Thirty campus leaders from Western Carolina University crisscrossed the mountains of Western North Carolina for a weeklong tour Monday, May 12, through Friday, May 16, to learn more about the region that the university serves and to help strengthen relationships between WCU and its surrounding communities.
The group, which consisted of 11 members of the inaugural class of the WCU Leadership Academy and other campus leaders who are either new to the university or in new positions at WCU, boarded a Cherokee Boys Club motor coach and braved narrow and twisting mountain highways to reach stops ranging from Murphy to Asheville.
During the week, the leaders learned about everything from IPA (as in integrated power assemblies, during a tour of the Eaton Corp., an electrical components manufacturer in Arden with connections to WCU’s engineering program) to IPA (as in India pale ale, at a stop at Highland Brewing Co. in Asheville, part of an emerging brewing industry becoming an important economic driver).
The trip even took the participants beyond the boundaries of WNC and deep into space, as they peered through telescopes at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in Rosman for an up-close look at Saturn and its rings, Jupiter and its moons, the planets Mars and Mercury, a far-away galaxy and other celestial objects.
The tour also included stops at Clay County Schools in Hayesville; the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown; Tri-County Community College in Murphy; Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Oconaluftee Visitor Center/Mountain Farm Museum; Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort; Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory in Otto; Little Tennessee Greenway in Franklin; Highlands Biological Station, Old Edwards Inn and Bascom art center in Highlands; and Biltmore Park.
Stops on the tour were centered on the themes of education, tourism and heritage, recreation and the environment, creative arts, and technology and innovation.
The WCU Leadership Academy Regional Tour was the concluding activity for the members of the inaugural class of the academy, which was created to cultivate faculty and staff leaders as part of WCU’s effort to achieve the goals identified in the “2020 Vision: Focusing Our Future” strategic plan. WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher, who participated in the tour, announced the implementation of a leadership program for faculty and staff during his installation address in March 2012.
The strategic plan, approved last August by the WCU Board of Trustees, also calls for the establishment of such a program, which was developed under the leadership of the late Provost Angi Brenton and Laura Cruz, director of Coulter Faculty Commons.
Leading with a regional vision is a fundamental aspect of the structure of the academy, said Cruz. “We carefully and intentionally selected the itinerary to highlight the region, WCU’s role in the region, and WCU’s strategic plan in a manner that (we hoped) was engaging and pedagogically effective – in other words, it was a learning-centered design,” she said. “It also was designed to be developmental, so that we could each develop leadership skills and vision that extends through the community. Finally, it was designed to be reciprocal – as we were learning about leadership and the region, our community partners could interact with WCU leaders and tell their stories.”
Participants said they found the tour to be a very valuable activity. “The tour gave me more insight into the region’s needs and how WCU can fit into that puzzle,” said Andy Voelker, manager of student computing. “WCU has to continue to be creative and proactive in working with our community to establish strategic partnerships. I was surprised at how little we knew about each other and how obvious some of these partnerships are. There are a lot of opportunities out there, but it will take a little work to get them going.”
For some participants, the tour provided an opportunity to explore aspects of the WNC region of which they were previously unaware. “As a native of WNC who had never been to Highlands Biological Station or PARI, it was a great experience. Sometimes you don’t realize what is just at your back door, so this was a great opportunity to discover some new things and rediscover others about our region,” said John Whitmire, head of the Department of Philosophy and Religion. “The time together with other campus leaders on the bus also was a really valuable opportunity because it gave us the time to observe some of our campus senior leadership in action, and practice shifting into the different mindsets and frames that they use in dealing with important issues,” Whitmire said.
Renee Corbin, director of assessment for the College of Education and Allied Professions, agreed. “The tour was instrumental in understanding the diversity of the region such as socio-economic and cultural differences as well as varied industry, including education, tourism, recreation, science and research, and business,” Corbin said. “I was surprised by the Coweeta facility and the important role it plays in scientific research. I have passed the sign many times traveling to Atlanta and never knew anything about it.”
Brett Woods, director of development, said he was pleased at how genuinely appreciative community leaders were of the group’s efforts to visit with them and learn more. “There was a keen sense of desire to collaborate and work together to strengthen the WNC region and to create win-wins for all,” Woods said.
Sue Grider, learning management system manager in Coulter Faculty Commons and a resident of WNC for 18 years, said the tour illustrated the way various organizations across the region are working together to help solve problems. Grider cited the example of Tri-County Community College teaming with Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort to try to help employees of a Graham County furniture manufacturing plant who will be unemployed when the facility closes later this year.
“This was a great example of how these groups are working together to help maintain the regional structure,” she said.
“Another aspect of how companies are working to make our region better is Eaton and how the company encourages its staff to obtain their degrees, either two-year or four-year, to help provide opportunities for the employees but also to strengthen the economic base of our region. The ripple effect of their program is huge.”
Patrick Frazier, senior assistant director of admissions, said he will be using some of what he learned on the tour in doing his job recruiting students. “The interesting part in terms of the region is how many connections the university already has within the region that are not publicly known to a lot of people,” Frazier said. “From a recruitment standpoint, there were aspects that will be really beneficial when talking to future students that I would never have known about beforehand – for instance, the opportunities that are in place and being utilized by students within the environmental sciences field.”