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WCU chancellor finalist withdraws from consideration

Western Carolina University will have to wait a little longer to welcome a new chancellor to Cullowhee following a July 16 announcement from the University of North Carolina Board of Governors. 

According to a statement from Board Chairman Harry Smith, the candidate that UNC President Margaret Spellings recommended for the job withdrew from consideration. Rather than consider hiring one of the other two candidates endorsed by the WCU Board of Trustees, the Board of Governors will “complete an expedited review of the chancellor search process in an effort to refine and improve it,” Smith wrote. 

“The board is committed to working with the President and the Boards of Trustees to identify the most capable and talented candidates to lead our remarkable institutions — and modifications to the chancellor search process will do just that. Together, we are working to move our institutions — and the system — forward,” Smith wrote. 

That process is expected to be complete in September. In her charge to the WCU Chancellor Search Committee in January, Spellings set the goal of having a new chancellor in place by August. 

The search committee was formed in December 2017 after Chancellor David O. Belcher, who passed away in June, announced that he would go on medical leave due to an ongoing battle with brain cancer. The 21-member committee included faculty, staff, community members and representatives from the WCU Board of Trustees and UNC Board of Governors. 

The search process included multiple community meetings to receive input on what various stakeholders in the university community wanted to see in a new chancellor. The committee then developed a document describing the kind of person it was looking for and began to receive applications. Top candidates received in-person interviews and campus visits, with the search committee whittling the field down to three. Trustees endorsed those three candidates during a June 1 meeting, sending the names to Spellings, who, according to the search process outlined in January, would make her pick and send it to the Board of Governors for final approval. 

However, the board did not grant that approval. 

According to a July 13 story from Carolina Journal, the board went into closed session during its July 12 meeting to discuss the nominee Spellings put forth. 

“The meeting went on behind closed doors for more than two hours,” the article says. “Carolina Journal was stationed outside the boardroom in the lobby of the UNC System offices and heard raised voices coming from inside the meeting room.”

Board members did not vote on the nominee, and that person — whose name was not disclosed publicly — ultimately withdrew from consideration. 

“Certainly, this is not the outcome we had hoped for, but Western Carolina University remains strong and well-positioned to continue to make great progress. We look forward to working with the WCU Board of Trustees, the UNC Board of Governors, President Margaret Spellings and the WCU campus community to ensure a successful search for our next chancellor,” said a joint statement from Patricia Kaemmerling and Bryant Kinney, who are chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Board of Trustees and co-chairs of the chancellor search committee. 

“I’m disheartened that we did what we were supposed to do. We followed the guidelines that were supposed to have been in place, and the Board of Governors I would say didn’t uphold their end of what was agreed to,” added Leroy Kauffman, a WCU professor of accounting who has been involved with the Faculty Senate for many of his 24 years at the university. 

Smith is new in his position as Board of Governors Chair. His term began July 1, when he replaced former chairman Lou Bissette, a former Asheville mayor who had led the board since late 2015. The decision to revamp the chancellor search process coincided with the beginning of Smith’s leadership. The University of North Carolina Asheville also recently found itself with a vacancy in the chancellor’s office and followed a similar process to the one used at WCU. During its June 1 meeting the Board of Governors opted to confirm the nominee Spellings forwarded. 

Kauffman said that many faculty and staff members would like to see a more open search process, as the one typically used in North Carolina is closed up until the final candidate is confirmed. However, the same process was used to select Belcher, and “nobody would have a problem with the fact that we got David Belcher,” Kauffman said.

“The unfortunate result of the search is symptomatic of a very bad state process, mandated by the UNC Board of Governors, that does not allow the finalists to be properly interviewed and vetted during on-campus visits. The position of Chancellor is crucial to the university and the surrounding community, and that position and the search are paid for by N.C. taxpayers. However, most constituents on and off campus are cut out of the process. We are paying for the most important position at a public university, and yet we have no direct knowledge or input regarding the candidates. Also, we are at the mercy of a highly paid search firm because of the complete lack of transparency. Finally, the finalists have no skin in the game. Because the process is secret, finalists can choose to withdraw as they wish. While the process is very lucrative for a search firm, it does not serve the citizens of North Carolina. I am very pleased that the new Chair of the Board of Governors is evaluating the process. I hope that the Board of Governors will return to a more open process — what we used to have here and what is normal practice in many other states,” Brian Railsback, Faculty Senate Chair Emeritus, said in an emailed statement.

Alison Morrison-Shetlar, who was provost under Belcher’s administration and became acting chancellor when he left, will continue leading the university in the interim, though she has stated publicly she will not seek the permanent position. Carol Burton will continue in her role as acting provost. 

“I would echo the confidence in Alison Morrison-Shetlar — in her leadership and the people she has in place to surround her,” Kauffman said. “We’re in good hands from that perspective. The challenge is it’s just unsettled. They’re interim. We know they’re not going to be here long-term. It’s just that sense of what’s the long-term scenario going to look like.”

A list of questions sent to the UNC System media relations office about this situation and decision to revamp the entire search process was not returned by press time. Questions included why the board didn’t look at one of the other two candidates selected by the search committee when the first choice withdrew, and what specifically was lacking in the existing search process.

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