Back in November, University of North Carolina President Tom Ross had one simple requirement for the committee charged with helping find a successor to Chancellor John W. Bardo – deliver him a superhero. David O. Belcher may not leap tall buildings in a single bound, but he already has exhibited the ability to leap seamlessly from the music performance stage into the spotlight of academic administration.
Such a leap is not nearly as large as some might think at first blush. In fact, an examination of the job descriptions for top leadership positions in both fields reveals some striking similarities. Take the position of music conductor, for example. The primary tasks are to provide clear direction to a wide array of individuals who make up the ensemble, to bring together the diverse talents of various players, to establish the tempo, set the pace and maintain rhythm, and to listen with a keen ear so that adjustments can be made to create harmony.
That reads a lot like the job of a university chancellor, someone who must channel the disparate energies of faculty, staff, students, alumni and other supporters, building a sense of unity so that all are striving for the greater good of the organization, and listening at all times to sounds emanating from all corners of campus – and beyond. That explains why Belcher is equally at home in both worlds.
Provost and chief academic officer at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock since 2003, Belcher is classically trained in piano performance, and he has amassed more than two decades of academic and leadership experience at highly respected public universities, Ross said as he placed Belcher’s name in nomination to the UNC Board of Governors, which was unanimous in electing him WCU’s 11th chief executive officer April 8. “At each step along the way, he has proven himself to be an energetic and effective leader who encourages strategic thinking, promotes collaboration and inclusiveness, and makes student success a universitywide responsibility,” Ross said. “He also has earned a reputation for great integrity, sound decision-making, and a strong commitment to community engagement and outreach. I am convinced that Dr. Belcher has the right mix of experience, skills and passion needed to take Western Carolina to the next level.”
Although Belcher does not officially become chancellor until July 1, he already is hard at work immersing himself into the campus culture, including an April two-day whirlwind of get-acquainted meetings, a campuswide welcome assembly and a “meet the press” session that inspired Smoky Mountain News reporter Quintin Ellison to describe how a classic pianist is equally well-equipped in the art of leadership. “When a pianist accompanies a soloist, a delicate give and take must occur. Listening, adjusting, assisting and leading — all this, and more, must happen for the performances to succeed, and for beautiful music to result,” Ellison wrote. “Those same skills — listening, adjusting, assisting and leading — are evidenced in Belcher’s leadership style. “
In his meeting with the press, Belcher pointed out that all university administrators come from a specific academic background. “It’s my expertise that I bring to the table. Every single chancellor or president of a university brings something. It’s going to be English here, physics here, psychology or political science here. Mine just happens to be music,” he said.
Belcher is accustomed to being asked how his experience as a musician has prepared him for a leadership role. “Here’s the way I explain it: When I walk out on stage to perform a solo piece of music, I channel a synthesized understanding of both music theory and musical style gleaned through years of study through an athletic physical apparatus, infusing the performance of a piece someone else wrote with a singularly original interpretation – all from memory, live in front of an audience. Performance is not for the faint of heart,” he said. “This performance scenario is not terribly different from what an academic administrator must do. As an academic administrator, I have to make a compelling case in various forums in front of a wide variety of audiences for higher education and the institution I serve, working hard to make sense of the sometimes opaque world of higher education and its interconnectedness to quality of life, economic development, community development and so forth.”
From left, David Belcher at nearly 3 years old; in family photo with siblings (counterclockwise from top) Philip, Elizabeth and Miriam; and in high school graduation regalia. At right, Susan performs as a student at Northwestern University, sharing the stage with William Martin, now an associate professor of voice at WCU.
The oldest of four children, Belcher grew up in the rural South Carolina town of Barnwell, son of a Baptist minister and a public schoolteacher. “Many of the people in Barnwell claim him as their child. That is one of the advantages of living in a small town. The town will keep you abreast of what your child is doing – or not doing,” said his father, the Rev. Posey Belcher. “Now, it will sound like I am bragging, but David was a very obedient child. He was responsive and responsible, with a good personality. From infancy on, he was very much involved in the church. Of course, he didn’t really have much choice, with my vocation.”
Belcher was born to be a leader, his parents say, although his mother, Jean Belcher, recalls that during his youth her son had his eyes set on a slightly different leadership position. “When he was a little boy, he would hang up on his bedroom walls flags of all the states, and he would make maps in the shape of all of the states,” she said. “He drew them, cut them out, put in the state capitals and put them on his wall. He said, ‘I’m going to be president of the United States someday.’” Appropriately, his new office is in the building commonly known on the WCU campus as “the White House.”
At an early age, Belcher demonstrated an aptitude for academics and music, his mother said. “David was a good student all the way through school. He was in a large number of plays beginning in kindergarten on through high school,” she said. “He started taking piano lessons before the age of 6. I know a lot of people frown upon that as being too young, but we had a piano in the house, and he decided he was going to play it one way or the other. We thought it was best for him if he learned to play it the right way. I think it worked out all right.” As a high school student, he began giving piano lessons to two or three students in the family home, an experience his folks are convinced set him on dual career paths of music and education.
Belcher’s parents have always stressed the importance of education. “The second classroom was our kitchen table,” Jean Belcher said. “It was our policy that the children had to get their homework and studies done before they could go out for ball-playing or other activities with friends. We gave them a short break after school, but they had to get their school work completed before playtime.” The Belcher family also made it a point to incorporate education into family vacations by being sure they visited the historic sites wherever they went, including Boston, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, New York and Washington. “The children enjoyed it. They learned, and it was fun,” Posey Belcher said.
That emphasis on education did not end with high school graduation, he said. “We promised all of our children that we would support them in getting a college education up through a master’s degree. If they wanted to go farther than that, they would have to do it on their own. With four children, and on a pastor’s and teacher’s salaries, we really could not do more than that. It was a stretch to do so, but we felt it was important, and we didn’t know we were poor. We believe in education that much. We have always felt that education is key to our future,” he said.
The 53-year-old chancellor-elect graduated from Furman University in 1979 with a degree in piano performance. After receiving a master’s degree in 1981 in piano performance at the University of Michigan, Belcher studied in Austria on a Rotary Foundation Graduate Fellowship before earning his doctorate in 1989 at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Belcher began his academic career in 1988 as an assistant professor of music at Missouri State University. During his 15-year tenure at MSU, he rose steadily through the academic and administrative ranks. After serving as coordinator of keyboard studies in MSU’s music department (1989-92) and assistant dean of the College of Arts and Letters (1993), he was named dean of the College of Arts and Letters in 1994. He left Missouri in 2003 to join UALR as provost and vice chancellor for
His brother, Philip Belcher, 50, president of the Mary Black Foundation in Spartanburg, S.C., also is a graduate of Furman, where he was a history major. He has a seminary degree from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a law degree from Duke University and will complete a master’s degree in creative writing at Converse College in June. Sister Elizabeth Mixon, 46, is testing coordinator for Northwestern High School in Rock Hill, S.C. She has a bachelor’s degree in voice from Furman, a master’s degree in choral conducting from the Eastman School of Music and a master’s degree in education from Winthrop University. Youngest sister Miriam Ponder, 42, has a degree in art history from Furman and a master’s degree in art history from the University of Maryland. Ponder works as an order analyst for American Tire Distributors in Huntersville and formerly worked for the Computer Science Corp. in Rockville, Md.
When told of the UNC system president’s request that Western Carolina’s next chancellor be a superhero, the patriarch and matriarch of the Belcher family chuckled softly as they shared some of David Belcher’s “superpowers,” including a sharp sense of humor and an amazing knack for recalling names and faces from his past. “He still stays in touch with friends at all the places where he has been, and he has a Christmas card list that would amaze you. He keeps up with all his friends from all across the country and from his travels abroad. I’ve never seen anything like it,” his mother said. “He still sends a Christmas card to his seventh-grade teacher,” added his father.
“His superpower is his ability to listen and to hear, his ability to think things through and analyze, and not make decisions too hastily,” Posey Belcher said. “When he speaks, you know that he has thought it through. There is not going to be much off-the-cuff decision-making. He can stand his ground. He is not mean, but he is firm.” Like many superheroes – and all musicians – he has a sensitive ear, Jean Belcher said. “He is very willing to listen. He is not one of those people who say, ‘It’s my way or none,’” she said. “He is willing to give the other person a right to his or her own opinion. He may not agree with the opinion, but he is willing to give the other side a chance to be heard.”
David O. Belcher takes the stage with wife Susan to applause from search committee members including Steve Warren ’80 and Carol Burton ’87 MAEd ’89.
Ross may not have realized it at the time, but when he endorsed Belcher to the UNC Board of Governors, he actually was recommending a can’t-break-the-set, two-for-the-price-of-one package deal. But this is no Batman and Robin situation; it’s more akin to Superman and Wonder Woman. The chancellor-elect describes his wife, Susan Brummell Belcher, as “a full partner in a leadership team” and credits her with grounding, challenging and supporting him. “Western Carolina is not just getting a new chancellor. The university is getting a team,” he said. “Cullowhee, you are going to love her. I want you to know that. That’s not a directive. That’s just clairvoyance.”
Like her husband, Susan Belcher comes from a performing arts background. She earned a bachelor’s degree in theater from Missouri State University and a master’s degree in vocal performance from Northwestern University. She completed her professional opera training with the Chicago Lyric Opera Center for American Artists, and she has experience ranging from professional musical theater, opera performance and directing to teaching, nonprofit arts administration, education outreach and community service.
Although she taught voice as a member of the music faculty at UALR, Susan Belcher says she has no plans to join the faculty in WCU’s School of Music. “I have only one self-imposed job title at my new institution and that is ‘WCU friend-raiser,’” she said. “This will play out in many ways, but through them all, David and I will be wholeheartedly engaging with students, faculty, staff, donors, alumni, community members and other constituent parties to create broad support for the WCU mission.”
Susan Belcher has had some interesting stops on her career path, ranging from serving as magician David Copperfield’s on-stage assistant to working with the United Nations travel office. Her performing career has seen her share the stage with actor and fellow Missouri State alumnus John Goodman and, in rehearsal, with opera great Luciano Pavarotti. In addition, she was once an avid long-distance runner. “I’ve lost track of the number of marathons I’ve run, but they have included the New York City Marathon, Chicago Marathon and Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. I did run a 700-mile race in New York City. It was on a one-mile loop on Ward Island in the East River, and it took 13-and-a-half days to complete, averaging around 50 miles a day,” she said. “Another year, I participated in the Marathon of the Sands – a seven-day endurance race in the Moroccan Sahara Desert. We ran over sand dunes, dried mudflats and through the occasional oasis, carrying our gear on our backs and camping in tents under the stars. See why Base Camp Cullowhee intrigues me? I have done more walking than running in recent years, but have committed to running the Valley of the Lilies Half Marathon next year at WCU. It will be my first in awhile. I’ll have to train.”
Travel and community also are passions for the Belchers, she said. “We love meeting new people, and exploring new places and cultures. Visits to Turkey, Italy, Croatia and the Mayan ruins in Mexico rank at the top of our shared overseas journeys, but our wish list of unvisited places is extensive. Last summer brought us to North Carolina. Who would have imagined we would be moving here within a year?” she said. “I fell in love with WCU and Cullowhee before I ever set physical eyes on them. Their sense of place resonated deeply with me, and I felt I had found a community that I could truly embrace as home. More than anything, I want to be a good neighbor, and getting to know as many people as possible in my university and regional community is a top priority.”
David Belcher talks with students during an April visit to campus.
When a university gets its first new leader in 16 years, it is natural for those within the institution to wonder what big changes may be in store, and what will the new boss do first. The chancellor-elect already has answered that question with one word – listen. (There’s that word again.)
“My first job is to get to know you and to listen to you. I have worked for 17½ years in administrative positions at two great universities. But this institution is not the same as those two. I have to learn who you are, as individuals, as units, as a university, as alumni, as community members,” he said. “While I do have some ideas, I would not presume to conjure up a vision without your consultation. My modus operandi is a consultative approach. It’s not about my vision; it’s about our vision.”
Belcher’s super senses of vision and hearing are part of what helped sell him to the search committee in its efforts to bring a superhero to President Ross, said Steve Warren ’80, committee chair and chair of WCU’s Board of Trustees, who previously had made this promise to Ross: “We’re going to find you your Superman or Superwoman. They won’t have an ‘S’ on their chest. They’ll have a ‘WCU’ on their chest.” And be dressed in purple, Ross added.
“We knew that our starting point was that we had an incredibly gifted faculty, highly intelligent students and extremely motivated staff, all of them possessing a very strong work ethic,” Warren said, describing the search. “The question became who would best leverage those extraordinary talents and take advantage of them to increase our ability to deliver first-class educational opportunities to our students and improve the economic vitality of this region. David Belcher was the answer to that question.”
Committee member Betty Jo Allen ’68, a retired schoolteacher like Belcher’s mother, said she was impressed with David and Susan Belcher’s knowledge of not just the university as an institution, but the individuals who comprise it. “Many things about Dr. Belcher make me believe he will be an excellent chancellor for Western Carolina: intelligence, experience, personality, knowledge of the position,” said Allen, WCU Alumni Association president. “When I met Dr. Belcher, I felt as if I already knew him. But, more important than that, I felt Dr. Belcher knew me, knew us – Western Carolina – and enthusiastically desired to be our chancellor. Now that I have met Mrs. Belcher, I see we are getting a couple who are already part of the WCU family, and are happy to be.”
Speaking of happy, Dr. Belcher’s folks are thrilled that their son is back in the South. When he and Susan take up residence in Cullowhee this summer, it will be the first time he has lived within an easy drive from his parents, who now live in Rock Hill, since he left for Michigan to start work on his master’s degree in 1979. They also have found that, with their eldest child’s appointment as WCU chancellor, their extended family just got a whole lot larger.
“It has been interesting, all of the people we have discovered who have connections to Western Carolina University,” Posey Belcher said “So many people who we know have come up to us after David’s appointment to say they went to WCU or they have a brother or sister who went to school there. One of the leaders of the church in Walterboro who is now in Rock Hill got his degree there. It’s just been amazing the number of people we are finding who have connections to the university.”
David Belcher is not just the first new chancellor at Western Carolina University in 16 years. He also is the first chancellor hired under the watch of Tom Ross, who became president of the University of North Carolina on Jan. 1.
Ross is no stranger to Western Carolina University, having made several visits to campus since he was announced as successor to departing president Erskine Bowles, including a meeting with the chancellor search committee while he was still president-elect, the delivery of official greetings at one of WCU’s three spring commencement ceremonies in May, and remarks at the student-athlete scholarship banquet.
In fact, Ross was already familiar with Cullowhee prior to assuming his current position, thanks to the influence of his brother, Bill Ross ’70, who has urged his sibling to always wear a purple tie when visiting campus. Bill Ross is a member of the WCU Alumni Association board of directors representing District 3, and he has endowed a golf scholarship at WCU in memory of his father, Charles B. Ross Jr.
Although Tom Ross won’t always sport a purple tie when he’s conducting UNC business, one newly elected member of the UNC Board of Governors can – Hickory banking executive Phillip D. Walker ’71, former chairman of the Western Carolina University Board of Trustees.
Walker is among eight people recently appointed by the N.C. Senate to serve four-year terms on the 32-member board, which handles policy-making decisions for the 17 schools in the UNC system. The General Assembly elects 16 board members every two years – eight from the Senate, and eight from the House.
Walker is senior vice president of corporate banking for the western region of BB&T. He was a member of WCU’s Board of Trustees from 1997 until 2005, serving as its chair from 2003 until 2005, and he is currently chairman of the WCU Foundation Board of Directors. A member of the WCU Research and Development Board of Directors, he is former president of the WCU Alumni Association.