Western pledges to help region, state overcome plant closings, job losses

CULLOWHEE – The people of Western North Carolina, whose livelihoods have been rocked by the loss of thousands of traditional manufacturing jobs, will increasingly depend upon Western Carolina University to help solve economic and social hardships, and the university stands poised to serve.

That was the word Thursday, Jan. 29, from Western Carolina Chancellor John Bardo, who pledged to apply the intellectual resources of faculty, staff and students to assist a region and state beleaguered by an economy in transition and marked by rampant plant closings and increasing international competition.

Chancellor Bardo delivers the State of the University address Thursday, January 29.

Chancellor Bardo delivers the State of the University address Thursday, January 29.

“The people of the state are looking to The University of North Carolina system to help solve what has become their most critical problem,” Bardo said during his State of the University address. “I believe that, both by mission and ethical responsibility, it is our duty at Western Carolina University to help them. We are fundamentally a regional university and have a particular responsibility to Western North Carolina.”

The state’s economic situation is not some abstract academic discussion, he said, but rather a tale of “real, human tragedies that affect whole families and communities.” He cited a recent UNC-TV report about the record number of home foreclosures in North Carolina, primarily the result of jobs lost due to plant closings and permanent business downsizing.

“Traditional manufacturing jobs are being eliminated in record numbers throughout our entire core service area. We need to be clear that many counties in our region can compare the economic situation they are now experiencing only to the Great Depression. It is equally clear that the people of North Carolina are looking to us to help them solve what are real, human problems,” Bardo said.

Western is ready to respond, Bardo said, through the process of engagement – that is, by offering the resources of the university to the region and state that it serves.

“The future of the region and state will require a much closer integration of the university with the region’s people, businesses, governmental entities and non-governmental organizations,” he said. “This is not a short-term trend. It represents a changed expectation for the future of universities, not just in North Carolina, but nationally. For us to truly serve our mission, we must stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of the state as we – together – engage to solve the problems we face.”

This engagement will take many forms, Bardo said, including linking the activities of business, technology and science faculty to the career needs of the region’s people; bringing academic ideas to the marketplace through “technology transfer;” providing training and support to social service professionals, health care providers and the travel and tourism industry; and working to solve the shortage of teachers in N.C. schools.

“Whether it is preserving the past, assisting a business, or supporting development of a program or activity for the elderly, engagement can and should define Western’s relationship with its region,” he said. “We know that linkages between our faculty and students and potential employers in the region will have primacy for the foreseeable future. We must help put the people of North Carolina back to work – it is our duty. It is the expectation of the governor, the Legislature, and the president of the system. As ethical members of the academy, we must give a very high priority to that responsibility.”

Bardo spoke about growth in both the number and the academic preparedness of students coming to Western, including a rise in the average SAT score of entering freshman from 965 in 1996 to 1023 in 2003. The university, which this year saw record enrollment of more than 7,500, will continue to grow, with target enrollment set for Western by the UNC system at 10,200 students by 2012.

“It is the students who benefit most from enrollment growth. More students means more educational options and the ability to more fully explore academic areas that interest them,” he said. “Most importantly, enrollment growth will allow us to continue working to keep our promise – that we will do everything in our power to help make it possible for children from this region to remain in the mountains, with rewarding careers and an excellent quality of life. The best way to preserve our mountain culture is to assure that our children do not have to leave to support their families.”

Bardo also pointed to several quality indicators: an increase in the number of fully funded endowed professorships from zero in 1995 to nine today, with another two possible by the year’s end; a five-fold increase in the university’s total endowments, from $5.2 million in 1995 to more than $26.2 million this year; and an upsurge in the level of active research grants and contracts by nearly five times the level of eight years ago, from $2.5 million in grant-funded activity in 1995 to nearly $12.8 million today.

Bardo also spoke about pending changes in the university’s administrative structure, including the restructuring of the position of vice chancellor for academic affairs into a provost, who will serve as chief academic officer and the senior vice chancellor authorized to act for the chancellor in the chancellor’s absence. Additionally, because of growth in the College of Applied Sciences, the university will study the reorganization of the department of engineering technology into a school of technology.