Despite the challenges of COVID-19, the College of Architecture and Urban Studies (CAUS) is moving forward with initiatives and processes that more closely align the college and its four schools with Virginia Tech’s Beyond Boundaries vision.

During a virtual college update and Q&A session held on Sept. 9, Dean Richard Blythe provided details on steps CAUS is taking to achieve that goal and reported on college progress in regards to several key priorities.

Joining Blythe were school directors Aaron Betsky, of the School of Architecture + Design; Brian Kleiner, of the Myers-Lawson School of Construction; Mehrzad Boroujerdi, of the School of Public and International Affairs; and Amy Kirschke, of the School of Visual Arts. School directors spoke to specific questions about their facilities and disciplines, as well as curriculum, programming, and locations.

Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke rounded out the panel and provided additional context on the college’s connection to Beyond Boundaries and the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The discussion, moderated by Alumni Distinguished Professor Rosemary Blieszner, highlighted several college focus areas, including smart design and construction, health design research and policy, and diversity and inclusion. These themes connected the college’s legacy of transdisciplinary and experiential learning to emerging opportunities.  

“These focus areas help connect the college and school history to the wider strengths of Virginia Tech and to our future path forward,” said Blythe. “They allow us to realize new effective ways of integrating research and teaching that help us generate new kinds of resources to support the work of the university, and most importantly, to enhance student learning.”

Blythe also addressed concerns regarding the pace of change in the college and continued dialogue around those processes. Citing the college’s ongoing strategic planning process, he emphasized the critical role of faculty and alumni in setting, vetting, and implementing the vision of CAUS.

“We're responding to both opportunities and challenges as well as pursuing the regular process of continual improvement,” he said.

Additionally, Clarke noted the college’s natural strengths in regards to five core elements of the Beyond Boundaries vision, which include global reach, distinctiveness, transdisciplinary learning and discovery, experiential learning, and partnerships. In general, most school and program philosophies and principles are already aligned with those elements, he said.

“But those principles constantly have to be tested and revisited so that the college can be sure that it adapts to really engage the future opportunities that are presented to it,” said Clarke.

Blythe also stressed the college’s strong connection to Beyond Boundaries and said current programs are compatible with that vision.

“The one explicit pedagogical element of Beyond Boundaries is experiential learning,” said Blythe. “And all four of our schools embrace that approach, and more than that, they’ve been inventors in that space for a long time.”

Both Blythe and Clarke emphasized the important role alumni can play in helping schools, the college, and the university respond to the changing needs of the people they serve.

The virtual discussion welcomed approximately 170 attendees consisting of alumni, faculty, staff, and friends of the college and followed a virtual welcome back town hall for students held on Sept. 1. The event also benefitted from and was informed by recent conversations between college leadership and alumni, the dean’s advisory board, and program advisory boards. CAUS will host additional virtual opportunities for school and program-specific alumni later this fall.

Below are several additional topics highlighted during the discussion. A full recording of the event is available to view online.

How COVID-19 has affected the educational landscape across the college

CAUS has focused much of the last six months on preparing to deliver an effective and robust educational experience for students in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Blythe. Those efforts include prioritizing the in-person interactions deemed most important by students and faculty.

“We've really had to focus our face-to-face learning opportunities on those which will have the greatest impact within people's courses and programs,” said Blythe.

Kleiner, whose teaching and research expertise include environmental health and safety, helps lead the college’s operational response to COVID-19 and outlined controls that are being implemented to mitigate hazards. Those controls include plexiglass barriers between studio desks and in meeting rooms and offices, directional signage to control foot traffic, and increased airflow within buildings. He also emphasized the importance of wearing face coverings, frequent handwashing, and maintaining appropriate social distance.

“What we've done is taken a prevention through design approach to COVID,” said Kleiner. “And I should say we're trying to protect not just the students, but also our faculty and staff, who in many ways are a more vulnerable population than students.”

Betsky noted the extensive input of students in the School of Architecture + Design’s approach to preparing for in-person instruction and studio courses, emphasizing that every student in the school who wanted a physical desk on campus was provided one.

Additionally, Blythe highlighted the college’s partnership with the Blacksburg Farmers Market to provide sheltered space downtown for outdoor classrooms. Students and faculty in the School of Public and International Affairs, the School of Visual Arts, and others from various programs are already taking advantage of this option.

Changes to college leadership and school programs

With three new school directors joining the college over the past several years, the panel addressed evolving changes to college governance processes, school curriculum and programs, and approaches to diversity and inclusion.

“Universities are faced with tough issues and need to be less reliant on state funding and more nimble in our ability to adapt, respond, and contribute to major societal challenges,” said Blythe. Those efforts include building a broad shared governance structure across the college that enables all faculty, staff, students, and administrators to work more collaboratively toward future goals.

“We're pursuing those changes earnestly, and we're pursuing them in line with the Beyond Boundaries vision that we have as a university,” he said.

Blythe also noted that changes to school and program curriculum typically happen at the school level, as do modifications to school leadership structures.

In answer to a question about changes to the architecture program specifically, Betsky emphasized that the School of Architecture + Design had not made any changes to the program’s curriculum beyond what happens as part of a regular, ongoing curriculum review. He also highlighted the need for the school to reexamine its efforts to address social justice issues and increase faculty and student diversity.

“I'm really looking forward to understanding the traditions of this school,” said Betsky, who joined the university in June 2020. “And I’m looking forward to learning from the faculty that are here and and finding ways that we can bring those traditions forward to create a learning environment that is truly a continuation of the great Virginia Tech tradition.”

Kirschke, the college’s newest school director, emphasized plans in the School of Visual Arts to implement a new service learning program that will require every student to participate in a project or outreach effort in the community related to diversity. 

“What can we do as a school and a college to help people right here in our community?” she asked.

Kirschke further expanded on the school’s renewed focus on diversity and pointed to a developing partnership with Nelson Mandela University in South Africa, a new course on Black protest art, and a forthcoming exhibition on famed Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas as examples. 

In addition to programs located on Virginia Tech’s main campus in Blacksburg, the college has enjoyed the success of several long-standing programs in the D.C. area, said Blythe. He cited the School of Public and International Affairs as well as the Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center as examples, but stressed that CAUS needs to ensure those and any future programs are sustainable and well-resourced.

In regards to a proposed future development and potential expansion of the university’s Northern Virginia Center in Falls Church, which includes a strong emphasis on smart design and construction, Blythe said the college’s existing strengths in building construction, design, and urban planning were well positioned to take advantage of that opportunity.

“That project will be very important for us to align with the university's plan for the greater Washington, D.C., area, and specifically for the college to contribute to the thematically aligned vision developed under the provost’s leadership,” he said. 

Boroujerdi, who joined Virginia Tech in August 2019, addressed the recent move of the School of Public and International Affairs’ Northern Virginia programs from Alexandria to Arlington, saying the move had enabled the school to expand its existing offerings there and connect with emerging opportunities in the region.

“What we hope to do is to leverage our new location in Arlington to really serve as a showcase for Virginia Tech's policy-oriented and experiential learning mission,” he said. 

Since Blythe joined CAUS in October 2017, he has consistently engaged faculty, staff, students, and alumni in setting a strategic vision for the college, holding more than 100 meetings to garner input from various groups. He also implemented an expanded leadership team that brings together more than 50 college leaders from all disciplines, programs, and locations for workshops and feedback sessions. Additionally, Blythe will continue to reach out to advisory boards for input and plans to establish a student leadership council that allows students to play a more direct role in college governance.