Greetings, Catamount Nation!
Let me express my sincere appreciation for the outpouring of support that Susan and I received after my announcement in the spring that I had been diagnosed with a small brain tumor. As you probably are aware, I underwent successful surgery at Duke University Hospital and spent some time recovering at home in beautiful Cullowhee. Upon the advice of my medical team, I began follow-up treatment in late May in Sylva. My health team is pleased with the progress I have made, and the outlook is very positive.
We truly have been overwhelmed by the innumerable words of encouragement, well wishes and prayers. Susan and I have long known what a special place Western Carolina University is. What makes it special is that the people – the students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends – are like a family. It is, to borrow a phrase from former dean of the College of Education and Allied Professions Gurney Chambers ’61, “the Western Way.”
Speaking of family, one wonderful member of our campus family – David A. Shapiro – has received the highest faculty honor presented by the University of North Carolina system, the O. Max Gardner Award. David is deeply deserving of this recognition, which is reserved for those UNC system faculty members who have made the greatest contribution to the welfare of the human race. You can read more about him in this edition of your university’s magazine, as well as learn about several other members of our fantastic WCU family and additional exciting developments at your university.
Among the developments since our last edition is the approval of the Connect NC bond initiative on March 15. As you may recall, the $2 billion statewide bond proposal included $110 million to replace WCU’s antiquated Natural Sciences Building. Nearly 66 percent of the state’s voters cast ballots in favor of the bond issue and, in keeping with North Carolina’s historic commitment to higher education and tradition of broad approval of bond referenda, the Connect NC initiative passed in 99 out of the state’s 100 counties.
The outcome of that vote proved to be a show of tremendous support for North Carolina’s public institutions of higher education, with $980 million of that $2 billion total providing sorely needed funding for the UNC system to allow individual campuses to address infrastructure needs that have remained unmet over the years. Another $350 million will be going to the state’s 58 community colleges, pushing the total amount to be allocated to public higher education through the bonds to $1.3 billion. The voters have my sincere gratitude for their belief in the power of WCU and other public institutions of higher education to serve as economic engines for the region and state.
Finally, I know that many readers are concerned about the potential impact of the NC Promise Tuition Plan, which was approved as part of the 2016-17 fiscal year budget bill and which would reduce in-state undergraduate tuition at WCU and two other UNC institutions to $500 per semester beginning fall 2018. There is much common ground around the need to address the issues of access and affordability in higher education. I applaud legislative leadership, including state Sen. Tom Apodaca ’80, for drawing attention to these important issues and proposing legislation to address them.
At WCU, providing access to the benefits of higher education to the people of Western North Carolina has been at the core of our mission since our founding in 1889. A strong commitment to student access and student success also has been one of my top priorities since I arrived at WCU. In my installation address in 2012, I pledged that WCU would define the new paradigm of ensuring access to higher education for those prepared for the rigors of a college education, coupled with an equal commitment to ensuring their success. Yet, for many capable and bright young people, cost of attendance is a barrier for their entry into college or a burden they carry for a decade or more after receiving their degree.
For WCU and other UNC institutions, our state Constitution mandates that public higher education in North Carolina should, “as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the state free of expense.” In recent years, however, state budget cuts, resulting from the challenges of the great recession, and rising costs have converged to shift an increasing burden to students and their parents to finance a university education. Inclusion of the NC Promise Tuition Plan in the state budget and the firm directive in the bill’s language that the state budget director shall allocate up to $40 million in recurring funding to fully fund this initiative are important steps toward reversing that trend.
We already have begun planning on how to implement the NC Promise Tuition Plan at WCU. I do want you to know that, contrary to concerns that the NC Promise Plan could somehow “cheapen” the quality of the education we offer, our academic quality will not suffer. We maintain control over our own admissions standards, and I can assure you that there will be no reduction in academic quality while I am chancellor.
Western Carolina University is in the business of changing lives. It certainly has changed mine.
David O. Belcher