During his first-ever State of the University Address, President Timothy Sands laid out an ambitious plan to grow Virginia Tech in the years to come.
By Samantha Drew, Happenings reporter Contact the Reporter
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In a crowded room inside the Moss Arts Center, students, teachers, families, and alumni alike anxiously awaited the arrival of the president of Virginia Tech. A hush fell over the crowd as he entered—the man with the million-dollar plan, President Timothy Sands.
During his first-ever State of the University Address on Friday, Sept. 30, Sands opened by welcoming all those watching in person or at home via livestream, and shared an anecdote about his family’s past two years at Tech and how his time here has instilled in him the values of Ut Prosim and community—two crucial components of what he calls “the Hokie DNA.”
“It is in the Hokie DNA to be brave and bold and seize the opportunities that present themselves, especially when the opportunity involves strengthening our community and making the world a better place for people, whether they live next door, in Michigan, or a half a world away,” Sands said. “We look outward to see what great challenges are facing the world and then we apply our expertise to solving the problem. It is who we are.”
After praising Tech and its successes, like the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s partnership with Project Wing to bring drone-delivered burritos to campus, and Tech’s partnership with Hotel Roanoke that has had a $600 million impact on the region, Sands spoke about Beyond Boundaries, an ambitious new project that aims to catalyze innovation in the Tech community. Beyond Boundaries’ final plans are being polished and fine-tuned for implementation.
“We are setting the course for the next chapter in Virginia Tech’s history. We are seeing our window in time,” Sands said. “We have faculty teams working in cross-cutting areas of focus and a new financial model with unit budgets reallocated to allow for planned growth in key areas … all just months after elements of the Beyond Boundaries plan have emerged and before I have even officially delivered the final report to campus.
“This is how transformation happens—when smart people see an opportunity and lead others who want to be part of making Virginia Tech the best that it can be, now and into the future.”
The Beyond Boundaries initiative seeks to imagine the future of Tech. But even with the university’s extensive promotion of the idea, it has not been without a few hiccups, since the program has been expanding faster than anticipated.
“In hindsight, I probably should have anticipated this rapid progression to implementation,” Sands said. “I appreciate the way so many have engaged with this developing vision and are working to align their efforts with our evolving initiatives. We will release the final Beyond Boundaries report by the end of the semester, and I believe it will help clarify where you have opportunities to invest your limited time and resources.”
Sands then transitioned into discussing one component of Beyond Boundaries: the VT-shaped student. According to the Beyond Boundaries website, VT-shaped people “prioritize purpose-driven engagement with a combination of disciplinary depth and interdisciplinary capacities.”
“To create a VT-shaped student, doesn’t a university have to be VT-shaped as well? I think so,” Sands said. “Part of the Beyond Boundaries vision grew out of the need to create a more dynamic university structure—one that would allow faculty, students, staff, and partners to work on complex projects that would normally be impeded by the traditional university organization around disciplines.”
With this VT-shaped university in mind, Sands progressed into what the crowd had been waiting for: the announcement of several new—and expensive—changes coming to Tech.
To start with, the second phase of the Virginia Tech Carilion Health Sciences and Technology campus within the Roanoke Innovation Corridor will continue to advance rapidly, thanks to the General Assembly and their approval of a $46.7 million bond, to be matched by $21 million from Tech and their partner, the Carilion Clinic.
Tech will also invest $75 million to build teaching and research facilities for the Intelligent Infrastructure for the Human-Centered Communities Destination Area, which, among other goals, focuses on things like smart energy and smart design and construction.
“This initiative is intended to fuel global development and enhance quality of life in a world teeming with challenges and opportunities because of changing trends in energy, transportation, and urbanization. It comprises smart design and construction, smart energy, and autonomous vehicles across land, air, and water,” Sands said. “The effort has components that span Virginia Tech. Investments in the National Capital Region, for example, will serve education and research and create partnerships with industry, local governments, and the federal government.”
In addition, Tech will begin development of a Creativity and Innovation District in Blacksburg that will leverage existing programs and facilities such as the Moss Arts Center and the Intercultural Engagement Center in Squires, which added three new cultural centers this year.
“The living spaces will incorporate studios, creative technologies, shared learning spaces, and accommodations for entrepreneurs and artists-in-residence. We expect powerful innovations to emerge from this multifaceted district that will help the university and Blacksburg become a destination for 21st-century creatives.”
The university’s $225 million plan to advance Data Analytics and Decision Science research will create a new home for the Pamplin College of Business, two living-learning communities, and a new building for research and collaborations by students and teachers. This Global Business and Analytics Complex is intended to thrust Virginia Tech into the global stage as a leader and a model for others.
“Our faculty has identified the nexus of complex decision-making and high-dimensional big data as an area where Virginia Tech can be a global leader. The project will have a strong presence in the National Capital Region—the largest decision hub in the world—creating a unique integrated learning space that truly spans across our campuses and supports our outreach and engagement mission with government, industry, and nonprofit organizations.”
Becoming a global leader in the 21st century is a large priority for Sands and the university. Along with securing its place as a forerunner in integrated security, including cybersecurity, physical security, human behavior and policy, Sands encouraged all university faculty members to explore working on a systems-level approach to global change and sustainability.
“It is important to remember that the structure we are building is just a scaffold. It will take our faculty, staff, students, and partners to build this new enterprise. … These are large-scale, broad initiatives. They’re going to be resource-intensive, and they will take effort and development of significant internal and external partnerships … but it will be worth it,” Sands said. “If we don’t take advantage of these opportunities now, someone else will. Other universities are quickly advancing, and we’ll find ourselves watching others lead the nation and the world in areas that used to be our signature strengths.”
Sands continued to outline his hope to focus more on four specific areas essential to success: experiential learning, cross-sector partnerships, diversity and inclusion, and philanthropy.
Using personal examples of students like Emily Lessner, a double major in biological sciences and geosciences who had the opportunity to discover and name a 212-million-year-old dinosaur, Sands wants to ensure every student has opportunities for internships or to partake in meaningful undergraduate research. He also wants to expand opportunities to study abroad, improve living-learning communities, increase opportunities for leadership positions, and accelerate efforts to become more inclusive and diverse.
On a larger scale, Sands said that Tech needs to develop deep cross-sector partnerships with other universities and with institutions representing other sectors – industry, government, and foundations. Sands cited as an example the new Molecular Sciences Software Institute, which will be led by Tech with $19 million in funding from the National Science Foundation.
“These partnerships enrich our research portfolio, provide vehicles for societal impact, and lower barriers for our students as they enter the world economy,” he said.
Sands said he recognizes that Tech has a long way to go before it has achieved the level of excellence it expects of itself. While the university has exceeded $100 million in new gifts and commitments for the first time in its history, engaging in the projects and initiatives set forth in this plan will take creativity and new thinking.
While philanthropy is part of the solution, Sands urged the university to invest in solutions found in partnerships and collaborations. The question on students’ (and many parents’) minds was whether all of these changes would increase tuition—President Sands assured them that no, that will not be that case.
“We’re not able to continuously raise additional revenue through student tuition, nor should we want to. If we want to increase access for qualified Virginia students, we must become more affordable, not less,” he said.
While the university initially intended to implement a new budget model for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, Provost Thanassis Rikakis has decided to extend the implementation timeline by one year to allow time to develop the necessary management information systems.
“Our new model allows resources to more closely follow activity, such as instructional efforts and meeting other enrollment, research and scholarship, and philanthropy goals,” Sands said. “It lowers barriers to collaboration and also supports participatory management and decentralized strategic planning.”
President Sands wrapped up his address with final words of encouragement.
“We cannot afford to miss this window of opportunity during the short time it is open for us. This is our moment. This is our century. And today, I believe there is no better place to be in higher education than right here, right now,” he said. “The window is open for us now, and we’re going to do what Hokies know how to do best.”
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