Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Power list interview: Western Carolina University Chancellor Kelli Brown

Western Carolina University Chancellor Kelli Brown joined High Point University President Nido Qubein in the Power List interview, a partnership for discussions with influential leaders. Interview videos are available at

Kelli Brown has led Western Carolina University in Cullowhee since 2018, over-seeing a $300 million budget and about 12,000 students, including 1,700 graduate-level students in Asheville. About 20% of students take online courses, while 40% are the first in their families to attend college. It is one of four UNC campuses that offer the N.C. Promise program offering tuition of $500 per semester for in-state undergraduate students. Brown has undergraduate and master’s degrees from The University of Toledo and a Ph.D. from Southern Illinois University. She is a trained dental hygienist.

This story includes excerpts from Harris’ interview and was lightly edited for clarity.

How does Western Carolina prepare graduates for a global world?

As a regional comprehensive university, one of the things we really value is the idea of having a strong liberal studies, a strong general studies, the critical thinking skills, oral and written communication skills and the ability to work with diverse people. That’s something that we take very seriously. So if you’re a nurse that’s coming out, we want you to be able to understand that nursing is changing and be able to adapt to that. The same with teacher education, which is very different than what it is today.

Do you share my premise that the typical university has stellar faculty who are experts in their disciplines, but they didn’t take courses on the pragmatism that the business world and nonprofits demand today? 

For the successful universities, we’ve had to change. I was not trained to be a teacher, I was trained in my area of public health. So I think that is very true. But I think that successful universities, places like Western, have been able to adapt by making sure we are selecting the right kind of faculty that come in. Selecting faculty that want to work with students outside the classroom and inside the classroom, helping them grow.

Many of our folks in our College of Business and our College of Engineering all have experience in the corporate world. In our College of Engineering, it’s required. 

What three primary characteristics do you look for in a faculty member? 

A faculty member has to understand our mission. We are a regional comprehensive university, which means that we are very grounded in our geographic area. I always say that we are going to stay in our lane. We are a regional comprehensive university. We are not going to be an R1 or R2 (large universities that are research focused.)

Now, we do research, but it’s applied research at the undergraduate level. That’s very different if you are at a larger research institution. The faculty also have to understand the importance of engagement within the community, within our region.

Beyond the campus?

Absolutely. Working with our nonprofits, working with our local government agencies. We have a very strong affiliation with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. We actually are on their land so we work well with them. Knowing our mission, being engaged and having the passion and understanding of working beyond their classroom experiences, I think is critical. If we’ve got all three of those qualities, those faculty come and they stay forever.  

How do we ensure that we are planting the seeds that feed the necessity of knowledge and discovery, while also learning about the needs of the marketplace?

Flexibility and the ability to work with people is part of the things we really try to incorporate early on in a student’s career here. So in their sophomore and junior years, they are doing internships and going out and working with companies. Like if you’re in marketing, having a marketing project and then pitching it to the CEO of that company. Those are the kinds of things that I think that we are doing at Western that will help them.

Engagement on campus is critical. Leadership roles on campus are critical, whether they be Greek or non-Greek. Be engaged. Be involved. Work with your faculty and take advantage of the networks and the internships opportunities.

Are you producing the kind of students that corporations need?

We cannot produce enough nurses, educators, engineers, accountants, financial managers. We are constantly being asked for more.

How many faculty does Western Carolina employ?

We have a little more than 500 full-time faculty. About 70% are tenured or tenure earning.

Is it difficult to be a chancellor at a school with 70% of the faculty either tenured or tenure-track?

This is my seventh institution. I’ve been in higher education for 35-plus years. At a place like Western, particularly given our location and the fact that we are a regional comprehensive university and really focused on undergraduate students, having tenured and tenure-track faculty at that level is extremely important. We need them to be committed. I cannot find a physicist or chemist in Sylva.

I think the other thing that’s really important for folks who are not in the higher education industry to understand is that, yes, they are on the books once one is tenured, but there are processes post-tenure. Prior to someone becoming tenured, there are many steps along the way. It’s a cycle that takes years and, oftentimes, folks are let go early on.

What are your biggest challenges?

First, I always worry about physical safety for our faculty, staff and students. Then I think of mental health as well. I also think about how we are going to be able to bring students back to higher education? We see so many more students not going into higher education.

Higher education has made many missteps that cause people to say, “Higher education is not worth the investment of resources — time, energy and especially money.”

I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job explaining to folks who are not in our industry what it is that we really do. What is that value? We’ve kind of been set in this ivory tower.

Maybe we’ve stepped away from the fact that we’re really talking about workforce development.  We’re talking about how do we create people to go to work in those corporations? Of course it’s lifelong learning. We want people to continue to learn. 

But, at the same time, we’re preparing people to go into those jobs that they’re looking for. I firmly believe in both two-year colleges as well as four-year universities. I think community college degrees are just as important. I need a good mechanic, a good HVAC person, and a good plumber every day of the week, right?

And at the same time, I think there are four-year degrees that are important. So, I do think we need to take a step back and do a better job of messaging and letting folks know what’s really happening and being more open about and transparent about what goes on in a university. 

I also think we’ve got to get students in and out in a better way. Why does it take longer for students to graduate in four years? It shouldn’t. Four years later, you should be walking across that stage and graduating and going on to graduate school or into the workforce. This idea of a six-year graduation is over.

I can tell you that corporate leaders see higher education as inefficient vis-a-vis other comparable organizations. Is this correct?

I think that that’s how it’s viewed. If you were to follow a faculty member, [you’d see] our faculty members are working 50-60 hours a week.

That’s part of that transparency, that’s part of opening up that door. The UNC system in North Carolina is doing an excellent job. We are being evaluated on performance. Our metrics are graduation rates, student debt at graduation, degree efficiency and the number of STEM degree students. I want to be held accountable. At the same time, I also want the system and others to know that sometimes
it takes more to graduate a student that’s a first generation student than other students. Their needs are different. The support mechanisms are different. 

Regarding N.C. Promise, are other UNC System chancellors jealous that the four campuses are taking away their students?

There is some of that. There is enough for everyone. I argue there are enough students for everyone. There’s a large population that wants to go to school. And there are going to be students who are going to go to other public institutions that cost more for a variety of different reasons. This is about affordability and accessibility to a four-year education.  

The four institutions that have been selected are quality institutions and [students] are getting a quality education. I think that was the premise of this, and I think it was brilliant of the state Legislature. Since 2018, our numbers have grown at Western. 

What would you still like to accomplish ?

I am looking forward to expanding our College of Engineering: Mechanical engineering, analytical engineering, robotics, all these different areas. We’ve talked about workforce development, and you talked about the economy and business. We are the only College of Engineering west of I-77.

You have a background in dental. Why don’t you have a dental school?

I mentioned we’re a regional comprehensive university. Most of our focus is on the undergraduate. We only have five doctoral programs and they are really focused on the applied.

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