2007 Opening Address

Opening Assembly
Fine and Performing Arts Center Performance Hall
Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2007


Welcome!  We have an exciting year ahead of us and I look forward to working with you to implement the major accomplishments that this University, and especially the faculty, started last year.  I am especially excited about the very important QEP and the revised tenure and promotion standards.

Before focusing on the main topic of the day I want to introduce our new vice chancellor, assistant vice chancellor and several new deans.  I ask them to stand as their names are called.  First, is our new Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Sam Miller.  Dr. Miller has joined us from the University of Connecticut where he was Associate Vice President for Student Affairs.  Next, I would like to introduce Dr. Carol Burton, our newly appointed Assistant Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Studies.  Carol led us through development of our QEP and our SACS study and she is now being asked to lead us through implementation of the program.  I want to introduce our new college deans.  Most of you are aware that Dr. Robert Kehrberg has taken the reins as our founding dean of the College of Fine and Performing Arts.  In addition, new deans who also are new to the University this year are Dr. Wendy Ford, College of Arts and Sciences; Dr. Ron Johnson, College of Business; and Dr. Linda Stanford, founding dean of the College of Health and Human Sciences.  Also, Noelle Kehrberg is serving as Interim Dean of the Kimmel School. Welcome to each of you.  You have joined this University at the right time and we all look forward to your leadership.

Last year we had numerous conversations about increasing our student retention and graduation rates.  As a part of that conversation we had an evaluation of retention programming undertaken by MGT of America.  The MGT report (Powerpoint) is now completed and it will be available on the Web today.  I hope that you will take some time to review this document because it provides a detailed analysis of where we are being successful and where we could see improvements.  Also, the MGT report can provide valuable input into the work of the year and especially as we begin to really start a comprehensive approach to implementing our Quality Enhancement Plan.

Before focusing on the work of this year, let’s look for a minute at what was accomplished last academic year.  On the screen behind me is a listing that we used with Erskine Bowles of the most significant actions of the last academic year.  Think about how many really big things you accomplished last year!  You truly should be proud of yourselves.  We all seem to go about our business in such a matter-of-fact way that I am not sure that we ever sit back and take stock of what actually happened.  It is an amazing effort and all of you should be very proud of what you accomplished.  And I would particularly like to thank again the members of the SACS team and the members of the Faculty Senate for their extraordinary efforts.  2007 was truly a banner year—no pun intended, but I also want to take this opportunity once again to thank the staff who worked so hard to implement Banner.

Today, I want to focus on how we are going to achieve our three core goals of:  improving institutional quality, growing enrollment, and supporting the region.  Those of you who have been around Western for any length of time will recall that these are the three goals that I was assigned by then President Spangler to focus on during my time as chancellor.  President Bowles has re-endorsed these issues as being the focus of Western for the future.  These three issues have significant implications for us and these implications are what I want to discuss. To address the three goals we need to be about only one thing: implementing the QEP.

I should also mention that this summer I took part in three major meetings.  Each of these meetings in its own way was important and each informs the work of the year.  The first meeting involved President Bowles and the members of his task force on the future of the University system (called UNC-Tomorrow).  The purpose of this task force is to prepare a twenty-year plan for the system, and the task force visited Western as part of its data collection process. I want to show you a short video prepared by our Institute for the Economy and the Future that documents Erskine Bowles’ major concern and why he is focusing so intently on the future of the UNC system.

As a constituent institution of the UNC system we are expected to be a full partner in helping the state address these problems.

Prior to the President’s visit, our institution was requested to respond to a series of questions.  The members of the task force then spent an intense afternoon on our campus discussing our responses to these global forces and other major issues associated with the future of the system in general and Western in particular.  The summary of this meeting (PDF) has been edited and it can be found both on our website and the UNC Tomorrow website.  The web links were sent to the entire campus several days ago.  I will say that we had a “full and frank” discussion and I think every participant felt very good about the outcomes.

Our message to UNC-Tomorrow is that Western has a strategic direction and we are taking key actions to allow us to achieve that direction. (For those of you who want more detailed information, there are a number of documents on the Web, most notably the strategic plan (PDF) and Millennium Campus Plan (PDF), which elaborate our direction.)  Most recently, and most importantly, our campus has become focused on one critical issue: the Quality Enhancement Plan (PDF).  All actions that we will take as an institution over the next five to ten years need to reflect an institutional focus on our QEP.  I am very pleased that Carol Burton has agreed to lead us through the process of implementing of the QEP.

Please understand that I know that there are many complex activities taking place on this campus.  We are in the middle of a very important fund-raising campaign; we are developing a Millennium Campus; we are creating new curricula; reaching out to the region; engaging in research and technology transfer; enhancing our student life programs and doing the normal work of the University.  What I am saying is that as we each work on our most important activities, we will need to increasingly weave them into one institutional tapestry that is defined by our Quality Enhancement Plan.  This plan has to be the University’s focus and it gives us a unique and very important positioning with regard to the future of our students, our region, our state, and, in large measure, the future of higher education nationally.

I think that Erskine and the task force understand that WCU now has one unique focus that is reflected in its mission statement, its educational program that embodies the QEP, and now also in its faculty reward system.  With adoption of the Boyer Model of Scholarship and the QEP we have moved to align the most critical elements of the institution in one frame, for one core purpose. That is, the Boyer Model allows us to truly implement the one goal that we should have as a university: to serve the people by directly addressing their most critical needs.

There were two other important meetings that I attended this summer.  One was an invitational meeting at Northern Kentucky University regarding the nature of higher education institutions’ engagement with their regions and the other was a meeting with new Board of Governors members.  The last meeting was important because it let several of us introduce to an uninitiated group the concepts that we have been developing at WCU over the last several years.  They were—to the person—highly impressed.  They understood our nationally significant flexible tenure standard and they equally understood the importance of the QEP model.  That was exciting and helped validate that we are on the right track.

The meeting in Kentucky was perhaps even more significant.  A dozen or so chancellors and presidents were invited by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) to a meeting where we discussed how to conceptualize our role in regional development.  As many of you may recall, we have struggled over the years to find the right language to describe what we are trying to accomplish.  I think that AASCU has found that language in what they are calling re-imagining universities as “stewards of place.”  I think this language is very consistent with dominant faculty culture.  Most of us went into the professoriate because of our love of learning and our interest in mentoring and stewarding others to help them learn and to help them grow as individuals.  The AASCU model builds on this natural tendency that we all share by recognizing that universities are uniquely situated to be stewards of the regions in which they are located.  I think that the “stewards of place” concept is exceptional.

Under the AASCU model, there are four core areas in which universities can play critical roles in regional stewardship.  The figure behind me was prepared by AASCU and I think that it very clearly lays out the four core domains in which universities can play a role.  Starting at the top, a university must help a region have a vibrant, innovative economy.  The realities are that if people do not have a good standard of living they will not be able to manage the rest of the issues that face them.  Therefore, we as stewards have important roles to play in helping the region of which we are a part have a vibrant economy.

The second element in the framework is a “livable community.”  No longer are belching smokestacks, polluted water, and an unmanaged environment acceptable.  At the same time, communities need to be safe, healthy, and their participants need to be well educated.  Universities play a role in helping the people of the region develop and maintain livable communities.

It is critical to note the fundamental symbiotic relationship between the first two elements of the model.  There is a great deal of literature that will tell you that you cannot create a sustainable, effective economy without livable communities.  Likewise, people who have little income are rarely able to take care of their communities or the environment within which they live.  Think about the family that has to decide whether they are going to put in a septic tank or feed their children.  There really is not a decision to be made.  To protect the environment, people need reasonable incomes and education to help them understand the links between what they do as individuals and the quality of their environment and community.

The third element is social inclusion.  Richard Florida discusses this in his work on the “creative class” but its implications are broader than even Florida discusses.  A livable community is one that is tolerant of diversity.  It is only such a community, where individual and cultural differences are valued, that can support the lives of all of its residents.  Therefore, diversity and inclusion are key elements in an effective framework of regional stewardship.

The fourth domain involves collaborative regional governance. For the residents of a region to have successful communities and economies and to be able to include others who are different than themselves, they must be able to work together to solve problems.  Again, universities can provide support and assistance to the people of the region in helping them collaborate and negotiate effectively to solve regional problems.

All of the elements in the AASCU model must be effectively implemented if we are to participate as stewards of the place—that is stewards of the region in which we are located. Furthermore, as the region becomes more complex, the university must regularly reconsider how it can most effectively meet its role as a “steward of the place.” What is clear from the social science literature is that people do have some form of “hierarchy of needs.”  Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” is perhaps the best known but there are others.  However, one does not have to accept any of these models to understand that people rarely are able to take positive actions with regard to such key issues as the nature of their communities or the quality of their environment without incomes that support their families and allow them to meet their needs.  Therefore, if one is to accomplish the other goals that make a vibrant, safe, inclusive, environmentally sound community one also has to have a vibrant economy.

Over the years I have discussed the importance of economic and regional development with this campus many times.  The values embodied in the AASCU “Stewards of Place” model have always driven my understanding of how one creates a livable, sustainable community in which people and their needs are at the center of any actions that are taken.  When I talk about economic or regional development it is within this very complex, broad model.  The University can be of assistance to people of the region by:

1. focusing on improving the core nature of our education—including the effectiveness of liberal studies;

2. making sure that we link all aspects of our education to the broader world so that students can understand the purpose in their studies; and,

3. reaching out to all segments of the community through such entities as the School/University Teacher Education Partnership; the Institute for the Economy and the Future; the Kimmel School partnerships; service learning; and, increasingly through internships, co-op placements, and mentored undergraduate research.

Because it addresses all the core issues associated with developing a region, I find the AASCU model compelling and I hope that it helps you as well.  When I think about the importance of a university’s role in helping the people of a region achieve a high quality of life, there is another concept that is very important.  It is the concept of “regional competence.”  Regional competence refers to the ability of a region to achieve its goals.  In this case, it represents the ability of the residents of a region to act together to create vibrant, livable communities; innovative economies; inclusive social systems; and political and volunteer organizations that are capable of finding and implementing good solutions.  What is most important is that when you combine the two concepts—regional stewardship and regional competence—you have identified the most important arenas in which any university can act.

It also is important to understand that each of us as individuals participate in the life of this region.  As a University—that is as a formal organization—we cannot own the region’s problems.  That is not our University’s mission and universities in general cannot, and must not, attempt to take the roles that belong most appropriately to the people of the region as a whole.  We can, however, work with the people of the region, and more broadly the state, to prepare them to address the critical issues that they face; we can provide them support, research, and data; and we can act as honest brokers to help them come together to negotiate solutions that serve their—rather than our—needs.  As we accomplish these actions, we will truly be stewards of place and we will truly serve the people of the state who fund us.

The QEP and the adoption of the new tenure, promotion, and merit standards—that is, the Boyer Model—allow us to implement the one goal that we should have as university: to serve the people by directly addressing their most critical needs!

As we go forward in this year and succeeding years, we will increasingly be focused on only one critical issue: how do we fully implement our QEP both in letter and intent?  I firmly believe, and the reactions of outsiders with whom I discussed this issue suggest, that this one goal will affect everything we have been asked to accomplish as a university.  It will allow us to serve the region; it will allow us to create a unique educational program that will be unparalleled in quality nationally; and because of the importance of the first two items, our enrollment should grow in accordance with state needs for advanced education.  This is why last year I commented several times that the work you accomplished has caused us to enter a new chapter in the history of the University.  You also should be aware that on their separate visits, both President Bowles and the members of the Board of Governors were very impressed with your work and especially with the overall model as it is embodied in the new tenure and promotion document.  You have stepped up and you have stepped out—and it is being noticed around the state!  Again, you should be very, very proud.

One final point before we move to more specific items.  I have several times read writings by our founder Robert Lee Madison as well as works by Alonzo Reynolds and other early leaders of the institution.  I firmly believe that if they are looking down on this university today they have to be very proud.  What you are doing is modernizing and extending the “Cullowhee Idea” on which this institution was founded.  As you have worked through these most difficult and complex issues, you have given new life to the longest and dearest traditions of this University. That is very special and I hope that you will take a few minutes and reflect on the fundamental importance of your work.  My hat is off to you.

Now, I want to turn to a few basics; as you know, we have instituted a new admissions model over the last six months.  Our new director of Admissions, Alan Kines, joined us from Boston and has begun implementing an outreach based admissions model.  Because of the major changes in which we engaged this year, our freshman class is not as large as it has been for the last few years.  We anticipate that it will be around 1300 students with an average SAT that is about the same as last year’s.  The good news is that we saw growth in the number of continuing and distance education students so that our total enrollment should be approaching 9,000 headcount students.

Additionally, as a result of our on-going efforts to reposition the University, we made a push to engage students from across the state.  Earlier in the summer, many departments responded to Pat Brown’s request to add new courses to our distance education offerings and I want to take a minute to thank each department that rallied to Pat’s request for assistance.  As a result, we were able to broaden our distance education reach and Western had an important presence in newspapers across the state.  This has had a significant impact on our current enrollment situation and it bodes well for the future.  Thank you again for responding so quickly.

You also should be aware that, as a result of Alan Kines’ leadership and the work of people across many offices, in our first year of implementing our new approach to admissions, we are seeing significant activity.  This summer, for instance, our campus visits by prospective students exceeded last year’s by 43 percent!  Inquiries from prospective first-year students have increased from about 9,000 at this same time last year to more than 18,500 this year.  (A prospective student is someone who has in some way proactively indicated to the university that he or she has interest in receiving more information about the university.)  Included in this group of prospects are more than 2,400 students who appear to have the qualifications necessary to enter our Honors College.  This massive increase in prospects represents a major opportunity to affect the positioning of the University as much as it might affect our enrollment. Our goal now has to be to turn these prospects into applicants and the right applicants into Catamounts.

The model that we are using for admissions incorporates many of the national “best practices” that have been applied by leading universities for years as well as some new processes that are emerging in the admissions field.  One of the most important components of our admissions model involves contact between potential students and the faculty members with whom those students will work.  Many of you already have been very helpful in this admissions process and I think it will pay dividends. Thank you for taking the time and effort to work with these potential students.  Likewise, Alan’s approach involves potential students receiving contact from current students as well as alumni.  We want students to make good choices about where to go to college and we all know that Western is increasingly providing excellent educational opportunities.  Thank you for taking part in this process and for assisting Alan in recruiting students who can benefit by studying with you.

We should be able to use this increased interest in the institution to recruit more students who want to be here and to recruit students who are more committed to graduating from WCU.  Therefore, I am asking Fred Hinson and Alan Kines to develop a 2008 entering freshman class consisting of around 1,500 students and hold it at 1,500 for three years.  This is approximately the size class that we have been able to sustain in recent years with many fewer prospects.  Second, I also am asking them to work with Ray Barclay, Associate Vice Chancellor for Institutional Research and Planning to implement techniques to improve the likelihood that these students will be retained to graduation.  Ray’s office has completed a great deal of preliminary work on who is retained and who is not; we need to apply that information now that we have options in our prospect pool.

We are looking for a freshman class that is composed of academically able students who have the dispositions to stay at Western and to graduate from Western.  Our success will be measured by the UNC system in retention and graduation rates, but we all know that our real success will be in increased academic quality and in the excellence of our graduates.

To support our efforts to improve our academic quality and to increase institutional visibility, several groups—as well as the MGT retention study—recommended that we undertake an over-arching review of our institutional “brand image.”  Therefore, we are beginning a very involved process to create a “branding program.”  We are in the final stages of hiring a specialized company to work with us on developing our brand image.  One of the very first steps in the process of developing our brand image will involve a broad-based institutional leadership retreat.  I propose that in early October, we bring together faculty, staff, administrative, and student leaders to discuss what they believe are the key components of the university that ought to contribute to the institution’s brand image.  I will ask a member of the consulting firm to do a short presentation regarding the nature of institutional branding; but the vast majority of the retreat will involve receiving feedback on the elements that campus leadership considers important.

Because, for the foreseeable future, the University will focus on implementing our mission, the strategic plan, and especially the QEP, it is clear that the QEP must heavily inform our branding efforts.  It is important, therefore, that we gather before the branding process begins to assure ourselves that we have common understanding of the QEP and what it means both for WCU and for individual areas of the University.  Consequently, I am calling another campus-wide retreat in September.  This first retreat will focus on discussion of the institutional mission and its relationship to the QEP.  I will ask Assistant Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Studies Carol Burton to lead the conversation about the elements of the QEP.  We also will begin with an overview of our institutional mission so that we can better articulate the linkages between specific QEP actions and institutional purposes.

Please understand that I view broad implementation of the QEP as the single most important activity of the University.  Its effective implementation is the embodiment of our institutional core direction and mission.  I cannot over-emphasize the importance of the QEP and its significance for the future of WCU and the quality of education that a student can attain here.

Because the QEP has to reflect in its essence the mission of the University, I am asking that the first retreat focus on two critical questions:

  • What does it mean to engage with the region (that is, “how can we be stewards of place?”) so that we can address the region’s core issues while implementing the QEP?
  • What would it take for your department, program, or area to implement programming that fits with our Quality Enhancement Plan?

Both of these questions are very important to our future.

These two retreats will involve large numbers of faculty, staff, administrators, and students.  If for any reason you are not invited to the retreat but want to attend, please contact my office.  We are trying to assure that we have the best possible information on which to proceed and that the campus community has full input into the process.

It is important to note that the QEP should receive final SACS approval in December.  However, for us to implement the program next academic year, we will need to plan, hire any necessary staff, and lay the groundwork this year. You should recall that the SACS visiting team had no recommendations regarding our QEP.  As a member of the accrediting commission, I can tell you that this is unusual, and I would anticipate, therefore, that the QEP will receive final approval as written.

Now, since we have adopted the QEP as our strategic approach to education, we will need to align all elements of our academic program with that framework.  Therefore, I believe that we need to review our Liberal Studies program, not to completely overhaul it, but to adjust it to what we now know about the QEP and 21st century education.  To begin this process, Carol Burton will be asking members of the Liberal Studies Oversight Committee to serve on several critical QEP committees.  In this way we can assure coordination and consistency between efforts to implement the QEP and the Liberal Studies curriculum.

In addition to coordinating our efforts, it should be noted that since the liberal studies curriculum was written, there have been numerous analyses of the needs of people who are going to live their lives in the 21st century.  These studies highlight critical skills that do not necessarily appear in our current liberal studies program.  Specifically:

  • Where in liberal studies are all students exposed to concepts of globalization, internationalization, and cultural diversity?
  • Where in liberal studies do all students have the opportunity to learn about increasing diversity within their own communities and state?
  • Where in liberal studies do all students get to practice the so-called “soft skills” (e.g., working in groups, practicing leadership, teaching others, developing negotiating skills, and functioning within a culturally diverse environment)?
  • Where in a student’s college education—and it might be liberal studies—do students learn about civic engagement and developing individual responsibility, self-esteem, integrity, sociability, and self-management?
  • Following up on Faculty Senate action last year, to what extent should liberal studies introduce all students to issues associated with the environment and environmental change?

These are important aspects of a student’s education that need to be included in liberal studies if we are to truly implement the QEP.  How can we assure that all students are given the opportunity to learn these critical educational elements and how can we assess their learning?

Finally, students are giving us some hints about where we might have some flexibility to initially focus on the QEP and on adding soft skills to the Liberal Studies program.  On the screen behind me is a graph from the recent MGT study of freshman retention.  The graph shows ratings by students of various experiences in their first year.  Items in the upper left hand quadrant are considered by the students to be important and of high quality.  Items in the lower right hand quadrant are seen by the students as not important and of low quality.  You should note that students rated both USI 130 and the freshman seminar in that quadrant.  It would appear, therefore, that these two courses could be readily revised to include the core issues of the QEP along with an introduction to soft skill development.

I am not sure that we need to review all elements of liberal studies, but we do need to increase the linkages of liberal studies to the QEP, we should strengthen our 21st century skill development, and we need to improve all elements of assessment of the liberal studies program.

To get this process started, I am asking Provost Carter to talk with Carol Burton, Richard Beam and the Liberal Studies Oversight Committee about how they would like to proceed.  This is very important, so we should move expeditiously.

Now, I want to make one final point about the QEP: we are not starting from scratch.  Since 2001, WCU has administered the National Survey of Student Engagement (called NSSE).  We also in recent years have been a part of the American Democracy Project.  This project is sponsored by AASCU and it is designed to help create more engaged learning.  On the screen behind me are the results for our current administration of NSSE.  It is exciting to note that on nearly all of the measures of student engagement, WCU is above our American Democracy Project Peers and above institutions nationally in our Carnegie Classification.  Among our first-year students, WCU performed better on all five benchmarks than either peer group and we were significantly better than the NSSE national average on active and collaborative learning; student-faculty interaction; and supportive campus environment.  Among seniors, WCU performed significantly better than our peers and the NSSE cohort on active and collaborative learning and student-faculty interaction.  With implementation of the QEP, the scores of Western’s students should truly stand out nationally.

Because of the importance of NSSE in providing indicators with national credibility, it represents a significant set of indicators for how well we are implementing our QEP.  We should consider, for example, setting a short-term—say three-year—goal of having all our indices in the upper-half nationally and our longer-term—say five-year—goal of being in the upper 10 percent.  Through your work over the last decade, and especially what you accomplished last year, these types of rankings are well within our reach.

I also want to take a minute to thank those departments that have agreed to be our test cases for the QEP and several support units that are providing extensive assistance.  So far, Recreation Therapy, History, Chemistry and Physics, the Coulter Faculty Center, Residential Living, the Honors College, Enrollment Management and the Mountain Heritage Center have all volunteered to be part of testing implementation of the QEP.  Thanks to each of you for taking on this most important task and allowing others to learn from your efforts.

WCU has to be about one thing: the QEP.  You have set the stage; you have created a roadmap to excellence.  And, through the new tenure, promotion, and merit standards, you have given yourselves the necessary tools to reach our goals.  This year, we begin implementation.

I want to pose one more issue: that of institutional pride. We seem still to have a culture that is self-deprecating.  Winston Churchill once said of Clement Attlee that he was so humble because “he had so much to be humble about.”  Members of WCU’s community, however, have a great deal about which to be proud.  Even if we only look at the work of the faculty last year, you have taken the University into uncharted waters.  But think also about the various forms of state and national recognition, the wonderful SACS review, the success of our first fund-raising campaign, the increasingly high qualifications of people who are interested in being part of this University, the “buzz” that your work has created around the state, and the wonderful support of the legislature that has provided Western with an additional $52 million dollars in this years budget.  And think about the region’s legislators:  Phil Haire, Marc Basnight, Walter Dalton, John Snow, Joe Sam Queen, Martin Nesbitt, Ray Rapp, Susan Fisher, Doug Yongue and Tom Apodaca who are there in the trenches with you to get you the support you needed to do your job. Unlike Clement Attlee, you have so very little to be humble about and I hope that as you are in the community, as you speak with current and prospective students, and as you move in your professional circles, that you will let people know what is happening in this beautiful valley beside the Tuckasegee at this increasingly great University.

Thank you for all that you have done to make WCU what it is today and I hope that you have the very best of academic years.