David O. Belcher took the oath as Western Carolina University’s 11th chancellor Thursday, March 29, pledging to remain steadfast to its historic tradition of providing access to higher education while affirming a renewed commitment to student success, meeting regional needs, honing institutional focus, embracing excellence and taking care of its faculty and staff.
“Western Carolina is a great university with even greater promise, but we have only begun to tap that inherent potential,” he said. “The life we will breathe into Western Carolina University during our time of stewardship will be worthy of remembrance, not because of the fleeting glory of rankings and statistics, but because of the genuine difference Western will make in the quality of life of the people – the wonderful, resilient, diverse, extraordinary and ordinary people – we serve.”
Belcher’s installation was held before an audience of about 1,600 faculty, staff and students, elected officials from across the state, and visitors representing colleges and universities from across the nation. Thomas W. Ross, president of the University of North Carolina system, presided.
“This ceremony represents a symbolic compact between you – the faculty, staff, students, alumni and trustees – and your new chancellor,” Ross said. “I have high expectations for WCU under Dr. Belcher’s leadership, but particularly in these tough and challenging times, he needs and deserves your full support. I assure you he will have mine.”
In his installation address, Belcher outlined five guiding principles that will define the university’s future and shared seven projects that WCU will initiate in the year ahead toward fulfilling those overarching institutional themes. The five principles of Belcher’s address:
A reaffirmation of WCU’s commitment to student access to education matched by a corresponding commitment to student success. “Too often, student access and student success are viewed as polar opposites, the former seen as an open door regardless of ability, the latter as the purview of the capable,” Belcher said. “This should not and must not be the case. The issue is not access versus success, but access and success. Western will define this paradigm.”
A pledge to help meet regional needs in Western North Carolina by partnering with local communities, business and industry, nonprofits, elected officials and civic leaders. “Western North Carolina is an area defined by haves and have-nots, towns that struggle to survive and cities thriving with commerce and investment. Western North Carolina is not a homogenous whole, but rather a complex collection of distinct pasts, individual presents and potentially disparate futures,” Belcher said. “Western Carolina University will never be – nor should it ever be – ‘the leader’ in meeting regional needs. But it can and will be ‘a leader’ in that endeavor.”
A sharpening of institutional focus, an effort already under way through the university’s strategic planning process, that will guide efforts in program prioritization, allocation and reallocation of resources, and organizational structure. “My mantra since arriving at Western last summer has been that we, as an institution, cannot be all things to all people,” Belcher said. “We never could, but the economic climate of recent years and the resulting budget reductions have made this fact, which we in higher education too often have chosen to ignore, a blatant reality.”
A renewed emphasis on excellence in all that the university does. “I am well aware that the word ‘excellence’ is overused to the point of cliché, but there is a reason that is so,” Belcher said. “We pursue excellence because it is worthy of pursuit, among the worthiest of pursuits, not just in and of itself, but rather, in our case, because of its implications for the people we serve. ‘Good enough’ is just not good enough for Western North Carolina.”
A promise to take care of the university’s people. “The faculty and staff at Western are incredible. They love this place, they are devoted to our students in ways I have never witnessed in my life, they love what they do, and they are indispensable,” Belcher said, pledging to address faculty and staff compensation issues, improve professional development and training opportunities, create leadership development and succession planning, and foster an environment of trust and respect.
Belcher also listed seven specific projects to begin in the coming year that will play a role in meeting the commitments of the university’s guiding principles. In 2012-13, the university will:
Convene a consortium of WNC community college presidents, school superintendents and leaders from other organizations such as the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching in pursuit of truly seamless education and to deal with issues such as mathematics, reading and writing skills.
Make raising funds for endowed scholarships the top philanthropic priority in order to ensure access to higher education for all capable students. Belcher announced that he and his wife, Susan, have established an endowed scholarship, and challenged others to do likewise.
Launch an annual summer tour that will take institutional leaders – including faculty, staff and students – across WNC to ensure that the university stays in touch with the region it serves.
Initiate a Leadership Academy for faculty and staff, a professional development opportunity to build a community of leaders who will help WCU deal with the issues it will face in the future.
Develop the Millennial Initiative as a national model for universities serving rural areas. A strategy enabling publicprivate partnerships on university property to give students hands-on learning opportunities while also fostering economic development, the concept will see its first new structure – the new Health and Human Sciences Building – open on the West Campus this fall. A task force is now in the process of examining the Millennial Initiative to guide its development going forward.
Organize and host an annual conference of regional leaders and thinkers to work collaboratively toward solving regional issues by complementing the work of organizations such as area chambers of commerce, AdvantageWest, the Southwestern Commission and the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina.
Be an engaged partner in the economic and community development of its home county of Jackson, including creating sustained partnerships with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, building stronger connections with Cashiers, teaming up with Dillsboro and Sylva, and playing what Belcher called “an appropriate role in the unique place which is Cullowhee, one of the only unincorporated towns in America to play host to a university.”
“Western Carolina is far more than a Jackson County university,” he said. “It is an institution with state impact with a particular focus on the western region of the state. But as it proudly claims and touts its engagement mission and commits itself to regional economic and community development, the institution undermines its credibility if it ignores its own backyard.”
Elected WCU chancellor April 8, 2011, by the UNC Board of Governors, Belcher assumed his duties July 1, when John W. Bardo, who had held the position for 16 years, stepped down as chancellor. Belcher had previously served as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock since 2003.
Mark D. Martin, N.C. Supreme Court senior associate justice and WCU alumnus, administered the oath of office to Belcher, accompanied by his wife, Susan. Joan MacNeill, chair of WCU’s Board of Trustees, placed the chancellor’s medallion, the symbol of the office of chancellor, around Belcher’s neck.
Music played an integral part of the ceremony in recognition of Belcher’s background as a classically trained concert pianist. Jerry Wolfe, elder with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, delivered the invocation in his native Cherokee language and in English. The Rev. Kelly Belcher, the chancellor’s sister-in-law, gave the benediction.
Ten speakers brought greetings to the new chancellor – N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, representing the 50th District; N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, representing the 119th District; Boyce Deitz, field representative for U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler; Tommye Saunooke, Cherokee Tribal Council member; Hannah Gage, chair of the UNC Board of Governors; MacNeill, the WCU Board of Trustees chair; Erin McNelis, chair of the WCU Faculty Senate; Jason Lavigne, chair of the WCU Staff Senate; T.J. Eaves, WCU Student Government Association president; and Jack Hudson, WCU Alumni Association president.