If you had to choose one word to describe the strength that Western Carolina University faculty, staff and students harnessed during the last academic year to navigate through a historic pandemic, it would be resiliency.
Resiliency and flexibility are what WCU Chancellor Kelli R. Brown highlighted in her address to faculty and staff Wednesday as she outlined her priorities for the new academic year during the Fall Opening 2021 ceremony in the Performance Hall of the Bardo Arts Center.
The event saw faculty and staff watch both in attendance and online via livestream. Brown began her remarks by recognizing WCU’s land acknowledgement.
“The Western Carolina University campus is situated within the ancestral homelands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians,” Brown said. “At WCU, our work seeks to embrace and connect to this Cherokee landscape as we work to reinforce our mission. We will work to actively engage our community with the extraordinary indigenous identity and culture of this special place.”
She continued by giving faculty and staff an update of the university’s response to the delta variant of COVID-19. Faculty, staff and students will have to present proof that they are vaccinated by Oct. 1. If not, they will be subject to regular testing. Face coverings are also required in all campus buildings.
“While we may be done with COVID-19, COVID-19 is not done with us,” Brown said. “I know everyone wanted to burn these (face coverings) a couple months ago, but they’re back. If we can get enough people to get vaccinated and follow our Catamounts Care guidance, we can get rid of these once and for all.”
Brown then recognized key staff in the audience for their service to the university. Trenda Mason was recognized for continuing her education and advancing her career during the pandemic. Mason worked in housekeeping for nine years, the last year as a supervisor. She’s now finishing coursework for her bachelor’s degree in political science and working as an administrative assistant position with Student Support Services.
In addition to Mason, staff members Debbie Justice and Sherry Fox were given the North Carolina Richard Caswell Awards, recognizing their 45 years with the university. Both will be retiring soon.
Justice, an information technology manager, was hired on Sept. 1, 1976, as a programmer and analyst in the Computer Center and Controllers Office and served as faculty in the Department of Accounting and Information Systems.
Fox, an administrative support associate in Academic Affairs, has served WCU for 53 years. She was hired on March 1, 1966, as a secretary in the Testing Division before moving into the role of Curriculum Librarian in the Education Department. Fox served as a teacher at Sylva-Webster High School in the late 1970s and early 80s before returning to WCU to work in the Student Development Office. She then retired briefly in 1997 before returning to work in the Registrar’s Office that same year.
Brown discussed the academic priorities of the university for the next year. It began with a phrase that many faculty and staff identify with her presidency so far – “Honoring our Promise".
“For 132 years, we’ve been steadfast in our mission to create learning opportunities for students that incorporate teaching, research, scholarship, community service and engagement,” she said. “We were founded on this mission. A promise. And we continue it today.”
She further explained that promise to be everything faculty and staff do to help students learn and grow holistically.
A major priority for this year is recruitment and retention of WCU students.
“Over the last decade, we’ve witnessed tremendous growth, thanks in part to the NC Promise program, but we’re now facing declines in our overall enrollment,” she said. “Yes, these declines are due partly to the global pandemic, demographic changes and the enrollment cliff sweeping the nation, but not every university is seeing declines.”
Brown reviewed seven priorities and objectives that would be key for this year. The seven strategic priorities were approved by the WCU Board of Trustees this past summer as part of the university’s strategic plan, aptly titled “Honoring Our Promise.”
The seven priorities and benchmarks the university will use to gauge its success in the coming years:
Brown also addressed salary increases for faculty and staff.
“I recognize that today, I have asked you to do more to support our students,” she said. “That’s why I’m committed to helping to solve this problem. I have advocated for salary increases for our faculty and staff to the North Carolina General Assembly and I’m investigating additional ways the university can further compensate you. I believe we must address this issue on an annual basis and I do not expect to solve it in one or even two years with a lump sum of money.”
Finally, she ended her remarks with a strong message of hope.
“I firmly believe we are on the cusp of greatness,” Brown said. “Our time is now! We will honor our promise to our students. We will honor our promise to our faculty. We will honor our promise to our staff. And we will honor our promise to our region! We promise to be a preeminent regional comprehensive university in the southeast! We. Will. Honor. Our. Promise.”