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University Presidents Tim Sands and Kent Fuchs discuss challenges of higher education

September 18, 2016

Tim Sands and Kent Fuchs
Virginia Tech President Tim Sands (left) and University of Florida President Kent Fuchs shared the stage Sunday as part of a "Beyond Boundaries Presidential Conversation."

Virginia Tech President Tim Sands and University of Florida President Kent Fuchs are longtime friends, former colleagues at Purdue, and now peers leading large, land-grant universities.

During Sunday night’s “Beyond Boundaries Presidential Conversation,” the two presidents shared ideas about how their institutions must evolve to meet the needs of society and prepare students to thrive in a globally connected world.

They agree that 21st century land-grant research universities must be focused on solving problems that improve the human condition.

“You fund public universities because they are actually making a difference," said Sands.

But just working to solve big problems isn’t enough. Universities must engage with the public and communicate why their work is vital.

“All of us, whether we are presidents or faculty members, need to communicate why what we teach and what our scholarship is about is important," Fuchs said.

Communicating why it’s important is good for the universities but it’s also good for society to understand why liberal arts and other areas — not just research and making products — are important.

“A lot of what we do is inspire,” Sands said. “Our future is great as we pivot toward being more publicly accessible."

President Sands' “Beyond Boundaries” visioning initiative seeks to define Virginia Tech’s role a generation into the future and align the educational experience with the needs and opportunities that will be created by changing world economies and the evolving landscape of higher education.

Dozens of members of the university community attended Sunday night’s conversation in the Donaldson Brown Graduate Life Center. It was also live-streamed for remote audiences, and a video of the conversation will be posted on the Beyond Boundaries website.

Fuchs became the 12th president of the University of Florida in 2015. Under his leadership, the university has developed shared goals for the decade ahead and aspires to be a premier comprehensive university that the state, nation, and world can look to for leadership.

The University of Florida president says he often reminds his colleagues of their purpose.

“There is something special about a public research university ... a heritage, a mandate,” he said. "We have a special mission to the citizens of the world."

Sands and Fuchs also talked about the importance of land-grant universities, which are traditionally based in rural areas, developing bigger footprints in bigger cities.

Those programs should complement, not replicate, programs on primary campuses, both presidents agreed.

For Virginia Tech, that means growing its presence in the National Capital Region near Washington, D.C. The University of Florida is exploring biotech opportunities in Orlando in partnership with the University of Central Florida.

"We absolutely need visibility in urban environments," Fuchs said, but there are growing pains in the process.

Florida, for instance, first targeted Jacksonville (the closest metro area to Gainsville) for growth but soon realized that it wasn’t the right fit.

Prior to his tenure at Florida, Fuchs spent six years as provost of Cornell University. He was appointed provost after serving as Cornell’s Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering from 2002 to 2008.

At Cornell, he was part of the university’s expansion into New York City with the Cornell Tech graduate school.

Fuchs said Cornell Tech, which was supported by a $350 million donation, was a “magical combination” of how visionary growth can drive philanthropy and vice versa.

The campus would not have happened without the gift, but the gift would not have happened without the vision for the campus, he said.

“Special opportunity attracts special donor enthusiasm,” the Florida president said.

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