After 16 years on the job, John Bardo prepares to step down as chancellor


It was just a week or two before John William Bardo, then provost at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts, was scheduled to set foot on campus for his first day on the job as the 10th chancellor at Western Carolina University when Judy Dowell received an envelope postmarked “Bridgewater, Mass.” Inside the unexpected delivery was an artist’s rendering of an approaching storm, with dark clouds boiling in the heavens, ocean waves whipped into a frenzy by hurricane-force winds, and bolts of lightning zigzagging across the horizon. Written below the picture was “Bardo on the horizon.”

Dowell, who served for 10 years as assistant to Chancellor Myron “Barney” Coulter and another year as assistant to Interim Chancellor Jack Wakeley before spending seven years at the right hand of Bardo, still chuckles when she harkens back to opening the mail on that day in 1995. “The picture was sent by an administrator at Bridgewater State who just thought I would enjoy seeing it. And I did. We all did,” she said. “The way I interpreted the image was, ‘You people at Western Carolina better get ready. You’re getting a ball of fire there, a real bundle of energy.’ I think we all found out pretty quickly just how true a statement that was.”

From top, John Bardo, wife Deborah and son Christopher at his
1995 investiture with C.D. Spangler, president of the University of
North Carolina system, and Judge Mark D. Martin ’85; the
Catamount softball program was established under Bardo.

Indeed. Who could have predicted the massive winds of change that have blown through the Cullowhee Valley over the nearly 16 years since Bardo was named WCU’s chief executive officer? Under Bardo’s leadership, student enrollment has grown from 6,500 to more than 9,400, and with rising enrollment came a building boom unprecedented in university history. Among the 14 new buildings or major renovations since 1995 are five residence halls, a dining hall, the Campus Recreation Center, Fine and Performing Arts Center, Center for Applied Technology, and an expansion of A.K. Hinds University Center. The university added women’s soccer and softball programs and renovated every athletics facility on campus, including west-side stands at E.J. Whitmire Stadium. WCU in 2005 launched the Millennial Initiative, an ambitious economic development strategy designed to enable private business and industry to collaborate with WCU, doubling the size of campus with the acquisition of 344 acres where a new Health and Human Sciences Building is under construction.

The university gained national recognition during Bardo’s tenure for being among the first institutions in the nation to require students to bring computers to campus and for adopting innovative tenure and promotion policies that reward faculty for scholarly activities beyond traditional teaching, research and service. Western Carolina’s Quality Enhancement Plan, which emphasizes strong connections between students’ academic and extracurricular activities, has been called a national model by higher education associations. Under Bardo’s watch, WCU created the residential Honors College, which has grown to become one of the largest in the country. Over the past 16 years, WCU has focused attention on sharply increasing admissions standards and has developed a program in undergraduate research that consistently ranks near the top in the number of student presenters at the annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research. Bardo also made it a priority to attract top faculty members who are nationally known experts in their fields. When he first arrived, the university had no endowed distinguished professorship; today, WCU boasts 21 that are fully funded.

Bardo, who on Oct. 11 announced his decision to step down as chancellor at the end of this academic year, also oversaw the first comprehensive fundraising campaign in university history, which netted $51,826,915 in private giving for endowed scholarships, professorships and programmatic support. During his administration, WCU emphasized the enhancement of student life through the development of learning communities, student leadership initiatives, model Greek life programs, and strong attention to the development and welfare of the whole student.

“You look at all of these things, and it has been quite a career and quite a tenure for this chancellor,” said Stephen Woody, former chair of WCU’s Board of Trustees who was chairman of the committee that guided the search for a successor to Myron Coulter after his retirement in 1994. “I like to say that our search committee would like to take full credit for John Bardo being at Western Carolina, but of course that’s not true, because many other people were involved. We all are fortunate to have had John Bardo as our chancellor, and we should thank him for his years of dedicated service.”

The Formative Years

Among those involved in helping shape the educational priorities that would come to define Bardo’s chancellorship was his father, whose dedication to earning a college degree as a nontraditional student made an impression on WCU’s future leader, although Bardo says he did not realize it at the time. “My father graduated by going to night school. He went for 10 years while trying to hold down a traveling job and raising a family. It was a tough run,” he said. “Watching my father struggle and realizing the implications of getting an education for him, despite a whole array of issues including an illness that almost killed him, and the way he stuck with it and got his degree, that really spoke to me. The way my mother supported him also made an impression, because without her saying, ‘Jack, you’ve got to do this,’ he probably would have stopped because it sometimes got to be way too much. I do think that colored how I view education and what I think education actually means.”

Chancellor John Bardo at the 2003 opening of the Center for
Applied Technology with trustee Phil Walker ’71, Congressman
Charles Taylor and SGA president Heather List ’05.

Growing up in Ohio, Bardo had an early goal of becoming a professional photographer. “I loved photography, and I published a number of pictures over time,” he said.
“I actually had an offer to go into an art studio, but I also was accepted into graduate school the same day I got that offer.” The art studio director agreed to hold a position for Bardo for a year. After earning his master’s degree in sociology from Ohio University in 1971, he was accepted into the doctoral program at the Ohio State University. With that, photography’s loss became higher education’s gain.

“Getting into college and university administration was never anything in my youth I thought I would pursue,” Bardo said. “In fact, after I graduated from high school, my parents did not think I would ever graduate from anything ever again. For graduation, they gave me a gold Longines watch because they felt like I would go off into photography and never continue in academics.” Instead, Bardo studied economics at the University of Cincinnati, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1970. Even as an undergrad, he admits he wasn’t always a stellar student. “Because of my father’s experience, I was familiar with universities, but when I was in school, studying was never high on my list of priorities,” he said. “It wasn’t until my junior year in college that I woke up and had the big ‘aha moment.’ I changed direction almost immediately.”

Bardo again credits his parents for that change of direction. “My parents always knew I wanted to travel, so I guess in desperation to get me to do something – anything – they sent me to England to study,” he said “When I got there, the whole milieu in which they were operating was so different that it absolutely struck me. They were trying to answer real, fundamental questions – how do you rebuild a society after all the major cities have been bombed out, how do you rebuild an economy so people can live, and how do you keep the environment from being totally destroyed while you are rebuilding? These were big-time questions they were worrying over in very real ways. It was not just theoretical.”

Those experiences – witnessing his father struggle to earn a degree and the role of education in helping a society resurrect itself – steered Bardo’s study of economics and sociology and shaped his understanding of institutions of higher education as key players in economic development. “Higher education has moved from this interesting place in the small community with the quirky professor with a tweedy jacket riding his bicycle to campus and saying nifty things in the classroom to where universities are now at the center of the future of society, the future of the economy and the future of this country,” he said.

First Impressions

Armed with an understanding of the connection between education and economic development, Bardo began a career in higher education with stints at Southwest Texas State University, Wichita State University and the University of North Florida. He became vice president for academic affairs at Bridgewater State in 1990, and took on the additional role of provost in 1993. When Coulter decided to step down as WCU chancellor in 1994 after a decade in the post, Bardo was among those interested in the position.

From top, Chancellor John Bardo accepts a 2005 contribution
toward the Fine and Performing Arts Center from Michell
Hicks ’87, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee
Indians, and Tom O’Donnell of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino
and Hotel; Bardo gets a boisterous reception from students
at a 2010 Catamount basketball game.

It became evident early in the recruitment process that he was a front-runner, said Woody. “We identified four finalists and made plans to bring them to campus so that, over the course of a couple days, they could meet and talk with faculty, staff, students and other interested parties,” he said. “The first person who came to campus, because we did them alphabetically, was Dr. Bardo. And right after Dr. Bardo spoke, I had several people say to me, ‘Stephen, don’t bother bringing anybody else in. We have found the right person.’ And I said, ‘Don’t you at least want to hear what the others have to say?’ And they replied, ‘It’s not necessary. We already know who our next chancellor should be.’” (The committee, of course, did seriously consider other candidates.)

Doug Reed, then director of public information, has a similar recollection about the public sessions once a part of the chancellor search process but no longer common practice. “During his presentation, John had the audience in the palm of his hand,” Reed said. “I was sitting in the back of the room, listening and taking notes, and I was struck by how completely John had captivated the audience. He spoke as one of them – as a fellow faculty member. He really knows how to speak to an academic audience.”

Bardo, officially announced as WCU chancellor on St. Patrick’s Day 1995, also knows how to relate to staff, including blue-collar workers, said Roger Turk, grounds superintendent. Turk said Bardo made a perfect first impression on his workers when they arrived at the chancellor’s residence to help him move and found the new boss jamming out to music by rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival. “I told the guys, ‘He’s one of us, boys,’” Turk said.

In Bardo, staff members found an ally. Bardo advocated for salary increases to help lower-paid workers get closer to the state average for their positions. He created a $10,000 endowed scholarship fund in honor of wife Deborah that benefits children and grandchildren of WCU employees. He frequently attends staff picnics or other special activities to spend time with workers. “Dr. Bardo sees the importance of the blue-collar worker here at WCU, and what they bring to the tradition and function of this campus,” Turk said. “He sees there are people working here who are second, third, even fourth generations of their families with careers at WCU. He has come to understand the heritage, pride and commitment of mountain people and their culture. He has accepted those attributes in the staff and sees that as a very positive and important thing.”

Raising the Bar

Perhaps the defining moment of the Bardo era came on a cold, snowy day in February 1996, in what has come to be known as the “Raising the Bar” speech. In that first major address of his administration, Bardo outlined a strategy for taking WCU to a new level by improving the quality of its academic programs and increasing admission standards, and by focusing on regional economic development and the performing and visual arts.

Reed, the now-retired public information director, remembers one of his first assignments for Bardo – helping draft the ‘Raise the Bar’ speech. “I was working on those remarks over the weekend, and I felt moved to pick up the phone and call him at the chancellor’s residence. That had never been my practice in working with chancellors,” he said. “But I couldn’t help but pick up the phone and call John Bardo as I read over the draft of his address. I was really encouraged by the fact the incoming chancellor was talking – in diplomatic but strong and forthright terms – about raising the bar and improving academic quality. I called to say, ‘Hooray!’”

The rest, as they say, is history. Since 1995, the average SAT score for incoming freshmen has risen 80 points – a 5-point rise is considered statistically significant – while the average grade-point average has gone from 3.0 in 1995 to 3.5 today. The freshman retention rate has improved from 69 percent to 74 percent. For two years running, WCU has cracked the top 10 of US News and World Report’s list of leading public regional universities in the South. Innovative policies that reward faculty members for applying their scholarly activities to solve problems faced by the community beyond campus have been called “a national model,” and those policies are enabling professors to help nearby Dillsboro rebound from the economic downturn.

U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, who represents the far-western counties of North Carolina in Congress, is among the fans of WCU’s adoption of “the Boyer model of scholarship,” which connects university scholarly work to the needs of society. “Dr. Bardo truly has paved the way for other colleges and universities across the nation to take a different look at their academic structure by encouraging an atmosphere that attracts faculty members who have real-life experiences in their respective disciplines and who are able to share those experiences with their students,” Shuler said. “Students are able to get valuable career experience before they even have graduated and begun their careers, and sometimes those relationships they form while students result in employment opportunities after they graduate. That’s what we like to see.”

Belle S. Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, praised Bardo for his leadership not only on his home campus but beyond. “Accreditation in the United States exists due to leaders like Dr. John Bardo, who are committed to self-regulation in higher education and understand the value and credibility it brings to academic initiatives. He knows the necessity for institutional commitment to accreditation’s concept of quality enhancement through continuous assessment and improvement and has demonstrated this through his innovative support of faculty and students at Western Carolina University, most recently through the development and implementation of WCU’s Quality Enhancement Plan,” Wheelan said. “He is a champion of American higher education.”

The Purple Party

For all the development on campus over the past 16 years, it’s the university’s role in development of another kind that has won Bardo admirers for his political acumen. WCU has received nearly $20 million in federal funding during his administration, dollars that helped build and equip the Center for Applied Technology, launch electrical engineering and forensic science programs, expand regional broadband capacity, and create science and economic development partnerships with universities including Southern Cal, Stanford, Furman and Clemson.

Bardo’s understanding of the role of higher education in economic development was key in obtaining federal support, said Charles Taylor, former congressman and member of the House Appropriations Committee. “It is essential to have a partner like Dr. Bardo,” Taylor said. “Although I had the responsibility in the appropriations process of getting the funds together because of the seniority I had in Congress, you have to have a program you can be proud of and someone who can be an eloquent spokesman for that program. With Dr. Bardo, I had an equal partner, someone who knew what needed to be done, who could provide the background and information we needed to make the case for funding for these programs. As a congressman, that is invaluable.”

Calling himself a member of “the Purple Party,” Bardo frequently said that it does not matter to him whether an elected official is a Republican, a Democrat or a member of a third party; what matters to him is a willingness to help WCU in its efforts to support economic development in WNC.

Taylor saw that mindset in action. “We never got bogged down in partisan politics or ideology. We both recognized it was not a Republican or Democrat problem or a conservative or liberal problem. It was a regional problem,” said Taylor. “Sometimes people get so focused on political affiliation or party lines that it makes it hard to move forward, but that’s not the case with John. That’s a great part of his character. He is a true example of a leader who will work with whatever political party is in power in a given year.” Shuler, the Democrat now representing the region in Congress, agreed. “Over his years as chancellor, Dr. Bardo has shown an ability to work with elected officials, regardless of anyone’s political affiliation. He has embraced the philosophy that the most important thing is what is right for our university, our community, our state and our nation. He has taken that and worked successfully for the benefit of the university and the region it serves,” Shuler said.

Much of that effort has revolved around improving WCU’s relationship with the nearby Native American community of Cherokee, including the formation of a task force of university and tribal leaders dedicated to working together on projects to improve educational and economic opportunities for the Cherokee people. “The relationship between WCU and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is through the dedication of Chancellor Bardo and his willingness to work with us on many major initiatives,” said Michell Hicks ’87, principal chief of the Eastern Band. “I have the utmost respect for his willingness to work with our tribe to foster open communication.”

Unfinished Business

Bardo with wife, Deborah, at the fifth anniversary
celebration of the Fine and Performing Arts Center.

As the end of an era at WCU approaches, Bardo admits that he will be leaving some unfinished business for his successor, although, as he says, “There’s only so much one can do in a 16-year run.” Those items include an examination of the number of academic specializations the university offers; reducing the unnecessary expansion of the hours required to graduate from some programs, a phenomenon called “curriculum creep”; improvements to the graduation rate so more students can graduate within four years; and the continued evolution of the Millennial Initiative.

There’s also the matter of an athletics program that has fans hoping for better days. Bardo said he understands the frustrations. “We made very significant investments in athletics during my time here, but we have not solved the issue of costs increasing faster than income,” he said. “WCU’s athletics fees are high compared to other UNC campuses, so it will be important for people who are interested in athletics to continue to increase their support. Athletics is the ‘front porch’ of the university and it will be very important for the next chancellor to be able to find ways to enhance athletic performance.”

Despite the handful of tasks not yet completed, Bardo will be remembered for what he has accomplished, and for a leadership style that is “visionary, bold, energetic, comprehensive and intelligent,” said Gurney Chambers ’61, who has worked for 10 of Western Carolina’s 13 presidents and chancellors. Others agree. Shuler, whose path to Congress began in nearby Swain County, said that WCU has reached new levels of excellence. “Dr. Bardo has led such an incredible transformation of Western Carolina University, from its aesthetics with all of the changes in the center of campus and addition of beautiful new buildings, to improvements in its academic quality and its curriculum. As a native of Western North Carolina, it has been phenomenal to see all that has transpired under Dr. Bardo’s leadership,” Shuler said.

Jim Buchanan ’83, editorial page editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times, has written extensively about the changes he has seen as his alma mater, a place where his daughter is now a student in the Honors College. “I’ve been impressed by what has happened in Cullowhee, especially regarding the university’s more rigorous academic standards and aspirations, and of course the well-targeted growth in both infrastructure and student body,” said Buchanan. “I think it is safe to say John Bardo will be remembered as a truly transformative chancellor in the mold of Cotton Robinson. The place is simply at a whole new level from where it was upon his arrival.”

Perhaps it is summed up best by Chambers, retired dean of WCU’s College of Education and Allied Professions, a man who has been a student, professor, administrator and benefactor of the university and who has spent 50 of the last 54 years either witnessing closely or participating directly in the university’s growth and development. “As we now face a change in the leadership of the university, it is appropriate to reflect on the John Bardo era and to express our appreciation for the leadership he has provided,” he said. “From my perspective, there is no other 16-year period in the history of the university that is as worthy of applause and celebration by students, faculty members, graduates, friends and community leaders as the Bardo era.”


A committee is hard at work to have WCU’s next leader in place by the summer


A 16-person committee with membership drawn from faculty, students, staff, alumni and administration and from the surrounding community is deep into the process of helping select Western Carolina’s next chancellor. The committee is working with Baker and Associates, an executive search firm with offices in Winston-Salem and Atlanta, to identify a successor for John W. Bardo.

“We face an extraordinary opportunity in continuing the momentum this university has achieved and in extending the multitude of successes this university has enjoyed over the past 15-plus years,” said Steve Warren ’80, chair of the WCU Board of Trustees, who chairs the chancellor search committee.

After poring over the backgrounds of more than three dozen candidates and interviewing several, the committee will recommend its top choices to the WCU Board of Trustees. That board will forward at least three nominees to University of North Carolina system President Tom Ross, who will present his recommendation to the UNC Board of Governors for approval. The goal is to have a new chancellor in place by July 1.

“I know that the search committee and President Ross will find an excellent leader for WCU,” said Bardo. “The people of this campus have shown that they are winners and they deserve no less than a great leader. I look forward to lending him or her my complete support and cheering from the sidelines as this university continues its quest for excellence.”

The Committee:

Chair Steve Warren ’80 of Asheville, Board of Trustees chair and an attorney.

Gerald Kiser ’69 of Columbia, S.C., Board of Trustees member and former CEO of La-Z-Boy Inc.

Joan MacNeill of Webster, current trustee and past board chair, and former president of Great Smoky Mountains Railway.

Virginia “Tommye” Saunooke ’96 MPA ’06 of Cherokee, WCU trustee and member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Council.

Teresa Williams of Huntersville, Board of Trustees member and board secretary.

Charles Worley of Asheville, vice chair of WCU’s trustees and former mayor of Asheville.

A.J. Grube, head of WCU’s Department of Business Administration and Law, and Sport Management.

Erin McNelis, chair of WCU’s Faculty Senate and associate professor of mathematics and computer science.

Bill Ogletree, head of the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

Daniel Dorsey, president of the Student Government Association and a senior from Decatur, Ga.

William Frady ’99 MAEd ’05, chair of the WCU Staff Senate and staff member in the Division of Information Technology.

Carol Burton ’87 MAEd ’89, associate vice chancellor for undergraduate studies.

Betty Jo Allen ’68 of Lincolnton, president of the WCU Alumni Association and a retired teacher.

Kenny Messer ’86 of Greenville, S.C., past-president of the Catamount Club board of directors and an executive with Milliken Corp.

Phil Walker ’71 of Hickory, former Board of Trustees chair and a senior vice president with BB&T.

Scott Hamilton of Hendersonville, CEO of AdvantageWest, the regional economic development commission of Western North Carolina.