Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats Focus Area
The university’s location in the mountains and the surrounding natural environment were seen as true strengths/opportunities for the institution. However, the rural location also presents challenges. Students have to drive to Asheville for shopping, dining, and entertainment, if they have transportation. Many students don’t have vehicles and there isn’t much available within walking distance of Cullowhee. Cullowhee is a small, caring community, but there isn’t really a “town” to offer services to students. Looking at Sylva and Dillsboro, there is a need to build a (relationship) bridge between the university and the towns. WCU has done a poor job uniting with the town of Sylva and hasn’t used the right approach when communicating to the town and its merchants. It was also stated that the towns and Jackson County merchants could do a better job of displaying more WCU spirit. For example, Wal-Mart only features WCU apparel in the fall (during opening of semester & homecoming). Tourism traffic and business is significant to the local community, but the average tourist travelling on the highway or through town would not even know that there is a major university close by. One of the largest tourist attractions in western N.C. is Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and there is no indication on the highway about WCU. WCU is also missing the opportunity to get the word out about the university in some obvious places.
WCU is not only in Cullowhee. We have significant programs and further opportunities in Asheville, Hendersonville, and Hickory. Programs in these areas need to be expanded and the university needs to establish a centralized campus in Asheville to service/provide all its programs in this area. Currently, WCU remote programs and services are spread out in several locations; there isn’t an identifiable place that is “WCU.” Locating the campus within the Asheville city limits (not necessarily downtown) was considered important in making it accessible to the students who would use it. A suggestion that came out of this discussion was for WCU to offer transportation to and from Asheville and Hendersonville. The WCU buses/vans could have advertising on the side, and they could be equipped with wireless internet access so the students could do their homework while commuting; faculty and staff may choose to use the transportation, also.
The focus on student engagement and service learning was viewed as a positive, with
opportunities to give students real world experiences while in school, and benefiting
the wider community. The university needs to insure a global focus and job readiness
in its programs and service learning opportunities. Smaller class sizes are important,
but the university needs to look at how classes are scheduled and at how they are
offered. Class scheduling seems to be based
more on faculty preferences than what is best for or needed by the students. Credit and continuing education classes need to be offered at night and possibly on Saturdays. Distance education course offerings need to be increased with the adult community in mind. WCU does a poor job serving adult learners. Take in consideration that most adults work Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 pm and it is difficult to attend classes during the day. WCU is the only school in the area to offer certain programs. Students will commute from Asheville and Hendersonville for the programs. Working students are also interested in having online options for some or all of their classes. It is difficult to work and complete their degrees when they don’t have the option to take online classes. Some of our programs that offer online classes will not let residential students take the classes, e.g., Criminal Justice. There needs to be more flexibility to accommodate the students’ needs.
One barrier to WCU reaching its goals is the financial/economic constraints and funding model it must operate under. State budgets have been cut, staffing has been cut, and without ongoing enrollment growth the university is limited in what it can do. The WCU alumni need to give back to the university and the community. WCU needs to improve relationships with the local towns and communities in order to better support our students and our overall service goals. There doesn’t seem to be anyone in charge of doing this. Within the university, there is a need for better ways to communicate with students. Athletics and Recruitment seem to have processes/resources to do this, but not all areas and not in a coordinated way.
Priorities and Vision Focus Area
Student retention and faculty recruitment/retention need to be primary priorities. This is the basis for our funding, our credibility, and the institution’s focus of educating N.C. citizens. WCU needs to identify other resources rather than relying predominantly on state funds, but don’t forget that WCU is a public institution here to serve the state. One suggestion was to look at ways to share the work across departments. All departments have different “busy times.” Staff could be cross trained both within departments and across campus to help in other areas of the university. For example, when the admissions recruitment effort slows down, maybe they could help with the registrar’s office or one stop, and vice versa.
The strategic plan needs to not only say where WCU is going to grow, but how it plans to grow and the resources required. The university needs to increase/improve its image and reputation. There needs to be a WCU identity or niche. One suggestion that seemed to resonate with most of the group was to define WCU as a “Southern Appalachian University,” with the southern traits of welcome and hospitality, community and service to each other, friendly and engaged.
There needs to be a focus on supporting the students once they are here and helping them to be successful. A suggestion was to create a checklist to follow the student through his or her college career, making sure they are meeting all the goals they need to succeed. Continue to support student engagement and the great opportunities. Work within our community and surrounding communities to provide information on how our students can help the community as well as gain real world experiences. They can serve but they also receive, in many different ways. Relay to students the importance of philanthropy on their education. Make them aware that donors help support their education.
Faculty and students are here to teach, learn, do research, and provide service. In order for them to do that, the university needs staff and administrators taking care of the resources and facilities needed to make it possible. The example was given of the new Health and Human Science Building being constructed on the Millennial Campus property. Before the building is even open for operations, the state has cut the monies available to keep it operating and maintained. A project that size should have the resources needed to make it successful in all aspects; doing less is not fair to the faculty, students and community members who will rely on it and not fair to the staff who have to struggle to do their jobs without the resources they need.
WCU needs a more positive relationship with Sylva (and Dillsboro). There needs to be a WCU point person on campus who bridges the relationship with the towns and their merchants. This point person should actively visit community leaders and merchants, making sure they know what is happening at WCU, encourage (and support) their participation, and listen to their needs. One suggestion was to host WCU receptions at downtown restaurants following home games, involving the campus, alumni, students, and community. The Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center needs to expand its marketing and reach more people. Look at the types of shows and entertainment offered, also. The Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin, N.C. was discussed as a comparable venue and how much more successful they appear to be. Someone should study how WCU’s performing arts center can be more successful; it has great potential.
WCU in the Region Focus Area
There needs to be a balance when serving the region and the admissions rules/standards. WCU needs to offer the tools to help support potential students in the local region so they can increase their GPA and SAT scores and be admitted under the new guidelines for admissions. WCU needs to work closely with the community colleges to find out what students they are teaching and be ready to accept them as transfer students. If WCU makes the decision to serve the students and community, we need to ensure that the process is thorough and addresses their needs.
The attendees, all WCU staff, were very appreciative of the opportunity to have their thoughts shared with the planning committee. The 2020 Commission is a large group, but the staff membership seems small. The Staff Conversation meetings and the option to submit comments online were good decisions. They want their input relayed to our campus leadership to inform them about the direction they would like to see the university go.