C.D. Spangler Jr., the late former president of the University of North Carolina System, once said the presence of faculty members on a campus who have earned the “distinguished professor” title is “the very essence of a great university.” Over the years, the Charlotte businessman backed up that sentiment by contributing financially, through his family foundation, to the establishment of endowments for distinguished professorship positions at institutions across the UNC System, including at Western Carolina University. And, it was because of gifts from benefactors such as Spangler and many others, combined with an intentional effort by WCU administrators to make progress in that area, that WCU moved from having zero distinguished professor positions in 1996 to a total of 27 such positions today.

The North Carolina General Assembly established the Distinguished Professors Endowment Trust Fund in 1985 to enable UNC System institutions to receive and match private contributions to create distinguished professorships. The original legislation provided for matching grants on the basis of one dollar in state money for every two dollars in private funds, but in 2003 the ratio was changed to a dollar-for-dollar match for designated “focused-growth” institutions such as WCU. Interest earned from each professorship endowment is used to enhance the salary and provide other support for the work of the professor.

Building a distinguished professorship program at WCU was one of the focus areas of the administration of John W. Bardo, WCU chancellor from 1995 until 2011, and also a priority during the university’s first-ever comprehensive fundraising campaign, “The Campaign for Western,” launched in early 2007 and successfully completed under Bardo’s watch. Now, 11 years later, WCU’s current fundraising campaign, “Lead the Way,” has as its No. 1 priority increasing private support for endowed scholarships at the institution.

A landmark development occurred in 1996 when WCU’s first professorship was created through a $666,000 gift from the late Adelaide Key of Asheville, who served as a WCU trustee for eight years. That gift was combined with $334,000 in matching state funds to create the Adelaide Worth Daniels Distinguished Professorship in Special Education. The following year, the university chose David L. Westling, one of the nation’s foremost authorities in special education, to fill that post, and Westling arrived on campus to begin his work in August 1997. 

Carol Burton ’87 MAEd ’89, WCU’s associate provost for undergraduate studies who is serving as acting provost, was director of the Teaching Fellows Program in the university’s College of Education and Allied Professions when Westling came on board. Burton has maintained a close affiliation with the university’s distinguished professorship program as a member of the provost’s office staff since 2005. “In those early days of the program, we didn’t necessarily know what to expect,” she recalled. “We knew it was an opportunity to attract outstanding scholars in an academic field and give some continued support to the work of the faculty.”

As the program began at WCU, the plan was to hire professors with a national or international reputation who were “at the pinnacle of their careers,” Burton said. At that time, university officials believed that an institution WCU’s size should be home to at least 20 distinguished professors representing a diversity of academic fields, she said. As WCU’s most recent spring semester ended, the university had a total of 21 active distinguished professors on campus, with two members of that group – David Shapiro, the Robert Lee Madison Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders, and Bruce Frazier, the Carol Grotnes Belk Distinguished Professor of Commercial and Electronic Music – preparing to retire. In June, WCU’s Board of Trustees approved the appointment of Bruce Gehrig as the Joe W. and Cynthia Kimmel Distinguished Professor of Construction Management, and five other positions were vacant. “We have outstanding faculty all over the campus, but our distinguished professors are a special group,” Burton said. “They represent a hallmark of excellence that I think everyone affiliated with the university should be really proud of.”

WCU’s distinguished professorship positions are supported with an endowment created through a combination of private donations and state matching funds, but one exception to the mixed funding model is the Madison Professorship held by Shapiro since 2008. Named in honor of the first president of the school that became WCU, that professorship is funded entirely by state appropriation and was established to recognize a faculty member “who has given a significant part of his or her life and career to Western,” and the position is only advertised to internal candidates, Burton said. Shapiro’s body of work in the field of fluency disorders, internationally renowned in scope, was recognized by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors in 2016 when he was chosen to receive the Oliver Max Gardner Award, the highest honor presented to UNC System faculty, in recognition of his service to humanity.

Building a national reputation

Westling had been a member of the faculty at Florida State University for 20 years when he decided to make the move to Western North Carolina with his family in 1997. He marked his 20th year as the Adelaide Worth Daniels Professor in August 2017. Westling recalled that “there were a lot of unknowns involved” in the process of applying to become WCU’s first distinguished professor. “I didn’t know a lot about Western Carolina,” he said. “I came up for an interview and spent several days on campus and in the area. I met with the administration, and since it was the first endowed professorship, I think they wanted to know what I wanted. They said, ‘Well, okay, we think you could be helpful for us.’ I told them I would do what I could to make them proud.”

Looking back over the past two decades, Westling said the development of a program to train special education students in working with individuals with severe disabilities and the rise of WCU’s University’s Participant Program, which brings individuals with intellectual disabilities to campus for a two-year living and learning experience, are two big highlights from his time on campus. The UP Program, which Westling co-directs with Kelly Kelley ’03 MAEd ’06, associate professor of inclusive and special education, is recognized as a model initiative both nationally and internationally. “People around the country know about Western Carolina University’s UP Program,” Westling said. “For many of those people, it tells the story of the value of the university and the commitment of the university to inclusion and to many of the things that we value.” Considering WCU’s distinguished professorship program in its entirety, Westling said it is “all about added value. The distinguished professors on WCU’s campus are doing great things that impact the area and are building the national reputation of the university.”

Frazier joined the WCU faculty in August 1998, a year after Westling’s arrival, to become the university’s second distinguished professor. A North Carolina native, Frazier brought to campus more than 20 years of experience as a music composer, editor, synthesist, arranger and session engineer, with extensive credits in the motion picture, television and country music concert production industries, along with two Emmy Awards and nominations for two others for his TV work. The professorship “seemed like a wonderful opportunity to share with eager and interested students what I had learned on the job in Los Angeles, and to be able to establish a (commercial and electronic music) program and facilities from the ground up,” he said.

Filling the role of the Belk professor for two decades has been fulfilling, “without a doubt,” Frazier said. “Technology has played an increasing role in the creative aspects of contemporary music production, and it’s been rewarding to mentor students in their education and aid them in finding placement in the industry,” he said. Frazier said he has attended lectures, book and poetry readings and art exhibits over the years that featured the work of WCU’s distinguished professors and their students. “The work of the professors has enhanced my Western experience, and I’m certain it has added value for the university at large,” he said.

Frazier came to WCU to start an academic program from scratch, but Kofi Lomotey, WCU’s Chancellor John Bardo and Deborah Bardo Distinguished Professor of Educational Leadership, arrived at the university in 2013 to help administrators and faculty in the College of Education and Allied Professions guide their then-recently redesigned executive doctoral program in educational leadership. Dale Carpenter, a longtime education faculty member who served as the college’s dean from 2014 through 2017, said the university would have had “a difficult, if not impossible, task of attracting and hiring a scholar like Dr. Kofi Lomotey” if the Bardo Professorship had not existed. The professorship was established through a gift from the 

Spangler Foundation and was named in honor of WCU’s former chancellor and his wife.

“Even with the endowed position, we felt very, very fortunate to bring Kofi to WCU,” Carpenter said. “Adding a former teacher, school principal, university professor, department head, dean, provost and chancellor all rolled up into a wise senior scholar who was and is still an active and prolific author was just what we needed.”

Lomotey said he sought the Bardo Professorship because he was intrigued by the re-engineered doctoral program and attracted by a number of its characteristics, including that it is practitioner-oriented and has a social justice orientation; community leaders are engaged as adjunct faculty, guest lecturers and members of an advisory council; and there is an intentional focus on faculty and student diversity. “Being at WCU has been a fulfilling and meaningful experience for me for several reasons,” Lomotey said. “First, I believe in the mission of the program – to prepare individuals to become organizational leaders skilled in solving complex problems of practice. Second, I genuinely enjoy working with my faculty colleagues and our students.”

Writing, teaching, service

WCU’s distinguished professors meet once each semester for lunch to share information about the work and research they are involved in and to hear updates from the provost and chancellor. For the past year, Lomotey has been coordinating that group. “The distinguished professor program increases the reputation of the campus, which contributes to the attractiveness of the campus to prospective faculty and prospective students,” he said. “More often than not, distinguished professors serve as official or unofficial mentors to junior faculty and other faculty, increasing their likelihood of success at WCU and in academia. Theoretically, distinguished professors are doing what every faculty member is expected to aspire to do – prolific writing, exemplary teaching and broad-based service.”

That service work ranges across the many academic areas represented by WCU’s distinguished professors, and extends around the world. Tom Ashcraft, WCU’s Distinguished Professor of Visual Arts, is leading students in WCU’s School of Art and Design in a multi-semester class project to design a sculpture for the new U.S. Embassy in the African country of Niger. Closer to home, Angela K. Dills, the university’s Gimelstob-Landry Distinguished Professor of Regional Economic Development, in June unveiled the new North Carolina Data Dashboard, an online information tool designed to provide easy access to economics data about WNC counties and the state for a variety of clients, including entrepreneurs and industry representatives looking to expand their businesses. The database includes more than 12,000 unique data series from sources such as the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Federal Reserve Economic Database. The dashboard project is jointly sponsored by the Gimelstob-Landry Professorship and WCU’s Center for the Study of Free Enterprise, with continuing support from the Office of the Provost.

Dills said one of the official goals for her professorship is to work for “refinement of effective economic policy for the region and the state.” “I really like that, and I think the dashboard does a lot to serve that goal,” she said.

Rich Price ’88, director of Jackson County’s Office of Economic Development, said the dashboard will be welcomed by everyone who works in economic development-related roles, and especially those in the more rural areas of WNC. “This tool condenses relevant data into one easily navigated site, thus minimizing the need to access multiple state and federal data portals that can be challenging, even for the most experienced analyst,” Price said.

Over the years, WCU’s distinguished professor program has attracted top-level faculty members from all areas of the U.S., but in recent years the positions also have been used to recognize faculty members already on the WCU campus who have become leaders in their fields of expertise, Burton said. 

In 2016, Lisa Bloom of WCU’s School of Teaching and Learning was named the Jay M. Robinson Distinguished Professor of Educational Technologies and Todd Collins of the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs was appointed the David and Lois Steed Distinguished Professor of Public Policy. In 2017, David Hudson of the Department of Physical Therapy was named Distinguished Professor of Physical Therapy, and just last March, Billy Ogletree, a faculty member in communication sciences and disorders at WCU for 26 years and current department head, was appointed WCU’s Catherine Brewer Smith Distinguished Professor of Communication Disorders.

“We have great faculty at WCU,” Burton said. “The plan originally was to attract external folks, but as the program has evolved, more faculty already here are being recognized with these positions. When we have folks here doing the work, why wouldn’t we use the positions to reward and retain them?”  

WCU’s Distinguished Professors

Thomas Ashcraft, Distinguished Professor of Visual Arts

Lisa Bloom, Jay M. Robinson Distinguished Professor of Educational Technologies

Todd Collins, David & Lois Steed Distinguished Professor of Public Policy

Angela Dills, Gimelstob-Landry Distinguished Professor of Regional Economic Development

Bruce Frazier, Carol Grotnes Belk Distinguished Professor of Commercial and Electronic Music (retired in June)

Patrick Gardner, Mountaintop Distinguished Professor of Advanced Optics Manufacturing

Bruce Gehrig, Joe and Cynthia Kimmel Distinguished Professor of Construction Management

Turner Goins, Ambassador Jeanette W. Hyde Distinguished Professor of Gerontological Social Work

David Hudson, Distinguished Professor of Physical Therapy

Hugh Jack, Cass Ballenger Distinguished Professor of Engineering

Katie Kalarovich, Mary Kneedler Distinguished Professor of Nursing

Kofi Lomotey, Chancellor John Bardo and Deborah Bardo Distinguished Professor of Educational Leadership

Edward Lopez, BB&T Distinguished Professor of Capitalism

Terrence Mann, Carolyn Plemmons Phillips and Ben R. Phillips Distinguished Professor of Musical Theatre

Jerry Miller, Blanton J. Whitmire Distinguished Professor of Environmental Science

Billy Ogletree, Catherine Brewer Smith Distinguished Professor of Communication Disorders

Ron Rash, John A. Parris Jr. and Dorothy Luxton Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Cultural Studies

Brett Riggs, Sequoyah Distinguished Professor of Cherokee Studies

David Shapiro, Robert Lee Madison Distinguished Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders (retired in June)

David Strahan, Taft B. Botner Distinguished Professor of Elementary and Middle Grades Education

David Westling, Adelaide Worth Daniels Distinguished Professor of Special Education

Vacant positions:

Wesley R. Elingburg Distinguished Professorship in Business Innovation

Joe W. Kimmel Distinguished Professorship for the K-12 Construction Industry Relationship

Chancellor Myron L. “Barney” and Mrs. Barbara Coulter Distinguished Professorship in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

Nursing Anesthesia Distinguished Professorship

Kneedler Distinguished Professorship in Computer Information Systems