William Edward Lavery, 1975-87

William Edward Lavery
William Edward Lavery

The board of visitors conducted a three-month search for a successor to President Hahn, only to find one who had been part of his administration since 1966. William Edward Lavery, who received the unanimous approval of the board, became the university’s president on January 1, 1975. Lavery had been executive vice president since 1973, preceded by five years as vice president for finance and two years as director of administration for the Extension division. Earlier, he had worked in administration for the federal Extension service.

The new president brought stability to the university following the years of explosive growth under Hahn. But Lavery ushered in rapid growth in other areas, complementing Hahn’s successes. Taken together, the quarter-century of the Hahn/Lavery years changed the face—and the course—of the university.

Economic conditions were not good when Lavery took office. The state had a $20 million shortfall in its projected revenues, and the governor was asking state agencies to cut back. But Virginia Tech soon entered a period of “good times,” created by renewed public goodwill toward higher education and financial support made possible by an economic upturn.

Lavery placed a high priority on alleviating shortages of classroom, laboratory, and office space, and during his term the total inventory of available space increased by 50.1 percent. The university adopted an “infill” concept for constructing buildings and additions, which won an award from the American Planning Association. A $108-million construction program included additions to Newman Library and the War Memorial Gymnasium, construction of Johnston Student Center, and a $17.5 million complex to house the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, which opened to students in 1980.

The president also emphasized research, and expenditures in support of research totaled over $70.2 million by fiscal year 1987, moving Tech into the nation’s top 50 research universities. He enhanced research opportunities by establishing the Corporate Research Center, and the first two buildings were constructed. The center received an antenna to link Tech to the world via satellite, and the Extension division developed a series of 26 downlink sites throughout the state. Virginia Tech also played a major role in creating the concept for Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology.

In other developments, President Ronald Reagan appointed Lavery chair of the USAID Board for International Food and Agricultural Development. The university opened the Cranwell International Center. Lavery hired the first vice president for development, who launched a capital campaign to raise $50 million and then raised more than $108 million. Marion Bradley Via provided $3 million to establish the Harvey W. Peters Research Center and $5 million each to the departments of civil engineering and electrical engineering, and Robert B. Pamplin Sr. and Robert B. Pamplin Jr. gave the College of Business $10 million. Renovation began on The Grove to return it to its original use as the president’s home. The Highty-Tighties accepted women into its ranks, and the Marching Virginians was formed for civilians. Engineering and computer science programs required their first-year students to purchase personal computers, and the university purchased a supercomputer. Installation began on a new communication system for the campus, and the first proposal was developed for what later became the Blacksburg Electronic Village.

Also, average SAT scores increased, a university core curriculum was introduced, library holdings grew from 1 million to 1.5 million volumes, the vice president for academic affairs was renamed provost, the number of minority scholarships and fellowships was increased, the first woman vice president was named, faculty salaries moved from the bottom third to the top fourth among research universities, additional degree programs were offered, the assets of the Virginia Tech Foundation grew from $7.4 million to $123.4 million, and students applied in record numbers.

But the period of “good times” was not to last. A controversial land swap in 1986—Tech traded 247 acres of land for 1,700 acres needed for agricultural research—along with highly publicized problems with the athletic program created a furor across the commonwealth, even as the university took steps to correct its athletic nightmare.

Lavery developed a reorganization plan for the Athletic Association. But with negative publicity continuing to swirl within and around the university, he announced his resignation on October 16, 1987, effective December 31, 1987, to prevent polarization of the campus. After stepping down, he continued to serve the university, first as honorary chancellor, then, after October 1, 1988, as the William B. Preston Professor of International Affairs, and, after his retirement on August 1, 1991, as president emeritus. In 1993 the university presented him with the Ruffner Medal, and in 1995 it dedicated the William E. Lavery Animal Health Research Center in his honor.

Until a successor to Lavery could be named, Paul E. Torgersen, dean of the College of Engineering, filled the presidency in an interim capacity. 

Lavery died on February 16, 2009.