The 22-person committee leading the search for Western Carolina University’s next chancellor met Friday, Jan. 19, to begin mapping out an ambitious process and schedule intended to enable a successor for Chancellor David O. Belcher to be on the job by Aug. 1.
In its first gathering – a marathon, four-and-a-half-hour session – the committee received its charge from University of North Carolina System President Margaret Spellings, including a list of the qualifications and characteristics she is looking for in WCU’s next chancellor.
“This search is critical, and we all are committed to finding the right leader to carry Western forward and to ensure its ongoing success. Much of what we hope to accomplish as a university system and as a state depends on the talents and expertise of our chancellors,” Spellings said, speaking to the group via video teleconference because of heavy snow that had blanketed the Chapel Hill region, making travel to Cullowhee difficult.
The committee – which is composed of members of the WCU Board of Trustees and faculty, student, staff, alumni and community representatives – will help select a successor for Belcher, who went on medical leave at the end of 2017 after battling brain cancer since April 2016.
Spellings asked the committee to work with Jerry Baker of the executive search firm Buffkin Baker to bring forward three candidates to present to the Board of Trustees, in unranked order. Baker was the consultant who assisted in the search that brought Belcher to WCU in 2011, as well as the search that led to the 2013 hiring of Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar, who is now serving as acting chancellor.
After evaluating the committee’s slate of candidates, the WCU trustees will recommend the unranked candidates to Spellings for consideration or will return the slate of candidates to the search committee for further action. Following her evaluation of the candidates, Spellings will then recommend one finalist to the University of North Carolina Board of Governors for approval.
“WCU’s next leader must continue the good work happening in Cullowhee while driving forward with even bolder actions and with even greater focus. We need a leader who can seize this moment with the passion and commitment to lead WCU now. The next chancellor will have big shoes to fill, but he or she will also have a model to emulate,” Spellings said.
“Chancellor Belcher has been a fearless and transformative leader, no doubt about it – someone who united and inspired a community, driving those around him to be better than they thought they could be,” she said. “Selfless in his approach, he is a leader whose morals are as strong as his intellect, and we should look to his example as inspiration for the caliber of individual we need as his successor. But Western’s next chancellor will be different. He or she will bring their own strengths and their own background and leave their own mark on this great university.”
One of the first duties for the search committee will be to set a series of public forums to seek input from faculty, staff, students, alumni and community members as it develops a leadership statement (or job description). The open forums will be organized by subcommittee chairs and most, if not all, of the sessions, will be hosted by the university.
Subcommittee chairs are: For faculty, Bill Yang, past chair of the WCU Faculty Senate; for staff, Keith Corzine, WCU assistant vice chancellor for campus services in the Division of Student Affairs; for students, Student Government Association President Katherine Spalding and Graduate Student Association President Kevin Trudell; for alumni, Robin Parton Pate, president of the WCU Alumni Association; and for the community, Gorham Bradley, former director of the Catamount Club and current commercial risk adviser for Stanberry Insurance of Western North Carolina.
In addition, the committee is exploring options for other ways to obtain constituent feedback such as an online survey and through social media. Baker also will meet with the university’s Executive Council, Faculty Senate, Staff Senate, Student Government Association and Graduate Student Association.
Patricia Kaemmerling, chair of the WCU Board of Trustees and co-chair of the search committee, reminded committee members of the critical nature of the job ahead of them.
“I’m going to ask that during this process all of us put aside any personal prejudices we might have, any personal political leanings we might have. When we are together, we belong to the ‘purple party,’” Kaemmerling said. “Our job is to work together to find the best possible candidate that we can to lead our university into the future. We need to find somebody who will honor the legacy of Chancellor Belcher and, at the same time, find their own pathway to lead us into the future.”
Committee co-chair Bryant Kinney, vice chair of WCU’s trustees, said the importance of having a successful search extends far beyond the boundaries of campus to the entire WNC region the university was founded to serve.
“I will tell you today that this university means more to the economy of this region than it probably ever has. We have got to do a great job with this search,” Kinney said. “We want to get the best people in this search. Because this institution is so important to this region, the forums that we’ll have with students, with faculty, with staff, with the community and with alumni are going to be critical.”
While the majority of the search process will be open to the public, the names of candidates for the chancellorship will be kept confidential. Kaemmerling, Kinney, Spellings and Baker all addressed the need for confidentiality in order to attract the top candidates to seek the position.
Yang and Vicki Szabo, associate professor of history, spoke in favor of a process that includes the disclosure of the names of candidates. Yang said the Faculty Senate had passed a resolution Jan. 9 seeking a search process in which the finalists meet in public sessions with all campus and community constituent groups.
“I have had many faculty contact me, but also members of the community, when they’ve heard that in fact it is going to be a closed search,” Szabo said. “The idea of openness means only finalists – I think that is who people are most concerned about meeting. I’ve done a bit of research and a lot of institutions are doing open finalists. It’s a little bit of a mixed message to faculty when we can have open searches for provosts and deans but not for the most important person on our campus.”
Baker, pointing out his 42-year career as a search consultant with more than 30 years in higher education, said he would not have agreed to work on WCU’s chancellor search without a process that ensured the confidentiality of candidates.
“The standalone most critical issue to a successful search is the confidential nature of the process. The confidential maintenance of the identity of the candidates will absolutely make or break our search,” he said. “There is something approaching 100 percent probability that we will have current sitting presidents and chancellors quite interested in our work. Western is going to be a fabulous search to conduct from the perspective of interest, but I assure you, folks, that those sitting presidents and chancellors will not jeopardize the good reputation and quality of work that they have done early in the process.”
In delivering her charge to the committee, Spellings encouraged members of the group to keep an open mind and consider candidates who don’t necessarily come from an academic background. And while urging the committee to work toward the goal of having a new chancellor in place by Aug. 1, she also said it is more important to find the right person for the job.
“In our new chancellor, we need someone who can articulate the role of the university within the system, empower and support the campus community to make tough decisions, and lead, lead, lead. I have no doubt that we will find the right person, and I am excited to work with all of you to find him or her,” Spellings said.
Spellings described what she considers the key characteristics of WCU’s next chancellor, and shared that she will be looking for:
* A leader with unwavering integrity, the courage to always stand up for what is right, and a deep commitment to the value and importance of public higher education;
* A partner to the UNC System president, fellow UNC chancellors, WCU’s Board of Trustees, the UNC Board of Governors and the entire university community, with a commitment to the UNC System’s recently approved strategic plan;
* Someone who understands the unique mission of WCU;
* Someone who will build upon and grow the strong reputation of the university.
* Someone with life experience, who knows first-hand how to manage and lead a complex institution, and who understands shared leadership;
* Someone who is transparent, inclusive and collaborative;
* Someone who has tremendous people skills and can effectively communicate with all constituencies;
* Someone who understands the unique role that WCU plays in the Western North Carolina region and its economy;
* Someone who will be a partner with the region’s K-12 schools, community colleges and other institutions of higher education;
* Someone who relates well to students and enjoys spending time with them;
* Someone who appreciates intercollegiate athletics and understands the appropriate balance between academics and athletics;
* And perhaps most importantly, someone who values staff and faculty and the critical role they play in the success of the university.
More information about the search process is available at the website chancellorsearch.wcu.edu.