Virginia Tech’s Sesquicentennial celebration has offered students, faculty members, and alumni the opportunity to reflect on the university’s 150 years of existence and impact. This milestone celebration, which concludes at the end of this year, has honored the university’s journey from a small agricultural and mechanical college to a world-class land-grant and research institution.

Virginia Tech administrators, led by President Tim Sands, now begin to turn their focus on establishing a framework for the university’s next 150 years. A recent conversation between Sands and Washington State University President Kirk Schulz, who graduated from Virginia Tech with an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering in 1986 and a doctoral degree in 1991, revealed thoughts about Virginia Tech going forward and challenges they face as leaders at land-grant institutions.

Three of the major themes from their conversation included continuing the land-grant mission in a 21st century world, collaborating on research opportunities with other regional entities, and being leaders in higher education in a post-pandemic world.

Continuing the land-grant mission

Both presidents stated that they loved being at land-grant institutions because the land-grant mission of solving problems in communities differentiates their universities from others. That mission also appeals to an array of important people, which ultimately helps each university with certain initiatives.

“Ultimately at the end of the day, somebody in Virginia or somebody in Washington is going to know what we are doing to advance the state, the economy, workforce needs, cutting-edge research, and competitiveness,” Schulz said. “And when you've got that land-grant mission, I think it just gives you a step forward that some other institutions may not always have.”

Sands echoed that sentiment and added that educating new faculty members is a critical part of fulfilling that mission. Researchers may have similar roles to past ones at prior institutions but accepting an invitation to engage with the community carries a significant amount of importance.

“One of the things that I noticed that was most effective in communicating what land grants do was to elevate certain individuals who have really demonstrated that, especially faculty who are very research-active and maybe take two years out of their traditional career to engage in a community,” Sands said. “We had that happen with Marc Edwards in the Flint water crisis, and we've got other examples. We try to recognize them at commencement and give them an award. Then people kind of register, ‘Oh, that's an expectation that if you have something to give back, you actually take time to do that, and the university is going to support you for it. They're not going to abandon you.’”

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Research collaborations

Both presidents touched on the topic of collaborating with other institutions within their respective states. Washington State and the University of Washington are collaborating on initiatives, while Virginia Tech works with other schools in Virginia on the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative and also the Tech Talent Investment Program, a $1.1 billion investment by the commonwealth to double the number of computer science and engineering graduates in Virginia that was connected to Amazon’s announcement of its HQ2 location. In addition, Virginia Tech has been in conversations with the University of Virginia and Radford University on certain health sciences research projects. Collaboration appeals to those who work in state governments and control parts of the funding for projects.

“We're competing for things together that we could have never competed for as individual institutions,” Sands said of the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative. “So once you see that model working, it's about trust and alignment. It starts to snowball. … Anytime you can form a partnership, people's ears perk up. They listen to proposals. It's a much different situation than going at it individually.”

Both presidents do face some challenges, though, with primary campuses far away from potential research opportunities. Washington State has five physical campuses, while many of Virginia Tech’s opportunities are centered in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area. Some faculty members want the best of both worlds – the rural culture of the primary campus and the research opportunities in metropolitan areas.

“We're going to have to deal with people going back and forth and try to encourage it,” Sands said. “I don't know that there's ever a perfect way to organize.”

“What we found is some of our other campuses also need some of the major scholarly resources that are available on the flagship campus and there are just certain things that are going to be here in Blacksburg that you're probably not going to want to duplicate up there [in Northern Virginia], no matter how big it gets,” Schulz said. “And that's the challenge is how do we take a young faculty member who maybe needs certain equipment, and they're going to try and bounce back and forth a little bit. We’ve started just being a little more creative in how we look at that, and I'll be curious to see how it continues to go here.”

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Post-pandemic leadership and engagement

Both leaders admitted encountering challenges while leading senior staff and faculty members following the COVID-19 pandemic. Both want to allow workers the flexibility to work remotely, but also feel that creativity suffers without face-to-face engagement. Yet requiring in-person attendance for meetings, courses, and more can impact recruiting efforts.

“In some administrative areas, we've already hit this point where it's difficult to recruit here post-pandemic,” Sands said. “It's easier to go to the metro market and let them be fully remote, and I think that's working pretty well, but … I think you've got to build relationships in person, and you have to tag up, and then the remote part, you can deal with in between. But you can't just stay remote. It's difficult.”

Neither president had a firm solution.

“I think all of us are going to be dealing with different vestiges of this over the next year or two and have to figure out what works and what doesn't,” Schulz said. “I’ve talked to some of my industry colleagues, CEOs, that are all doing this remote work, and I said, ‘Well, how do you how do you manage creativity? How do you manage onboarding new people who truly haven’t been a part of your organization or culture who are coming in, and their experience at Washington State or Virginia Tech is [only] online? How do we do that?’ After a glass of wine or two, almost everybody goes, ‘Yeah, we haven't figured it out.’”

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