Approximately 150 members of the Western Carolina University community leapt to their feet Friday, April 8, in WCU’s Blue Ridge Conference Center to applaud a man who was not there and who most of those gathered have never met.
David O. Belcher, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock since 2003, was announced as WCU’s chancellor-elect April 8 during a meeting in Chapel Hill of the Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina system. The announcement was streamed live to the Blue Ridge Conference Center, and the reception was enthusiastic. Belcher is scheduled to assume the position July 1, when current Chancellor John Bardo will step down after 16 years leading the university.
“It couldn’t have gone better,” said Brian Railsback, dean of WCU’s Honors College. Railsback was among select faculty, staff and students who met chancellor candidates during campus visits. “Everyone who I talked to who met the candidates, we were all hoping this would be the announcement,” Railsback said.
For his part, Belcher, in a purple tie, speaking remotely from Chapel Hill, said it was “difficult to express adequately how excited I am to be WCU’s next chancellor.” Referring to tight budget times, Belcher said he sees a “future full of potential, despite current challenges.” In addition to Bardo, Belcher recognized his wife, Susan Brummell Belcher, who teaches voice at UALR. “She is a partner to me in every way,” he said. “Cullowhee, you’re going to love her.”
A native of Barnwell, S.C., Belcher graduated from Furman University in 1979 with a degree in piano performance. He received a master’s degree in the field at the University of Michigan and a doctorate at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Throughout his career, Belcher has appeared widely as a recitalist and chamber musician and been active in civic and community organizations.
Belcher began his academic career in 1988 as an assistant professor of music at Missouri State University. During his 15-year tenure at MSU, he rose through administrative ranks to dean of the College of Arts and Letters. He left Missouri in 2003 for UALR, a doctoral research university enrolling more than 13,000 students. Like Western Carolina, UALR has experienced significant enrollment growth while increasing academic standards and has focused on meeting regional and state needs in education, health-related fields, and strategic areas of research and development.
Belcher’s selection was the first of a UNC system chancellor for UNC President Tom Ross, who was named to that position in August. Ross made his choice based on three candidates forwarded to him by the 16-member WCU chancellor search committee drawn from WCU faculty, students, staff, alumni and administration and from the surrounding community. In recommending Belcher to the Board of Governors, Ross highlighted his more than two decades of academic and leadership experience.
“At each step along the way, he has proven himself to be an energetic and effective leader who encourages strategic thinking, promotes collaboration and inclusiveness, and makes student success a universitywide responsibility,” Ross said. “I am convinced that Dr. Belcher has the right mix of experience, skills and passion needed to take Western Carolina to the next level, and I am thrilled that he has agreed to join our leadership team.”
Railsback, who is heartened by Belcher’s background in the humanities and fine arts, said he was impressed by both Belchers. “He and his wife were already incredibly aware of the community,” Railsback said. David Belcher knew the position of faculty members simply on hearing their names, and Susan Belcher even asked him about the Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavour, a nonprofit organization Railsback is involved in to revitalize the Cullowhee community.
Belcher’s response to a two-hour campus tour – including the chancellor’s residence, the Health and Human Sciences Building now under construction, the Fine and Performing Arts Center and the new buildings ringing the campus center – endeared him to his guides, who included Amanda Bienhaus, an Honors College senior from Evansville, Ind., studying business administration and law. “He was in awe of how remarkable our campus was,” said Bienhaus, vice president of the Honors College board of directors. “You could tell he was completely enamored with the school.” Beinhaus believes Belcher’s familiarity with the region will make him a good fit for the job and that his academic credentials will allow him to build on Bardo’s successes.
William Frady, chair of the WCU Staff Senate and manager of instructional and student computing in the Division of Information Technology, was a member of the chancellor search committee. Like Railsback, Frady was impressed with Belcher’s knowledge of WCU. “He knew a lot about Western Carolina,” said Frady, who holds an undergraduate and graduate degree from the university. “He knew a lot about the QEP [the university’s initiative to create connections between teaching and learning] and about the state’s budget.”
Joan MacNeill of Webster, current member and past chair of the WCU Board of Trustees, also was a selection committee member and said she was very pleased with the choice. “With Dr. Belcher, immediately you could tell he had the experience, energy and optimism to take us to the next level. I think he will be just fabulous,” MacNeill said. “There are challenges and there are opportunities ahead of us, and Dr. Belcher and his wife are up to the task of meeting both.”
MacNeill, former president and chief operating officer of Great Smoky Mountains Railway, said she believes the Belchers will prove an asset to the surrounding community. “It’s very important for the university community and the community at large to feel that they have interaction with the chancellor and his family, and I think with the Belchers that will be very strong,” she said.