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Voter approval was overwhelming during the March 2016 bond referendum

By RICHARD STARNES ’92 MA ’94

March 15, 2016, was a momentous day in our institution’s history and in the history of our state. On that day, in the primary election, our state’s citizens overwhelmingly approved the Connect NC bond proposal. For Western Carolina University, this means a new $110 million natural science facility, the single largest project in the bond package.

Most alumni, myself included, spent time in our current Natural Sciences Building, whether for core curriculum courses or, for those in the sciences, for their major. Opened in 1978 when WCU boasted an enrollment of slightly more than 6,100 students, the Natural Sciences Building was never designed to support the current student load in science courses, nor does it offer students the benefit of modern teaching strategies or laboratory facilities.

Today, Western Carolina University is a very different place. With a vibrant campus and an enrollment topping 10,300 students, we are a recognized center of science, technology, economic development and community engagement. Fixed lab benches, limited exhaust hoods and inflexible architectural designs – the hallmarks of our current facility – do not conform to 21st-century science pedagogy that emphasizes experimentation, collaboration and student research. It also does not support our robust level of faculty and student research.

For the last two years, a steady stream of elected and appointed political officials, community leaders, and members of our University of North Carolina Board of Governors and General Administration passed through our Natural Sciences Building, taking in the inadequate facilities, but also the hard work, promise and potential of our students and faculty. They visited classes, toured labs and heard our story from students and faculty alike. Despite a failing building built nearly 40 years ago, we continued to educate our students to take their places as 21st-century scientists. Our visitors realized what we already know: a building is just a place where education takes place. Their support of our new science facility was grounded upon the great work of our people, and they embraced our vision of what we might accomplish with some much-needed investment.

Planning for our new facility is well underway, and we plan to keep the university community updated on our progress through a website and via social media. As we plan, we are focused on transformative questions and new ideas. What will our students need to know and be able to do in 10 years? In 20? How can we create a facility that embraces the best teaching strategies and anticipates new classroom evolutions? How can we provide platforms for research and collaboration that will support faculty and students? How can we leverage our new capabilities to support the region and the state? How can we use the new building to drive innovation in the sciences, in the College of Arts and Sciences and across campus? These questions will guide us as we build this important cornerstone of the university’s future.

Since 1789, the people of North Carolina have led the nation in terms of public support for public higher education. The bond referendum vote on March 15 indicates that the historic support we have enjoyed is alive and well in the Old North State. Buildings are nice – and certainly needed – but knowing our citizens still recognize the importance of a “University of the People” makes our new science building that much sweeter. Thanks to the readers of this publication and to the other citizens of North Carolina for supporting our efforts to educate the scientists, technologists, engineers, mathematicians and educators of tomorrow.
Richard Starnes ’92 MA ’94 is dean of Western Carolina University’s College of Arts and Sciences.