Cultivating Sustainability Comes Naturally for McCullough Institute


With the creation of the Charles T. McCullough Jr. Institute for Conservation, Land Use and Environmental Resiliency at UNC Asheville, the campus has come to know its namesake, Dr. Charles T. McCullough Jr., an Asheville physician famed for his professional practice and personal commitments.

At the institute’s launch event, Chancellor Anne Ponder said, “Protecting our environment is a passion for many in Asheville, but it is clear to us that Dr. McCullough is one of the strongest proponents of research for environmental and economic resilience.”

Dr. Charles T. McCullough Jr. and his wife Shirley Anne McCullough celebrate the launch of the McCullough Institute for Conservation, Land Use and Environmental Resiliency at UNC Asheville.While McCullough’s dedication to the environment through careful study and conservation efforts has strong roots, he’s equally connected to the university through his family tree.  Leslie McCullough Casse, daughter of Dr. McCullough and Shirley Anne McCullough, is a UNC Asheville alumna and serves as a member of the UNC Asheville Foundation Board of Directors.

The McCulloughs inspired Casse when she was a child, now Casse is inspiring her parents to make the world better for the next generation, and the family hopes that the institute named in Dr. McCullough’s honor will encourage others to do the same. The McCulloughs have committed $1 million to create an endowment for the institute.

“There are three things that we are achieving with the institute,” said Casse. “We are securing the broad liberal arts education that UNC Asheville provides. We are training students with job skills in one of the top economies for the future. And we are addressing these pressing issues that are important to Asheville, because we want to ensure our community’s quality of life.”

Dr. McCullough said, “I’m humbled and I appreciate having my name associated with something that is going to be so dynamic. If we get this many people working for the environment, teaching others to be responsible and be good stewards, it’s worth it.”

Familiar Territory

The McCulloughs with daughter Leslie Casse and grandchildren Will and Ellie CasseGrowing up, Casse and her parents frequently camped in the Great Smoky Mountains, at Graveyard Fields and near Nantahala, where she developed a childhood connection to the natural world, something she strives to share with her children, Will and Ellie Casse, today.

The McCullough family moved to Asheville when Casse was six, and though she traveled the state to attend two public universities prior to transferring to UNC Asheville, the mountains and the prospect of studying with leading scholars in journalism drew her back to her hometown.

“I was able to study the liberal arts and get practical work experience in Asheville. I was trained by someone [Professor Emeritus Cathy Mitchell] who had that practical work experience to give me. She had won the Pulitzer Prize; she had been a reporter; she had been an editor. She knew what was required to leave the university was not simply a journalism degree, but the ability to jump into a professional setting and quickly adapt and make a career for yourself.”  

Casse did just that, graduating with a major in mass communication and a minor in photojournalism in 1986 and landing a position at the Nashville Banner.  She later served as a press secretary for a U.S. Senate race, worked as a communication consultant, and now owns her own business – AsheVillain, a skating, surfing and snowboarding shop with a mission for sustainability. She also earned a law degree.

The McCulloughs continued to explore natural areas after their daughter moved on to college, visiting more than half of the country’s national parks and historic sites, while balancing Dr. McCullough’s career in medicine and extensive volunteer work.

“My dad worked really hard as a physician, but also worked very hard to support his community. He loved his patients and he always loved Asheville,” said Casse.

McCullough chaired the Community Foundation when it received its national charter. He served as past chairman of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC), which honored him with their highest volunteer award in 2002. He also currently serves as a Trustee of the National Parks and Conservation Association. 

Native Sources

“My experience on campus is one of the reasons I feel so strongly about creating this institute at UNC Asheville,” said Casse. “It will enable us to have students trained for future jobs in one of the most important economies to communities all over the country, while not diluting their liberal arts background.”

The McCullough Institute’s goals include working with faculty to develop certifications in environmental studies and policy as added professional credentials to degree study for UNC Asheville’s students. Three areas of focus will be land use and conservation; urban planning and renewal; and sustainable agriculture.  

McCullough Institute Logo“We are perfectly situated to do this,” Casse explained. “We have resources here that other areas do not have, including one of the top conservation trusts – the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC), which has protected a staggering 60,000 acres and watersheds…. We also have NOAA here, with the National Climatic Data Center.”

It also will align with the National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center (NEMAC), led by Jim Fox, who will serve as executive director of the institute. Students will be working in collaboration with NEMAC and its partner organizations such as SAHC to increase their expertise in the areas of conservation, land use and environmental resiliency.

“Building resilience happens on a local scale. We have the best chance of making a difference in our own backyard,” said Fox “Our backyard here in Western North Carolina is full of natural beauty but also provides great benefits for our citizens and the economy.”

The McCullough Institute will be the newest benefit to the community, combining environmental study with business and sustainable economic growth in urban and rural landscapes.

“Asheville is a city of architects, authors and artists and a city of incredible natural resources,” said Casse. “We are tremendously lucky at this moment in time to do proactive things to lead us to eco-efficiency and protection of these natural assets.

“One of the things I’m most proud of Asheville is that we really embrace acting locally. Asheville supports you.  I’ve never seen another city like it.”

Learn more about the creation of the McCullough Institute for Conservation, Land Use and Environmental Resiliency at UNC Asheville in the news release.