Personal Statement

by Dr. David O. Belcher, 2018

Mine has been a remarkable life.

Early Years and Education

My parents were wonderful and loving individuals. They loved us children enough to move us out of our cocoons, one of the most remarkable gifts that any parent can offer.

Similarly, our small community in lower South Carolina was really a village, populated with loving, involved friends, mentors and teachers who helped and urged us to exert our best efforts – at least that was MY world. I know that not everyone has had my opportunities – and I intend to return to that topic – but my parents and the good people of my early years supported us to the best of their understanding and ability, urging us to go beyond what we thought was possible.

My post-high school educational opportunities were superb; I had remarkable faculty who pushed me to higher achievements and the attainment of rewarding academic degrees. As a result of their efforts – plus a great deal of my own hard work – I was also able to secure a fellowship to study in Austria, continuing my education while traveling and expanding my knowledge of the world. These educational opportunities allowed me to thrive.

Early Academic Years and Realizations

In time, with the maturity such opportunities and experiences fostered, I began to assume responsibilities for educating others. My first academic appointment was at Missouri State University in 1988. Over the next 30 years, I worked in higher education as a faculty member and an administrator, serving various positions from coordinator of the piano faculty to dean to provost, and ultimately to chancellor.

Throughout these many years of academic and administrative pursuits, I continued to rethink, reconsider and review the role higher education plays in the world and my particular place in it. This pursuit has been a critical part of my career.

Meeting Susan and Growing Together

In many ways, however, this pursuit changed wonderfully when I met Susan, my bride and partner of fourteen years, and we began to evolve together. Susan changed my perspectives – sometimes not so easily – [here I must say that I didn’t change everything – didn’t and don’t want to!] but our shared perspectives have broadened both of us and allowed us to be better people. Even though both of us have at times felt that we lived “charmed” lives, that doesn’t mean everything has been easy. We have worked hard and have both individually and together dealt with challenges, setbacks, and discouragements. However, Susan and I are largely happy people, looking for opportunities that allow us to learn and help others. We share a passion to do worthy work. I think it’s fair to say that we grew up together. Ultimately, we learned how we, as a couple, could change and grow.

How I Grew to Realize the Larger Role of Education

And I did change – granted, not always at my own choosing, but hopefully for the better. In my early years, as a young professor and musician, I worked hard, but my focus was, well, mainly on ME, on my own accomplishments.

As I moved through my years as an administrator, first as an academic dean, then provost, then finally chancellor, my understanding of the world, its needs and the role an individual – and a university – can play to address those needs, broadened.

And I learned that, while my parents grounded me in critical principles, values and knowledge of what brings people together, experience, knowledge and values are essentially useless without DOING something.

I had to ask myself, “Will I just think about serving, or will I actually SERVE?”

Am I going to be a noun or a verb?

How WCU has Decided to Serve

Here at WCU, I am happy to say that, somewhere during our time together, we broadened our vision from the myopic “what can we do to make our university better” to the broader, “what can we do to make our region and the lives of our people better?”

For isn’t this our ultimate goal – to serve our students, families, and communities who need so much?

This issue is enormous, and my life, all of it, pushed me to the conclusion that our institution – and ALL the people who serve – are ultimately in the business of changing lives.

How a Brain Tumor Made Me Ask, "What do I do with the time I have? What is important?"

And then everything changed – every single thing – when I was diagnosed with a glioblastoma brain tumor.

There’s nothing quite like facing your own morality. It is sobering, to say the least.

Yes, I always knew at some level that I have never had a guarantee of another day; it’s just that facing brain cancer helped me, MADE me, see this clearly. So, my questions for myself have become: How long do I have? What will I do with the time I have left? What is important and what is not? Honestly, asking these rhetorical questions will change anyone; it did me.

In response to these questions, Susan and I made personal choices. It became clear to us as a couple that we wanted time together – to engage with family and friends, to travel, to live.

I had to make academic career choices, too. As a chancellor, I never could have done EVERY good thing I wanted to do, but understanding that this glioblastoma was a fact, a clear reality, made me ask, “If I only have limited time and energy, what is most important for me to do for WCU?”

What is Important to WCU and WNC

As I see matters at this moment, first and foremost we should have an absolute commitment to our students, our faculty and our staff. We need to foster relationships with our community and regional friends who move heaven and earth to help us succeed. Yes, we need to court philanthropic investments and pay close attention to other key evolving priorities. These are and remain important issues for WCU.

But then I turn my thoughts to our university and its broader role as a catalyst for change for all of Western North Carolina, the region we are charged to serve. These mountains and the university will be here long after we are gone, but shouldn’t we pay attention to their well-being while we are their stewards?

So, if this is the time to make this world better – and it IS the time – what will we do?

For me, I had to face and own the uncomfortable divide between those who are doing well and those who are not; between those who have and those who have not; those who have hope and those who have none; those who thrive and those who despair. So I resolved to join the campus community and other thoughtful people who are helping us make positive change for those who have need. Together, we have brought substantive, important changes to Western Carolina University that will significantly improve the lives of the people and communities in our region.

But our remaining issues are legion.

Do we have the resolve to ensure that Western North Carolina offers our students sustaining and fulfilling work and career opportunities?

Do we have the resolve to ensure that every Western North Carolinian has access to broadband for education and personal growth?

Do we have the resolve to take up arms against the horrible regional and national opioid scourge?

Do we have the resolve to inspire and serve all those from Western North Carolina who wish to help themselves and their families, imbuing them with hope and ambition, supporting their hard work for their own futures?

Or have we already determined that this is just too hard, that our Western North Carolina will always lag behind, and that most of its people will never thrive?

Who are we to limit our people’s abilities, their successes, their hope and their futures?

This is urgent business. I don’t have time to wait; neither do you; neither does Western Carolina University and Western North Carolina; neither does the State of North Carolina and our nation; and, neither do the students and people whose futures depend on, or could depend on, our institution.

It’s hard work, but it is the right thing to do.

Who are we?

Who. Are. You.

Almost two years ago, the UNC Board of Governors presented Western Carolina University’s Dr. David Shapiro with the O. Max Gardner Award, a remarkable and rare award. In his eloquent response, Dr. Shapiro included an inspired portrayal of Western North Carolina and specifically Western Carolina University:

He said: “…I have had guiding lights. One such light is WCU, where dreams are visualized and realized.

The students, the best and brightest, some of whom may not have competitive dossiers, some of whom represent the first in their family to go to college, come to a place that is inspired. With the able support of faculty and staff, they leave campus among the world’s best leaders.

Faculty have a similar advantage. At WCU, there is a degree of privilege and freedom to thrive and to become.

For me, WCU represents the American Dream: You come as raw material, you work hard, you serve your community, you commit to learning and growing, and you prosper.”

Who are we? I think David Shapiro captured it best.

This is who we are. We are the guiding lights. We are in the business of changing lives. And there is no more worthy work for you than this.

For me, this is what I have learned, this is what life has taught me, and I trust you now to get us there.

With your passion and commitment, your living belief in our common purpose and mission, and your focus on our people and their promise, there is no telling what we will do.

Go Cats, go Western Carolina University and go all those who strive to be a Guiding Light.

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