When President Tim Sands thinks of Virginia Tech, one quality is at the top of his list — deriving strength from adversity.

The university’s 16th president elaborated on the Virginia Tech community’s embodiment of that quality during the turbulent past 12 months and its benefits for the future during the live-streamed State of The University Address on Wednesday afternoon.

“We’re keeping our distance today together because it’s necessary and responsible, but we’re still connected – and the important thing is that we’re together,” Sands said. “Our spirit of community has been a source of strength throughout the pandemic, and it will continue to support Virginia Tech into the future.”

Editor's note: A video with corrected captions will be posted shortly.

During the roughly 25-minute presentation, Sands shared insights into COVID-19-related challenges met and lessons learned. Additionally, he gave updates on the university's advances made despite the pandemic in terms of new partnerships, new facilities, and new progress made toward the institution's long-term goals. He also presented a vision for Virginia Tech’s forward momentum as the spring semester begins and the university moves toward the celebration of its 150th anniversary.

The event was capped with an outstanding example of the university's motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), with the announcement of alumni Hema and Mehul Sanghani’s support of the university’s Global Business and Analytics Complex in Blacksburg and the newly named Sanghani Center for Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics. The Sanghani Center is currently in the Arlington Research Building in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area and will eventually become part of the Innovation Campus.

Last year, the Sanghanis also supported the creation of The Market at Virginia Tech, a program to help tackle the issue of food insecurity among students. Altogether, the couple is committing $10 million to these efforts.

“What a great way to begin 2021, and we have so much to look forward to: Our continuing development in Blacksburg and Roanoke, and the Innovation Campus in the D.C. region; welcoming new talent, exploring new ideas, and taking Virginia Tech to new heights; and the opportunity to come together as a community – finally face-to-face again,” Sands said.

Last fall, the unprecedented challenge of having a fall semester in the midst of a global pandemic was successfully met thanks to a universitywide effort that included administering more than 46,000 PCR tests since August, more than 200,000 COVID-related work hours logged by employees, and widespread buy-in from the entire university community.

“Virginia Tech’s response largely protected our community and led to a successful completion of a hybrid fall semester,” Sands said. “We adapted our tripartite mission of teaching, research, and engagement to meet the realities of the pandemic. Your response and resilience were remarkable.”

As a result, the university’s seven-day positivity rate has hovered around 1 to 2 percent since mid-November, down from a peak of 19 percent in early September.  

Sands said this semester will begin with transitioning from online to a limited degree of in-person instruction, which is hoped to increase as the semester moves forward.

“Progress will be guided by a three-fold commitment to health safety, academic quality, and staying within the university’s resources,” he said. “The pace of our progress into the spring semester will depend on the availability and efficacy of the vaccine and consultation with community and public health partners.”

As a part of this effort, an emphasis will be placed on mandatory random prevalence testing of students and surveillance testing of high-contact employees. Testing will also be employed to reduce quarantine and isolation periods where possible, following recently revised CDC guidelines. Using testing and vaccines in conjunction with a continued adherence to public health guidelines will be critical to the spring’s success.

Sands stressed that the past year has revealed much about the challenges of remote work and study, dependent care, and the inadequacies in access to broadband internet. He said it also brought a new appreciation for the Virginia Tech community’s ability to quickly create real-world solutions, some of which included new opportunities for technology-enhanced learning, while also validating the importance of in-person, on-campus experiences.

He said that resilience and ingenuity will be needed moving forward, as the full economic impact of the pandemic and the resulting nationwide economic downturn won’t be felt until 2022. While Virginia’s General Assembly did not reduce support for the university this fiscal year and enrollment numbers are encouraging, COVID restrictions resulted in a $60 million decrease that was experienced by auxiliary enterprises, such as dining, residential programs, parking services, and athletics.

“We have a plan to close that $60 million dollar gap through cost savings, government relief, and restructuring debt. And the budget reductions we’ve implemented are smaller than the reductions we initially prepared,” Sands said.

Despite the challenges of 2020, Hokies stepped forward and set new records for giving for a second-straight fiscal year with more than $185 million in new gifts and commitments and a 2 percent growth in alumni giving participation.

“As of June 30th, Boundless Impact [the university fundraising campaign] has raised $657 million and engaged 60,000 Hokies in 2020. This is excellent progress toward our goal of $1.5 billion and 100,000 engaged Hokies by 2027,” Sands said.

In alignment with the university’s strategic plan: “The Virginia Tech Difference: Advancing Beyond Boundaries,” research and expenditures has also gained momentum. A more than 6 percent increase in external funding was seen last year, as well as researchers’ awards growing by an average of 13 percent. Among examples given, the Virginia Tech-led Commonwealth Cyber Initiative was highlighted for its $85 million in active research grants, the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC for its expanded role in responding to the pandemic, and LINK + LICENSE + LAUNCH for forging new partnerships and helping translate research and discoveries into practical uses in everyday life.

Sands said Virginia Tech’s presence in the greater Washington, D.C., area was also progressing and hitting important milestones. The Innovation Campus welcomed its inaugural class, as well as its new leader, Lance Collins, vice president and executive director. Plans for the campus’ first academic building were unanimously approved by the Alexandria City Council, while across the Potomac, scientists from the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC will begin helping the fight against cancer this year in a new 12,000-square-foot biomedical research space on the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus.

In Roanoke, the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute opened its new 139,000-square-foot research facility, and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine received almost 6,400 applications for the 49 available slots, an increase of almost 50 percent. The school continues to yield a 100-percent residency match each year.

Sands said the university is already ahead of its 2024 goal of increasing the four-year graduation rate for undergraduate students to 70 percent, as 70 percent of the 2016 cohort graduated last year. Within that number, 65 percent of the university’s underrepresented minority students graduated on time last year. The university also came close to its 2022 goal of an incoming class’ makeup being 40 percent underrepresented and underserved students, with the 2020 class’ makeup being 39 percent. That group includes low-income, first-generation, veteran, and underrepresented minority students.

“The strength and value of a Virginia Tech degree is a differentiator, and I believe it’s one of the reasons undergraduate applications for admission to Virginia Tech have increased by more than 30 percent since last year,” Sands said.

The number includes a 46 percent increase in underrepresented minority students and a 37-percent increase in first-generation students, as well as a 65-percent rise in African American applicants and a 43-percent rise in Hispanic applicants.

“We are on track to hit close to 40,000 applications this year, which is double the number we received for fall of 2014,” Sands said. “The increased demand for a Virginia Tech degree reflects the relevance and value of the work that our students, faculty, and alumni are doing every day.”

Looking ahead, Sands stressed the university’s forward momentum, as well as the collective opportunity and imperative to do more. Continuing to broaden the pool of talent from which faculty and staff are drawn, expanding experiential learning in degree programs, and tackling affordability for those from low- and middle-income families are topics on the horizon.

The university will also take a renewed focus on core values — establishing and supporting diverse and inclusive communities, advancing knowledge and innovation, providing opportunity and an affordable education, and a commitment to excellence and integrity — as it approaches its 150th birthday celebration.

“These are values that make Virginia Tech so important to our students, our communities, our commonwealth, and all the people who benefit from the work we do, including all the work we did over the past year to support our communities during the pandemic,” Sands said. “These values drive our overall commitment to improve the human condition in the spirit of our motto Ut Prosim, That I May Serve.”

Written by Travis Williams