Paul Ernest Torgersen, 1994-2000

Paul Ernest Torgersen
Paul Ernest Torgersen

With President McComas forced to resign for medical reasons, the board of visitors asked Paul Ernest Torgersen, interim president between the Lavery and McComas administrations, to serve in an interim capacity again. Two months later, on December 9, 1993, the board tapped him to become McComas’s official successor, effective January 1, 1994, and he continued to direct the university—and to teach a class—until his retirement.

The president, who also held the John W. Hancock Jr. Chair in Engineering and continued to teach throughout his time in office, had joined Virginia Tech’s Department of Industrial Engineering in 1967. Three years later he was appointed dean of the College of Engineering, where he guided the college to high national rankings and helped it amass more than 40 endowed professorships. In 1990 he became president of the university’s Corporate Research Center.

Torgersen, who had also served as interim dean of engineering and interim vice president for development and university relations, entered the presidency during fiscally austere times and faced tough decisions in restructuring the university. He merged the College of Education with the College of Human Resources, drawing a flurry of protests, and issued a five-point plan for restructuring Virginia Cooperative Extension, which had lost more than 20 percent of its budget between 1990 and 1995. Under his leadership, Tech further thinned administrative ranks and combined University Placement Services, Cooperative Education, and the Career Resource Center into the Career Services Center.

The deterioration of state support also forced the university to raise tuition, leading to a decline in out-of-state students. That decline, retention problems, increases in costs for such unfunded items as insurance and meeting environmental regulations, and reduced state support created a $12.2 million shortfall for the 1995-96 fiscal year. The university covered the shortfall through expense reductions and reallocations. To entice out-of-state students, it implemented three new scholarship programs and held the line on tuition.

Despite budget problems, Torgersen guided Virginia Tech to numerous notable achievements. For the first time the university hired a woman as senior vice president and provost and another woman as dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. A woman was also tapped to head the newly merged College of Human Resources and Education. Torgersen created the new position of vice president for multicultural affairs position and filled it with the university’s first black vice president. During his term, Tech used a $2-million anonymous contribution to establish a Center for Leader Development for the corps of cadets, created a Women’s Center, and opened two new schools: the School of the Arts and the School of Public and International Affairs, both interdisciplinary schools housed in existing colleges. The Campaign for Virginia Tech kicked off its public phase in 1995 and raised a record $337 million, far surpassing its goal; and a graduate student was named to the board of visitors for the first time.

In academics, the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine received full accreditation from the American Veterinary Medical Association and opened its doors to students outside the Virginia and Maryland borders. U.S. News & World Report ranked the engineering and business colleges in the top fifty undergraduate programs in the country. Vocational and technical education, wildlife, and fisheries programs received top three rankings from other evaluators. And a record number of first-year students--more than 5,000--enrolled in fall 1996.

Research continued to grow. By June 1995 sponsored research had reached $148 million. With 28 patents in 1994 the university ranked 16th in the nation in the number of patents issued to U.S. universities—fifth among universities without medical schools—and moved to 12th in 1995 with 29 patents.

In economic development, the university’s “smart” road proposal moved ahead. The Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center opened in April 1995, creating 300 private-sector jobs in Roanoke.

A champion of new technology, Torgersen supported development of the Math Emporium and pushed for construction of an Advanced Communication and Information Technology Center  (ACITC), a building later named for him. He became the first president to use e-mail and the first to use a laptop computer for presentations to legislators. He supported the purchase of a broad-bandwidth high-frequency spectrum, a unique purchase for a university. During his tenure, the university developed its first homepage on the Internet.

In athletics, the university joined the Atlantic 10 Conference for 15 sports, including basketball. The men’s basketball team won the National Invitational Tournament championship, the women’s basketball team took the Metro Conference Tournament championship, and the football team won the Independence and Sugar bowls and played in the Gator Bowl. The athletic department added lacrosse and softball to women’s varsity sports.

The physical plant expanded. Among the projects, the university broke ground for a new Virginia Tech/University of Virginia Northern Virginia graduate center and completed the Fralin Biotechnology Center. The capital budget for 1996-98 totaled $61 million for such projects as two residence halls, a track and soccer complex, a women’s softball field, the ACITC, and the Student Health and Fitness Center envisioned by President McComas.

In February 1999 Torgersen announced his retirement at year’s end, but the football enthusiast stayed in office until January 2000 to see the Hokie football squad play for the national  NCAA title, which it lost to Florida State. Upon his retirement, he was named president emeritus by the board of visitors.