Chancellor’s Opening Assembly address kicks off new semester

Chancellor Belcher addresses the Opening Assembly on Wednesday, August 14, 2014, with news of budgets, achievements and opportunities.

Chancellor Belcher addresses the WCU Opening Assembly on Wednesday, August 13, 2014, with news of budgets, achievements and opportunities.

The collective efforts of faculty and staff to attract and retain larger numbers of students at Western Carolina University are helping the institution weather lingering budget constraints that otherwise would hamstring efforts to improve academic quality and enhance the student experience.

That was among the messages delivered Wednesday, Aug. 13, by WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher in his annual Opening Assembly address to kick off the fall semester.

“Let me say now – thank you for your individual and collective contributions to recruiting and retaining students,” he told faculty and staff in attendance at the John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center. “The budget picture is daunting – there’s no question about it. But WCU continues year by year to strengthen its financial position because of enrollment growth, and again, I thank you for what you are doing to put us in a position envied by many other institutions in our state.”

Belcher began his remarks with an overview of the university’s budget situation, a scenario that includes both good news and what he termed “other news.”

The good budgetary news, he said, includes the fact that WCU should receive $3.2 million in enrollment growth funding for achieving its enrollment targets last year and an expected additional $1.6 million in tuition revenue associated with the increase in student numbers anticipated this fall.

In the category of “other news,” WCU’s state appropriations will be reduced again for the current fiscal year, with the anticipated cut perhaps as high as $2.1 million. Although the budget reduction should be offset by enrollment growth funding and additional tuition revenue, that means the university will not have those dollars to spend on other institutional priorities, Belcher said.

The issue of salary increases for university employees also wound up a mixed bag, he said. Employees who are classified as Subject to the Personnel Act, or SPA, will receive a state-legislated salary increase of $1,000 plus benefits, while the state budget does not include a designated legislative salary increase for faculty members and employees who are classified as Exempt from the Personnel Act, or EPA.

The General Assembly did provide the University of North Carolina system with $5 million in funding for EPA salaries, but if those dollars were allocated proportionally to each campus in the system, WCU would receive about $150,000, Belcher said. Western Carolina has approximately 600 EPA faculty and staff, and that $150,000 would not be sufficient to provide a meaningful increase equivalent to that provided to SPA employees, he said.

In addition, the university is expected to receive only about $150,000 in repair and renovation funding at a time when WCU has identified $40 million in critical repair and renovation needs, with a total repair and renovation price tag for critical and not-yet-critical needs closer to $200 million.

“The bottom line is this: Despite the fact that this budget scenario does not feel very good, our fiscal position continues to strengthen,” Belcher said. “And, because we will receive more money than we will be cut, we will be in a position to allocate funding to a small number of priorities.”

Belcher also shared with the crowd several budget imperatives facing the university this academic year, including covering the amount of the reduction in state appropriations and meeting mandatory and inflationary increases.

In addition, he said, university leadership hopes to make progress on campus priorities identified in the spring 2014 budget hearing process, depending upon the final outcome of the university’s budget reductions and official fall enrollment numbers.

The university hopes to be able to find money for $1,000-plus-benefits raises for all EPA faculty and EPA non-faculty, which were removed from earlier versions of the state budget bill, he said. Belcher also acknowledged that doing so would entail redirecting resources that could be used to address other critical needs, but said the issue must be addressed in order to recruit and retain a high-quality workforce.

Other priorities for the 2014-15 academic year include:

* Continued development of the West Campus, building on the success of Tony Johnson, executive director of millennial initiatives, and Doug Keskula, dean of the College of Health and Human Sciences, in leasing all the available clinic space in the new Health and Human Sciences Building to external health care providers.

* Ramping up philanthropic efforts and building on a 12 percent increase in the past year in private support for WCU, which included the establishment of 34 new endowed scholarship funds to support students.

* Hosting the inaugural WCU Regional Economic Development Conference in November, which will bring several hundred leaders from across Western North Carolina to campus to discuss a regional approach to economic and community development.

* Implementing a long-range plan for WCU’s programs at Biltmore Park in order to strengthen the university’s contribution to economic and community development in the greater Asheville-Hendersonville area.

* Moving forward on two significant building projects – a mixed-used facility on the site of the commercial property damaged by fire last November, with about 20,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor and two or three floors of student housing above; and a renovation of and addition to Brown Building in order to accommodate the dining and student services needs of a growing campus population.

* A continuation of discussions with the N.C. Department of Transportation to address concerns about Little Savannah Road, including increased traffic connected to development of the Health and Human Sciences Building and the West Campus, as well as increased traffic in neighborhoods near campus where new apartment complexes and residential developments are being built.

* Celebrating the 125th anniversary of the founding of the institution, with events including the Big Birthday Bash from 4 until 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 26, and a closing ceremony in December.

Belcher concluded by saying he recognizes that the agenda for the year ahead might seem a bit overwhelming, but told the audience that, come Monday, Aug. 18, they all will be reminded why they work at WCU when more than 10,000 students begin classes.

“These students arrive on campus with hopes and dreams. They’re scared, they’re excited, they’re mischievous, they’re creative,” he said. “Some of them know exactly what they want to do in life. Most do not. All of them want to succeed. Not one of our students comes here to fail – not one.” Every faculty and staff member has a role to play in helping those students succeed, he said.

“Western Carolina University is in the business of changing lives, and with your hard work and your energy and your passion and your enthusiasm and your commitment to our students and your belief in what this university is all about, there is no telling what we will do,” Belcher said.