Central Drive Hall at Western

Larry Robbs (right) president of Walter, Robbs, Callahan, & Pierce architects of Winston-Salem looks over the newly completed Central Drive Hall at
Western with associate facilities director Tim Chapman
(center) and Clay Wiser, superintendent for general contractor American South (left).

CULLOWHEE – With 1,600 new first-year students expected to hit campus in August, Western Carolina University is looking at another record-shattering fall semester, part of an enrollment surge that includes a nearly 31 percent rise in the size of the freshman class since 2002.

Just two years after Western's total student enrollment topped the 7,000 mark for the first time in the institution's history, the university stands poised to welcome about 8,100 students this fall – a 15 percent increase in overall enrollment in just two years.

Unlike last August, when university officials were scrambling to find space to house last year's record student body, this year finds two new campus housing facilities coming on line, providing more than 550 additional beds for 2004.

“The paint on the exterior walls may still be drying, and the grass in the front yard may just be starting to grow when the students arrive, but the new Central Drive Hall and the Village complex will be ready for occupancy come move-in day,” said Keith Corzine, director of residential living. In addition to the on-campus housing, privately owned off-campus apartment complexes are popping up all around Cullowhee.

New university housing is just one part of an unprecedented boom of construction and renovation at Western. Changes coming for fall include the massive Fine and Performing Arts Center, a $30 million showplace for the arts that is nearing completion; a tennis/soccer/track complex rising along Cullowhee Creek; state-of-the-art digital recording and television studios featuring the same type of equipment used to broadcast the Olympics and the same type of camera used by George Lucas for the latest “Star Wars” film; and a traffic circle at the front entrance to campus.

Projects slated to begin in 2004-05 include renovation of science laboratories and classroom space in the Stillwell Building, a facility originally constructed in 1952; and a new $11.5 million, 60,000 square-foot student recreation center that will feature a suspended indoor track, climbing wall, and expanded fitness and exercise space.

Students who bring cars to campus will find additional parking spaces this fall, although parking near the center of campus will be tight due to construction. The parking lot at Hennon Baseball Stadium, which has been used as a holding area for the many construction projects on campus, is being cleared of trucks and trailers to make room for additional student parking. A new 300-space lot adjacent to the baseball stadium is under construction and expected to be ready by mid-September.

Western soon will begin planning and design for a new $34.8 million building to house its 13 growing programs in health sciences. The N.C. General Assembly approved $10 million in initial planning money for the N.C. Center for Health and Aging, which includes a new School of Health and Gerontological Sciences facility in Cullowhee, replacing a facility built in 1924, and a new $38 million health leadership facility to support the Mountain Area Health Education Center in Asheville . MAHEC is a part of the statewide University of North Carolina Health Care system.

Western also is studying the future of Dodson Cafeteria, with plans to replace or renovate the aging facility.

The construction and renovation at Western is the result of continued growth in student enrollment, university officials say. Projections based on net deposits paid indicate about 1,600 new freshmen will arrive next month for the 2004-05 term, said Troy Barksdale, director of university planning. That compares to a 2003 freshman class of 1,495 and a 2002 class of 1,224.

Projections also indicate increases in the number of returning students, new transfer students and graduate students, for a total enrollment of about 8,100, Barksdale said.

“In looking at the growth Western has seen over the years, what I find most interesting is that in the 30 years prior to fall 2002, the university grew by almost 1,100 students, from 5,972 to 7,033,” said Barksdale, who came to Western in November from the research and planning division of The University of North Carolina system. “That's an increase of 18 percent, and it represents a fairly slow rate of growth for the university – until last year.”

Total enrollment last fall jumped from 7,033 to 7,561, he said. “With the fall 2003 enrollment increase of more than 500 students, that means one-third of the total enrollment increase at Western in the past 31 years came in just one year. And indications are that we are looking at another jump of 500 for this fall.”

In addition to a larger freshman class, Western also expects to see an increase in the academic qualifications of its incoming students. The class includes 10 high school valedictorians, three National Merit Finalists and 175 new members of Western's residential Honors College who boast an average SAT score above 1225, said Phil Cauley, director of admissions. The Honors College, which features smaller classes taught by faculty members dedicated to working with high-achieving students in an atmosphere of advanced study, has grown more than tenfold in just seven years, from fewer than 100 students in 1997 to about 1,000 expected this fall.

Another special interest group experiencing explosive growth is Western's marching band, known as the Pride of the Mountains.” Membership in the band increased from 82 in 1991 to 237 in 2003 – and could grow by another 100 musicians this year. “The growth of the band is getting to the point of being scary,” said Matt Henley, assistant director for athletic bands. “If somebody had told me five years ago that there might be a possibility of a 300-member band at Western, I would have laughed at them, but it's happening. If everybody shows up that says they're going to, we could be around 330.”

Joining all those new students on campus will be instructors hired to fill 52 new faculty positions, which represents a nearly 16 percent increase in the total number of full-time faculty over those on board last spring. The UNC systems allocates faculty positions based on a university's total enrollment, and Western's enrollment growth over the past couple of years has resulted in the creation of an unprecedented number of new faculty positions.

“We need additional professors to teach the additional students,” said Robert Vartabedian, interim vice chancellor of academic affairs. “Western is committed to maintaining its tradition of small class sizes, with professors who are able to give students the kind of individual attention they need to succeed, and the UNC system has agreed with that philosophy.”

Western's recent growth spurt is the result of a number of factors, university officials say. Among them is the fact that the UNC system has designated Western “a focused growth institution” expected to accommodate a higher percentage of college-going students in North Carolina . It's also the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people, said Western Chancellor John Bardo.

“Starting in 1996, we began a concerted effort to improve academic quality and assure that the mix of programs we offer meets the needs of the people of North Carolina . Academic improvement involves raising standards in existing programs, eliminating weak programs, and adding strong new programs. What we are seeing now is the result of those efforts and of good faculty doing a really good job, and who are building academic programs that are second to none in the nation,” Bardo said.

“Enrollment and SAT scores are rising steadily at Western because the word is getting out to students, parents, teachers and guidance counselors across the state that we have raised academic standards and significantly improved the quality of education at Western,” Bardo said. “We are finding that more and more new students are looking at us as a ‘first-choice' institution. We are hearing that students are excited about what they see happening on campus, with new residence halls and academic buildings going up and improvements to athletics and recreational facilities. And we are seeing that students are attracted to some of our newest academic programs.”

Western has added several new programs to its mix of more than 120 areas of undergraduate study in the past two years – athletic training, commercial and electronic music, computer graphics, construction management, electrical engineering, emergency management, entrepreneurship, environmental science, forensic anthropology and musical theatre. Majors with the highest enrollment are elementary education, criminal justice, communication, marketing, computer information systems, business administration and law, art, English, management and psychology.

Western also offers more than 50 programs at the graduate level. Classes in 37 graduate programs also are taught in Asheville, and many graduate programs are offered online and at community colleges and other sites off the main campus in Cullowhee.

Maintained by the WCU Office of Public Relations
Last modified: Wednesday, March 26, 2014 | Originally published: Friday, July 30, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Western Carolina University