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Thursday, May 23, 2024

UNCW launches new strategic plan prioritizing research and community benefits

Chancellor Aswani Volety delivers his quarterly address to the board of trustees during their quarterly meeting July 27, 2023. (UNCW/Jeff Janowski)

WILMINGTON — Ready or not, UNCW is set to embark on its next 10-year chapter.

READ MORE: NDA not an option for ousted dean, UNCW claims no retaliation

Last week, Chancellor Aswani Volety unveiled the university’s upcoming strategic plan, the first under his leadership, to the board of trustees. The plan outlines four key pillars and 18 strategic priorities based on the following values: a welcoming environment for students and staff, increasing the university’s position on the national stage, and inviting the community onto the campus. 

The first pillar is unparalleled opportunities, which include goals such as increasing accessibility and affordability of the institution, while also making it more diverse. UNCW continues to struggle with racial diversity; the population is more than 70% white, and Black students have the lowest retention rate compared to other demographics. 

The university made small progress in the 2021-2022 school year. Racially or ethnically diverse students increased from 3,444 to 3,491; staff of color increased from 301 to 306 and faculty of color from 162 to 165. There were also 70 more international students.

The Supreme Court’s recent strike-down of affirmative action in college admissions will be another hurdle in the university’s goal to diversify its campus. Yet, as criticized by some panelists speaking on the topic last week, the university did not immediately address the ruling and has yet to offer ways it will adapt in its wake. 

The strategic plan’s second pillar is nationally prominent programs. 

Compared to the last strategic plan released in 2013 — goals included beginning a University Studies curriculum, promoting applied learning experiences, and expanding graduate programs — UNCW is now shifting more toward vital workforce programs. It’s also homing in on academic research to solve regional and global challenges. 

One of the priorities is to establish an academic health sciences center and partner with regional healthcare providers and other organizations to meet the community health needs.

“If the pandemic didn’t do anything, it highlighted the deficiencies in the system — not enough nurses, not gonna PAs and so on and so forth,” Volety said during the meeting.

The plan outlines the need to expand academic programs in high-demand areas, such as STEM and health care, and research that is regionally relevant and globally important, with consideration of UNCW’s role as a coastal university. This also includes commercializing its research to increase economic development, such as releasing AI programs to help track child pornography. 

During the academic affairs update to the board of trustees, Provost James Winebrake revealed the university broke $100 million in award proposals (receiving $25 million) for the first time, attributing the feat to the university’s “embrace” of its R2 classification. Research institutions are classified in three categories, with R1 indicating the highest research activity. 

Winebrake also detailed new academic programs in the pipeline. Recently approved by the UNC System is a Ph.D. in applied coastal and ocean sciences, a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical chemistry, a master’s in supply chain management and a bachelor’s in workforce learning and development. All will be deployed this fall except for workforce learning and development, slated to begin in fall 2024.

Several programs are also under review by the UNC System: bachelor’s in Africana studies, a bachelor’s of fine arts in studio art, a bachelor’s in biochemistry, a doctorate of physical therapy, and a master’s in physician assistant studies. Winebrake noted studio art and biochemistry were most likely next in line for approval. 

Supporting more research could be easier now with two new colleges, the College of Humanities, Social Sciences and the Arts, and the College of Science and Engineering. Both are offshoots of the now-defunct College of Arts and Sciences, deemed too large and sprawling to ensure each program had dedicated resources and funding streams. 

Some worried this separation of arts and sciences could result in more attention being diverted to STEM research. As far as its representation in the strategic plan, the arts are mentioned once, under the third pillar: community commitment. 

“One shocking statement I heard was, and these are faculty and staff members on campus, where they said, ‘Until I came to work here, I didn’t know I could step foot on the campus,’” Volety said. “It was a wall-in place — it was a metaphorical wall.”

The goal over the next 10 years is to increase the accessibility and visibility within the community, and encourage students, faculty, staff and alumni to engage with the community, including with student civic engagement. The university also wants to garner more support for athletics and the arts.

“I’ve always said that art and athletics are front gates,” Volety said. “It brings people onto our campus, and then we can talk about all the wonderful things that happen in the other areas.” 

He noted this could look like expanding or improving current arts and athletics spaces, or building new ones, like another athletic arena — which leads into the fourth pillar, 

world-class operations and infrastructure. 

The first priority is to streamline policies and procedures and update data collection and technology across campus in order to make data-driven decisions about the university. It also calls for a comprehensive long-term infrastructure plan and “to diversify and enhance revenue streams sufficient to meet the needs of the institution.” 

One of those needs might be more housing. At the board of trustees meeting, it was revealed 245 incoming students will not have a room to stay in due to the enrollment goal set by the chancellor. Instead, they will be housed in excess areas, such as triple or quadruple rooms, office space, and common rooms. This inconvenience follows the construction of four new residence halls since 2020 and the planned demolition of the university’s oldest and largest dorm, Galloway Hall.

The university has several infrastructure projects underway, including the Randall Library expansion, and renovations to several academic buildings. 

The new board of trustees approved the strategic plan last week, marking one of the first actions for new trustees that were sworn in, including Traci Butler and Aldona Woś. 

Butler has served for the past decade as senior vice president for LabCorp Diagnostics’ South Atlantic division after receiving her MBA from Elon University. Woś, a native of Poland, is a retired internal medicine and pulmonary medicine physician. She is currently the president at the Institute of World Politics. 

The university is also going into the school year with four deans out of its five colleges either new or serving in the interim. In charge of the CAS predecessors is world-renowned musician Stephanie Caulder for the College of Humanities, Social Sciences, and the Arts. UNCW computer science professor and former associate provost for research Ronald Vetter will lead the College of Science and Engineering.

Jack Watson II will head the College of Health and Human Services after his time as dean of West Virginia University’s College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences. He previously served as associate dean, assistant dean and chair of the Department of Sport Sciences.

Taking over the Watson College of Education is Watson professor and associate provost for undergraduate education and faculty affairs Carol McNulty. She will serve in the interim after the removal of former dean Van Dempsey following controversy over UNCW’s award of the Razor Walker Award to Michael Lee. 

The university plans to initiate a search for a permanent dean during the 2023-2024 academic year.

The next step in the strategic plan process is to outline implementation, assigning the 18 priorities to different departments across campus. At the BOT meeting, Volety said his goal was to have a public dashboard to keep track of the plan’s progress.

[Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article reported the university broke $100 million in external funding. The article has been updated to reflect the university made $100 million-worth of award proposals, but only received $25 million.]

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at 

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