State Board of Education Chair calls Western “a cutting-edge university”

CULLOWHEE – Howard Lee, chairman of the N.C. State Board of Education, told members of Western Carolina University’s board of trustees that they should feel proud to serve in leadership roles at what he called “a cutting-edge university.”

Lee, a former state senator who helped champion the 2000 statewide higher education bond referendum that is bringing nearly $100 million in construction and renovation to Western, marveled at the transformation that has taken place in Cullowhee over the past few years.

“I remember being here in the mid-1990s in this very room, talking with your chancellor about his vision for this university,” said Lee, opening the board’s Wednesday, March 17, meeting. “It is amazing to come here now and see that the vision is coming true and to see that the dream, in part, has been realized. And while the journey continues, oh what progress has been made en route to the destination, because Western Carolina, in my opinion, has become a cutting-edge university.”

Lee specifically pointed to up-and-coming programs of study in biotechnology, forensics and electrical engineering, and to state-of-the-art video and audio recording studios that feature the same models of digital audio mixing consoles found in major recording studios and the type of digital video switcher that will be used by NBC during its coverage of the Olympics. He also singled out the new Fine and Performing Arts Center, a 122,000-square-foot facility that will provide classrooms, studios, galleries and support space for students in the arts, theatre and dance, including a 1,000-seat hall capable of hosting Broadway-quality performances.

“I am here to tell you that building is second to none in this area,” he said. “I see all of these things that are happening here, and I can only marvel at what great success you are having and what great opportunities are yet in store for this university.”

Lee’s meeting with the trustees came during a two-day visit to campus sponsored by Western’s College of Education and Allied Professions. While at Western, he also discussed education issues with superintendents from across Western North Carolina, participated in an open forum with teacher education students and faculty, and toured nearby Fairview Elementary School. At Fairview, he observed Western student teachers in action and learned of several partnership efforts between Western’s College of Education and Allied Professions and public schools in Western North Carolina.

“We at the Board of Education are trying to determine what we can do to forge stronger relationships with community colleges, public schools and universities,” he said. “I wanted to see firsthand some of the things Western is doing in such places as Fairview School.”

Howard Lee (right), chairman of the N.C. State Board of Education, gets a guided tour of Western’s new digital video and audio studios from Chancellor John W. Bardo (left) and Donald Connelly, director of electronic media programs.

Howard Lee (right), chairman of the N.C. State Board of Education, gets a guided tour of Western’s new digital video and audio studios from Chancellor John W. Bardo (left) and Donald Connelly, director of electronic media programs.

During his visit, Lee took the opportunity to talk about many of the successes of the state’s public education system, including higher average SAT scores in school systems across North Carolina.

“We can take great joy in our progress, yet we are faced with even greater challenges,” he said. Those challenges include an unacceptably high dropout rate, increased use of suspension for disruptive students, high teacher turnover, and a flood of new students coming into the public school system.

“I just don’t know where all these students are coming from,” he said. “We build a new school, and the next year it’s already overcrowded and we’re pulling the trailers back into the schoolyard.”

Lee said he believes students drop out because schools are getting too big and impersonal. “The classes are too big, and the teachers don’t even know one another – let alone connect with the student,” he said.

The public school system could learn from the way Western is handling its enrollment growth and maintaining its traditions of small-class size and a low student-to-teacher ratio, he said. “We need to be more like what’s happening at Western Carolina – think outside the box and come up with a system that keeps classes small, that raises the bar, and that focuses on career-oriented education.”