Education is key to progress.

Virginia Tech’s founders knew it. And 146 years later, the Hokie Nation continues this momentum to meet the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s workforce, said President Tim Sands during his third State of the University Address on Friday afternoon in the Moss Arts Center.

The university’s strong, discovery-driven research underscores this mission.

“Many of the best things happening at Virginia Tech start with research,” said Sands to the crowd gathered in the Anne and Ellen Fife Theatre. “It is the fuel that powers our aspiration to become a top global university, and it is the catalyst for economic prosperity in the communities we serve.”

During the address, Sands outlined Virginia Tech’s key research progress, its growing influence in the state, its efforts to be an inclusive and diverse campus, and its vision to be known as a top global land-grant research institution. By live video, Sands also highlighted Virginia Tech’s work in Blacksburg, Roanoke, and Arlington.

Few universities have a research portfolio like Virginia Tech’s, which partners with companies and many federal government sectors, Sands said. Its research expenditures surpass $500 million.

From 2000 to 2010, the university doubled its research expenditures, growing faster than all other research institutions in the country. This past fiscal year, the university’s sponsored research expenditures were the highest in its history.

Also, this year a record number of Virginia Tech faculty received the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Awards to fund their research. The Hokie nation has the highest number of active NSF CAREER award winners in the state, Sands said.

“We’re developing the research leaders of tomorrow, who are taking on the challenges and opportunities of the future,” he said.

They include Cayelan Carey, an assistant professor of biological sciences who studies freshwater ecosystem science and conducts research at the Falling Creek Reservoir in Bedford County. Carey and her team are developing water quality forecasts to improve drinking water in the Roanoke Valley.

“This is one project of many across campus in which researchers are coming together to tackle real-world water problems,” Carey said via live video from her campus lab.

Carissa James, a graduate student who researches heart disease at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, also spoke with Sands via live video feed.

“What is really special is the people here,” James said. “They have a vision of applying the knowledge that we gain from these powerful tools in the real world.”

James’ work is part of the tremendous growth in Roanoke, where Virginia Tech is developing a health science and technology campus and building a 139,000-square-foot structure to support it. The VTC campus is projected to contribute about a half billion dollars a year to Virginia’s economy by 2026, said Sands, citing a report by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

President Sands
Virginia Tech has the highest number of active NSF CAREER award winners in the state, Sands said.

Sands also highlighted important developments at Virginia Tech’s Northern Virginia campus, including the university’s role in leading the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative or CyberX. This will bring together the state’s public institutions and the private sector to conduct cyber security research, train leaders, and develop strategies.

Charles Clancy, director of the Hume Center in Arlington, spoke via live video stream about the initiative’s potential. The Hume Center leads Virginia Tech's research and experiential learning programs in national security, focusing on cybersecurity, autonomy, and resilience.

“The goal really is to drive innovation, startups, and technology innovation across the commonwealth,” Clancy said.

Virginia Tech already is enhancing its support infrastructure to handle additional growth in research and innovation, Sands said. The university recently announced a new resource - LAUNCH, The Center for New Ventures - to help turn inventions by Virginia Tech researchers into applied innovations.

Virginia Tech is making progress in other areas, including increasing the diversity of its student body. Much of this success is a result of the Beyond Boundaries Scholars program, which supports underrepresented and underserved students with scholarship funding.

This year, more than 2,000 students, or 34 percent, of the first-year class are considered underrepresented or underserved.  By 2022, its 150th anniversary, Virginia Tech wants to lift this percentage to 40 percent.

Underrepresented students include those who are American Indian/Alaska Native, African American, Hispanic, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and two or more race combinations of these ethnicities. Underserved students are those who are the first in their families to attend college and/or are eligible for Federal Pell Grants.

Also, this year, there are twice as many new underrepresented faculty members as last year, Sands said.

“We’re doing all of this because it is essential to our mission,” he said. “We need to attract and retain the best students, faculty and staff from the broadest possible talent pool if we are going to deliver the diverse, high-quality experience our students need, and that employers expect.”

Sands encouraged the audience to consider what Virginia Tech will look like in four years, when its sesquicentennial class graduates, and how the university can best serve Virginia in the future. That should include a commitment to being an affordable and accessible university, even as decreased public funding for higher education remains a challenge, he said.

“Our forbearers had a bold vision for this university, and so do we,” Sands said. “Our future is in our own hands, and if we have the same grit and determination as those who came before us —and I know that we do — we will succeed.”

Drummers play on a stage
Members of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets's regimental band performed before the 2018 State of the University.

— Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone