Three new distinguished professors link WCU and the region in fields of engineering, fine arts and Cherokee culture


In the summer months of 2015, three new distinguished professors were added to the faculty at Western Carolina University – two of them in newly created positions.


Hugh Jack – Students in the Kimmel School share Jack’s enthusiasm for new technology that broadens their knowledge of engineering.

Hugh Jack, formerly professor of product design and manufacturing engineering at Grand Valley State University, was named WCU’s inaugural Cass Ballenger Distinguished Professor of Engineering. He also serves as head of the Department of Engineering and Technology

The Ballenger Professorship, endowed at $1 million, was established through a gift of $250,000 from former U.S. Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-Hickory) supplemented by a grant of $250,000 from the C.D. Spangler Foundation. Those gifts were combined with matching funds through a state program initiated by the General Assembly to encourage private support of public institutions of higher education.

Ballenger, who represented North Carolina’s 10th Congressional District from 1986 to 2005, died in February 2015.

The professorship is expected to play a role in enhancing the economy in the 10th Congressional District by expanding WCU’s engineering and technology programs and improving industry relationships in the Hickory area, said Jeffrey Ray, dean of the university’s Kimmel School of Construction Management and Technology.

“Dr. Jack brings many years of experience and leadership in advanced manufacturing and product design to WCU. This background and experience are perfectly aligned with the growth of advanced manufacturing in Western North Carolina,” Ray said.

The Kimmel School, where the Department of Engineering and Technology is housed, emphasizes project-based learning, in which students not only study theoretical aspects about engineering and technology, but also apply those theories in hands-on projects designed to help solve real problems faced by industry partners across Western North Carolina, under the oversight of faculty mentors.

The new Ballenger professor is confident in the abilities of his school to meet the challenges ahead. “There are many ways we can support existing business and create new opportunities in North Carolina,” Jack said. “The faculty and staff in the Kimmel School have outstanding records of experience and scholarship.”


Tom Ashcraft – MFA student Donald Sawyer Jr. (left) listens as Ashcraft discusses a work in progress.

Tom Ashcraft served as head of the sculpture program in the School of Art at George Mason University before being named the inaugural Distinguished Professor of Visual Arts at WCU.

The professorship, endowed at $500,000, also was established through a grant of $250,000 from the Spangler Foundation combined with matching funds from the General Assembly.

In his new role, Ashcraft leads WCU’s Master of Fine Arts Program. He has more than 30 years of experience as an educator and artist, with lectures, visiting artist engagements, exhibitions and creative projects all over world. Since 2005, he has been a core founding member of Workingman Collective, a group of artists and other professionals interested in collaboration, public art and socially engaged creative practice.

An example of the collective’s work is the three-part “Story” project in Monrovia, Liberia, commissioned as part of the U.S. Department of State’s Art in Embassies program. The “Story” project addressed the idea of learning and play, and linked the embassy to the community through the building of a playground, the making of a collaborative quilt, and the installation of public sculptures on the embassy grounds, said George Brown, dean of WCU’s College of Fine and Performing Arts.

“Tom’s experience leveraging the visual arts to engage with diverse communities strengthens the College of Fine and Performing Arts’ efforts to serve as the cultural heart of Western North Carolina,” Brown said.

Ashcraft said he seeks to create an interdisciplinary environment for high motivation, intellectual curiosity, independent thought, research and creative production. “I believe this will help students prepare a framework for building and navigating a practice in the arts and sustain their contribution to a contemporary society,” he said.

One of his goals, he added, is “to develop avenues for connective tissue” between various academic disciplines and to identify and establish opportunities for creative work and outreach on campus, within the region and across the state and nation.


Brett H. Riggs – Judaculla Rock, an enigmatic icon of local Cherokee culture, is an example of Riggs’ interests as an archaeologist.

Brett H. Riggs became the new Sequoyah Distinguished Professor of Cherokee Studies after a national search, succeeding the late Robert Conley, a noted Native American scholar and prolific author.

Formerly a research archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Riggs has worked with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians on various projects since the early 1990s.

Riggs continues to build upon existing partnerships between tribal and university leaders and will play an important role in developing and implementing future projects involving WCU, the Eastern Band and other Native American constituents, said Richard Starnes ’92 MA ’94, dean of WCU’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“Brett Riggs is an accomplished archeologist with deep ties with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. He approaches his work with a rare sensitivity that has impressed academics and tribal members alike,” Starnes said.

Riggs specializes in Cherokee studies and has worked in Western North Carolina for more than 20 years studying the lives of Cherokee families during the removal era of the 1830s. In his position with the Research Laboratories of Archaeology at UNC-CH, he helped to establish the National Historic Trail of Tears Long-Distance Trail in the southwestern corner of the region.

Riggs describes the work of his predecessors Conley and Tom Hatley as “foundational,” and says that he seeks to build upon “exciting initiatives in native health, Cherokee language, history, archeology and public heritage.”

“It is particularly important that we reinforce existing collaborations and partnerships between WCU and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and that we explore new ways of working together to build stronger ties between the tribe and the university,” Riggs said. “I see building that relationship as the core mission for the Sequoyah Professor, and I’m eager to grow and deepen the links with the tribe through engaged and applied scholarship.”