WCU to focus on NC Promise, tight budget, continuing momentum in 2016-17

Chancellor David Belcher mingles with faculty and staff prior to giving his Opening Assembly speech.

Chancellor David Belcher mingles with faculty and staff prior to giving his Opening Assembly speech.

Western Carolina University Chancellor David O. Belcher urged faculty and staff to spend the 2016-17 academic year building on the momentum of the previous year, gearing up for implementation of the N.C. Promise tuition plan, and helping navigate complex budgetary waters.

In his annual Opening Assembly address to kick off the new school year Wednesday, Aug. 17, Belcher reviewed a hectic 2015-16. The year was punctuated by headline-making events such as a successful statewide bond campaign that includes $110 million for a replacement science building, a visit from new University of North Carolina President Margaret Spellings, increasing campus activism tied to issues of race and social justice, House Bill 2 and its implications for higher education, leadership transition in WCU’s development and alumni unit, and controversy over a proposed Center for the Study of Free Enterprise, he said.

Belcher spoke at length about WCU’s inclusion as one of three UNC system institutions selected by the General Assembly to participate in the N.C. Promise Tuition Plan, which will reduce out-of-pocket tuition costs for in-state undergraduate students at those three schools to $500 per semester beginning in fall 2018. The plan also will reduce the out-of-pocket tuition costs for undergraduate students from states other than North Carolina to $2,500 per semester at WCU and the other two UNC system schools – the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Elizabeth City State University.

“Let me make this perfectly clear. The N.C. Promise tuition plan is a bold and innovative approach to addressing access and affordability in higher education, and I applaud the General Assembly for tackling what is one of the definitive issues in higher education in our time,” Belcher said.

“I have heard much concern about the fear that N.C. Promise will make WCU look like a ‘cheap’ school and that our reputation will suffer accordingly. Hear me on this. I have no concern about this whatsoever. WCU’s reputation of high academic quality is in great shape and is increasing,” he said. “This rapidly increasing profile as an institution of high academic quality didn’t just happen. You are the people who have built an environment in which our students thrive, made high retention rates reality, nurtured our successes in undergraduate research, and worked with our first-generation, low socio-economic status students and helped them to punch their tickets to promising lives.”

Lower out-of-pocket costs for tuition does not change the actual cost of an education at WCU; the state of North Carolina will cover the difference in what students and parents pay and the actual cost, Belcher said. And lower tuition rates do not mean an open-door admissions policy and, in fact, will increase admission standards and selectivity, he said.

“The impact of N.C. Promise on WCU’s traditional mission is, frankly, what concerns me. However, I am confident that we, thoughtfully and intentionally, can figure it out. WCU started 127 years ago as the Cullowhee Idea to serve the people of Western North Carolina. This is a commitment we cannot and will not abandon,” he said.

The university cannot allow unfounded worries that N.C. Promise will somehow damage WCU’s reputation to derail its longstanding commitment to access and affordability, a commitment now solidified by inclusion in the tuition plan, Belcher said.

“When we have an opportunity to make an excellent four-year university education more affordable and more accessible for more students, do assumed concerns about institutional reputation related to a lower price tag really trump what’s in the best interests of our students? Is cost-related institutional reputation more important than affordability and accessibility for our students?” he asked.

“Who are we? We are a university whose reputation is built not on price tags that may match those of competitors, but on our excellent and dedicated faculty and staff, a superb student experience and steadily increasing student success metrics. If we take care of our students, the university’s reputation will take care of itself,” he said.

Belcher reminded the audience that the General Assembly did take “a much-needed step” in addressing salary increases for state employees through a 1.5 percent across-the-board raise, a 0.5 percent across-the-board bonus and a pool for bonuses averaging 1 percent. He also addressed budget challenges facing the university in the year ahead in the wake of $3 million in reductions to state appropriations because of mandated management flexibility cuts and last year’s failure to hit enrollment targets.

“Unlike prior years, we don’t have the luxury of any enrollment growth dollars to offset the management flex cuts. In addition, the cost of doing business increases each year, and fiscal responsibility compels us to set aside funds for potential reductions next fiscal year. The bottom line is that we have no new monies to allocate for strategic priorities on campus,” he said.

As part of the budget planning process in the spring, campus leaders identified $13.87 million in new budget requests that would help the university meet strategic goals, Belcher said. “The reality is, however, that we cannot fund the vast majority of these. We have tough choices to make,” he said.

It appears likely that WCU will strengthen its fiscal position in the year ahead if trends pointing toward record enrollment for this fall hold true, Belcher said. “This is excellent news, but I reiterate that we cannot take it for granted,” he said.

Belcher also recognized what he termed “the elephant in the room” – his diagnosis with a small brain tumor in the spring, followed by successful surgery to remove it and treatment that is still ongoing.

“Susan and I have been overwhelmed by the support from an army of people who have prayed for us, sent good wishes, emails, cards, words of encouragement and hilarious gifts,” he said. “We have been incredibly loved in and carried through this experience, and we are grateful. Before my diagnosis, I had no idea how many of our faculty, staff and students are dealing or have dealt with cancer themselves, and so many of these have shared their own stories with me, and they have inspired me.”