Tim Sands’ near decade at Virginia Tech has resulted in record growth in the areas of fundraising, research expenditures, and applications along with an expanded Virginia Tech presence in the Washington, D.C., area.

The university president brought attention to those things at his annual State of the University Address, but he spent more time focusing on plans for the university’s future.

Global distinction, access, and affordability were the strategic focal points of the 37-minute address, which was given Wednesday afternoon at the Moss Arts Center. Sands, whose 10-year anniversary in Blacksburg is in June, started the address by recognizing the pending retirement of Maj. Gen. Randal Fullhart, commandant of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets, and the additions of several new faculty and staff members before emphasizing to the audience in attendance and those watching online the importance of 2024.

“2024 will be a significant year for all of us,” Sands said. “We have challenges to address, milestones to achieve, and we will see our hard work and investment in the Beyond Boundaries vision pay off in tangible ways.”

In 2016, Sands – now in his ninth year as Virginia Tech’s president – published his “Beyond Boundaries: A 2047 vision” document that serves as a long-term vision for the university. In 2019, he and his staff released a complete version of a strategic plan that includes four priorities: advancing regional, national, and global impact; elevating the Ut Prosim difference; being a destination for talent; and ensuring institutional excellence.

Affordability a concern

In light of the rising cost of tuition nationwide, Virginia Tech officials launched Virginia Tech Advantage in mid-October. The multiyear $500 million fundraising initiative serves as the university’s commitment to offer a broad educational experience to undergraduate students from Virginia who have financial need.

The initiative is designed to increase scholarship dollars for in-state students, provide basic support for unmet needs, help with career preparation, and be used to offer transformational learning experiences.

More than 5,500 Virginia Tech undergraduate students who hail from Virginia have demonstrated financial needs. The money from Virginia Tech Advantage will be used to close the gap between the cost of attending Virginia Tech and students' abilities to contribute their own resources.

Sands said the gap between student financial need and the aid and support currently provided by Virginia Tech is approximately $52 million annually.

“During the last decade, we have been successful in improving access for students who might not otherwise have chosen Virginia Tech, but we know that access alone is not enough to ensure success,” Sands said. “Students who lack generational wealth often miss out on broader educational opportunities. They work 20 or more hours per week in jobs unrelated to their studies and take on oppressive debt just to remain in school. They don’t develop the workplace skills and networks that are strong predictors of a successful launch after graduation.

“The full Virginia Tech experience provides our graduates with opportunities to begin a fulfilling career with the skills and networks needed to succeed and without the heavy burden of excessive student loan debt.”

Sands said that, in addition to raising $500 million to address affordability, the university plans to incorporate paid internships and other “bridge” experiences into every degree program.

Virginia Tech Global Distinction

Sands’ other top strategic priority, Virginia Tech Global Distinction, centers on the university’s commitment to elevate the international prominence of the institution and strengthen our capacity to act as a force for positive change.

Sands and other university leaders aspire to see the university ranked among the top 100 global universities and the top 10 U.S. public land-grant universities in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Times Higher Education is a publication that focuses on higher education issues.

The publication releases its World University Rankings each fall, and Virginia Tech was ranked in the 251-300 band in last fall’s rankings – 17th among U.S. public land-grant universities.

“To grow our global reputation and impact, we are focused on enhancing the impact of scholarship; extramural funding; faculty awards, fellowships, and memberships; and doctoral education and postdoctoral associate training,” Sands said. “This will be accomplished through investment in prioritized research frontiers and providing world-class shared research tools and facilities.”

Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke selected the members of a steering committee to lead the university’s efforts toward global distinction goals. Dan Sui, senior vice president for research and innovation, and Executive Vice Provost Don Taylor serve as co-chairs.

Sands also pointed out the growth of Virginia Tech’s research enterprise – one of many metrics used by Times Higher Education when comprising its rankings. Externally sponsored research growth grew by 13.4 percent during the last fiscal year, reaching $415 million. That surpassed the university’s strategic plan milestone two years early.

“Both Virginia Tech Advantage and Virginia Tech Global Distinction share one important principle,” Sands said. “Our strength is in our community and our people. Faculty, staff, and students are the university’s most important assets.”

Additional updates

For the fourth consecutive year, Virginia Tech set a new high for the number of first-year applications for admissions, with a total of 52,365 – an 11 percent increase from last year.

The number reflects the growing interest and reputation of the university, but Sands said that the university will be reducing the percentage of applicants accepted primarily because of limited on-campus infrastructure and limited local availability of housing.

“As we look toward the future, housing availability and affordability is one of a number of headwinds that we must address, but not alone,” he said. “Now is the time for the university, the town, the county, and surrounding region to join and find a strategic path to improve our community for all. I’m pleased that progress is being made, and hopeful that, in the coming weeks, Virginia Tech and our community neighbors will be able to announce a plan for a productive dialogue to heighten our understanding of needs and develop a path to address our shared goals.”

Among other updates, Sands announced that the first building of Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus in Alexandria, Virginia, is scheduled to open next year. Innovation Campus’ academic programs opened in fall 2020, and now, 376 master’s degree-seeking students are enrolled in computer science and computer engineering.

In addition, among facilities projects, Hitt Hall, Perry Place Dining Hall, the Undergraduate Science Laboratory Building, the War Memorial Gym renovations, the elevators next to Derring Hall, and the Multi-Modal Transit Facility all will be complete by this fall.

Also of note, Sands highlighted the growing relationship between Virginia Tech and Botswana, a nation in southern Africa. As part of a project spearheaded by Kathleen Alexander, the William E. Lavery Professor in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, Virginia Tech, the government of Botswana, and a nongovernmental organization formed by Alexander broke ground this past fall on a Wildlife Forensic Laboratory, a joint facility that allows students of Virginia Tech and Botswana to perform research in various areas of conservation.

In closing, Sands recognized the efforts of the university’s Advancement group and the generosity of Virginia Tech supporters. Virginia Tech raised approximately $225 million during the last fiscal year and received recognition by the Council on Advancement and Support for Education as a CASE 50 institution, placing the university in the top tier for university advancement.

“In 2024, we will look back on the last decade with pride, and then turn our attention to the future,” Sands said. “Great opportunities and challenges lie ahead. The state of our university is strong, hopeful, and committed to our mission in the spirit of Ut Prosim – That I May Serve.

“We’re ready to show the world who we are.”

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