The following is an open letter to the university community from Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger.

To the university community,

Commencement is always a joyful time signifying a major milestone in the lives of literally thousands of Virginia Tech students who have worked incredibly hard.   As we approach the end of the semester and prepare to graduate another class, I want to share with you a few thoughts.

Next month, we will hold a grand opening ceremony for the Virginia Tech Research Center – Arlington.  Our decision to locate another foothold in the National Capital Region has been justified by the strong support of our many constituencies.   Interest among university and non-university tenants is much stronger than expected and leasing is virtually complete. This facility’s proximity to the nation’s capital and to the most populous region of our state presents ideal opportunities for research interactions as well as graduate and undergraduate study or scholarship.  It represents a window onto another world of scholarship and international opportunities.

We have recently learned that the state’s financial leadership group has met and approved several capital projects to receive debt authorizations for construction effective July 1, 2011: Davidson Hall Improvements, Phase 1; Human and Agricultural Biosciences Building Phase 1; and the Signature Engineering Building.  

As a result of these efforts, we are very comfortable in saying that the project budgets will be sufficient to move the Davidson Hall and HABB 1 projects forward immediately.   We are currently working with the state with regard to proposed changes to the Signature Engineering Building project, and I am confident that we will find a compromise position that will also allow this project to proceed, from the state funding perspective, very soon. 

These three projects have a combined project budget totaling approximately $180 million, and the ability to move forward on these projects now is great news for our academic programs and our faculty, students, and staff and for the Virginia economy.  We very much appreciate the support of Governor McDonnell and the General Assembly in order to make these facilities happen.

As you know, I have challenged Paul Knox to lead our university wide effort to develop the next long-range university plan, The Plan for a New Horizon.  Having a collective vision of the future institutional profile well understood and accepted by the community is essential in our fast changing world.  It enables us to focus on what matters, particularly as current events might impinge on our actions and ideas.  For example, twice during the past decade we endured massive reductions in state support like never seen before on this campus.  Yet, we were able to manage the downturns because a well articulated strategic plan guided our decisions.

Accordingly, I ask all of you to pay particular attention to communications and deliberations from the Long Range Plan initiative.   Soon, reports from the subcommittees will be posted on the website, www.longrangeplan.vt.edu.  These working papers will inform later suggestions and the strategic planning retreat for the university board of visitors later this summer.    The board will help us address several important key structuring questions.   For example:

  • Should the university grow enrollment?  If yes, what is an optimal size?  What is an appropriate mix of undergraduate, graduate, or post graduate enrollment? If we elect to grow undergraduate enrollment, will state funding be consistent? If we elect to grow graduate enrollment, in what areas should we invest?
  • How far do we advance technology applications into the teaching and learning environment?

Communications technology has become ever more important to pedagogy and institutional operations. But modern information technology demands significant up-front investments.  We have to get it right; we live with these decisions a long time. 

  • Sustainability must become part of our culture.  How do we inculcate a mindset that lightens our footprint on the community and, by extension, on our planet? But few actions are no-cost.   Indeed, many require large investments.  Where should we invest?  What evaluative mechanisms will we use to achieve useful cost/benefit analysis?
  • As we seek to prepare our graduates for top jobs and challenging careers in a changing world, do we have the organizational flexibility to rapidly design curricula and or to respond to needs of society for jobs in disciplines that do not yet exist?  

The Long Range Plan website will contain many interactive features seeking your involvement.  In addition, beginning in the fall we will engage the community in workshops and presentations to garner as much input as possible.  Please use these opportunities to get involved and voice your ideas.

Last month the university governing board approved another significant tuition increase for our students, an action we take with sobering reticence.    Even in spite of massive reductions in state aid, we have managed to maintain our inventory of degree programs while meeting enrollment demand for access.  Student tuition has become the financial foundation for the enterprise.

State funding for Virginia Tech remains well below that of 10 years ago, even though our enrollment and programs have grown significantly.  State funding for Virginia Tech's educational division has plunged from $182 million in 2000-01 to $131 million in 2011-12. 

Once adjusted for inflation, state support per in-state student at Virginia Tech is less than half today than it was a decade ago. The state’s share of Virginia Tech’s educational cost has dropped from 58 percent in 2000-01 to 28 percent in the coming fiscal year. The university will lose an additional $16 million in state funding, partially offset by $3 million in new funding for Fiscal Year 11-12. Further, the university will no longer receive $21 million in federal stimulus funding that temporarily plugged the hole created by state funding cuts. The net effect is a continuing shift of the cost of education from public sources to students.

I believe that this educational enterprise is as strong as ever.   It is due in large part because students have been willing to pay for the quality education you help deliver.  Yet, we likely are reaching the limit.  We cannot sustain increases like we have been forced to enact over the last several years.  We cannot expect our students and their families to absorb large increases year after year.  

This year marked the fourth anniversary of the darkest of black days, April 16, 2007.  Our university has proved to be remarkably resilient and the university community has made great progress in healing its deep wounds.  Yet many among us have not and I ask that you continue to be sensitive. 

Recently, you may have read in the news actions by the university to appeal a decision by the U.S. Department of Education where they levied a fine on Virginia Tech for administrative actions on the morning of April 16, 2007.  Some have asked me why.  This was a difficult decision, in part, because we are acutely sensitive to the trauma and grief still felt by so many, particularly the survivors or families of victims. Neither the fine nor the size of the fine is the issue.

We disagree with the DOEd’s findings.  We do not believe they have consistently applied even their own interpretations of the Clery Act.   The university actions on April 16 were well within the standards and practices in effect at that time.  We believe that Virginia Tech administrators acted appropriately in response to those tragic events and that decisions were made based on the best information available at the time.  Furthermore, it appears the university is being held accountable for a new federal standard that was adopted after the April 2007 shootings.

Yet, that rationale is not the primary reason for our appeal. As we have publicly stated several times, we believe that there was no due process in the Department of Education’s deliberations.  We were never afforded a face to face opportunity with those evaluating our actions.  We were never provided an opportunity to review source materials used by the DOEd.  They took more than three years to render a decision, but never reviewed with us the background or basis of their analysis. 

Thus, while this review may prolong the ache for some, we believe it is the appropriate course of action in order to more fully comprehend the DOEd administrators’ decisions.   Furthermore, all of higher education has a stake in this outcome.  We believe that the department should articulate more specific guidance on the requirements of the Clery Act. 

Finally, I hope the Virginia Tech community will join me in welcoming Dr. Edwin Jones as our new Director of Cooperative Extension.  Dr. Jones is a Virginia Tech alumnus who previously served with distinction as Associate Director of Extension at North Carolina State University. 

Since joining Extension April 1, Dr. Jones has begun meeting with Extension specialists and staff and  has visited all four districts for meetings with agents, faculty from the ARECs, and Extension stakeholders.  At present Extension is filling with available resources vacancies resulting from retirements or resignations, and is reviewing gaps in service to fill positions funded by the General Assembly in the recent session.   Dr. Jones is now beginning to schedule discussions with stakeholders, partners and interested groups across the Commonwealth as we prepare to strengthen Virginia Cooperative Extension for the future. 

A new website, Shaping Extension's Future, will launch in the next few weeks.  The site will feature regular messages from the Director, answers to frequently asked questions, a schedule for listening sessions around the state, and the ability for audiences to comment and ask questions. 

We will be working with the Secretary of Education on a review of the structure of Extension and reaching out to members of the General Assembly, local governments, employees, and stakeholders for input on how best to structure Extension given  the limited resources available. 

In just a short while, the season comes full circle and we will be celebrating with our students and their families the momentous occasion of graduation. Please accept my thanks and gratitude for your commitment to the ideals of higher education, the support of our students, and the university spirit of service.

Charles W. Steger

President