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By David Belcher • Guest columnist

I had the privilege of presiding over Western Carolina University’s Dec. 16 commencement ceremonies and witnessing the great emotion and sense of accomplishment among the graduates. A point of pride at this December’s commencement was that nearly half of the fall graduating class hails from the 18 westernmost counties of our state, a reflection of WCU’s impact on Western North Carolina.

There is no bigger highlight in the university calendar than commencement day. Commencement signifies WCU’s ultimate purpose and the fulfillment of our fundamental responsibility: the education of our citizens across a broad spectrum of disciplines for thoughtful, productive leadership in our society.

When rain finally quelled the wildfires running rampant through the Southeastern U.S. last year, the public was breathing a collective sigh of relief while the scientific community spotted an opportunity. Fall 2016 was a wildfire event unlike anything seen in recent history — in the eastern part of the country, at least — and the blazes left behind a natural laboratory to study what happens on a burned landscape once the flames fade.

“It’s a unique opportunity, because the forested areas — especially the high northern hardwoods areas — burn very infrequently,” said Sarah Workman, associate director of the Highlands Biological Station.

After years of steady upward progress, the freshman-to-sophomore retention rate at Western Carolina University dipped slightly for students who enrolled as first-time, full-time freshmen in fall 2016.

When Chancellor David Belcher asked Sam Miller, Western Carolina University’s vice chancellor for students success, to tell the Board of Trustees about Western’s “terrifyingly good enrollment activity,” he was only half kidding about the word “terrifying” — but he was completely serious about the word “good.”

Business as usual was a difficult thing to achieve at the Western Carolina University Board of Trustees meeting Friday, Dec. 1.

The black glass Liston B. Ramsey Regional Activity Center is an iconic structure on the Western Carolina University campus, but it will soon have a much different look following the WCU Board of Trustees’ Dec. 1 endorsement of a $3.9 million project.

A unanimous vote from the Jackson County commissioners will allow construction of a 185-foot radio tower in Cullowhee to move forward, but the decision came after vocal opposition from six of the seven county residents who spoke at a 3 p.m. public hearing on Monday, Nov. 27.

After battling brain cancer since April 2016, Western Carolina University Chancellor David O. Belcher announced Nov. 27 that his treatment is no longer working. He will go on medical leave and does not expect to return to his position.

What began as an effort to give Western Carolina University’s campus radio station broader coverage could end with construction of a 185-foot tower capable of expanding coverage for emergency communications, broadband and cell service in the Cullowhee area.

It’s hard to find a place inside Western Carolina University’s Catamount School that isn’t buzzing with activity.

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