By Bill Studenc
“Ride the momentum.”
That was the request from Western Carolina University Chancellor Kelli R. Brown to the steering committee working behind the scenes to lead the university’s recently announced “Fill the Western Sky” comprehensive fundraising campaign.
In her remarks to committee members Friday, Sept. 29, Brown urged the group to take advantage of several recent developments that should help galvanize support for the university as it marches toward the official public phase of an effort to raise a minimum of $75 million in philanthropic support for WCU.
Among those positive happenings are upswings in student enrollment and retention, newfound competitiveness within the Catamount athletics program and legislative support for the expansion of WCU’s engineering program, she said.
This fall, the university welcomed the third largest freshman class in its history, with 2,082 freshmen this year compared to last year’s total of 1,913, an increase of nearly 9%. This comes at a time when many regional universities across the nation are experiencing enrollment declines. WCU also saw a 4% increase in its freshman retention rate compared to last fall. That is a statistically significant increase and one that does not happen overnight, Brown said.
In addition, as part of the 2023-2024 state budget, WCU received authorization for $95.3 million in project funds for a new home for engineering, $2 million of which will be made available for advance planning in 2024-2025. WCU also received $3.5 million in recurring funds to develop and deliver expanded programming in engineering in support of critical regional needs. The university has identified expansion of its engineering programs as WCU’s top legislative priority, an effort backed by the University of North Carolina System
In the realm of intercollegiate athletics, WCU’s football team has enjoyed early season success including its first national ranking since 2017; the women’s soccer team recently celebrated the 100th victory for head coach Chad Miller and clinched its first regular season championship since 2001; the women’s golf team competed in postseason tournament play for the third time in its history; and preseason expectations are high for men’s basketball after last year’s team participated in a postseason tournament for only the fourth time in program history.
Many campaign steering committee members were on hand earlier that day for the unveiling of newly renovated locker rooms and film room for the men’s and women’s basketball programs, which Brown characterized as a tangible example of the university’s momentum.
“I feel that momentum right now with the campaign and I feel that momentum when we have conversations about what is happening here at Western Carolina University, specifically in the area of athletics. People are seeing things happening, like our basketball locker room renovations. That’s the momentum. That’s what I’m talking about. And we have to take that momentum and run with it, because people are excited,” she said.
“What that means for you, the campaign steering committee members, you have to really think hard. Who are those people that aren’t on your list, who are those friends of yours that you graduated with, who are those people that you haven’t thought about and how do you get them on that list so that you can talk to them and share with them the excitement and the momentum that is happening now at Western. I need you to take that momentum with you and carry it and bring other people in with you,” Brown said.
Randy White, a WCU alumnus and managing director of a California financial advising firm who was tapped to co-chair the steering committee, echoed Brown’s sentiments regarding momentum.
“We are trying to reignite 80,000 alumni and get them back on campus and talking to students, faculty and staff and the volunteers so they can see what’s going on here. When you step on this campus, it is a different feeling than when I was here in the 1980s. There is a winning attitude. It’s in the classroom, it’s on the field, we have all the right people in place and we have so much momentum,” White said.
“There’s a lot of momentum going on. That’s the word that you’re hearing, and it’s not like we have so much that we’re just going to blast on up that hill and over it. It takes a lot of work, and we’ve got to turn over a lot of rocks and really engage our networks,” he said. “Man, the work that we do now is going to benefit generations of students, so it’s very important.”