In his first order of business after being installed as Western Carolina University’s 11th chancellor on March 29, David O. Belcher charted an ambitious course for the university’s future, a new direction firmly grounded in the institution’s past and fully cognizant of the challenges of the present. More than 1,600 faculty, staff, students and elected officials from across the state, and visitors representing colleges and universities from across the nation were on hand in the Liston B. Ramsey Regional Activity Center for the installation ceremony, presided over by Thomas W. Ross, president of the University of North Carolina system.
“It is tempting at such moments for those of us who are members of the Western family to overstate our own importance and significance in Western Carolina University’s trajectory. For sure, we are the institution’s current leaders, we have a sense of ownership of the university, and we have our various roles to play,” Belcher said during remarks delivered after taking the oath of office administered by Mark D. Martin ’85, N.C. Supreme Court senior associate justice. “But the university existed long before we arrived on the scene and will exist long after we depart. We are, though, stewards for a time. And so the fundamental question facing us at a moment like this is: What will we do with the time which is ours to advance Western Carolina University to the greatest extent possible in fulfillment of its mission?”
In answer to that self-imposed question, Belcher vowed that, under his watch, the university will never waver from the cornerstone of its founding in 1889 as a student-focused institution providing access to higher education to the people of Western North Carolina, and he affirmed a renewed commitment to student success, meeting regional needs, honing institutional focus, embracing excellence and taking care of faculty and staff. Those five overarching themes are the guiding principles that will steer the university’s future, said Belcher, who went on to share seven specific projects, some of which already are under way, that will play a major role in upholding those principles.
“Western Carolina is a great university with even greater promise, but we have only begun to tap that inherent potential,” Belcher 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.”
In officially accepting the mantle of the office of chancellor, Belcher, who had previously characterized wife Susan as a full partner in a leadership team for WCU, again reminded the university community that his spouse is as vested in the university and its success as he is. “Susan and I pledge to devote our energy, our ideas, our ideals, our passion, our laughter, our friendship, and our sense of urgency to this university in pursuit of a future wherein that promise is realized. We are truly proud to be Catamounts,” he said.
Setting the stage both for a future comprehensive campaign and for a concerted emphasis to reconnect with the county and the region where the university is located and the people it must serve, Belcher spoke about the necessity for WCU to collaborate with its neighbors in order to truly fulfill its community engagement mission.
“We cannot do this alone,” he said. “We seek partners who share our passion for the Western Way, this university’s mission, and its future; we seek partners who will support Western’s efforts with the resources, public and private, required to realize its potential; we seek those who will partner with us to unleash the capacity and imaginations of our people both at Western and throughout our region; and we seek partners who are unafraid to dream.”
The installation ceremony capped a week of activities designed not just to honor the new chancellor and his wife, but also to highlight and celebrate the accomplishments of the university’s students, faculty, staff, alumni and community partners. Centered on the theme “Defining Our Future in Pursuit of Distinction,” installation week activities actually began the week before, as student groups teamed up with Cullowhee, Sylva and Dillsboro business owners to help decorate their storefronts in Catamount purple and gold.
Nearly 200 members of the WCU community spent time Saturday, March 24, serving nonprofit organizations and efforts for WCU Cares: A Day of Service. Campus volunteers assisted with initiatives at the Catman2 shelter, the Clean Slate Coalition halfway house, a Habitat for Humanity home, a new community trail at WCU, Community Table, a highway cleanup, Full Spectrum Farms, Reach of Macon County and the Sylva Community Garden. “I was impressed by the number of people who participated, especially with the overcast skies,” said Erin McNelis, the Faculty Senate chair and an associate professor of mathematics. “I was struck by pride to see our students, staff, faculty and community members out in groups along the roadside with their orange bags, knowing that we care about our campus and our environment.”
Sunday, March 25, brought the second annual Valley of the Lilies Half Marathon and 5-K, with more than 300 people taking part. Although an out-of-state family wedding prevented the Belchers from being on hand to cheer participants in person, they were there in spirit … and in visage, as volunteers held up oversized photographs of David and Susan Belcher and waved as runners passed the Chancellor’s Residence on the race route.
Installation week got into full swing Monday, March 26, as a crowd of about 600 gathered for what had been billed simply as “a surprise event” associated with what organizers hope becomes an annual tradition – “Firing up the Cata-Fount.” At precisely 12:15 p.m., the sounds of Michael Jackson’s pop hit “Beat It” filled the air as members of the WCU Dance Team hit the bricks of Central Plaza and began to move to the music. A collection of students, faculty, staff, administrators and community members, all wearing tie-dyed T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Fire It Up,” joined in. About 100 people participated in the flash mob, including T.J. Eaves ’12, then SGA president, who “free-styled” through the choreographed dancers alongside Belcher, who kicked up his heels to show off purple striped socks as the fountain sprang to life. “What I enjoyed most was seeing faculty, staff, students and community members sweating together to make this happen,” said participant Anna McFadden, WCU’s director of academic engagement and IT governance.
After the Belcher Open, a disc golf tournament featuring special discs adorned with the smiling countenance of the university’s new chancellor, activities shifted to Dillsboro. More than 100 people gathered at the Jarrett House to witness the unveiling of a mobile application designed by students in WCU’s computer information systems program that connects smartphone users to Dillsboro’s businesses and attractions. The Belchers used their iPhones to officially launch the mobile Web app, while Casey Queen, president of the Dillsboro Merchants Association, and Dillsboro Mayor Mike Fitzgerald did the honors on their Android-based devices. The project is part of an ongoing Dillsboro/WCU partnership.
Later, officials from the town of Sylva and Jackson County government issued twin proclamations welcoming Belcher as chancellor of Western Carolina. Maurice Moody ’66, Sylva’s mayor, declared March 26 to be “Dr. David O. Belcher Day” in the town in recognition of “an energetic and effective leader who encourages strategic thinking, promotes collaboration, and strives for inclusiveness” and of his “reputation for great integrity, sound decision-making abilities, and a strong commitment to community engagement.” Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, presented a proclamation commending the University of North Carolina Board of Governors for its selection of Belcher as WCU chancellor. “The Jackson County Board of Commissioners is proud to have WCU in our county and serving as a major educational, scientific, cultural, and community and economic force, not only in the county and the mountain region, but across North Carolina, the Southeast and the nation,” Debnam said.
Closing the evening at the Jackson County Public Library was “Reflections on Place: An Evening with Distinguished Storytellers,” as an appreciate audience of about 130 listened to readings by former N.C. Poet Laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer, Cherokee storyteller Jerry Wolfe and Ron Rash, WCU’s Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Culture and author of The New York Times best-seller “Serena.”
The new chancellor was back at the library Tuesday, March 27, reading aloud during a children’s story-time session for local preschool children. Activities returned to campus for “Lawn-gating,” a festival featuring games, music and food on the lawn of A.K. Hinds University Center and the Central Plaza prior to the afternoon’s home baseball game. The event included the unveiling of a signature flavor of purple ice cream – Belcher’s Burple, made by Riverview Farms, whose owners include Marilyn Cole MS ’81. The Purple Thunder drum line led the crowd to Hennon Stadium to watch the Catamounts take on Kennesaw State in baseball action, with Susan Belcher singing the national anthem, and her husband throwing the ceremonial first pitch.
During a luncheon Wednesday, March 28, Susan Belcher announced an initiative to re-establish the Cullowhee lily, a white flower with six petals once common in the Cullowhee valley. To celebrate the community and sense of place, she had hoped WCU could incorporate the lilies into installation décor, only to learn the plant was no longer common in the area. Today, the lily, which usually flowers in late April or early May, grows in only a few spots on campus. Organizers of the initiative, which is still in early planning stages, are seeking additional partners and supporters, and hope to link the effort to the Alumni Association Scholarship Fund.
That evening, under the direction of Terrence Mann, WCU’s Phillips Distinguished Professor of Musical Theatre, faculty and students from the College of Fine and Performing Arts and community friends took center stage in the John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center to present an evening of classic Broadway show tunes and popular songs especially selected to recognize the life and career of David Belcher.
After the formal installation ceremony and reception March 29, the university threw open the doors to campus and invited members of the surrounding community to sample the wide variety of opportunities available to the public. The event, titled “Community on Campus,” was designed to provide residents of Western North Carolina a chance to discover the range of entertainment, cultural, health and learning opportunities available at WCU. “Community on Campus” featured the showing of a newly updated and digitized version of the documentary “Bells in the Valley,” originally created on the occasion of WCU’s centennial in 1989 and narrated by Gurney Chambers ’61, former dean of WCU’s College of Education and Allied Professions.
The spirit of partnership and cooperation seen throughout the week of installation activities has left the campus and surrounding community re-energized, said David Shapiro, a communication sciences and disorders professor who holds WCU’s Robert Lee Madison Distinguished Professorship.
“The arrival of a new chancellor provides an opportunity to celebrate an institution’s past, reflect on its present and plan for its future,” said Shapiro, who served on the installation steering committee. “Charged with organizing events and celebrations around the theme of ‘Defining our Future in Pursuit of Distinction,’ this committee’s energy is palpable; the excitement is contagious. More than any other committee on which I have ever served, this one represents the merging of individual and collective talents of every constituent across the campus, the larger community and the state. Never before have I seen to this extent such an outpouring of unified and positive energy, demonstrating the uniqueness of Western Carolina University.”
That positive energy extended far beyond the boundaries of campus, said Sylva business owner Lynda Sossamon ’69, who also served on the steering committee. “Response has been wonderful from the business community. I think one reason is that David and Susan have quickly become members of the community. Everybody in town knows them. They come to our restaurants and visit our stores. They are like neighbors already, like another member of the family,” said Sossamon, a Sylva town commissioner. “We realize that WCU is an important part of our community, and these events are a great reminder of that fact. This is a great way to bring students, faculty and staff into Sylva and Dillsboro and to get members of the community, some of whom may have never set foot on campus, to go to campus. We truly are a part of WCU, and WCU is a part of Sylva and all of Jackson County.”
1. A reaffirmation of WCU’s commitment to student access to education matched by a corresponding commitment to student success.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. A renewed emphasis on excellence in all that the university does.
5. A promise to take care of the university’s people, including addressing faculty and staff compensation issues, improving professional development and training opportunities, creating leadership development and succession planning, and fostering an environment of trust and respect.
1. Convene a consortium of WNC community college presidents, school superintendents and leaders from other organizations in pursuit of truly seamless education and to address issues such as mathematics, reading and writing skills.
2. Make raising funds for endowed scholarships the top philanthropic priority to ensure access to higher education for all
3. 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.
4. Initiate a Leadership Academy for faculty and staff, a professional development opportunity to build a community of leaders who will help WCU address the issues it will face in the future.
5. Develop the Millennial Initiative as a national model for universities serving rural areas.
6. Organize an annual conference of regional leaders and thinkers to work collaboratively toward solving important issues by complementing the work of area chambers of commerce, AdvantageWest, the Southwestern Commission and similar organizations.
7. Be an engaged partner in the economic and community development of WCU’s 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.”
–From Chancellor Belcher’s installation address
In higher education, a mace refers to an ornamented shaft carried during ceremonies and intended to represent an official’s authority. Western Carolina’s mace, created in 1993, is a shaft of black walnut capped with a head of polished bronze, adorned with engraved mountain rhododendron leaves and bearing bas-relief icons of the old Madison Building, Alumni Tower, original WCU seal and University of North Carolina seal. The mace was designed and sculpted by Bill Eleazer ’88, while F. Merton Cregger, retired former director of the WCU Center for Improving Mountain Living, assisted in creating the shaft. Weighing approximately 17 pounds, the mace is so unwieldy that UNC President Thomas Ross simply gestured to it rather than attempt to hand it to Chancellor Belcher during the oath of office.
Fashioned of handcrafted sterling silver, the university medallion is 4 inches in diameter and bears a seal designed in 1925 by art student Betty de Berry ’25. The circular design encloses an outline map of North Carolina and a pine bough that reaches from the Outer Banks to the western mountains, where the location of Cullowhee is marked with a star. The word “Cullowhee” and the date of the institution’s founding, 1889, complete the design, which served for several decades as the official seal of the chancellor. On the reverse side is engraved a list of the heads of the institution. A silver medallion chain was handcrafted for the installation by Joel Queen ’05 MFA ’09, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The links of the chain represent the strong connections between the university, community and students. The chain was a gift to the university from the Board of Trustees in honor of Belcher’s installation, and board chair Joan MacNeill placed the chain and medallion around the new chancellor’s neck during the ceremony.
Members of the steering committee planning the installation of David O. Belcher had two overriding goals: plan a ceremony in keeping with University of North Carolina system traditions while celebrating the unique traits of Western Carolina University, and do so with utmost economy and supported by private contributions. Mission accomplished on both counts.
The campaign to raise private contributions for the ceremony and other events during installation week proved so successful that, when combined with in-kind support from individuals and businesses and the use of the in-house talents of WCU faculty, students and staff, more than $31,000 remains in the installation budget after the bills have been paid.
In keeping with the installation address theme of providing student access and assuring student success, the balance from the installation budget has been distributed equally to three scholarship funds – the New Century Scholars Program, which offers aid to students in Jackson, Macon and Swain counties who, after being identified as “high-potential” in the sixth grade, graduate from high school and complete an associate’s degree at Southwestern Community College before transferring to WCU; the Alumni Association Scholarship, which helps students who have financial need and with close family ties to Catamount alumni; and the WCU Staff Senate Scholarship, which provides assistance to children of university employees.
“Because so many of the private contributions to help make the installation a reality came from friends and neighbors from the surrounding community, from alumni, and from our staff and faculty, it makes perfect sense to use dollars raised in excess of the funding requirements to support scholarships that benefit students from the region and children of some of our staunchest supporters – our loyal alumni and hard-working staff,” said Jim Miller, associate vice chancellor for development.
The university collected $96,665 in private commitments to help pay for installation events. Expenses totaled $65,109.65, including costs for items ranging from printing and mailing to food, tables, chairs and a tent for the post-installation reception and to music royalties and related expenses for the pre-installation gala performance. In addition, the university received numerous in-kind contributions, including a significant gift of food from ARAMARK, the university’s dining services partner. Faculty, staff, student and community volunteers for activities during the week proved invaluable, said Beth Tyson Lofquist ’78 MAEd ’79 EdS ’88, interim provost and co-chair of the steering committee.
“I am constantly amazed at the generosity of the friends and supporters of this university, and by the willingness of our faculty, staff and students to share their talents and their time,” said Lofquist. “I have heard nothing but wonderful comments from those who took part in installation week activities, and I truly think that the relationships that we are strengthening with our community, our county and our region, because of the good will generated during the week, will pay dividends for years to come.”