economic status students and helped them to punch their tickets to promising lives. Know that I trust you to ensure that our reputation of excellence continues to grow.
C, national surveys of prospective students and their parents indicate that these are their priorities in selecting a university: academic quality (we have that, check); getting a job (check); location (check); curb appeal (check); and price point (check). This is about great value – not how expensive or inexpensive an institution is. Choosing a college is not the same as deciding between a $20 pair of shoes or a $300 pair of shoes, where there exists a direct corollary between quality and price. If it really was that simplistic, everybody would try to go to private institutions where it costs $35,000 or more – way more, in some cases – per year. Choosing a college is about academic quality at affordable costs – both. WCU fills the bill.
And D, we don’t have the capacity to grow by hundreds of additional students in the immediate future, which means that a soaring application pool driven by affordable costs will by necessity drive our selectivity skyward. And, for those who equate selectivity with quality, NC Promise will actually serve to enhance our reputation.
Third: impact on mission. The impact of NC Promise on WCU’s traditional mission is, frankly, what concerns me. However, I am confident that we, thoughtfully and intentionally, can figure it out.
WCU started 127 years ago as the Cullowhee Idea to serve the people of Western North Carolina. This is a commitment we cannot and will not abandon. However, the potential admissions selectivity resulting from NC Promise could, within a context of limited capacity and significantly increasing numbers of applications, hamper fulfillment of our charge and commitment to Western North Carolina.
The good thing is that WCU is in control of its own admissions standards over and above the system’s minimums and, therefore, the solution to this challenge is entirely within our control. I trust that our outstanding admissions team led by Phil Cauley, in collaboration with our faculty and academic support staff, will develop an admissions strategy to ensure that students within our traditional service area who are prepared for the rigors of a Western Carolina University educational experience are assured an opportunity to pursue higher education at an affordable cost.
So, the bottom line is this: There is much we still don’t know about NC Promise, the details of its implementation and its ultimate impact on WCU, but this is an opportunity. You can argue against the process used to create this legislation. You can even argue against the model articulated in the legislation. But you cannot argue that this is a clear issue that must be addressed. We will seize this opportunity to address affordability and access and to raise the bar at WCU, continuing the upward trajectory we have set in recent years.
Before I leave this topic, let me recognize the efforts of my executive team as they led our campus response to this legislation. This group stepped forward at a time when I was dealing with my health challenges in late spring and summer and were instrumental in working with system and elected officials to ensure a number of very necessary additions and modifications to this unexpected legislation. I thank them for their efforts, particularly Melissa Wargo for her yeowoman’s efforts.
UNC system update
In the category of “UNC News and Priorities,” in case you didn’t hear, the UNC system hired a new president last year. It was pretty low key.
Just kidding! I think you would have had to be living under a rock not to have heard that Margaret Spellings was appointed as the new president of UNC. Her first few months on the job were overshadowed by controversies around her appointment and the storm of HB2 quickly followed by a tumultuous legislative session.
There are several things you may have missed among the excessive noise. First, I assure you that President Spellings cares about higher education, cares about students, cares about the unique role and mission of each campus in the UNC system, and cares about the legion of faculty and staff who make this great university system run. I have found her to be extremely engaged, whip smart, trusting in the leadership of campus officials and capable of working both sides of the political aisle.
Second, President Spellings has undertaken a significant and, I think, beneficial reorganization of UNC General Administration. Her overarching goal is to best align system offices to work at a high level in collaboration with and in support of campus activities. To that end, she has consolidated a number of disparate offices into a more coherent whole under the auspices of several focused divisions: Academic Affairs, Strategy and Policy, External Affairs, Finance and Budget, Governance and Legal, and Operations (COO).
As part of this restructuring, she has made two high-profile hires: Andrew Kelly as senior vice president for strategy and policy, and Kevin Howell as senior vice president for external affairs. Both hires are clear signals that she intends to focus her efforts at the strategic level and to build and repair relationships with appointed and elected officials.
Third, President Spellings has made great strides in improving transparency of BOG meetings, offering online streaming and public comment periods, as well as working to elevate the work of the BOG to a higher, strategic level by separating policy discussions from transactional activities.
And, finally, President Spellings has outlined five overarching priorities around which she is working with the BOG to develop a comprehensive strategic plan. Her priorities are: access; affordability and efficiency; student success; excellent and diverse institutions; and economic impact.
The BOG has organized working groups to define and outline key strategies and accompanying metrics for each priority area. Once metrics have been identified, we will have the opportunity to identify appropriate metric targets in alignment with WCU’s mission, as Alison will detail momentarily. The plan is expected to be completed by the new year in time for the next session of the N.C. General Assembly. These five priorities are well-aligned with our 2020 Vision strategic directions and, thus, WCU is in the best possible position to incorporate and advance those priorities at a campus level.
I am truly excited about the potential opportunities President Spellings has outlined for the system, and I look forward to making her a die-hard member of the Catamount Nation.
Last year in review
As we prepare to launch our new academic year, I think it’s important to look back at the year just ended – and what a year it was. Last year was one of big, non-routine issues and events: some anticipated, some unanticipated; some controversial, others not. These included leadership transition in our Development and Alumni Engagement operations – we are thrilled to welcome Lori Lewis, our new vice chancellor for development and alumni engagement – the Volunteer Summit for members of all of our boards and advisory councils, the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise, HB2, the Natural Sciences Building campaign, NC Promise, the search for and onboarding of new UNC President Margaret Spellings, the sudden emergence of campus activism in the spring, and my brain tumor diagnosis. Last year was a challenging year, and I am grateful for your help and engagement in such a heady year (personal pun intended).
Last year was the year WCU attained an all-time high freshman-to-sophomore retention rate of 80 percent. Our university has achieved an 8.50 percentage point increase in our retention rate (71.5 percent to 80 percent) between fall 2011 and fall 2015. While we celebrate the success of our students, acknowledging that our students themselves have a lot to do with the success equation, we know that our university’s faculty and staff play substantial roles in our students’ achievements, and last year’s retention rate is just one of the manifestations of this work. Thank you for what you do for and with our students!
This was the year that WCU placed in the top 10 universities in the nation in terms of the number of undergraduate research projects accepted for presentation at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research. This was WCU’s 11th consecutive year to place in the top 10. WCU students and their faculty mentors have placed our university among the elite higher education institutions in the robust academic arena of undergraduate research.
I wish that every single person here could have attended the May 2016 Board of Governors meeting when Western Carolina University’s own Dr. David Shapiro, the Robert Lee Madison Distinguished Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders, was recognized with the UNC system’s highest faculty award, the O. Max Gardner Award. The award, established through the will of North Carolina Governor O. Max Gardner and presented since 1949, recognizes faculty who have “made the greatest contribution to the welfare of the human race.” It is the only award for which all faculty members across the 17 campuses are eligible. Dr. David Shapiro is a superb faculty member, beloved by students, whose work has had tremendous impact in 30 countries around the world. David, we are extraordinarily proud of and for you.
Can you say new $110 million Natural Sciences Building? The passage of the $2 billion bond referendum in March, which included that $110 million for our pet project, was truly a game-changing moment for WCU. The bond passed with overwhelming public support and affirmed that citizens of our state have confidence in our public university system. We intend to meet their expectations. Allow me to thank the many individuals on campus who worked tirelessly in support of the bond referendum campaign. In particular, I must recognize the tremendous efforts of several people, including Meredith Whitfield, Richard Starnes, Bill Studenc, Melissa Wargo, Alison Morrison-Shetlar and Mike Byers. For three months, these individuals worked non-stop with me as we made dozens and dozens of presentations and hosted countless tours making the case for a new natural sciences building for our university. Frankly, I never knew how many civic organizations existed in Western North Carolina, but I do believe I spoke to all of them. I am extremely excited about this project which will be transformative for our university. And I thank you for your support and advocacy. This was a truly team effort.
This was the year US News and World Report ranked WCU 13th on its list of top public regional universities in the South, 72nd on its list of best online bachelor’s degree programs in the country and 48th on its list of best online non-MBA graduate business programs in the country. This was the year WCU was designated a top school in the Military Advanced Education 2015 Guide to Colleges and Universities, which ranks higher ed institutions regarding best practices in military and veteran education.
This was the second year in a row in which Kiplinger’s included WCU in its top 100 best value public colleges and universities in the nation. We placed number 73 of all public colleges and universities in the nation. This is a particularly important ranking because it incorporates both academic quality and affordability metrics – exactly the items that national surveys of prospective students and their parents identify as among their deciding issues when they are looking to attend a university, as I noted earlier. Even so, academic quality is more heavily weighted than affordability in this listing. Only six of the 17 UNC institutions are among the top 100 on this list: Chapel Hill, State, App, Wilmington, UNC-Asheville and WCU.
This was the year when, once again, Princeton Review ranked WCU one of the best institutions at which to earn an MBA and one of the most environmentally friendly institutions of higher education in North America, and this was the year when WCU again, for the seventh consecutive year, was named to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll.
This has been a year of transformation of our physical plant, including Noble Hall, a mixed-use facility, which includes 420 beds and retail space to serve our campus community. This incredible facility, located on the site of legacy institutions like The Townhouse and Mad Batter, will quickly become the heart of campus again.
Brown Cafeteria is in process of a total transformation as we renovate the facility and construct a 25,000-square-foot addition. The new Brown Hall will accommodate even more students than the current dining hall and will incorporate much of the Student Affairs office space, which is currently located on the bottom floor of Scott Hall; thus, we will be able to recoup Scott space for additional residence hall space to accommodate our growing student population. Brown Hall will reopen for business in early summer 2017.
And we anticipate that construction on the medical office building next to the Health and Human Sciences Building on the West Campus will begin after the holidays.
This was the year WCU continued to build the university’s portfolio of endowed scholarships, attaining a total – so far – of 163 endowed scholarships since I announced in my installation address that increasing our endowed scholarship portfolio would be the primary philanthropic focus of my tenure as chancellor. In addition, WCU experienced an increase in endowed scholarship dollars by 28 percent contributed from the previous fiscal year, totaling $1,968,061. This was the year the accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman pledged a $1 million endowment to support students in Western Carolina’s accounting program. And this was the year Catamount athletics beat its $1,250,000 fundraising goal to support the WCU Athletic Annual Scholarship Fund, coming in at $1,344,000, a figure that represents a nearly 300 percent increase in the annual scholarship fund in just the last five years.
This is the year WCU was named Best Outdoor Adventure College in Southeast/Mid-Atlantic for the third consecutive year in a poll conducted by Blue Ridge Outdoor Magazine. This was the year when men’s indoor track and field, men’s outdoor track and field, women’s outdoor track and field, and baseball all won SoCon titles. 2015-2016 was a dynamic, sometime dramatic, and great year for Western Carolina University.
The year ahead
The year ahead has plenty of opportunities of its own, and Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar and I want to take a few minutes to give you a preview of some of its key priorities. Before I turn the podium over to Alison, I want to address one of our most critical priorities this year.
As many of you know, WCU’s 10-year reaffirmation accreditation reaches its conclusion this academic year. Alison will provide additional information on our accreditation by the SACS Commission on Colleges momentarily, but I’d like to share just a few thoughts and recognition.
First, the compliance certification, a review and evaluation of WCU’s performance relative to a set of standard principles of accreditation, is almost complete and ready to be submitted to SACS COC.
Second, the development of our next Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) is well underway. The topic has been chosen by the WCU community with broad-based input, and builds solidly on the success of our prior QEP in enhancing student learning. The plan will be further refined over the next five to six months. Be on the lookout for campus communication around the QEP in the next few months, and please be engaged in the opportunities offered to our community to shape our QEP.
This accreditation reaffirmation process is an enormous undertaking, and I’d like to recognize the leadership of Dr. Arthur Salido as SACS director, and the efforts of Dr. Mike Smith, Dr. Tonya Westbrook, Dr. Carmen Huffman and the many individuals in our campus community who have worked tirelessly to ensure that we meet and exceed the required accreditation standards. Join me in thanking them.
Over to you, Alison.
Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar:
Last year was a terrific year for WCU, and we anticipate great things in this coming year as we continue to deepen and strengthen our commitment to our university, our community and our region.
This is every one’s responsibility. So I will be challenging us with questions and hope that you will step forward and join the campus conversations that will move us forward as an institution.
SACS COC and QEP
This is the year of our 10-year reaffirmation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, or SACS COC.
It is a year in which we have an opportunity to develop a 10-year strategy that will enhance student learning through the Quality Enhancement Plan, or QEP.
The campus voted on a theme for the QEP almost one year ago. A committee of more than 30 people representing students, faculty, staff and alumni worked over the course of the year to further develop the theme by weaving together the selected idea with the best components from other proposed QEP topics to complement and expand upon WCU’s strengths and original synthesis QEP. The new name for the QEP is “Degree Plus,” a name coined by Vicki Sabo, professor of history, in a recent brainstorming session of the QEP committee.
Ideas to further develop the focus on intentional learning have been cultivated through surveys, consultations with faculty, staff, students, department heads, administrative councils, Faculty and Staff Senate, and open campus forums.
Studies have shown that when students are more involved, they are more academically successful and retained at a higher rate. The Quality Enhancement Plan is centered on student involvement across campus and beyond. These experiences provide a holistic approach for students to develop skills, such as teamwork, leadership and professionalism. They will complement and reinforce what students are learning in the classroom, and relate these opportunities for professional growth and development.
What will the QEP outcomes look like to the students, graduate and professional schools, and employers? It will result in an experiential transcript that outlines their activities, sorted by skill categories. It will provide opportunities for reflection on their experiences and their educational and career goals.
So how will the campus continue to be involved? There will be continued communication through emails, the “Degree Plus” website and campus forums.
Faculty and staff are now designing pilot programs for implementation – those pilot programs include the Honors College, the Academic Success Program and the Office of Leadership within the Department of Campus Activities. Carmen Huffman, associate professor of chemistry, is our chair of the Degree Plus committee and is happy to answer questions.
Our goal must be that each of our students is the first choice of a graduate school or employment for any position they seek. Our students will be well prepared for success and to represent WCU after graduation because of their abilities to be problem solvers and critical thinkers with the breadth of the liberal studies complementing the depth of their discipline.
Our SACS COC compliance certification, to which so many of you have contributed countless hours of research, writing, editing and reviewing, is due by Sept. 12—it is the culmination of an ongoing commitment to quality and our more concentrated efforts over the past three years. Thank you to all of you for your commitment to the success of our accreditation visit. We will host an external team in April 2017.
Diversity and inclusion
Now let us move to our next strategic direction – diversity and inclusion. Prior to our search for a chief diversity officer, I engaged in nine months of data gathering, with extensive faculty, staff and student involvement.
Among the outcomes: a list of many of the diversity and inclusion initiatives already underway at WCU and an outline of the desired characteristics of the chief diversity officer position.
We found the right person to lead us forward. Please welcome our new chief diversity officer, Ricardo Nazario-Colon (recently from Morehead State University). He is a former Marine, a poet and a college cross country runner. Ricardo, we are so glad that you are here.
Ricardo is now working on what he calls “The Four Imperatives” – navigating community, the total college experience, a military friendly university, and LGBTQ community – all areas that align with the 2020 Vision.
On the subject of navigating community falls our national conversations. Who is having these conversations on our campus? What are these conversations? Why is it important to have them?
Some of the initiatives already underway are:
Leadership of the Faculty and Staff Senate and SGA have stepped forward to develop a task force on racism led by Kathleen Brennan, department head in anthropology and sociology. We will be convening a speaker series with the first speaker being Tim Wise, an anti-racism activist. We will be continuing our series of campus conversations and brown bag lunches that focus on civil discourse around a wide array of topics that are important to our communities on and off campus. Unity Fest will be held next Tuesday hosted by Intercultural Affairs.
We are responding to gender salary inequities by evaluating salaries twice a year and reporting out the changes that have been made in our units. In Academic Affairs, you will find this information on the gender equality section of the provost’s website, in our annual report to the BOT and in Faculty Senate reports.
We are all responsible for having and participating in these conversations. This is not only Ricardo’s job, this is all of us working together – the whole campus and the surrounding community.
In terms of the total college experience, we must empower students to be engaged in their learning experience, provide opportunities for them to not just be consumers of knowledge but rather producers, discoverers and contributors.
So, we must ask ourselves these questions: in the total college experience, what is the role of accreditation and the QEP? What is the role of our unit’s strategic plans and other operational processes? What skills do newly minted WCU alumni possess and are they regionally, nationally and globally work ready?
I challenge us to work across the units on campus to ensure that we provide a holistic student experience. Empowerment to learn, grow and develop is what WCU is all about!
On the subject of military friendly, we must support an awareness of the transition from the intensity of military life to a more self-sufficient civilian life. Nationwide, many of our veterans feel disoriented and deeply alienated on a university campus. They may be devastated over the loss of military brothers and sisters. Transitioning back to the civilian world may be a new and difficult experience.
We need not to single these students out but rather support them to successfully navigate our institution. We thank them for their service and leadership.
Our commitment to our LGBTQ community is a commitment to success for all. We must ensure that all of our students, faculty and staff achieve their dreams and goals and get the most out of the WCU experience.
Are we ready to help LGBTQ students navigate their challenges? Are we cognizant of gender identity and how that affects the daily lives of our students? Are we prepared to support a holistic experience for all? We need to ask ourselves, “How am I supporting our LGBTQ community, inclusive of students, faculty and staff?”
Please step forward. Each of us should take responsibility for making our campus a welcoming place for all of our students, staff and faculty. There will be plenty of opportunity for you to become involved. I challenge you to make a difference on our campus!
The chancellor has talked about the process of the development of the UNC strategic plan and the five UNC strategic initiatives – they all are about the success of our student, their families and the region in which we live, work and play. This is our mission at WCU and our value.
I have said many times over the last three years that the student experience starts on the website, the admissions process, the first visit to campus where the work of the grounds keepers is seen, the police, the housekeepers, the staff, the faculty, the administration across all of our units. We are all in this together, each with our own responsibilities and contributions.
What makes WCU unique among its sister institutions? It is up to us to determine the metrics against which we will be assessed by the students, their families and UNC General Administration and Board of Governors. What does success look like to us and how do we demonstrate and communicate that?
The first strategic initiative is access. This relates to the diversity of the programs that we offer students to support student success, the processes that we have in place to support admission of our students, the welcoming nature of our campus for all.
We have online programs that reach out to students who are working – criminal justice, emergency disaster management, emergency medical care, birth-to-kindergarten education, master’s degree in sport management, business administration and law to name just a few.
We have programs for military students, and a first-generation initiative with enhanced support for first-generation students, wards of the state, those that don’t have the support system in place to be successful. It is our responsibility to help those students to succeed.
We have the Jamaican program – student credit hour-generating programs and contract programs through educational outreach brings access to a diversity of students.
We have the part-way home initiative to encourage those who have nearly completed a degree, but stopped out for some reason, to return to WCU and complete their degree, feel pride in what they have accomplished and get the support they need for their career development
As part of our summer programs, faculty from the College of Engineering and Technology have brought students to WCU who have struggled with math but wish to succeed. Some have stayed in their chosen discipline; some have sought other options – but most have stayed at WCU – which is our goal.
And now we have NC Promise, which provides additional opportunity for access for our region.
Under the strategic initiative of affordability and efficiency, we are focusing programs through program and curricular review. This has occurred this year in history, philosophy and religion, biology academic and co-curricular programs to name just a few. We offer certificates, such as in art entrepreneurship, that could lead to members of our external community taking courses and programs that enhance their opportunities to be successful in our region.
We continue to seek scholarships in our comprehensive campaign. We will focus on talent development and time to graduation. And again, NC Promise will help with affordability for those that “finish in four.”
This summer, we saw greater use of our facilities for academic programs that recruit and retain our students. Larger numbers of student were involved in summer learning communities, summer undergraduate research, and other student success programs such as Catamount Gap and the Academic Success Program.
We have done a tremendous amount to move more workflows online and reduce redundancy while keeping everyone informed. We still have a long way to go, and there will always be more continuous improvement to be made!
Economic impact is another strategic initiative. You may recall from recent economic impact studies by our own faculty and by the state that the state of North Carolina reaped an economic benefit from the existence of Western Carolina University to the tune of $901.8 million in 2012-13 through the combined impact of payroll, operational, construction and research expenditures by the university and the spending habits of its students, faculty and staff, visitors and alumni.
For every dollar students invest in their educations, they will receive $2.90 in higher future income. And for each dollar that society spent on education at WCU in the year analyzed, North Carolina received a cumulative value of $10.60 in benefits such as savings related to lower unemployment and increased health and well-being across the state.
So what makes WCU different? What are we doing to further support the economic impact that WCU makes on our region? We have the Corporation for Entrepreneurship and Innovation that supports small business development and success; the Rapid Prototyping Center, which supports local industries and the medical fields; and our pro-bono clinics that improve the health of our community.
These programs are all run by WCU faculty, staff and students who are partnering with the local community to benefit our region.
The fourth priority is student success, WCU is known and recognized as a leader in high-impact practices and a holistic approach to student success.
Through faculty and staff leadership, we will continue to incorporate high-impact practices into the student experience. High-impact practices such as undergraduate research, service learning, international experiences, writing intensive courses and capstone projects support our students at WCU to be prepared to be global citizens and contributing members of their local communities and beyond.
We are growing the number and scope of learning communities in both summer session and the regular term and continuing the One Book common reading experience.
Don’t forget about our 80 percent retention rate from last year. We hit our goal five years ahead of schedule!
These activities enrich the total student experience and better prepare our students for the life experiences that await them after college.
This makes us distinctive!
Finally, there is recognition that all of the institutions within the UNC system are excellent and different, that we all have different missions, that we all contribute in different ways to educating the citizens of North Carolina and beyond.
We provide high-quality education. We provide a holistic student experience. We serve our region through our high-quality programs.
We have a close relationship with the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee Center is a unique bridge providing a strong EBCI/WCU partnership.
We are expanding talent development in the community – for example, a certiﬁcate in innovative management involving 28 physicians from Mission Hospital.
We will deepen relationships with regional partners to provide valuable networking, work experience, internships and practicum opportunities for our students, including those on pre-professional tracks.
These are just a few of the things that make us distinctive from other UNC institutions. It is up to us to determine what we want to be known for and what metrics should be used to determine whether we are successful in meeting our mission.
Everything that we do is connected. The success of our students, faculty and staff is dependent on us working together. Thank you for all that you do and are doing to do to support recruitment, retention, student success and graduation. We cannot do it in isolation; we work together toward success for WCU.
Thank you! Go Cats! Now, back to Chancellor Belcher.
Chancellor David Belcher:
Allow me to briefly mention three other priorities among many others. First, we will continue to build legislative relationships. As you may be aware, 20 percent of North Carolina’s population now resides in just two of the state’s 100 counties: Mecklenburg (Charlotte) and Wake (Raleigh). That means that 20 percent (one-fifth) – of all elected officials in the General Assembly will essentially hail from those two counties. Further, as urban portions of the state outpace more rural areas in population growth, rural areas will continue losing representation in the General Assembly. It is essential that we build a profile among decision-makers from across the state, particularly among Senate and House leadership and particularly in light of Senator Tom Apodaca’s decision to leave the Senate. He has not just been a powerful advocate for his alma mater, WCU, but for the entire western part of the state.
Second, we will pursue critical physical plant projects. We must continue our program to upgrade classroom environments. It is great to have a new Health and Human Sciences Building and a new Natural Sciences Building on the horizon, but there are many classroom facilities that are in great need. Several years ago, we allocated permanent funding to tackle a classroom renovation or two per year. We will continue this ongoing project and strategize how we can expand it.
Concerning residence halls, there was a period of 30 years in our past in which WCU added no new residence halls nor undertook any significant residence halls renovation – 30 years without attention. During Chancellor Bardo’s tenure, the university began a significant enhancement of our residence hall inventory, renovating Harrill, while building the Village, Norton, Balsam, Blue Ridge and Central.
We have, however, six residence halls that need either some serious love or to be put out of their and our misery: Buchanan, Albright-Benton, Scott, Walker, Robertson and Reynolds. We must address these challenges we are facing, and sooner rather than later. We are nearing the completion of a comprehensive review of the status of the six, a review that will guide us in planning for either renovation or replacement and in which order.
Finally, we will position Western Carolina University to successfully implement NC Promise, as I mentioned earlier. It will indeed be another rich and full year.
The first eight months of 2016 have been challenging personally for me, to say the least. My father passed away in January and then my tumor diagnosis in April turned everything upside down. My local doctor told Susan that my diagnosis would change my perspective, and he was right.
There’s nothing quite like facing your own mortality. It is sobering. How long do I have – a couple of years, or 35? However, in what I might call unemotional clarity, I recognized that I have never had a guarantee of another day; it’s just that my tumor made me/helped me see this clearly. So, my question for myself has become: what will I do with the time I have left? And for me, the natural follow-up question is this: if I only have limited time, which do I do: What is important, or what is not? Honestly asking this rhetorical question will change anyone; it did me.
So, Susan and I, intrepid travelers, took a pretty loose list of places we wanted to visit and redesigned it into a bona fide, prioritized “Travel Bucket List,” divided into three tier groups. I have started practicing the piano consistently again, something I have abandoned for several years but which brings me joy. I have committed to Susan that we will periodically take a three-day weekend to get away from our relentless schedule. If I only have limited time, this is the important stuff.
So, what’s the important stuff for me in my role as chancellor? I can’t do every good, possible thing I’d like to do; I never could, but the health path that has been placed underneath my feet has made this fact a clear reality. If I only have limited time and, for the short-term, limited energy, what is most important for me to do for WCU? As I see matters at this moment, I must build relationships with elected officials; court philanthropic investment; invest time and energy interfacing with the Spellings administration in order to ensure that WCU is effective in integrating the system’s strategic priorities; ensure WCU’s successful implementation of NC Promise; and maintain relationships with faculty, staff and students. This is the important stuff for me and for WCU at this moment. Priorities may shift over time – travel bucket list, not so much.
And my thoughts have turned to our university. What’s the important stuff for Western Carolina University? The university will be here long after you and I are here, but shouldn’t we still turn our attention to the important stuff?
There are big questions and lots of important stuff, but there is one critical question that I think necessitates our regular contemplation and specifically now as we figure out our new NC Promise context.
That question? Who are we? Yep, it’s a sort of meaning of life question. Who are we at Western Carolina University? This spring and summer, the emergence of the NC Promise legislation prompted a number of conversations about related concerns and questions.
Let me say, I have no problem with disagreements with this legislation or with my optimistic perspective of this legislation. Indeed, I had my own concerns with earlier versions of the bill. But it doesn’t bother me if people disagree with me or this legislation.
But one of the concerns for some, institutional reputation, put a fundamental issue in stark relief for me. The concern was that being a NC Promise institution would harm our institutional reputation because it might be considered a “cheap” school.
Now, I’m thrilled that our Catamount community is proud of our university and wants our reputation to be strong. It is and it will be. And, of course, as chancellor, I want Western Carolina’s reputation to be as strong it can be for all kinds of reasons, including as I make our case to legislators, donors, alumni, prospective students and their parents.
But when we have an opportunity to make an excellent, four-year, university education more affordable and more accessible for more students, do assumed concerns about institutional reputation related to a lower price tag really trump what’s in the best interests of our students? Is cost-related institutional reputation more important than affordability and accessibility for our students?
Who are we? Last year, 2015-16, 42 percent of our Western Carolina University students were Pell Grant eligible, a clear indicator of significant financial stress. Yet, last year, Western Carolina University students took out more than $63 million in loans for a single year of college at Western. WCU is one of the most affordable colleges and universities in the country, but that doesn’t matter to these students. They still can’t afford to attend WCU. Is cost-related institutional reputation more important than these students’ ability to go to college without shouldering punishing debt?
Who are we? Here’s who we are:
We are a university 42 percent of whose students are eligible for Pell funding and yet which has achieved an 80 percent retention rate. We have rankings in US News and Kiplinger’s and Princeton Review. We have David Shapiro and an extraordinary faculty and staff whom he represents. We have 11 years of NCUR success. And we have a history of graduating thousands and thousands of proud alumni who have taken their places in productive lives, who have been the building blocks of their families, their communities and our economy.
Who are we? We are a university whose reputation is built not on price tags that may match those of competitors, but on our excellent and dedicated faculty and staff, a superb student experience and steadily increasing student success metrics. If we take care of our students, the university’s reputation will take care of itself.
Who. Are. We. David Shapiro’s response to the Board of Governors when presented with the O. Max Gardner Award in May was an eloquent statement, which included an inspired portrayal of Western Carolina University and the work we do here.
He said: “It is difficult to capture nearly four decades of excitement into a few minutes. Indeed, I have had guiding lights. One such light is WCU, where dreams are visualized and realized. The students, the best and the brightest, some of whom may not have competitive dossiers, some of whom represent the first in their family to go to college, come to a place that is inspired. With the able support of faculty and staff, they leave campus among the world’s best leaders. Faculty have similar advantage. At WCU, there is a degree of freedom to thrive and to become. For me, WCU represents the American Dream: You come as raw material, you work hard, you serve your community, you commit to learning and growing, and you prosper.”
Who are we? I think David captured it best.
This is the important stuff and we must keep our focus there. This is who we are. There is no work more worthy than ours. We at Western Carolina University are in the business of changing lives, and with your passion and commitment, your living belief in our common purpose and mission, and your focus on our students and their promise, there is no telling what we will do. Welcome home!