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.
Five “guiding principles” for WCU:
• 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.
David Belcher’s promises for WCU:
• 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.