Thank you, Chelsea. Thank you to the Highty-Tighties for their welcome, and thank you all for being here this afternoon. I know classes have been in session for a few weeks, but let me take this opportunity to officially welcome you to our 2016 fall semester! Welcome to all who are joining us remotely – in Roanoke, the National Capital Region, and on your laptops and mobile devices everywhere.
I’m pleased to welcome the rector of our Board of Visitors, Jim Chapman, and our provost, Thanassis Rikakis, along with members of the university’s leadership team. Thank you to the deans, vice presidents, directors, department heads, faculty, staff, students, and others who are here representing our colleges, schools, institutes, and centers, which are, and will always be, the backbone of this university.
This is Family Weekend – welcome to all the Hokie parents and families who are here or those joining us over the livestream who could not be in Blacksburg today. You’ve spent years preparing your student for this time and now they’re part of the Virginia Tech community. And so are you. The ongoing support our students receive from you is so important to their success. Thank you.
And a special welcome to all the new students this semester. Laura and I know how you feel – the excitement and sometimes the anxiety of being new. We remember trying to take it all in when we first came here a little more than two years ago – the beauty and character of the campus and the spirit of community that was unlike anything we have experienced. Laura and I have appreciated the way we were welcomed into the Hokie Nation and made to feel that we are part of this community. We wish all of you the same.
Like many of you, I remember our decision to come to Virginia Tech – an offer to become a university president at a great institution; a chance to lead a university like Virginia Tech at such a moment in time. I could feel I was facing a once-in-a-lifetime window of opportunity. To have the opportunity to lead a land-grant institution forward, to meet the challenges of the day, and to prepare students to solve the big problems of tomorrow -- that was an opportunity I simply could not pass up. It was an exciting time to arrive in Blacksburg and move into our new home on campus. Laura and I wondered what the academic community would be like. What exactly is a Hokie? I wake up every morning feeling grateful that Laura and I chose to take advantage of that window, and now we are privileged to serve this great institution and work with exceptional people to develop a vision for Virginia Tech’s future. And I know what a Hokie is – I am one, and proud of it.
Over the years, Virginia Tech’s future has been invented and re-invented, led by those who had the vision and the courage to take advantage of a fleeting opportunity to take a big step – one that would change the trajectory of the institution to better serve our enduring mission in the context of a new era. The university itself was founded because of the Morrill Act, which authorized the sale of federal land to fund new colleges, and created a window of opportunity for the Virginia legislature to charter a new school, the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College in Blacksburg.
Virginia Tech became a university because President T. Marshall Hahn saw a window of opportunity to transition from a mostly male, mostly white military college to a comprehensive state university. In fact, he felt it so strongly that he described it as feeling like opportunity was “hitting you over the head every morning.”
More than 25 years ago we had a window of opportunity to create the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. Today, we are a leading test site for autonomous vehicle development, and as one of six FAA-authorized sites, the Virginia Tech Mid Atlantic Aviation partnership has made history by partnering with Project Wing to have the first-ever campus testing of drone-delivered burritos. I had mine delivered yesterday. This is not about satisfying lunchtime cravings without having to roll out of a hammock, but about the future of autonomous flight control and its applications in commerce, public safety, and the arts.
Before my arrival, we had a window of opportunity to develop a partnership to save the Hotel Roanoke, a landmark in a city that was facing economic challenges with a workforce trained for a declining industry. Twenty years later, the hotel and conference center have had a cumulative $600-million-dollar impact on the region and created a new window of opportunity for Roanoke. In 2003, we were presented with an opportunity to join the Atlantic Coast Conference and we took it. Our student athletes, athletic programs, and fans are still experiencing the benefits of that bold move. In 2006, the Association of American Medical Colleges announced the need for the creation of new medical schools. Less than a year later, Virginia Tech and Carilion announced plans to create a medical school and research institute. This year, the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTC) graduated its third class of doctors, and the research institute has 25 major research teams with grants totaling more than $12 million dollars per year. VTC is set to become Virginia Tech’s ninth college and, along with the research institute, will form the core of a new Health Sciences and Technology Campus in the developing Roanoke Innovation Corridor. Last year, the Flint Water Team saw a window of opportunity – the chance to save the lives of potentially thousands of people who were being poisoned by water tainted with lead.
There are many, many other examples, because it is what Virginia Tech does and it is what we stand for; because 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. 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.
This spirit of innovation has been on display since we began this important conversation last year with an ambitious visioning project named “Envisioning Virginia Tech – Beyond Boundaries.” Thousands of faculty, students, staff, alumni, and partners have participated in shaping a vision for Virginia Tech a generation into the future. Unlike a strategic plan, the visioning process is not constrained by current rules, regulations, or resources.
Before this process started, we thought we would establish a vision, build a plan for a trajectory to get us there, and then start implementing a well-ordered sequential manner. That is not the Hokie Spirit. Instead, the campus jumped right in and what has emerged has been “contained chaos,” with students, staff, faculty, and partners planning and implementing in parallel as soon as the vision came into focus. We are setting the course for the next chapter in Virginia Tech’s history; we are seeing our window in time.
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.
In hindsight, I probably should have anticipated this rapid progression to implementation, given the innovative energy on this campus. 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. We have an ambitious vision. It is resource-intensive and challenging, but in the end, it will be worth it.
The cornerstone of our vision is the concept of educating a VT-shaped student, and the need to develop a VT-shaped university that can do this consistently.
VT-shaped students develop deep expertise in their major fields. They learn how to employ today’s (and tomorrow’s) technologies. Real-world experiences develop know-how and inclusive, collaborative skills that will evolve and support their success over a lifetime. Their efforts will be infused with a commitment to service, inspiring them to tackle the world’s most challenging problems.
Elizabeth Spiller, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, put this concept into perspective in a recent interview, saying, “We recognize that technology alone is never a solution because creativity and innovation are fundamentally human achievements. In bringing together our collective strengths in art, knowledge-making, and information technology, Virginia Tech students from every discipline will have the tools and perspectives they need to achieve meaningful solutions to complex human problems.”
For example, how about our engineering students who were trying to develop a passive warming device for babies who were dying from the cold at a hospital in Malawi because the power grid was unstable and the heat would fail on cold nights. They quickly developed a working prototype, but ended up redesigning it twice to make it both aesthetically and culturally acceptable to the families. Combining engineering with human science led to the successful creation of a device that will save lives. The engineering graduate student who led that project is Ashley Taylor from Fort Chiswell, Virginia. She’s going back to Malawi next month to work with a local university to recruit women to engineering. That’s Ut Prosim at work.
To create a VT-shaped student, doesn’t a university have to be VT-shaped as well? I think so. 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.
While our faculty are, in many ways, purpose- and impact-driven entrepreneurs, universities themselves are not designed for continuous and rapid change. Our disciplinary structure is designed expressly to aggregate knowledge and evaluate quality. It is not designed to work across disciplines to take on the complex problems of today. That hasn’t stopped our faculty in the past, as they intuitively negotiate collaborations to maintain their positions at the frontier of knowledge, a frontier that generally exists between the traditional disciplines. A generation ago, Virginia Tech was a pioneer in designing institutes to allow interdisciplinary research to thrive – yet another open window that we took advantage of. Increasingly, though, the frontiers are transdisciplinary – not just between two or three disciplines, but across many disciplines – in some cases, spanning the breadth of the university. And while we experiment with structures that lower barriers for transdisciplinary research, we also recognize that developing VT-shaped students requires a transdisciplinary approach to education and engagement. As in the VT-shaped student, we must cross the “T” while preserving the vertical “I” of the evolving disciplines, and we must strengthen the “V” that represents experiential learning. Essential to reinforcing the “V” is integrating the student experience across the artificial boundary between curricular and co-curricular. Virginia Tech’s Division of Student Affairs is taking steps in this direction by designing intentional learning opportunities that build the capabilities needed to become VT-shaped – a commitment to curiosity, pursuing self-understanding and integrity, practicing civility, courageous leadership, and embracing Ut Prosim as a way of life. Perhaps this is why our Division of Student Affairs was named “one of the most promising places to work in student affairs” by the Center for Higher Education Enterprise.
I’d like now to highlight some of our windows of opportunity that are upon us today.
Provost Thanassis Rikakis has announced several new areas of focus that have come from the campus design teams and the work we’ve done with the deans and faculty over the past year. Our colleges are at the core of this effort, making it possible for our students to develop deep subject matter expertise with professors who inspire them to excel, individuals such as X.J. Meng, a virologist at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine who was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences this year. The disciplinary expertise of our faculty is being connected across the disciplines into Destination Areas to address complex problems that are rooted in the human condition. We first ask – what is the human condition we aspire to improve? Destination Areas require resources, including collaborative space and support for faculty and students. The Destination Areas will become national and global destinations for talent -- students, staff, faculty and partners.
Let me highlight some of those recent announcements.
We will move into the second phase of the Virginia Tech Carilion Health Sciences and Technology campus within the Roanoke Innovation Corridor. This project is advancing rapidly, fueled by the General Assembly’s bond approval of a university request for $46.7 million dollars in state funding and matched by $21 million dollars from Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic.
The university will join forces with external partners and donors to invest $75 million dollars to build teaching and research capacity to support the Intelligent Infrastructure for the Human-Centered Communities Destination Area. 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. 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.
Data Analytics and Decision Science research across the university will be advanced by the development of a Global Business and Analytics Complex. This project will include a $225 million dollar facilities initiative that will create a new home for the Pamplin College of Business; two living-learning communities focused on globalization, business, and analytics; and a new building where faculty from all colleges will work on collaborative projects for teaching and conducting research focused on data analytics and decision sciences. 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. This differentiating work builds on existing world-leading interdisciplinary work from many university programs, including the Biocomplexity Institute, the Discovery Analytics Center, The School of Public and International Affairs, and the computational modeling and data analytics curriculum. 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.
We will develop a Creativity and Innovation District in Blacksburg that will leverage existing arts programs and facilities, including the Moss Arts Center, the Institute for Creativity and Technology, the School of Performing Arts, Theatre 101, and the School of Visual Arts. It will also include Squires Student Center, Newman Library, the Donaldson Brown Graduate Life Center, the Media Building, and the Media Building Annex. The Intercultural Engagement Center in Squires, which added three new cultural centers this year, is in a great position to contribute its ideas and energy to the district. 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.
We will take a leadership role in exploring 21st-century integrated security, including cybersecurity, physical security, human behavior, and policy. This initiative will require expanding and strengthening our presence in the National Capital Region (NCR) and create an important research and curriculum connection between the NCR and Blacksburg. As a diverse metropolitan region, the NCR serves as a living laboratory for basic and translational research, unique graduate education, and broadly scoped experiential learning. Strengthening the NCR’s role will extend the global reach of the university, promote a diverse and inclusive student body and faculty, and foster – through the public service focus of the U.S. capital – VT-shaped student experiences.
There are other exciting cross-university initiatives under development. For example, more than 100 faculty members from across all our colleges are 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. Some Destination and Strategic Growth areas will move faster than others. Some will succeed, others may fail, and that’s OK, because we will gain valuable actionable intelligence that will support our future decisions. Still others will evolve markedly before they become successful. The Destination Areas will coexist among the strengths that have emerged from within the disciplines and within interdisciplinary centers and institutes. They will not replace those entities. In fact, it is the disciplinary and interdisciplinary “tentpoles” that are essential to raising the tent to create globally leading Destination Areas. A Destination Area will be considered successful when we can prove that we are able to attract and retain top talent nationally and globally, including students, staff, faculty, and partners; when we become the destination for talent in that transdisciplinary opportunity space.
This is the window of opportunity that is open for us today, but only for a short time. 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. 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.
I believe we must increase our focus on four specific areas that are essential to our success: Experiential Learning, Cross-Sector Partnerships, Inclusion and Diversity, and Philanthropy.
Regarding experiential learning, we need to fully implement the shared vision I articulated in my installation address two years ago – to provide every student with opportunities for an internship or meaningful undergraduate research. Experiences like that of Emily Lessner, a double major in biological sciences and geosciences, who had the opportunity to discover and name a 212-million-year-old dinosaur. Deans, institute directors, department heads, and faculty members, we need your help to build these opportunities into our curricula in a way that doesn’t lengthen time to graduation or significantly increase the cost of a degree. Consider another example, Hokies on the Hill. This undergraduate internship program provides students with an opportunity to work on Capitol Hill, learn firsthand about the U.S. Congress and politics, and gain real-world experience in the nation's capital – all while earning credit for a full-time course load. It keeps students on track to get degrees and propels them forward in the real world – and if you ask me, right now our political system needs more Hokies and a lot more Ut Prosim...
We must also expand opportunities to study abroad, such as the faculty-led programs in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, where students can study the impact of climate change in the Dominican Republic and Antarctica or sustainability issues in Panama and Costa Rica, while also earning undergraduate or graduate credit. We are also fortunate to have the Steger Center for International Scholarship in Switzerland, which serves as our European campus center. Our students need mobility and portability that allows them to remain engaged with their course work wherever in the world they happen to be.
We must continue to strengthen and grow living-learning communities, because the impact on the lives of our students is clear. Students in these residential communities are more likely to graduate, have higher GPAs, and develop stronger relationships with faculty and staff. Currently, 37 percent of our students on campus live in these communities. We need to increase that to greater than 60 percent.
We also need to provide experiential leadership opportunities. The Order of the Gavel is here with us today. The Order includes all the leaders of our student organizations. Their new members will be officially inducted later today. This leadership experience will have an impact on their lives for years to come. We’ve also seen the value of these opportunities in the Corps of Cadets, Greek Life, and intercollegiate athletics, where this year’s average team GPA was 3.09 and our NCAA graduation success rate was 88 percent!
We need to develop deep cross-sector partnerships.
I believe that the resilience and growth of Virginia Tech and all research universities will depend on the degree to which we can form deep and enduring partnerships with other universities and with institutions representing other sectors – industry, government, and foundations. These partnerships enrich our research portfolio, provide vehicles for societal impact, and lower barriers for our students as they enter the world economy. The challenges of today – cancer, climate change, feeding the world, you name it – cannot be solved by a single person or even a single institution working alone. Partnering is about attracting talent, joining complementary strengths, and working synergistically to lower barriers. Virginia Tech is good at this and getting better every day. I could mention many examples, but the partnership we’ve had with Carillion Clinic for the past seven years is front and center today. With joint investments by Carilion Clinic, Virginia Tech, and the Commonwealth of Virginia, we have created one of the most innovative medical schools in the country, as well as a research institute that has rocketed to the upper echelons of biomedical science in just a few short years. And partnerships with other universities will be necessary to take on the big problems. Partnerships such as the new Molecular Sciences and Software Institute, which will be led by Virginia Tech with $19 million in funding from the National Science Foundation.
We must accelerate our efforts to become more inclusive and diverse.
Thanks to the work that has been underway across the university, led by a dedicated group of advocates, we’ve made good progress over the past 20 years. We’ve laid an excellent foundation for the establishment of inclusion and diversity as a permanent, integral part of our community through InclusiveVT. InclusiveVT has become our institutional and individual commitment to Ut Prosim, in the spirit of community, diversity, and excellence. Our academic community is being enriched with a greater variety of perspectives, lived experiences, and aspirations. This year, an LGBTQ Resource Center, an American Indian and Indigenous Community Center, and a Hispanic/Latino Cultural Center join the Black Cultural Center and Multicultural Center as welcoming spaces for all students at Virginia Tech. A new Strategic Growth Area – Equity and Social Disparity in the Human Condition – recognizes the important role of issues of difference in research and curriculum and across other Destination Areas. Virginia Tech can become a Destination Area for scholarship in diversity and inclusion. I greatly appreciate the work of Menah Pratt-Clarke, our vice president for strategic affairs and vice provost for inclusion and diversity. Menah joined us this year and she has been able to articulate the connection between Ut Prosim, inclusion and diversity, and the cross of the “T” in the VT-shaped student. InclusiveVT, now entering its third year, is starting to attract attention. This summer, we were one of 10 U.S. institutions recognized by INSIGHT Into Diversity Magazine as a Diversity Champion College, and earlier this month the magazine presented Virginia Tech with a 2016 Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award. Also earlier this month, I had the pleasure of accepting, on behalf of Virginia Tech, the Edward Bouchet Legacy Award for Commitment to Diversity and Excellence in Doctoral Education at Howard University.
That said, our community has a long way to go. We have improved the climate here, but we have not moved far enough or fast enough. I’m proud that we are being recognized for our commitment to inclusion and diversity, but now we have to go beyond commitment to action. While we are driven in part by the ideals of equity, and by a demographic imperative, we also must remember that we are preparing our students for an increasingly complex and interdependent world. Our motto, Ut Prosim, cannot be fully lived without intercultural competence and empathy. This work will not be delegated to committees; it belongs to each one of us, beginning first and foremost with me. It is my responsibility and I’m committed to advancing inclusion and diversity every day. It’s time for everyone to be an advocate, and there is no time to waste. Our goals include a student population that is sufficiently diverse that every student organization, class project group, or research group includes individuals whose lived experiences are different than those in the majority, whether that is the product of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender identity, family income, or first-generation status. Diversity makes for deeper conversations and stronger solutions.
Philanthropic support is part of the lifeblood of a university. In the 20th century, we talked about these resources as being the “Margin of Excellence.” Today, they are an essential part of our base operating budget. These funds provide scholarships for students and endowments that lure and retain faculty talent. They bring us state-of-the-art facilities and exciting new academic programs. I’m pleased that we were able to announce in July that in the 2015-16 fiscal year, we exceeded $100 million in new gifts and commitments for the first time in Virginia Tech’s history. It’s a great milestone – and we’re going to need to do even better. As I mentioned earlier, we have some of the most engaged alumni on the planet, but the percentage of those who give, about 9 percent, ranks near the bottom of our peers. Our goal is to increase that number to 22 percent by 2022, our 150th anniversary.
Financing our future will require creativity and new thinking. We greatly appreciate the support we’ve received from the commonwealth. We are fortunate in Virginia to have strong bipartisan political support for higher education, but the simple fact is we need to further diversify our financing beyond state support. 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. While philanthropy is part of the solution, we must look carefully at all of our operations and subsidies to ensure that we are efficient, and that we are leveraging our internal investments to reduce the cost of education. This will take a Beyond Boundaries approach, as the solutions are to be found in partnerships and collaborations across units. As we grow our faculty body in the next few years, it is a great opportunity to enrich our research enterprise and increase our research expenditures by strengthing strategic partnerships.
Financial sustainability also requires a new budget model, one that makes Virginia Tech more agile and flexible, promoting internal and external funding opportunities and advancing decentralized management. We made our last major changes to the way academic division budgets are allocated in the mid-1990s. Since then, the university has undergone substantial growth in financial activity, complexity, and dependence upon self-generated revenue. Our new model allows resources to more closely follow activity, such as instructional efforts and meeting other enrollment, research and scholarship, and philanthropy goals. It lowers barriers to collaboration and also supports participatory management and decentralized strategic planning.
While we initially intended to implement the new budget model in the 2017-2018 fiscal year, Provost Rikakis has decided to extend the implementation timeline by one year to allow time to develop the necessary management information systems. This will also give us more time to discuss, test, and adjust our metrics.
To briefly recap, we need to focus special attention on: Experiential Learning, Deep Cross-Sector Partnerships, Inclusion and Diversity, and Philanthropic Support. There are many other things we can and will do to support the university’s future direction. Focusing on these four areas now will help develop tools and resources we need to move forward.
We have a lot of work to do. Is it worth the effort?
As I look around this room, I see the students here – undergrads and grads – and there are 30,000 more beyond this hall. They are powerful, smart, capable leaders and citizens who will make this world a better place as they live and lead in the spirit of Ut Prosim. Ultimately, this is all about you.
This year, Bobby Hollingsworth will graduate from the College of Engineering with a triple major in chemical engineering, biochemistry, and chemistry. Bobby is a recipient of the Fredrick C. Grant Endowed Scholarship and the University Honors Class of 1954 Fellowship. He has interned with the National Institutes of Health in a biology lab at the National Cancer Institute. Last summer, he spent several weeks working at an HIV clinic in Botswana. After graduation, he plans to pursue a doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology. Bobby lost family members and friends to cancer and HIV and he wants to find a cure. Our world needs Bobby – and thousands more Virginia Tech graduates searching for ways to serve humanity.
So, is it worth it? YES, IT IS.
Our window of opportunity for the next generation of Hokies is before us today. The potential for Virginia Tech to advance as a national and global leader has never been greater. We are as strong as we have ever been, and we are growing stronger. What does our history and tradition call on us to do? Where does our spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship lead us? What is the best way to honor the spirit of Ut Prosim, That I May Serve?
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. The window is open for us now, and we’re going to do what Hokies do best. Let’s go!
Thank you, it’s going to be a great and exciting year!