Happy New Year, Catamount Nation!
As 2016 was coming to a close, I took some time to reflect on the events of this past year and to anticipate the opportunities and challenges that await us in 2017. Western Carolina University had a great 2016. Thanks to the voters of North Carolina, we received $110 million to replace our aging Natural Sciences Building through the Connect NC Bond. Our enrollment reached another record high this past fall. And, our quality metrics, including our freshman retention rate, continue to steadily improve. Your university is thriving even as we continue to tackle significant obstacles such as controlling costs for our students and recruiting and retaining high quality faculty and staff in the face of stiff competition from other universities and private agencies.
As most of you know, this past year was challenging personally for me, to say the least. Susan and I continue to be grateful for the outpouring of support in the wake of my brain tumor diagnosis, surgery, treatment and recovery. My father passed away last January and that, along with my diagnosis in April, turned everything upside down. My doctor told Susan that my diagnosis would change my perspective, and he was right. There is nothing quite like facing your own mortality. It is sobering.
However, in what I might describe as unemotional clarity, I recognized that I have never had a guarantee of another day; it is just that my tumor helped me see this clearly. So, my question for myself has become: What will I do with the time that I have? And the natural follow-up question is this: If I only have limited time, which is the case for all of us, what do I do – what is important, or what is not? Honestly asking this rhetorical question will change anyone; it did me.
So, what is “the important stuff” for me as chancellor? As I see it, I must build relationships with elected officials; court philanthropic investment; invest time and energy interfacing with new University of North Carolina system President Margaret Spellings’ administration in order to ensure that WCU is effective in integrating the system’s strategic priorities; ensure WCU’s successful implementation of NC Promise; and maintain relationships with faculty, staff, and students. This is the important stuff for me at this moment.
My thoughts also logically turned to our university. What is “the important stuff” for Western Carolina University? WCU will be here long after you and I are gone, and it is critical that, in our roles as stewards for a time, we focus on the important stuff. There are lots of big questions, challenges, opportunities – all of which qualify as “important stuff” – but there is one critical question that I think necessitates our regular contemplation: Who are we? Yes, it is a “meaning of life” question.
So, who are we as a university? We are a university at which 42 percent of our students are eligible for Pell funding, a significant indicator of financial need, and at which, in 2015-16 alone, students took out more than $63 million in loans. We are one of the most affordable colleges and universities in the country, but that fact does not matter to those students who still cannot afford to attend WCU at all or without taking on the burden of crippling debt.
Yet, we also are a university of outstanding academic quality with a consistently increasing reputation, and with a history of graduating thousands and thousands of proud alumni who have taken their places in society and are leading productive lives, who have been the building blocks of their families, their communities and our economy.
We are a university that has achieved an 80 percent retention rate and shattered our previous enrollment records. We are an institution that once again has been recognized by U.S. News and World Report as one of the top regional universities in the South and by Kiplinger’s, which included WCU in its list of the top 100 best value public colleges and universities in the nation. We are a university that values diversity and inclusion, and a place where students become active and engaged members of their community, and where undergraduate research leads not only to advanced analytical skills and critical thinking, but also to real-world applications that can help improve lives.
Who are we? Western Carolina is a dynamic university that represents the American Dream. Our university is in the business of changing lives, and I challenge you to put your passion, your commitment and your living belief in our common purpose and mission to work in support of our students and their promise.
David O. Belcher