After a crash course on the topic of all things Western Carolina University, new University of North Carolina system President Margaret Spellings departed Cullowhee with a newfound appreciation for the color purple and a better understanding of WCU’s unique role in the UNC system.
On just her 10th day on the job as UNC president, Spellings began what WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher described as a “24-hour, action-packed experience at Western Carolina.”
During her whirlwind visit, spanning the afternoon of Thursday, March 10, and the morning of Friday, March 11, Spellings took a guided tour of campus and met with students, representatives of Faculty Senate and Staff Senate, community members, regional political and business leaders and the university’s Board of Trustees.
“I have learned a lot in the past 24 hours as I have made the rounds. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to faculty, to staff, to students, to you all,” Spellings said in remarks delivered during the march 11 trustees meeting. “What I have seen is the familial, community pride, the understanding of what this institution means to this region, the affinity and the affection for the Eastern Band (of Cherokee Indians) – it just screams out at you.”
Spellings said her visit has given her better awareness of WCU’s emphasis on hands-on learning opportunities for students that include working side-by-side with faculty members to help solve real-world problems facing Western North Carolina.
“The opportunities that students have here are so unique and so powerful, for undergraduates in particular, where they can go into the community and save lives as part of an EMS program or work in a health care program or be in our schools or at the body farm, just on and on and on – that real-life, practical application of skills is very unique in this country,” she said.
Spellings shared her early priorities with the trustees and with those in attendance in a packed boardroom and an audience watching a live video stream in the first-floor auditorium in the H.F. Robinson Building.
She spoke of the importance of understanding the roles that everyone plays – the president of the UNC system, the UNC Board of Governors, the trustees and administrators at each institution, and the Legislature – in conducting the business of public higher education in North Carolina.
“We need to have a recognition that each of our institutions and each of our roles is unique,” she said. “These institutions are individualized and we have to understand those missions and hold everyone accountable in that unique way.”
She also said it is important to work toward consensus around higher education and public education in this country. “We cannot reserve ourselves to the ivory tower, if you will,” she said. “We need to make sure that all of our constituencies and our tax-paying citizens understand the value proposition that we bring, not only to them but also to the future of this state.”
During her visit, she spoke several times – to the trustees and in meetings with faculty and staff – about her plans to advocate with state legislators on behalf of the university system.
“Among my priorities are enhancing faculty and staff salaries,” she said. “We know this is a people business. Without the very best people, we cannot do our work. It is a competitive advantage or disadvantage if we’re not rewarding those folks appropriately.”
During her meeting Thursday with Faculty Senate leadership, Spellings and a dozen faculty members discussed the controversial N.C. Guaranteed Admission Program, which would divert some UNC system-bound students to community colleges for two years. Spellings encouraged faculty members to use their own intellectual resources to develop alternative solutions to some of the ideas being proposed by legislators.
To begin her session with faculty members, David McCord, chair of the WCU Faculty Senate, presented Spellings with a copy of psychology professor Bruce Henderson’s book “Teaching at the People’s University,” an examination of the regional comprehensive universities that provide a college education to an increasing percentage of Americans.
Members of WCU’s Staff Senate met with Spellings over breakfast Friday, when staff members reiterated WCU’s unique role in the UNC system and the impact the university has by providing opportunities for students in the far west, especially to first-generation college students.
Later that morning, students told Spellings they were drawn to WCU by its small class sizes, its relatively low cost, the surrounding outdoors environment and the opportunity to have hands-on, real-world learning experiences. They also shared concerns about the lack of diversity on campus and attention to concerns of minority students.
During a community gathering Thursday evening, Spellings presented Belcher with the gift of a dogwood tree on behalf of the UNC system. In return, Belcher presented Spellings with a purple WCU flag, and encouraged her to “fly it with pride among all that Carolina blue” from her home in Chapel Hill.
Spellings, who officially took office Tuesday, March 1, is planning to visit every campus and many affiliates of the UNC system over the next few months. Her stop at WCU was the second on the statewide tour, which began March 2 at Fayetteville State University.
During her time at WCU, Spellings also hosted a press conference to highlight the $2 billion bond issue that was approved by North Carolina voters Tuesday, March 15. The statewide bond package includes $110 million for the replacement of WCU’s 1970s-era Natural Sciences Building.
Spellings was elected president of the UNC system in October, succeeding Thomas W. Ross, who stepped down in January after five years in the post. Junius Gonzales, the system’s senior vice president of academic affairs, served as interim president of the university until Spellings’ term began.
A Flickr gallery of photos from the visit at WCU by Margaret Spellings can be seen at this link.
A video of the WCU Board of Trustees welcoming her to the campus can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAJJ_9Zfqfo.