WCU diagnosed with ‘2020 Vision’

As the campus of Western Carolina University increases its student body, changes are needed to accommodate the growth.

Residence halls, dining option, class spaces, offices for professors and parking are needed, but the signature beauty of the WCU campus should be maintained. With such a large need of change for a growing community of bright young minds, it can seem like an overwhelming task.

However, there is a council that works together to create and manage such changes in the master plan or “2020 Vision.”

According to Western Carolina’s website, the 2020 plan encompasses six components: “enrich the total student experience, fulfill the educational needs of the state and region, enhance external partnerships, invest in our people, garner support for our Vision and invest in our core resources.”

Dr. Sam Miller, vice chancellor of student affairs, said, “Based on those strategic directions [in the 2020 Vision]. . . We want the master plan to tie right into that document, the 2020,” said Miller.

Specifically, changes to meet the goals of the 2020 plan include, “sustainable transportation and infrastructure systems, maximize the use of our existing footprint and infrastructure and create a walkable, highly connected and vibrant campus, protect our unique heritage and celebrate campus as a place. We want to be mindful of the heritage sites on campus, some Cherokee sites and heritage,” according to Miller.

In June 2012, the Board of Trustees voted on the 2020 Plan, and each member voted in favor of the proposal, which ended Phase I. In July 2012, Phase II began “with the development of strategic plans for each division and college of the university,” according to WCU’s website.

“We’ve been doing this master plan process for over a year now, and we’re getting close to the end,” said Miller.

A team of 26 Western Carolina faculty, staff and community members work hard on maintaining the original fundamentals voted on by the Board of Trustees. Lynch, chief of staff, Miller, Mimi Fenton, director of graduate studies, Melissa Canady Wargo, chair and assistant vice chancellor for institutional planning & effectiveness, and Donna Welch, executive assistant in student affairs, Alessia Zanin-Yost, assistant professor and reference librarian, are all part of the commission.

“Yes, the campus is beautiful, but ‘beautifying’ is not just about having a nice-looking campus. It also means to think strategically where to place the infrastructures to allow for future changes,” and Zanin-Yost. “Think of the campus as a city. With good infrastructures, the city can always expand and, at the same time, offer a good environment where everybody thrives. The campus is the same. New building mean new classroom, offices, technology, etc., all things that we need in order to attract more students and fro faculty and staff to do an even better job.”

Zanin-Yost’s vision is to see campus grow through the plan to better accommodate student enrollment, better the students’ college experience and improve the standards of lower level courses. She is part of the enrich the total student experience sub-committee.

“I actually have two,” she said when asked about her favorite parts in the plan. “Strategic direction 1, goal 1.3. ‘Ensure that all programs include cross-cultural, experiential, applied and international/global awareness opportunities for students.’ The work force of tomorrow needs to be aware of what is going on outside the U.S. in order to be more effective, to think critically and accept diversity,” said Zanin-Yost. “I think that if these opportunities are encouraged [like] study abroad, take a trip, etc. the students’ experience will be much richer.”

Zanin-Yost is also excited about goal 1.4.

“‘Eliminate barriers to student access through coordinated endeavors with Birth-12, [or] B-12, and community college partners.’ There needs to be better communication among B-12, college and university,” Zanin-Yost. “Sometimes I feel that the curriculum taught at the lower grade is not preparing students to think critically but merely to pass the required scores. There needs to be better communication among the three entities so that students are supported and succeed in whatever path they decide to take.”

Some are worried that this construction and expansion could hurt the university’s positive reputation of having small class sizes. Jeanne Heath, lecturer in the mathematics and computer science department, has worked at Western Carolina for 10 years. When began teaching, the university located in the small town of Cullowhee was not the expanded layout of today.

“The campus and atmosphere was that of a smaller, more intimate school. I think the enrollment was about 6,000,” said Heath, “and my classes were smaller.”

Her fear is the loss of that intimacy, especially in the student-faculty relationship where professors have time to work with several individual students in order for them to succeed academically.

“I don’t think I will recognize this school in ten years,” said Heath. “It will be just like so many others. I hate to see this university get like all the others where the professors teach and don’t really get to work with or know their students because class sizes just keep getting larger and prohibit that.”

The university’s plans dive into this issue, exploring how to accommodate an increasing number of students. However, faculty and classroom size have not yet been considered. Right now, the plan looks at where will the students and buildings go.

“Some significant assumptions project out that we will be around 14,000 total student body head count in 2023,” said Miller. “So, we don’t want to grow fast; we don’t want to grow crazy. But, we also can’t control what the state policies for higher education will be. Maybe there’s not growth. Maybe there’s other interventions that happen changing that growth projection. But, if we grew, like the last decade, what will that look like? What will we need?”

To current students, the university looks like it is maxed out on space. With WCU encompassed by mountains on every side, how do you build up slopes and out of the valley?

“We own a lot of real estate like that green space over by HHS,” said Miller. “We own all that. I think that there’s a small parcel on old 107 that we own, and we also own some watershed property between here and Cashiers to protect natural streams and the university’s source of water for the campus. But, almost all of that is on a high slope, so you can’t build on that.”

Instead, the Board of Trustees voted for current buildings to be demolished, updated or constructed to prepare for the university’s expected growth.

“[We] adjusted the true variants, projected what our needs would be based on our assumptions for what those needs would be for growth on down the road,” said Miller. “We probably have enough office space right now, and that’s one of the things that the master plans consultants have said. ‘Designate some of that office space in some your buildings around campus to additional student organization space.’

“All of that comes up with an adjusted estimate of 3 million growth square feet, plus or minus a half,” he added. “So, where do we put all those new buildings? How do we get there?”

Miller explained the master plan accommodates this through restoring buildings like the Old Student Union, Breese, Bird, Brown, Niggli [Theatre] and Moore. The “old core of campus” will be updated to refresh neglected buildings. New walkways will help expand the campus by allowing easier access to areas that are ignored. There will also be construction to fill in the land between main and west campus. The strip mall, which houses the Mad Batter Café, Subway and Bob’s Mini Mart will face demolition. An updated, more appealing strip mall will take its place and includes student housing above the shops.

“So, that would do the upper part of campus,” said Miller. “We would take out the roads [in the old core of campus] and put in new buildings. We’d take down Hoey.”

There will be an addition to Forsyth, an updated natural science building, a new road and an additional engagement building.

To the relief of Western Carolina’s students, a parking garage is also on its way.

“This master plan calls for a new entrance to campus,” said Miller, “with a new bridge connecting that and bulldozing Camp, and we would have this new roadway that connects straight up to HHS. We add on to FPAC; we add on to Belk, and we build a whole new parking garage.”

The parking garage will also include office for Base Camp Cullowhee, the Mountain Heritage Center and the police department.

“WCU needs a parking garage bad. There is just not enough space as it is,” said Zanin-Yost. “The parking garage will, hopefully, solve this, at least for a while. On the other hand, I hate the idea to paying more for parking. I think how the increase will be done will have a negative or positive effect; this part really needs to be thought of from different perspectives.”

Currently, the plan only allowed for one parking garage, but Miller mentioned news for the future.

“Right now, just one [parking garage], although we did identify sites for a second and third one down the road,” said Miller. “We don’t have a lot of flat space for us to build on. That means increasing the parking fees.”

Still, Western Carolina would allow freshmen to bring their cars.

“The freshmen represent 20 to 25 percent of all the students on campus, and if you stop them from bringing cars, you’re taking away that much revenue from your parking operations. So, you could, and if they don’t stop coming to Western, it means we have to charge the sophomores, juniors and seniors and grad students a heck of a lot more to make up for the lost income.”

Looking at the map, when the master plan is complete, current students will not recognize their alma mater if they return in 10 to 20 years. The question remains of whether future students will enjoy the new university. Those seeking the small, intimate campus that Heath mentioned, but will it attract students who are looking for a large institution? With complaints of Sylva and Cullowhee not being a large city, it could be a hit or miss. However, Western Carolina is adequately preparing for students to keep finding and falling in with their mountain home.