Western Carolina University Chancellor David O. Belcher declared 2011-12 “a point of departure” for the institution, announcing a new strategic planning process as the top priority in a series of initiatives designed to give the WCU community a sense of ownership in the university’s destiny.
In fact, the word “strategic” was a common theme throughout much of Belcher’s remarks Wednesday, Aug. 17, at Opening Assembly, the annual address to kick off the fall semester at WCU.
“For most of the two months I have been here in Cullowhee, we have been in an almost exclusively reactionary mode, particularly because of fiscal issues. I am this day shedding my reactionary mantle and donning the proactive ‘carpe diem’ spirit, which will define Western Carolina University’s future,” Belcher said to applause from the nearly capacity crowd of faculty, staff and students in the John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center.
“While I know that the future will bring plenty of issues that we had no idea were coming and its share of surprises to which we will have to react, I am committing myself to assume ownership of our university and its destiny, and I invite you to assume joint ownership with me,” Belcher said.
Development of a new strategic plan is a major part of building that sense of ownership, he said. Although the university has a strategic plan, it is approaching the end of its shelf life, and economic conditions, including cuts in state funding, make the existing plan less relevant, he said.
“In light of the current conditions, we cannot be all things to all people. We never could,” Belcher said. “Even the institutions we think of as having the resources to be all things to all people choose not to. The strategic planning process is an opportunity to identify what we will pursue and what we will not pursue,” he said. “It is an opportunity to choose strategically.”
The strategic planning process will include extensive input from across the campus – faculty, staff and students – and from the external community – alumni, donors, and business and community leaders. It will be led by a steering committee called the 2020 Commission, drawing membership from all stakeholder groups and chaired by Melissa Wargo, assistant vice chancellor for institutional planning and effectiveness.
Opportunities to participate in the process will include roundtable discussions for faculty, staff and students, ongoing online solicitation of input at the website the2020commission.wcu.edu, and opening hearings on and off campus, he said. The target is to have a plan ready for presentation to the Board of Trustees at its June meeting.
“I want to remind you, this is going to be a strategic plan. Everything cannot and will not be a priority,” Belcher said. “Achievement of such a plan will require rejection of myopia and commitment to the good of the whole. We will be guided by our long-held values, excellence and high standards first and foremost above all things. We will be guided by our commitment to student success – the success of every student. And we will retain that value that has defined us for years, an external focus and external engagement.”
Belcher announced the formation of the Chancellor’s Leadership Council, a group composed of about 40 campus leaders from the faculty, staff, student body and administration to discuss broad issues such as policies, budget processes and priorities, and University of North Carolina General Administration regulations.
He also unveiled a more inclusive budgeting process designed to provide additional input into decision-making and enhance transparency. That process will include an annual budget hearing that will involve the newly formed leadership council. Belcher also asked Faculty Senate and Staff Senate to consider the creation of a joint budget and planning committee to ensure that faculty and staff concerns are integrally involved in the budget process.
The budget situation remains a significant challenge for the university in the year ahead, he said. The university has sustained a net cut in state funding of about 13.4 percent; a 16.4 percent reduction in state funding for 2011-12 was offset somewhat by enrollment growth money totaling about 3 percent of the total state appropriations.
In addition, the university learned three weeks ago that it would not be authorized to carry forward into the new fiscal year a small percentage of state appropriations unexpended at the end of the prior fiscal year, to the tune of about $2 million. This “management flex carry-forward” money, along with other one-time funding, had been used to help cover ongoing expenses.
WCU leadership has “whittled down” that deficit by deferring important purchases including technology upgrades and by using lapsed faculty salaries to help cover ongoing expenses that had been paid through one-time funding, resulting in a balanced budget for the current fiscal year, Belcher said.
“We cannot run our university this way. We must operate in a fiscally responsible manner, and that means we have to find ways to cover in our base budget the ongoing costs that we have historically covered with one-time funding,” he said. “It is a fundamental priority of our budgeting processes in the coming two to three years to accommodate all ongoing expenses with ongoing funds.”
One way to address the revenue shortfall is through enrollment growth, because state funding is based on enrollment, and on improvement in retention and graduation rates, Belcher said. But WCU will not adopt a grow-at-all-costs mentality, he said.
“We must be strategic in the way we look to raise enrollment. We will not lower our standards. We must recruit an appropriate mix of undergraduate, graduate, transfer and distance students to ensure enrollment growth within very stretched resources,” he said.
“We must move forward toward fiscal stabilization. With your partnership and commitment to the greater goals of this institution, which dwarf the turf issues of lesser thinking, we will not only stabilize, but we will thrive,” he said.
Belcher said this “point of departure” will be a defining moment of transition for WCU.
“This is a moment when we decide whether or not we are ready to thrive and have the courage and spine to ensure that we do,” he said. “This is a moment when we decide to be the masters of our own verbs, to engage rather than withdraw, to commit rather than hesitate, to progress rather than stagnate, to envision rather than flounder, to believe rather than doubt, to inspire,” he said.
“We are the masters of our own verbs, and we will demonstrate through our teaching, through our research, through our engagement, through our colleagueship, and through our outlook that our verbs are indeed worthy.”