Western Carolina University Chancellor Kelli R. Brown was sworn into office Wednesday, Aug. 12, an action delayed nearly five months by the COVID-19 pandemic, and urged the university community not to allow the disruptions of the global health crisis to stop the institution from meeting its mission of providing higher education and outreach to Western North Carolina.
N.C. Chief District Court Judge Samantha Cabe, a 1997 graduate of WCU, administered the oath of office as part of Opening Assembly, an annual gathering to kick off the new academic year. Because of physical distancing and crowd size limitations, this year’s event was streamed live from the John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center.
Peter Hans, president of the University of North Carolina System, offered a message of congratulations to Brown via video. “I wish I could be there with you in person today, but I certainly recognize the importance of this moment. The UNC System is grateful to formally have you on board and to serve as this university’s first permanent female chancellor. As a new era of leadership officially begins at Western Carolina, we’re all excited to see what the Catamounts will accomplish now,” Hans said.
After being sworn in, Brown began her Opening Assembly address by acknowledging that the road upon which WCU is about to embark for fall semester is historic and unprecedented. “But I know that we will get through this, together. I know this because we are each committed to our moral obligation to carry through the mission of this institution, to ‘Honor our Promise’ to you, our students and to the members of our mountain communities,” she said.
“Honor our Promise” is a phrase that faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends will be hearing a lot from Brown in the months and years ahead, she said.
“I have adopted this sentiment as the theme of my time as steward of this wonderful university, not because it’s catchy or trendy, but because I fundamentally believe in the calling, the aspiration and the hope that it invokes,” she said. “We are each keepers of the promise that is Western Carolina University, the reason that this institution exists – to deliver education and opportunity to the people of Western North Carolina, our state and our region. That promise is broad and pervasive, embodying all aspects of our work. It doesn’t mean, however, that we can be all things to all people. We must have priorities that are consistent with this promise.”
Brown reminded the audience and viewers of three top priorities she announced at Opening Assembly last August as of the utmost importance during her administration – academic integrity and quality, economic development, and diversity and inclusive excellence. Going into an unusual fall semester, it is critical that the university maintain its emphasis on academic excellence, she said.
“We have to stay focused on maintaining and extending our academic integrity and quality – the excellence of our academic programs, scholarship and service. Faculty are embarking on a new world of hybrid instruction that will enhance the student experience of receiving a high-quality education while adhering to the science and data to keep our students and faculty safer in the classroom,” Brown said.
“As we go into the fall semester, this is the time for us to continue to find new ways to engage and to make sure our students are successful even in one of the most challenging times of our history,” she said. “And no one will excel at this endeavor better than our faculty and staff. I have seen your commitment and your devotion. Our students are in gifted and compassionate hands.”
The institutional priority of regional economic development has become more important than ever before in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brown said.
“Our region struggled to recover from the Great Recession, and it will struggle to recover from this great pandemic. The citizens of this region will look to us for leadership, resources and expertise, and we will be there for them in the days ahead like we have been there for them in the past,” she said.
“I’ve charged the Office of Economic Development and Regional Partnerships with ambitious goals to engage with our community partners, and to develop specific mileposts to advance progress with these critical services,” Brown said. “Because, to paraphrase former UNC President Bill Friday, Western is part of the ‘mighty engine’ of the UNC System that will bring prosperity to our region and our state.”
Brown’s third institutional priority – diversity and inclusive excellence – has taken on heightened significance following several months of social unrest sweeping the country, she said.
“We must address the ongoing issues of systemic racism and injustice throughout our society, and it is my firm belief that universities must be at the forefront of the hard work necessary to move the needle on this,” Brown said. “The horrific events earlier this year involving George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others have provided a tipping point in our country’s unwillingness to address the very real inequalities faced by black, indigenous and people of color.”
Brown charged faculty and staff to reexamine their work and identify areas in which the university can do more to encourage conversations around diversity, to invest in programs and initiatives that will ensure access and equity for all, and to eliminate internal processes and procedures that inadvertently perpetuate an atmosphere of inequality.
“If we can set our minds to these changes, we will honor our promise for all who wish to learn, live and work in our beautiful community,” she said. “This is why I’ve renewed my commitment to our Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Programs. This is why I’ve charged our chief diversity officer to convene a blue-ribbon panel to establish specific benchmarks and strategies to gauge our success in this area and to plan for the future.”
Brown expressed her gratitude to all members of the university community for their efforts to continue to meet WCU’s mission in the face of a global pandemic.
“Your flexibility and your commitment to this institution and to its students humbles me each and every day. Many times in recent months we didn’t know which direction this year would take, but together we forged a good plan moving forward. You are our backbone. And it will be your example that inspires our students in this strange new world to show up, act responsibly and keep pushing forward. I believe if we all have grace and patience with one another we can get through this global pandemic. It will take each and every one of us, I am confident in our individual and collective efforts to honor our promise and to make tomorrow better,” she said.
Brown strongly reminded WCU students that they must do their part if the university is to be able to continue residential learning and campus operations by social distancing, wearing face coverings and using proper hand-washing hygiene.
“When standing in line at Brown, stand 6 feet apart with a face covering on. When walking across campus to class, wear your facing covering. No pickup basketball games, no pool parties, no large gatherings in rooms. And when I say ‘wear your face covering,’ I mean covering your nose and mouth. I know you can do it as I have seen you do it this past week and you have told me you will do it to stay here,” she said.
“I remember what it is like to be in college. I get it, I do. I know you want to experience all aspects of university life, both in and out of the classroom. And I promise you, there are ways that you can engage with each other and have fun outside of class and still keep each other healthy,” she said. “I need you to hear me and I trust you will take the responsibility of being here as a solemn duty to do the right thing, so we can experience this year together. As our public health campaign makes clear, ‘Catamounts Care.’”