Catalyst for change
Virginia Tech has been transformed during president’s tenure
- February 28, 2014
Virginia Tech today is not the same school it was when Charles Steger became president in 2000. It has seen triumphs and tragedy during his 14-year tenure.
The triumphs have included great leaps forward in research grants, fundraising, building construction and academic achievement, not to mention four Atlantic Coast Conference football championships in the university’s first decade of league membership.
The tragedy was the massacre of 32 students and faculty in April 2007 at the hands of a mentally disturbed student who also killed himself.
On June 1, Steger will be succeeded by Timothy Sands, the provost of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. The retiring president earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture and doctorate in environment design and engineering all from Virginia Tech. In fact, except for a brief period in the early 1970s when he worked in Lynchburg, Steger’s life has been connected to the Blacksburg campus since he entered the school as a freshman in 1965.
“Charles Steger has been a dynamic leader of the university. The Virginia Tech slogan ‘Invent the Future’ is personified by no one better than him,” says Ben Davenport, chairman of Davenport Energy and First Piedmont Corp. in Chatham, a Virginia Tech graduate and former rector on the board of visitors. “He has proven to be a visionary individual who has taken Virginia Tech to a much higher plateau than where it was when he became president.”
Since 2000, student enrollment has grown 12 percent from just under 28,000 to more than 31,000 students, sponsored research has soared from $192 million to more than $450 million, and 40 buildings encompassing more than 3 million square feet have been built.
Helping to attract research grants are seven major research institutes, including the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, that have developed on Steger’s watch.
The president’s strategy for Virginia Tech hasn’t been confined to its Blacksburg campus of gray Hokie Stone buildings. Steger has spurred the university’s involvement in economic development throughout the state. The efforts have included the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, an educational and research initiative in Danville; Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CCAM), a collaborative research center in Prince George County involving three other Virginia universities and 17 industrial and government partners; and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute in Roanoke, a joint venture with Carilion Clinic.
“To evaluate the success of Carilion’s collaboration with Virginia Tech during Charles’ tenure, one could view photographs of the brownfields along South Jefferson Street 10 years ago compared with the vibrant activity there today,” says Nancy Agee, president and CEO of Carilion. “Better yet, look at the 42 new doctors who will be [the medical school’s] first graduates this spring and imagine the difference they will make in the lives of their patients and the world of medicine, and the 42 new doctors who will follow after them next year, and so on. We have forged a connection between the Roanoke and New River valleys that will make a difference in people’s lives for many years to come.”
Steger also has left his imprint on college sports. In addition to gaining membership in the ACC in 2004, he also chaired the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) Presidential Oversight Committee that created the playoff system for the major-college football championship, which will take effect next season.
“When we have [a home football game], you get 66,000 people together on a Saturday afternoon, this kind of collective experience helps you build a sense of community,” Steger says. “To me, that is one of the great contributions that athletics makes.”
That sense of community was tested in the 2007 shootings at two Virginia Tech buildings.
The university faced criticism for waiting two hours before alerting the campus of the first shooting. The families of two victims sued, and a Montgomery County jury in 2012 awarded them each $4 million (reduced by state law to $100,000 each). The Virginia Supreme Court overturned that verdict in October.
Virginia Tech says that, as a matter of principle, it plans to appeal in federal court two fines totaling $32,500 imposed by the U.S. Department of Education for alleged violations of a campus safety law.
The university has spent $40 million on safety and security since 2007, and Steger believes the community bonds are stronger than ever.
“Nothing will replace the lives of these students. Nothing will heal the hearts of their families,” he says, “But we can’t change that, and we have to do whatever we can to move forward.”
Virginia Business interviewed Steger at his office on Jan. 6.
VB: What role should a public university play in the state of economic development?
Steger: I think you have to conceptualize this whole effort in terms of building a robust economy as kind of an ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship. We play a role in collaboration with state government, with the private sector [and], with those of you in the business press. We have to all work together to create an environment that is attractive for outside investment as well as creating circumstances where existing industry wants to continue to invest and grow. Ninety percent of the new jobs come from existing industries, and although we’re always trying to attract new investment, we also have to be sensitive to what the existing industry needs.
We play a role in that, but it’s a collaborative with university, state government, with private sector, and with those of you in the press who help to educate others as to what the commonwealth has to offer.
VB: How did you become involved in such things as the medical school in Roanoke, the Commonwealth Center for [Advanced Manufacturing] and the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research?
Steger: Let me do them in reverse order. When I became president, I was visited by a group of individuals, some of whom I had known for many years, all dedicated to helping to grow the economy of [Southern Virginia]. They actually wanted to have a branch of Virginia Tech down there. Our general policy has been, and is, that we are not going to be offering any baccalaureate degrees off campus. We don’t think we can replicate the experience and all the things that go along with it off campus.
I suggested to them that one of the things we could do would be to have this new Institute for Research. It has turned out to be quite successful; particularly, when you look at the new Tire Research Center, which is just booming. I think they’re completely booked now.
The [Institute for Advanced Learning and Research] has a lot of activities going on there. You’re beginning to see affiliated and associated enterprises built around it, which is exactly what we had in mind. Once you get this kind of critical mass, then it really starts to help. We feel that has been a very good thing to do. But it all started in a meeting in this office in the year 2000.
Now on the medical school … Ed Murphy, who was the CEO of Carilion, and I ended up on all kinds of meetings and whatever together … We looked at what we could do to build some synergy for the evolution of the economy in this region … and it evolved over a number of months of discussions … We thought of this joint enterprise between Virginia Tech and Carilion to build a new kind of medical school ….
We only have 42 students per class. I must say I’ve been delighted and surprised at the extraordinary quality of the students that we were able to attract. Here’s a new school, no track record whatever; although, I do think Virginia Tech’s reputation helped to attract those students. Really extremely capable, and they match up in terms of test scores and performance with any of the major medical schools in the country.
But the idea was to provide an education for medical students, which would enable them to be highly competent in the field of research. At a lot of the M.D. schools, people are very well trained in what they do, but they’re not necessarily trained in research. By building the medical school in conjunction with the Research Institute, where they have significant research experiences with top faculty as they go forward, is really helping us to produce a new kind of an M.D.
Secondly, it has helped us to catapult the Research Institute. We started with five or six people; I think we’ve got about 160 people down there now. That’s four years ago. These are the best people in the world — from Oxford, from Harvard, and they’re doing incredible research ...
[On] CCAM, these things, they take years to evolve. I remember when Governor Kaine was in office participating in some initial meetings with Rolls-Royce [which planned to build a jet engine components plant in Prince George], with John Casteen, who was then the president of the University of Virginia, about this joint venture, to make it go. It has also evolved over time to the point where we’ve got a number of significant strategic partners — Rolls-Royce, Siemens and people who specialize in the types of materials you put overtop of the fins in the aircraft. It’s very exotic stuff …
We were in from the very beginning, meeting with and talking to the senior executives of Rolls-Royce. I remember having lunch in Richmond with Sir John Rose, who was president of Rolls-Royce Worldwide at the time, and then Jim Guyette, who is president of Rolls-Royce of North America. I still am in communication with Jim, and Tom Powers and his other people.
One of the issues that came up had to do not only with doing the research to help develop this next generation of jet engines, but also the labor force training. And that’s when the [community college system] came into play, and we also wanted to engage Virginia State since it’s right in their neighborhood. And it’s going along extremely well.
VB: Now tell me a little about the seven major research institutes, which have evolved during your tenure.
Steger: If you go back and you look at the global picture of financing for higher education, there are tremendous demands on the public purse. And even though Governor McDonnell and other governors have tried to put additional money in … the reality is that the funding from the state in the long run is going to go down and not up. In order to preserve the quality of the education we offer to our undergraduate students, we need to have the best faculty in the world, and we have some extraordinary folks here ... Our best researchers are also our best teachers. They are extraordinary people. They won’t come to a place where they can’t be engaged in advancing the leading edge of their profession. That’s one factor.
The second is that you’ve got to get to a critical mass of intellectual capital and of dollars to be competitive on a national and worldwide basis. We just got the drone research grant, and we competed with people all over the country. It’s serious money that you have there. To have the infrastructure that makes you competitive takes significant investment both in terms of the faculty, the facilities and the buildings and whatever else in the process.
We had been very successful with getting grants in the $1 million and $2 million category with [National Science Foundation and other sources]. But to get us to the level we are now, which this past year we’ll do $483 million of the research, you can’t get there a million or two at a time. There’s also a trend of having large-scale, interdisciplinary research projects, and you had to demonstrate the capacity to manage them.
These institutes were set up, one, to have the ability to manage across disciplines, and secondly, to have the capacity to manage these large-scale projects, and third, to be able to create centers of excellence which could attract the kinds of people that would enable us to compete with Stanford and MIT, and all the other people that we have here. So that’s how they all evolved.
Some of it is targets of opportunity. You look at bioinformatics … we probably have one of the best [bioinformatics institutes] in the world. But it takes some staying power to do that. We have over 300 people working there now, and they do a lot of joint projects with other major universities in the United States and, indeed, around the world …
You have to have world-class excellence. Now we can’t do it in everything we do, but in these key areas. If you don’t have that, you’re not going to be successful.
The underlying reason was to get a critical mass of dollars, and a critical mass of intellectual capital, and to be competitive with the new kind of paradigm in research that’s funded by [the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and other research funding organizations].
VB: How important has it been for Virginia Tech to increase research spending and become one of the nation’s major research universities?
Steger: We couldn’t survive without it. The dollars that we spend for research help build new buildings. They help us pay faculty salaries to be competitive on a national/international basis. They support graduate students. They help us bring in equipment. They help us give visibility on a national/international level that simply wouldn’t exist without it. It has been the key driver and one of the principal initiatives within our whole effort to do that.
At the end of the day, we believe we do a lot of good things for society. It’s not just about making money. It’s about really adding value. I’ll give you one little example. Some of our folks in civil engineering developed a water treatment facility, a little plant that sits on the back of a truck … Water quality in developing countries is an extremely critical issue. And just having clean water affects health care. It’s a tremendous thing for … a trivial amount of investment. So they were able to create this treatment plant that sits on the back of a pickup for a few hundred dollars …
We have projects in 44 countries around the world going on now. I feel very good about the contributions we are able to make. Some of it’s very basic stuff. We helped the people in Bangladesh deal with the pest problem for growing onions, which is one of their cash crops. And pesticides, one, are bad for the environment, and secondly, they’re very expensive in these economies. We do these kinds of things all over the world, which are a tremendous value. They help to elevate the quality of life for millions of people. I’m very proud of what we do there.
VB: What do you see is your biggest accomplishment?
Steger: I think we have transformed the horizon of the institution to be a major national/international research university that we had aspirations for prior to that, but it has been realized today. It’s a long road; we still have a ways to go. We attract extraordinarily good students from all over the world, from 130 countries. And I think through that, we have been able to make a significant contribution to the welfare of the Commonwealth of Virginia as well as the United States. That to me is kind of the fundamental thing, in addition to getting into the ACC, which was good. That is a whole set of other stories.
VB: Do you think your tenure is going to be overshadowed by what happened in 2007?
Steger: No, I don’t, really. I mean the 2007 [massacre] will always be part of our history. It was a tragedy and an event that had never occurred before in the history of the United States …What these families have experienced, it’s beyond description …
You don’t want a tragedy to result in this, but it probably made our community stronger rather than weaker in the process. But it was a horrible tragedy … And I hope it doesn’t happen to anybody else ever again.
[Before] that time, April 16, 2007, all these warnings systems did not exist. People forget this. Now I think every major university in America has the systems that are a result of that tragedy…
And we’ve actually spent more than $40 million of university money on improving safety and security on campus. And many, many other places have done the same thing. So you try to make the best out of it you can.
Nothing will replace the lives of these students. Nothing will heal the hearts of their families. But we can’t change that, and we have to do whatever we can to move forward.
VB: What advice do you have for your successor?
Steger: I have to say I was very pleased. I think Tim Sands is a great selection. He’s a very bright and capable individual. All such institutions like Virginia Tech or Purdue are very complicated places. And you have dozens upon dozens of constituents.
Virginia Tech runs very well, but it’s not like a watch where every cog is interconnected. Different colleges have very different constituencies, and their strategies are very different ... You need to take some time to understand how all that works, and I know he will ...
We have a whole bevy of subsidiary corporations as a public institution. We have the Virginia Tech Foundation, which manages $1.6 billion in assets. And all the stuff has to be put together to advance the fundamental strategies of the institution. So it takes a while to get your arms around it.
VB: How did your training as an architect influence your management style?
Steger: I think it has been enormously helpful … because [architecture involves] creative thinking, and what you try to do is you try to develop the capacity to look at complex problems, large numbers of variables, high uncertainty, and recognize patterns of association that help you to get to solutions. That’s what I have to do every day. You never have enough information. The dynamics are incredible. But that kind of creative problem-solving ability that I learned in design has been a tremendous asset to me. Not related to buildings but just related to all the kinds of issues you have.
We’re not Harvard ... If we’re going to move up, we have to change the rules of the game, and that takes a lot of creativity. We look at new ways of doing things that maybe nobody else has done. Not only is it challenging, it’s a lot of fun to think about it creatively and do some things that have never happened before. We’ve done a lot of them. From financing to everything else.
VB: What do you plan to do in retirement?
Steger: I have been participating in a series of international conferences focused around how do we build into communities a capacity for resiliency after they’ve experienced natural or manmade disasters. We actually have a center that is being set up …
If you look between now and 2050, we’re going to add 2 billion people to this globe, largely in developing countries. The patterns of water consumption, land use development, whatever else, are unsustainable. They’re not even sustainable here [in the U.S.] … So this center is going to focus on trying to make a contribution to what the future patterns of urbanization should be.
It’s something I’ve been interested in my whole life. Previously, I headed up the Urban Design Program, and I have a doctorate in environmental science and engineering. We already have a couple of grants, and also have a book contract already signed as a matter of fact …
So we’re off and running …
But I think we do have the capacity drawing upon the kind of interdisciplinary skills that are present here, plus with our fellow institutions around the world that can help us rethink how we do these things. And it’s not something that would be nice … We have no choice but to change those patterns of consumption if we’re going to enable society to have a relatively high quality of life. If we don’t find a way to ensure that the next generation of young people has some stake in a bright future, the level of social unrest in our world is going to be beyond our