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The last SWOT was prepared by a university strategic planning group for 2009-2010, and now is somewhat outdated, said Melissa C. Wargo, WCU assistant vice chancellor for institutional planning and effectiveness.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.
Planning assumptions for the WCU strategic plan
• 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.
Community hearings for WCU strategic plan
• 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.