They are dubbed by some in the community as the “three amigos:” a new chancellor at Western Carolina University, David Belcher; a new president at Southwestern Community College, Donald Tomas; and a new superintendent of schools for Jackson County, Mike Murray.
Each started their respective positions July 1, 2011. Each promises a new era of leadership that connects their respective institution’s educational efforts to the overall good of the community. Each seem comfortable in, and energetic about, their roles as institutional and community leaders.
“Openness, honesty and transparency,” Tomas said during his introductory remarks at a community meeting last summer. SCC, which serves residents of Jackson, Macon and Swain counties and the Cherokee Indian Reservation, is piggybacking strategic planning efforts on those of neighboring WCU.
Tomas said the three educational leaders have been meeting and discussing educational and community issues.
“This is an extremely exciting and unique opportunity,” he said.
Right after Belcher took the helm at Western Carolina University, he and other WCU leaders held a series of seven community meetings in the region to hear what residents had to say about the school’s future. During those meetings, many called on WCU and SCC to help bolster a sagging economy, but to do so while protecting the region’s natural resources and great beauty.
Belcher described himself as a consensus builder, a leader who makes decisions only after first seeking the wisdom and opinions of those working with him.
“My M.O. is a consultative approach,” said Belcher, adding that he’s not shy, however, about making unpopular decisions independently if that’s what is needed in a given situation.
Murray, who is from Madison County and got his graduate degrees from Western Carolina University, said he also likes to mix it up with the people who will be affected by his decisions.
“I really believe I’m in the right place, at the right time, with the right group of people — rolling up my sleeves to work side by side with the educators, parents and people in the community to make good things happen for the children of Jackson County,” Murray said.
Vance Davidson, an SCC trustee, said he is optimistic that the new educational leaders in Jackson County will build bridges that will help the community.
“We are a lot better together than we are apart,” Davidson said. “We have not enjoyed the best university, town, community relationships — we need to change that.”