Taking the reins

New Tech president wants to retain talent, recruit foreign students

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Sands tells us a creative way he got to know campus ...

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Sands tells us a creative way he got to know campus ...

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Photo by Jim Stroup, courtesy Virginia Tech

As an engineer, Virginia Tech’s new president, Timothy D. Sands, values the importance of research. So when he wanted to investigate the vibe of Virginia Tech’s campus firsthand, Sands and his wife, Laura, surreptitiously tagged along on a tour for prospective students and parents.

“We pretended that we were parents and that our student had canceled, but we still wanted to see the campus. It was before we were widely recognized on campus, so we got away with it — almost,” he recalls with a laugh.  “Actually, one of the four student guides figured it out.”

Still, Sands gleaned valuable information. “It was so much fun hearing our student guide talk about Virginia Tech with so much passion … It was a great thing to do, because it’s what everybody else sees, and I wanted to see it. ”

Since becoming Tech’s 16th president on June 1, Sands has spent hours in meetings with the university’s many constituencies.  As Virginia’s third-largest public university, Tech has more than 31,000 students (undergraduate and graduate) and an annual budget of more than $1.2 billion. Based on feedback he has received so far, Sands says he is beginning to develop a vision for Tech and what he wants to accomplish. 

“I’m starting to feel the pulse, and I’m excited by it.” He comes to Tech from Purdue University, another land-grant, public university, where he served on the faculty, ran its nanotechnology center and served for four years as provost and vice president of academic affairs. Sands also was Purdue’s acting president from June 2012 to January 2013, while its current president, Mitchell E. “Mitch” Daniels, served out his term as governor of Indiana.

Sands’ short list so far for Virginia Tech? Attract more international students. Expand the focus on first-generation students. Keep tuition affordable. Retain and attract top talent.
While he was at Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind., the school boosted the international student population (undergraduate and graduate) from about 4,000 to 9,000.  A similar initiative at Tech, he says, would help prepare students for a global working environment and generate new revenues.

International students not only pay out-of-state tuition ($28,048 for mandatory tuition and fees during Tech’s 2014-15 school year compared with in-state tuition and fees of $12,017) but also are charged “an international tuition bump as well. It is a way to bring in revenue ...” says Sands. 

As he meets with faculty members and others, Sands says there is a prevailing concern. “It has to do with attracting and retaining talent. We’ve had a few years of very low raises. The compensation plans have been modest.”

On average, he adds, Tech is about 10 percent behind peer schools such as Purdue and Sands’ alma mater, the University of California-Berkeley.  “… It’s going to take several years of persistent chipping away to come into parity.”

Ask Sands about Tech’s prospects in research, and the new president lights up. Currently, Tech has seven research institutes and ranks 40th nationwide in terms of research expenditures with a portfolio of $494 million. It aspires to move into  the top 30 ranked schools  — a goal Sands supports.  He says the push should be about more than just expenditures, though. He envisions Tech as a “high-impact, curiosity-driven, opportunistic university that’s easy to engage with, that doesn’t put barriers to working with companies, working with the government, working with foundations.”

An inventor himself, Sands holds 16 patents. One of them involves a key step in making white LEDs, or solid-state lighting. As with many discoveries, Sands says he, a colleague at Berkeley and a student “stumbled” across the process. 

“That was a thrill,” he says. When Sands learned that the process was used in the manufacturing of a Samsung large-screen projection television, “I had to go out and buy it. We still have it. The technology, they’ve moved on and you can’t even buy that TV anymore … [Still,] any engineer/inventor wants to see people use their work. And you’re lucky to have that happen in your lifetime.”

Virginia Business interviewed Sands at its Richmond office in late July. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

Virginia Business: You have been doing a listening tour of sorts as a prelude to developing a blueprint of goals for your administration. What are you hearing from the faculty, administrators and other constituencies? 

Sands: I would say I’m still early in that listening tour …  I’m setting up meetings right now with faculty — lunch, breakfast meetings where I’m gathering 10 or 12 of them together every two weeks to get a sense … of what’s going on at the institution.  But if there’s any prevailing concern that I see, it has to do with attracting and retaining talent. We’ve had a few years of very low raises.  The compensation plans have been modest.  And we were behind anyway, behind our peers.  So there is some concern there, and that’s something that I’m taking seriously.

VB: When you say Virginia Tech is behind its peer institutions in terms of faculty pay, how far behind?

Sands:  I would say on the average about 10 percent.  It’s not an insurmountable goal, but it’s going to take several years of persistent chipping away to come into parity. The reason that’s so important is the top talent at the institution is being lured by our peer institutions, and we’re doing some of that ourselves.  We’re out there poaching as well. We’ve lost some, and we’ve gained some … It’s not a dire situation; it’s just one of these things that if you let it go, it will eventually erode the institution.

VB: Some schools have been trying to do more online teaching. Will there be a greater emphasis on online teaching under your leadership? Is this one way to make higher education more affordable?

Sands: In the long run it may be a way to make higher education more affordable, but if you look at Virginia Tech’s place among the options … it’s a residential university. We have some great online programs.  But if I think about where Virginia Tech’s strengths are, it’s not in distance ed, per se.  I will say, though, that online- or technology-enhanced teaching and learning has a great role on a residential campus … So I’m not going to say that we’re not going to do online. But it’s not our business model, nor is it our high-impact area. If you look at Virginia Tech, its strength is in experiential learning in a residential environment … The special part is the skill building — learning how to present your work, undergraduate research, internships, study abroad, all the campus organizations … they’re really about preparing our students to have a greater impact when they leave so that they can contribute to the betterment of humanity … You can’t do that online yet. 

I think where it makes sense for Virginia Tech is bringing the capability of high-performance computing and simulations into the classroom … When you have the technology so that students can do a lot of this work on their own time and in whatever place makes sense and then they come into the classroom and have an active experience with the faculty member, not a passive one, that’s the win/win. 

VB: How do we make higher education more affordable so the next generation isn’t saddled with debt, which hurts our national economy?

Sands: The challenge we’ve seen is the amount of resources coming from the commonwealth … Tuition has gone up to partly fill that gap. We’re going to try and make it through.  There are ways.  We have very generous donors, and there’s more to be done there.  We’re talking with the state about more flexibility because a lot of the cost drivers or the constraints on our budget have to do with rules and regulations that are imposed for good reasons … by the state. We want to have a conversation about that so we can free up some revenue streams that may be a little nontraditional. 

VB: Such as what?  Can you give me an example?

Sands: Well, one of the areas that we’re looking at is growing Virginia Tech. I think we can draw students from all over the world to Virginia Tech because there’s a lot of interest. But at the same time, we have to serve the needs of the Virginia students. 

VB: Right now you have about 31,000 students? Maybe more international students?

Sands: More international students would help if they were not all from one country. When I was at Purdue, we went from about 4,000 or 5,000 international students to 9,000; it seemed like it was overnight.  And it’s great that Purdue was able to attract those students … What we didn’t understand at Purdue, and what I’m hoping to avoid at Virginia Tech, is that you’ve got to be an inclusive university before you’re a diverse university.  You have to figure out how to manage these cultures and people coming from all over the world in such a way that everybody benefits from it, including our Virginia resident students who are clamoring for that kind of experience because they know they’re going to be in a global environment … So you want to be very intentional about which students you invite in, what countries they’re from, what cultures they represent, to create an environment that’s both inclusive and diverse, that gives our students a chance … to engage directly with other cultures.

VB: And they’re paying the higher out-of-state higher tuition?

Sands:  Not only are they paying out-of-state, but they have an international tuition bump as well.  It is a way to bring in revenue, there’s no question about that.  And that’s part of the attractiveness of it, frankly.
VB: Let’s talk about research. Virginia Tech has been trying to break into the top 30 research schools in the country. Will you continue that goal?

Sands: The progress has been wonderful.  The top 30 was an aspiration, a bold aspiration.  But I do think we can get there.  It’s a reasonable expectation given the trajectory that Virginia Tech is on.  There are some financial constraints, and that’s one of the big concerns… 

Our [research] expenditures are just under $500 million per year. That has come up dramatically and steadily for Virginia Tech. Getting [to the high $600 millions]? If we look at what the past would suggest, but of course we’re going through a period where federal funding of research is going to be declining or holding steady at best. … I think the great hope is to engage industry, because … in the last decade or two there has been an acceleration of the outsourcing of [industry] research if you will — the open innovation model where the companies have decided they no longer can support basic research, but they also have trouble supporting even applied research, and even product-directed research.  So they’re looking for partners to work with. Virginia Tech, because of its long-standing coupling to industry, is in a great position to take advantage of that. 

VB: What do you see as Tech’s strengths in research?

Sands: I can give examples. I was exposed to some of the work going on at the Virginia Tech/Carilion Research Institute that Mike Friedlander’s group is doing in neuro-economics.  I love this because it combines economics and neuroscience. Essentially you’re using functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures brain activity in real time and maps it, with decision-making processes that humans make on a daily basis. … It’s exciting because it takes two fields that are quite disparate and pulls them together.

One of the most exciting things I saw — and I think I’ve been on three tours of it since I’ve been there — is going through the ICAT, the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology, where they’re pulling together engineering and technology and science with art and design. This is a case where Virginia Tech has made a huge commitment, and that’s coupled with the Moss Performing Arts Center. So, in every corner of Virginia Tech, I see all these opportunities.  There’s a lot of discussion right now, and former President Steger is one of the leaders in this, this concept of resiliency, whether it be community resiliency, resiliency of an organism, resiliency of a technology. That whole way of thinking, I think, is going to be the core of the land-grant [university] mission in the future. I like the fact that Virginia Tech is a thought leader in that and has been for a while … I’m just kind of taking it in. Instead of doing my day job, I would love to just walk from lab to lab and hear all these stories, because they are great.

VB: I understand that you hold 16 patents. Tell me about one of them.

Sands: Well it’s sort of technical …

VB: Just give me your elevator speech.

Sands:  Okay, my favorite patent … [With] any white LED, light-emitting diode, there’s a good chance that it has a processing step in it that we got a patent for and licensed. With one of my students and a colleague at [University of California]-Berkeley, we stumbled on — it was really an accident — a process that turned out to be very important for creating the white light-emitting diode. That was a thrill. 

VB: And you patented a piece of that process?

Sands: A very tiny piece, but an important one.

VB: What are the greatest challenges in higher education today? What are you passionate about? 

Sands: One area I’m increasingly passionate about is the first-generation student. I think you could really transform a society if you could focus on the success of first-generation students. You need to be in a position where you’re able to support the students and to mentor them. The first-generation student is someone who has not been surrounded by people telling them that they’re going to college.  And even if they are surrounded by people saying,  “You should go to college,” they don’t have any experience to share with the prospective student. Every time you hear the story of a student who is first generation, you hear the story of a whole family being lifted. If you propagate that forward, the impact is tremendous.

VB: Since the April 16, 2007, shootings at Virginia Tech, the school has spent $40 million on safety and security.  Will there be any new initiatives in that area under your leadership?

Sands: That’s a continuous improvement situation.  You can never rest on that.  One of the things that I’m so impressed with is what has been achieved at Virginia Tech and how it has impacted the rest of the country and probably the rest of the world.

… When I think about my time in a role of responsibility at Purdue, a lot of the work that we had done to prepare ourselves for whatever may come was based on what had been learned at Virginia Tech. We had a murder on campus in a classroom, one student on another, while I was on watch. I had returned from the acting president role to the provost role, but President [Mitch] Daniels was in the country of Colombia when this happened, and I happened to be the senior official on campus … I had been named in December [to the presidency at Tech], and so I had been briefed to some extent on April 16 at a level that was deeper than what I had known before. I had picked up some things and had a few relationships started.  So on January 21 at Purdue when this happened … I got calls from Virginia Tech, and we could direct resources at Purdue to Virginia Tech, and they were really helpful in helping us think about what the next steps were because … when these things happen, it’s a state of utter confusion, even if you have the best police force, the best emergency responders, the best campus notification systems — all that is not enough because you’re just flooded with misleading information and confusion. 

One of the things I remembered hearing about was how the faculty and staff were ready when the students came back at Virginia Tech.  How they greeted the students at the residence halls and the classrooms.  They were prepped; they knew what they were going to do in that first class back, the first day back in the residence halls.  And so we canceled class for an additional day just to prepare our faculty for that. With all the resources we gave them, they could pick a strategy they thought was good, but they had a strategy, and they were prepared, and the feedback we got back was spectacular… Had I not been named [Virginia Tech’s president] in December … it wouldn’t have occurred to me to take that time just to prepare the faculty.

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