Western Carolina University has been granted funding from the North Carolina General Assembly to fund an expansion of the College of Engineering and Technology.
The bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Clampitt, granted WCU, in total, $102.3 million in the 2023-2025 state budget to meet the growth demands of engineering-based business and industries in Western North Carolina.
In a story released by WCU, Chancellor Kelli Brown expressed gratitude to the representatives and senators that aided in the passage of the bill.
“Funding for engineering expansion will allow WCU to meet critical demand in the regional labor market and to serve Western North Carolina to its fullest potential,” Brown said.
“I’m personally thankful for our legislators from the region who sponsored bills on behalf of WCU during the budget process including Senators Corbin, Hise and Moffitt, and Representatives Johnson, Gillespie, Clampitt, Pless and Hardister.”
WCU received $95.3 million to construct a new building for the engineering program. As of the time of this reporting, the university has not selected a location for the new facility.
Construction of the new facility is predicted to last 5 to 6 years according to Randy Collins, the Dean of the College of Engineering and Technology. Plans for the new facility are expected to be drafted during the spring 2024 semester.
“There are two things going on simultaneously,” Collins said. “The one that is going to be visible to everybody is going to be the new building. [But] buildings don’t teach students, what’s really important is our programmatic expansion.”
The bill granted $3.5 million in nonrecurring funds to purchase new equipment for the current programs and laboratories and another $3.5 million in recurring funds to increase the faculty and staff of the engineering program “with a focus on hands-on, project-based learning in industry.”
“Right now, our programs are pretty compact,” Collins said. “There are many people interested in other things…with additional people [and] resources we can expand our programs.”
According to Collins, students have expressed interest in program inclusions like environmental engineering, civil engineering and computer engineering; with special interest expressed in robotics and automation.
“We went at this trying to create a pipeline of talent for the regional industry needs,” Collins said. “We have to make sure that whatever programs we expand into are ones that industry is seeking. We need to make sure that we are expanding into areas that students are interested in as well. We need to fill the pipeline coming in and going out.”
The College of Engineering and Technology currently operates out of the west wing of the Belk Building. The Belk Building has not been able to accommodate rapid advancements in technology. With increasing demands in engineering fields, it’s clear that improvements are needed.
“As we grow and expand, then we can make sure our building is designed for these programs in mind so that when the time comes, we can just pop them right in [the new building],” Collins said. “The building needs to be designed thinking about what we are going to be doing 20 or 30 years from now.”
The North Carolina General Assembly cited WCU as the only UNC System institution with a college of engineering west of I-77. This gives the university a unique position to cater to the increasing demand in workforce needs, faculty expertise and entrepreneurial development.
“This [funding] will likely come with additional faculty and staff with research interests,” Collins said. “Students would be able to get involved with the faculty that would have otherwise not been here.”
The increasing faculty and expanding concentrations within the engineering program have the potential to create new connections within industries that are rapidly expanding in the region.
Collins said that the implementation of funding will be a gradual effort rather than an “all at once” to ensure that the funds are being used in a fiscally responsible way.
“This was a huge vote of confidence by the General Assembly of how important expanding engineering is to Western North Carolina not only a vote of confidence in our ability at WCU to actually execute this and pull it off,” Collins said.