For the first time in university history, total student enrollment at Western Carolina topped 9,600 this fall. A total of 9,608 students were on the books for the University of North Carolina system’s official census day, representing a 2.7 percent increase over fall 2011 enrollment of 9,352. The previous enrollment record of 9,429 was set in the fall semester of 2009.
Driving the growth in enrollment was an increase of 2.85 percent in the size of the freshman class and an improvement in the university’s retention rate. The number of first-time, full-time freshmen at WCU this fall is 1,550, up from the fall 2011 freshman class of 1,508. The average high school weighted grade-point average for the freshman class this year is 3.63, up slightly from last year’s overall freshman class GPA of 3.61 The university’s freshman retention rate – the percentage of first-time, full-time undergraduate students who return for their sophomore year – is 73.67 percent, an improvement over last year’s retention rate of 72.03 percent.
University officials also attribute some of the growth in enrollment to increased student interest in several undergraduate programs, including engineering, health and the human sciences. James Zhang, dean of the Kimmel School of Construction Management and Technology, said that the number of entering freshmen who have declared a major in engineering or have signed up for pre-engineering courses has doubled since fall 2011. Although some of those students will change majors before officially entering the program, that level of growth in one year signals that students are interested in WCU’s new stand-alone engineering program, Zhang said.
The fall semester marked the first cohort of entering freshmen since the UNC Board of Governors in February authorized Western Carolina to offer the bachelor of science degree in engineering with a concentration in electrical engineering. WCU had previously partnered with UNC Charlotte to jointly offer the bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering.
In addition, total enrollment in programs in the College of Health and Human Sciences grew by 11 percent over the previous year’s enrollment, with a 12.5 percent increase in undergraduate enrollment. Students in those programs, which were located across four buildings, are now studying in WCU’s new Health and Human Sciences Building, a $46 million, 160,000-square-foot facility that features technologically advanced clinical and laboratory spaces.
Western Carolina University’s online master’s degree programs in human resources and project management have received high rankings in affordability and “best buy” designations from the distance education information clearinghouse GetEducated.com. The human resources program ranked No. 3 among 40 online human resources programs nationwide while the project management program came in at No. 2 among 93 online master’s programs in
“WCU’s rating as a ‘best buy’ among distance degree programs honors the university as a nationally ranked leader in the field of online learning,” said Vicky Phillips, founder of GetEducated.com. “Their online master’s in human resources and online master’s in project management programs offer a top-quality education to the citizens of North Carolina through the innovative use of educational technology. Together, these two programs provide an exemplary model for how public universities can, with vision and determination, combine the quality of a traditional residential university with cutting-edge technology to better serve America’s business professionals,” said Phillips, who in 2009 was called the “leading consumer advocate for online college students” by U.S. News & World Report.
WCU has offered a master’s degree program in human resources since 1984. Based out of the College of Education and Allied Professions, the program allows students to earn the degree by completing 12 fully online courses. The master’s degree program in project management, based in the College of Business, is a two-year program designed for project management professionals with a minimum of two years of work experience.
“We are proud that this independent nationwide review of online programs indicates that our graduate programs in human resources and project management provide both high quality and high value for our students,” said Mimi Fenton, interim dean of Graduate School and Research at WCU. “We think the accolades earned by these two programs are indicative of the exceptional quality and value that can be found throughout Western Carolina University’s graduate offerings.”
Natural resources students and faculty help restore a mountain treasure
A contingent from Western Carolina University’s natural resource conservation and management program recently provided a helping hand as The Nature Conservancy began work to restore a bald high in the Plott Balsam Mountains of Jackson County. Four students and two faculty members from WCU were among a group of workers who hiked to the summit of Yellow Face mountain to clear vegetation from an area that was once an open grassy area, said Megan Sutton, stewardship manager for the conservancy’s Asheville office.
Sutton said the Yellow Face summit, which rises to 6,032 feet on the crest of the Plott Balsams about a mile southwest of Waterrock Knob, includes an area that was historically cleared and that has now grown up in high-elevation blackberry and fire cherries. The area is part of 1,595 acres known as the Krauss-Stansbury tract that The Nature Conservancy purchased in 1997. The property borders two miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway. “The work was focused on reopening the bald and reclaiming that area,” Sutton said. “Our hope is to clear a larger area every year.” The Nature Conservancy will probably not try to restore the entire bald, but “just enough of it to retain the view-shed and to maintain some early successional habitat,” she said.
Peter Bates, director of the NRCM program and head of WCU’s Department of Geosciences and Natural Resources, said WCU NRCM students have been holding a workday each fall for the past six years to help maintain the trail that extends down the Plott Balsam ridgeline from Waterrock Knob to Blackrock, a peak overlooking the town of Sylva. That trail passes across the Yellow Face summit.
A rededication ceremony held in September to celebrate a $15.5 million upgrade to Harrill Residence Hall represented more than just the latest in a series of construction and renovation projects to provide students with contemporary on-campus living quarters. It also represented a major step in the university’s commitment to sustainability.
The yearlong project reconfigured Harrill Hall, a 71,367-square-foot, 400-bed facility originally constructed in 1971, into a 77,296-square-foot residence hall with modern suites of rooms for 354 students. The renovation included a 6,000-square-foot addition with an upscale meeting venue. The building also now features a geothermal heating and air-conditioning system that transfers heat absorbed by the earth via geothermal wells to heat the building, provide warm water for showers and power the air-conditioning system. In addition, exterior wall insulation and canopies to control sunlight entering the building were part of the project.
In the lobby is an energy dashboard and interactive kiosk called “Eco Screen” that enables students to view real-time energy and water use information for Harrill Hall, said Lauren Bishop, campus energy manager. The 52-inch screen displays a breakdown by floor of water, lighting, plug loads and the heating and cooling system. The system also offers weather and event information, details about the building’s green features, and energy-saving and conservation tips. “Students love seeing and touching something that can seem intangible like energy,” said Bishop.
The alterations qualify the building for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification at the gold level. Harrill is one of two campus buildings designed or renovated to meet LEED standards. The new Health and Human Sciences Building, which opened in the fall on WCU’s new West Campus, was constructed to qualify for LEED certification at the silver level.
Taylor Medford, a senior from Waynesville majoring in elementary education, said students are impressed with Harrill Hall’s transformation. “It’s hard to believe you are in the same building,” Medford said. Keith Corzine ’82, director of residential living, said as a staff member and as an alumnus that it means a lot to see new life breathed into Harrill Hall. “There’s something very special about taking an older building and rejuvenating and modernizing it,” Corzine said.
Nearly 4,000 WCU students live on campus, and rooms accommodating 2,000 of them have been part of new construction or renovation projects within the last eight years, said Sam Miller, vice chancellor for student affairs. “That’s an incredible amount in just eight years – to take half of our housing capacity and upgrade it to this level,” said Miller. “This was designed to be a space for students to live and learn in for many years to come.”
Harrill Hall is named in honor of W.B. Harrill, who was credited with building WCU’s summer school and public relations programs over a 19-year span, from 1947 to 1966.
A book published by the Princeton Review lists the WCU College of Business among the nation’s best schools at which to earn a master’s degree in business administration. The education services company included the WCU college in the 2013 edition of its guidebook, “The Best 296 Business Schools,” which is based on surveys of 19,000 students in business programs around the world.
“We consider Western Carolina one of the best institutions a student could attend to earn an MBA,” said Robert Franek, Princeton Review senior vice president and publisher. “We selected the schools we profile in this book – 280 of which are in the U.S.A. and 16 are international – based on our high regard for their academic programs and our reviews of institutional data we collect from the schools.”
The guidebook’s profile of WCU’s College of Business says it provides “solid preparation” for students in finance and management. Student who commented for the survey said WCU’s MBA program has established “a reputation for not being an ‘assembly-line’ program” and students get a lot of personal attention from the “excellent, accessible professors with relevant professional experience.” One student said WCU offers a “quality MBA program with experienced, grounded faculty at a great price.”
The Princeton Review has featured Western Carolina as home to a top MBA program for several consecutive years, said Darrell Parker, a Buncombe County native who became dean of the College of Business in July. “We are always pleased to see external validation and recognition of the quality and distinctiveness of our graduate programs. With our new facility in Biltmore Park, we will be able to continue to expand our master of business administration and master of accountancy programs to serve the region,” Parker said. “WCU’s College of Business is well-positioned for further expansion. Our graduates and their employers know that when students complete a business degree at WCU, they are business-ready.”
There’s one less item on the “to-do list” for WCU’s new provost, Angi Brenton, who came to campus in August faced with the task of filling several top academic leadership positions among her most-pressing priorities. Brenton announced in October the appointment of James Zhang, who had been serving as interim dean of the Kimmel School of Construction Management and Technology since August 2011, as the school’s permanent dean.
“James Zhang is not only a respected leader on all parts of the WCU campus, but also is a rising leader nationally in the field of engineering education with the project-based educational model he has championed,” Brenton said. Associate dean of the Kimmel School since 2008, Zhang fills a vacancy created by the departure of former dean Robert McMahan, who was named president of Kettering University in Flint, Mich., last year. Zhang joined the WCU faculty in 2003 with more than 10 years of industry experience in electrical engineering research, development and management. From 2009 to 2010, he also served as interim head of the Department of Construction Management.
“We are not the only university who sought James as a leader, and we are extremely fortunate that he has chosen WCU. I am confident that he will lead the Kimmel School and the Center for Rapid Product Realization to even greater achievements in the future,” said Brenton, who has named search committees to help find the next permanent deans of the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Health and Human Sciences. Interim leaders also are serving as deans for the College of Education and Allied Professions, Graduate School and Research, and Division of Educational Outreach.
A committee tasked with conducting a rigorous examination of the university’s Millennial Initiative and developing a road map for how the regional economic and community development effort should move forward has completed its work and issued its final report. Among the recommendations of the Millennial Initiative Select Committee, appointed by WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher, is the appointment of “a strong and energetic leader” whose sole task will be to manage further development of the initiative.
The committee’s recommendations include selecting only future private business and industry partners that are “a good fit for the university,” stressing the importance of faculty involvement in the initiative, and linking WCU student learning to the activities of private partners.
“Of particular significance from my perspective is the committee’s clear (and welcome) statement that the Millennial Initiative must be grounded in the academic mission of the institution with buy-in from the faculty if the endeavor is to be successful,” Belcher said. “This guidance resonates with my own vision for our Millennial Initiative efforts, and I look forward to digesting this report and exploring appropriate next steps in order to take advantage of the extraordinary opportunity that our Millennial Initiative affords us.”
Belcher had charged the committee, which first met in January 2011, with three tasks: evaluate and propose strategic uses and objectives of the Millennial Initiative, paying special attention to its mission and Western North Carolina’s opportunities, challenges and strengths; recommend a process that will engage the institution and outside constituents in considering and evaluating Millennial Initiative possibilities; and propose both short- and long-term goals. Asheville attorney Steve Warren ’80, former chair of the WCU Board of Trustees, chaired the select committee, which consisted of 10 other regional business, industry and education leaders.
The entire report can be found at the website millennial.wcu.edu.