His father was a pastor. His mother was a school teacher. And his wife was magician David Copperfield’s first on-stage assistant. Those are just a few of the personal tidbits revealed Monday, April 11, by David O. Belcher, Western Carolina University’s chancellor-elect, in his inaugural public address to campus.
Provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Belcher was elected WCU’s next chief executive office Friday, April 8, by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors in a meeting at Chapel Hill. He will fill the vacancy that will be created by the retirement of longtime Chancellor John W. Bardo starting July 1.
After a quick return trip home to Arkansas over the weekend, Belcher and his wife, Susan, arrived at WCU Sunday afternoon for a two-day whirlwind of get-acquainted meetings highlighted by Monday’s campuswide welcome assembly.
In an address punctuated by moments of humor that frequently had an audience of about 500 faculty, staff, students and community members laughing out loud, Belcher provided some insight into the career path that led a trained concert pianist to become the chief executive officer of a regional comprehensive university.
Among the influences he cited was a piano teacher from his undergraduate days at Furman University. “I was sitting at a piano lesson when I was about 19 or 20 years old, and 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? But you know, that stuck with me,” Belcher said.
Later, while Belcher was working toward his master’s degree in music at the University of Michigan, another teacher told him that he’d make a great administrator.
“Think about your own lives, whether you are students here now, or faculty or staff. You’ve had people all along the way who said those special things to you that have triggered thoughts about your possibilities,” he said.
Belcher also credited his current chancellor at UALR, Joel Anderson, with giving him “leadership opportunities that most provosts don’t get to have” – including fundraising, chairing that institution’s NCAA recertification effort and responsibility for campuswide strategic planning.
A native of Barnwell, S.C., Belcher pointed to his upbringing as the son of a minister and a teacher as key factors in his career choices.
“My parents made me as a kid get up in front of people and speak in public,” he said. “They have a passion for education. They have a passion for high standards. They have a passion for a fundamental commitment to other people. Those are the things that undergirded my childhood and teenage years.”
In introducing wife Susan, who teaches voice at UALR, Belcher described her as a full partner in a leadership team. “Susan and I see ourselves as partners and colleagues with all of you,” he said.
In addition to once serving as the assistant to a famous magician, Susan Belcher also worked with the United Nations travel office, is an acclaimed vocal performer and has competed in the New York City Marathon.
“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,” the chancellor-elect said.
“We have found here at WCU a campus community that is absolutely passionate about excellence. You see it all over the place. You see it in this robust Honors College that you have put together. You see it in superb faculty at this institution. You see it in the Coulter Faculty Commons. You see it with the Millennial Initiative, a very foresightful approach to pulling students, faculty and public-private partners together in a really robust learning environment. You see it in the extraordinary promotion of undergraduate research. You see it in the QEP. I see excellence written all over the place here,” he said.
That commitment to excellence is balanced with a commitment to student success, including numerous programs and support systems to help ensure that students adjust academically, socially, culturally and financially to university life, he said.
Belcher provided answers to what he said are the three top questions that people have asked him since he was elected chancellor.
“They ask, ‘what’s the first thing you’re going to do,'” he said. “My first job is to get to know you and to listen to you. I have worked for 17 ½ years in administrative positions at two great universities. But this institution is not the same as those two. I have to learn who you are, as individuals, as units, as a university, as alumni, as community members.”
The second question people have been asking is about Belcher’s vision for WCU.
“While I do have some ideas, I would not presume to conjure up a vision without your consultation. My modus operandi is a consultative approach,” he said. “It’s not about my vision; it’s about our vision.”
The other big question concerns the state’s budget, with deep reductions in state funding expected for the coming year on top of previous years’ cuts, he said.
“Of course I am concerned, but budget challenges are everywhere. They are forcing us to make some really hard choices. We’ll have to continue to make strategic choices about what we will and what we will not do,” Belcher said. “But I take the long view. WCU is going to be here in 50 years. It’s going to be here in 100 years. It’s going to be here in 150 years. We – you and I – are stewards for a time. We must do our utmost to ensure that, within existing circumstances, Western Carolina is as strong as it can possibly be in order to fulfill its mission far into the future.”
The Belchers were introduced to the crowd by Steve Warren, chair of WCU’s Board of Trustees who also chaired the chancellor search committee. Warren displayed a large photograph of the chancellor-elect with his arms around outgoing Student Government Association President Daniel Dorsey and incoming SGA President T.J. Eaves shortly after the election Friday in Chapel Hill.
“For those of us who are alumni, we remember how this university put its arms around us, how its faculty put its arms around us, and how the staff put its arms around us, and how we were pulling in one direction the whole time.,” Warren said. “Just as he embraced Daniel and T.J. on that day, we need to return that favor. Let’s embrace him. Let’s put our arms around him and Mrs. Belcher.”