It was the morning of Friday, April 8, 2011. David O. Belcher, then-provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and wife Susan were chatting with Tom Ross, then-president of the University of North Carolina System, in Ross’s office prior to the start of a UNC Board of Governors meeting.
After exchanging pleasantries and posing for a few photographs, Ross excused himself to attend to the business of the board meeting, which would include the placement of David Belcher’s name into nomination for the chancellor’s post at Western Carolina University. As soon as Ross departed, Belcher quickly dashed behind the president’s desk, sat down in Ross’s chair, folded his hands behind his head, propped his feet up on the desk and, with a mischievous glint in his eyes, said to those remaining in the room: “I just had to know how it feels.”
He then issued that unmistakable, borderline-maniacal laugh that legions of WCU students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends have come to know and love as one of Belcher’s defining characteristics – a genuine, human expression of glee and affection.
Later that morning, Ross, unaware of the shenanigans that had occurred in his office, recommended Belcher’s election as WCU chancellor, praising his “reputation for great integrity, sound decision-making and a strong commitment to community engagement and outreach.” Ross told the board, “I am convinced that Dr. Belcher has the right mix of experience, skills and passion needed to take Western Carolina to the next level.”
In hindsight, that may have been underselling it a bit. Under Belcher’s watch, the university has enjoyed steady growth in enrollment, with the size of the student body surging by nearly 18 percent since fall 2011 (see related story on page 26). His emphasis on enhancing the quality of WCU’s academic programs has resulted in a stronger academic reputation, as evidenced by the university’s regular appearances among US News and World Reports’ annual rankings of top regional universities in the South and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine’s list of the nation’s “best college values.”
Perhaps most importantly, Belcher’s unique personality and his passion for serving as chancellor in a place he often describes as “a little slice of heaven” have played enormous roles in raising the university’s profile across the region and state. Former State Sen. Thomas M. Apodaca ’80 credits Belcher with putting WCU “on the map” in the eyes of elected officials in Raleigh.
“When you think of David, you think of energy. He brought that with him when he came to Raleigh. He was energetic. He was there pitching Western like I had never seen it pitched before. That worked into a position of David Belcher being one of the top chancellors in the university system. In my book, he was No. 1 – I’m a little biased – but I think he was in the top two with any legislator you talked to,” said Apodaca. “David would come down, and he impressed all that he met. He really just gave Western the reputation it needed.”
Belcher was among the longest-serving chancellors in the UNC System at the time he decided to go on medical leave Dec. 31, 2017, after battling brain cancer since April 2016. UNC President Margaret Spellings characterized him as “rightly beloved by the Catamount community for his kindness, integrity, passion, energy, sense of humor and leadership” and as a “fearless leader, steadfast in his commitment to WCU and the community it serves.”
Spellings, who became UNC president in 2016 after Ross’s departure, said Belcher’s work to align the university with both the needs of the students and the region it serves caught the attention of others across the system. “I’ve seen him really be looked to by his peers as a great resource, especially with the newer chancellors. If you want to tap in to how to get it done in North Carolina, David Belcher is your first call,” she said.
That trademark David Belcher laugh and wit were soon on display for members of the WCU community not fortunate enough to have been in Ross’s office on that early spring day in 2011. Just three days after his election, David and Susan Belcher were in Cullowhee for a two-day whirlwind of meetings to get acquainted with members of the campus community, highlighted by his inaugural public address at WCU.
Early in that talk, the chancellor-elect described the first time he ever considered a career in academic administration, when his undergraduate piano teacher at Furman University brought up the possibility. “I was sitting at a piano lesson when I was about 19 or 20 years old. He looked over at me and said, ‘You’d make a great department chair.’ I didn’t know whether to be insulted or what! Can I not play the piano? Hello?” Belcher then released a hearty round of laughter that proved to be infectious, as the audience of about 500 found itself laughing aloud throughout an address punctuated by moments of humor.
The university community also discovered that in addition to Belcher’s sense of humor, he also possessed a firm commitment to excellence across all aspects of the university, to student access and student success, and to developing a shared strategic vision for WCU’s future. Steve Warren ’80, chair of the chancellor search committee in 2011, introduced Belcher to the campus community at that April 11 address by sharing words from Ross’s charge to the committee: “To find him a leader with integrity; to find him someone who understands the mission of Western Carolina and ‘The Western Way;’ someone who has a transparent and inclusive style of leadership; who understands the value of intercollegiate athletics; who is a successful fundraiser; who embraces the challenges and opportunities embodied in UNC Tomorrow; who has the ability to think long-term while dealing with the current budget problems; and who values the students, faculty and staff that are the Western family.”
Warren also pointed out that WCU was getting a two-for-one deal, as the university was gaining “an equally dynamic and energetic first lady” in Susan Belcher. During his remarks, the chancellor-elect described her as “a full partner in a leadership team.” He continued: “I do have a bone to pick with you. She fell in love with you a lot faster than she fell in love with me. She’s as happy to be here as I am.”
Belcher’s first official day on the job was July 1, 2011, and one of his first activities was to embark upon a series of visits to communities across North Carolina as well as in Upstate South Carolina, the Metro Atlanta area and Washington, D.C. Known as the “Get Acquainted Tour” – and jokingly referred to by a road-weary chancellor as “the forced march of death” – the 15-stop, four-month tour was designed to help Belcher begin to craft a vision for the next phase of development for the university by soliciting ideas and input from alumni, benefactors, legislators and community members.
The ideas that Belcher heard during that tour provided the genesis for the most important priority of his initial year as chancellor – the completion of a new strategic plan. Titled “2020 Vision: Focusing our Future,” the plan was designed to provide a clear focus for the institution at a moment of fiscal challenge, envision strategic enrollment growth complemented by increasing admissions standards, and reinforce the institution’s historic commitment to Western North Carolina. The plan was developed by a 36-member committee over a nearly yearlong process and was approved by WCU’s trustees in June 2012, just a few months after Belcher was formally installed as chancellor in a March 2012 ceremony.
In the ensuing five-plus years, the university has realized many of the initiatives of the strategic plan, including controlled, sustainable growth in student enrollment. WCU’s freshman-to-sophomore retention rate hit 80 percent in fall 2016, doing so five years ahead of the strategic plan’s target date. The university has undergone a process of academic program prioritization to align those programs to WCU’s mission and strategic directions, and reorganized several administrative units as part of an effort to improve the effectiveness and efficiencies of campus business processes.
Graduate and undergraduate academic programs previously offered at locations across Buncombe County were consolidated at a new off-campus instructional site in Biltmore Park Town Square in Asheville, with the academic programs offered there continuing to expand. WCU added a stand-alone engineering degree on the Cullowhee campus in 2012, spinning off from an existing program offered jointly with UNC Charlotte since 2004. Less than two years later, Belcher’s legislative advocacy efforts on behalf of WCU helped lead to an expansion of the engineering program to Biltmore Park.
Belcher also initiated a revision of WCU’s master plan, approved by the Board of Trustees in December 2013, to guide the development of the university’s facilities over the next several decades. Among the changes to the physical plant since his arrival are the construction of Noble Hall, a new mixed-used facility consisting of a blend of shops, restaurants and student housing located on the site of an old commercial strip damaged by a November 2013 fire, and renovation and expansion of the former Brown Cafeteria to create additional dining options to feed a growing campus. Currently on the drawing board for an anticipated fall 2019 opening is a new 600-bed residence hall planned for the upper section of campus, with another 400-bed residence hall anticipated to be built on the lower campus beginning in the spring of 2019, with expected occupancy by fall 2020. Also in the planning stages is a medical office building to be constructed near the Health and Human Sciences Building as part of WCU’s Millennial Initiative and a parking garage, the university’s first, to help accommodate larger numbers of students, faculty and staff.
Perhaps one of the crowning achievements during Belcher’s tenure as university CEO was the leadership and advocacy he provided during two significant statewide initiatives that will have tremendous impact on Western Carolina University and the region it serves. In March 2016, North Carolina voters approved a statewide $2 billion bond package that includes $110 million for replacement of WCU’s 1970s-era Natural Sciences Building. Early site work already has begun, and the new facility is expected to open in 2021. And later in 2016, WCU was selected for inclusion in the NC Promise Tuition Plan, a state higher education investment commitment that will dramatically lower tuition payments for students who choose to attend WCU and two other UNC institutions beginning fall 2018 (See related story on page 32).
For all of those accomplishments, the subject nearest and dearest to the hearts of David and Susan Belcher remains scholarship support. During his March 2012 installation address, Belcher announced that the No. 1 philanthropic priority of his administration would be increasing the number of endowed scholarships to provide financial assistance to WCU students in perpetuity. Since then, the university has added more than 200 new endowed scholarships to the books.
And, in October 2017, on the cusp of the public phase of a comprehensive fundraising drive tagged as the Lead the Way Campaign, the Belchers shared news of their own personal financial commitment to the effort – a pledge of $1.23 million in the form of a blend of cash donations and an estate gift. “Susan and I are here because of students. Students were why Susan and I took the leap to join Western Carolina University six-and-a-half years ago to change lives. They are our reason for being. They are our joy,” he said.
Susan Belcher echoed the chancellor’s comments, noting that she and her husband have frequently discussed the need to support the university’s students. “These are not just David’s sentiments he articulates in speeches. These are our core values. We talk about the fact that higher education is the stuff of the American Dream. We talk about the fact that cost is a barrier for too many qualified students,” she said. “This is simply unacceptable, and we must address it. It is imperative for the success of our students and our communities.”
The Belchers said they wanted to lead by example and inspire others to join the cause in helping support WCU students. Just 16 days later, retired banking executive F. Edward Broadwell Jr. and wife Donna Allsbrook Broadwell found themselves so moved by the Belchers’ actions that they made their own commitment to WCU’s fundraising campaign – to the tune of $1 million for scholarships. Announcement of the pledge came Oct. 28, as Ed Broadwell, former chair of the WCU Board of Trustees, accepted the university’s Distinguished Service Award as part of Homecoming 2017 activities.
“I truly believe that higher education is the great equalizer and the key to upward individual economic mobility. I truly believe that Western Carolina University – through the well-educated graduates that it produces – is vital to the social and economic development of Western North Carolina,” Broadwell said. “Donna and I agree with David and Susan Belcher that higher education is the stuff of the American dream, as the chancellor puts it. That is why Donna and I have decided to increase our financial support for this incredible university – and for the students who are the heart and soul of this place, who represent the future of our region and our state,” he said.
The Broadwells are far from alone in answering the Belchers’ October call for partners willing to make transformational gifts that will make a significant difference in the lives of students, said Lori Lewis, WCU vice chancellor for advancement. “Dozens of alumni and friends have responded through the Advancement staff to the Belchers’ challenge,” Lewis said. “We are working on documenting those gifts and pledges totaling more than $4 million to date.”
‘IT HAS BEEN A JOY’
When Belcher announced in late November that he would be going on medical leave at the end of the 2017 calendar year, with no expectation of returning to the position, shock waves and sadness rippled throughout the Catamount nation.
“Heartbroken” was Apodaca’s one-word response when asked by news media for a reaction to the announcement. He went on to describe Belcher as “one of the greatest leaders” he has ever witnessed. “The Western family can never thank Chancellor Belcher and Susan enough for their service,” he said. “His name will be synonymous with Madison’s when great leaders of WCU are discussed.” (Robert Lee Madison was founder of the school that was the forerunner to WCU).
In an editorial in The Sylva Herald, veteran journalist Jim Buchanan ’83 characterized Belcher as “a winner who has set a ridiculously high bar.” Buchanan added: “In the years since 2011, WCU’s reputation has been burnished to a bright shine. That reputation goes beyond appearances – academic standards are higher, student retention rates are higher, the number of endowed scholarships is higher. Most importantly, expectations are higher. And those expectations are being met.”
Buchanan also noted that the formerly “cozy” campus of his collegiate years has been transformed into a modern, regional comprehensive institution of higher education. “Much of that is attributable to the drive and passion of David Belcher and his wife, Susan. They have been omnipresent representatives of the university, turning up at social functions, sporting events, community-building ventures and fundraisers,”
In his message to the campus community announcing his plans to go on medical leave, Belcher called WCU a “blessing” for both him and Susan. “We love this place. I have been honored to lead this fine institution. The university has fed my soul and fulfilled me in immeasurable ways, and Susan has found a true home here amongst friends and avenues of service. However, we agree that we must now concentrate on my health, each other and our families, and living life,” he wrote.
“While I am disappointed in this turn of events, I am optimistic that the future is bright for Western Carolina University. I am confident that each of you will do all that it takes to ensure that this university continues to change lives – the lives of our students, their families, their communities and this state,” Belcher wrote.
Because the aphasic impact of his glioblastoma brain tumor on his speech and communication skills had worsened toward the end of this past semester, Belcher began delegating many of his public speaking responsibilities to Susan. She delivered his charge to the graduates at two December 2017 commencements and spoke from the podium during two receptions at which members of the campus community gathered to celebrate the Belchers’ contributions to WCU and WNC.
But the chancellor did join his wife at the podium at the final campus celebration to share five important words he wanted to express for himself: “It has been a joy.”