Western Carolina University faculty and staff must not allow the death of beloved Chancellor David O. Belcher nor an unsuccessful search for his successor to divert their attention from working to move the institution forward and supporting growing numbers of students through rigorous academic and extracurricular programs.
In her Wednesday, Aug. 15, Opening Assembly address centered on the theme “Choose Great,” Interim Chancellor Alison Morrison-Shetlar called the 2018-19 academic year “…the end of an era at WCU, but the beginning of a legacy.”
“We have achieved incredible things together,” Morrison-Shetlar said. “We have embraced our mission – our purpose. We have changed lives. But we cannot push pause on our momentum. Our students deserve much more.”
Belcher, WCU chancellor since 2011, died June 17 after battling brain cancer for more than two years. Morrison-Shetlar, provost at WCU since 2014, has been serving as the university’s CEO since Belcher went on medical leave Dec. 31, 2017.
A national search for WCU’s next chancellor came to an unanticipated and unsuccessful close July 16 following a special called meeting of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors on July 12. The search is on hold as the board reviews the process for selecting chancellors across the UNC System, with new guidelines expected sometime in September.
“You were not expecting me to be standing up here this morning. You were expecting me to be back in my provost seat and for a newly appointed chancellor to be addressing you,” Morrison-Shetlar said early in her remarks.
“You may be feeling anxious and uncertain about what comes next. You are not alone. Much of what we are anxious and uncertain about, however, is completely out of our hands. What I can say with certainty is that we have amazing chancellor search co-chairs in Board of Trustees Chair Pat Kaemmerling and Vice Chair Bryant Kinney. They and the committee remain committed to the task of finding the next great leader for WCU, and they will not let us down,” she told a packed house in the John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center.
Morrison-Shetlar said that she also remains committed to her task – that of guiding the university during an unexpectedly extended time of transition in leadership.
“I will be present in this role, and I will put everything I have into the job of interim chancellor, with the goal of supporting your success and the success of our students,” she said. “It has taken everyone in this auditorium to build WCU into what it is today, and I know that, with your continued commitment, things are going to continue in the right direction. We have all made choices every day that have led us to success.”
Turning attention to the year ahead, Morrison-Shetlar said that the incoming freshman class – the first admitted to WCU through the NC Promise tuition plan – will be the largest in university history, with move-in day set for Friday, Aug.17. Student enrollment numbers should be record-setting in most student populations, including new transfer and new graduate students, she said.
“We must continue to grow to meet the needs of students and the demands of our region and our state. But, we will choose to grow responsibly and sustainably, with a focus on maintaining academic excellence and delivering an unmatched total student experience,” she said.
Addressing WCU’s role in regional economic development, Morrison-Shetlar pointed out the university’s recently announced partnership with Morris Broadband to expand high-speed internet access in the Cullowhee Valley and an upcoming conference hosted by WCU on the outdoor products industry.
“Our region is moving forward, and we will not only be at the table but be a leader in the conversation about regional progress,” she said. “We will choose to work collaboratively, across divisions, to leverage our strengths to improve the communities we serve.”
Morrison-Shetlar reminded the group that WCU has taken a variety of steps to address faculty and staff salaries. The university invested nearly $4 million in enrollment growth money from last year in human resources – with $1.5 million to hire new faculty, $890,000 to hire new staff and $1.4 million put toward salary increases for existing faculty and staff.
“Our strategic plan reaffirms our choice to continue to invest in recruiting and retaining the very best employees and in providing professional development resources for our faculty and staff,” she said. “We recognize that it is our people who make our institution great.”
The 2018-19 academic year promises to be another busy time for construction, with a new campus residence hall now underway and expected to be ready for occupancy by fall 2019, the start of framing on a replacement for WCU’s 1970s-era Natural Sciences Building, a makeover of the main campus entrance, numerous renovation projects, and ongoing planning for a new lower campus residence hall and a replacement for an aging steam plant.
After a special preview of WCU’s upcoming marketing campaign, “Choose Great,” Morrison-Shetlar urged faculty and staff to embrace that theme throughout their work in the year ahead.
“The most important choice is the choice to be great. It’s what we’re asking of our students, and it’s what we should be asking of ourselves,” she said. “Yes, this work we do is hard. Resources are limited. There have been and will be setbacks. But we are persistent. We are innovative. We know how to work together. We have clear direction. We are already on a path to success. And we understand our mission – our purpose – is centered on students and their accomplishments. So, let’s choose to be great. Let’s choose it together. Let’s give this year everything we’ve got. Let’s start today.”
Also speaking during the Opening Assembly, Acting Provost Carol Burton discussed the university’s revised strategic plan, which features a new strategic direction focusing on inclusion and diversity; the yearlong campus learning theme titled “Defining America”; new academic programs starting this fall or in the planning phases; liberal studies student learning outcomes; and a new university speaker series to launch Friday, Aug. 17, with poet and civil rights activist Nikki Giovanna as part of New Student Convocation.
“I urge each of you to continue to nurture our students this year – it is my métier, my life’s work. I pledge my commitment to maintaining our dedication to academic excellence, and to building on the legacy left by Chancellor Belcher,” Burton said. “David told us that he trusted us to continue this worthy work and, in life, ‘to be a verb and not a noun.’ As a two-time alumna of this institution, I feel a special sense of responsibility to live up to his expectations. I trust you will join me in that endeavor.”
Katherine Spalding, past president of the Student Government Association, opened the assembly with a collection of comments from recent alumni who were influenced in their post-WCU careers by Belcher and his wife, Susan Brummell Belcher. “These are just a few of the lives Chancellor Belcher changed. He changed my life, too,” Spalding said. “Maybe, he changed yours. There are thousands more like us. His greatest accomplishment is his impact on our lives.”
Damon Sink, chair of the Faculty Senate, and Natalie Broom, chair of the Staff Senate, shared highlights of the previous year and expectations for the year ahead for the shared governance bodies.