Leader, advisor, colleague, friend. A forceful voice and determined advocate. Apolitical, honest, caring. Admired and loved.

Richard E. Sorensen was all this and more to those who knew him. Sorensen, the longtime former dean of the Pamplin College of Business, died December 29, 2020, at his home in Florida. He was 77.

Joining Virginia Tech in 1982 as dean of its business school, Sorensen led Pamplin for 31 years before retiring in 2013. He was previously business dean at Appalachian State University, for nine years.

Pamplin’s growth in numbers, quality, stature, and resources, longtime faculty and others note, is due in no small measure to Sorensen’s leadership and hard work.

Sorensen “led the college with great energy and vision, tirelessly promoting its advancement and setting it on a firm foundation for future progress and success,” said Pamplin Dean Robert Sumichrast, who served under him for four years as associate dean of graduate and international programs and later returned to Virginia Tech as successor to Sorensen and holder of the Richard E. Sorensen Chair.

Speaking at Sorensen’s retirement reception in 2013, then Virginia Tech president Charles Steger recalled Sorensen’s numerous achievements as an administrator, teacher, fundraiser, and donor. “I can personally attest,” said Steger, “that he also is a forceful voice and determined advocate for the college and what he sees as its needs.”

Sorensen’s strong leadership, Steger had noted on an earlier occasion, enabled the college to continue making progress in the face of many challenges: “The college’s success as one of the best business schools in the nation can be partly credited to Dr. Sorensen’s efforts in creating highly successful relationships within the business community.”

Bernard W. (Chuck) Taylor served as department head of management science — now called business information technology — throughout Sorensen’s tenure as dean. They had known each other long before then, through their membership in the Decision Sciences Institute.

That the business information technology major is “now one of the most popular in the college, with some of the highest average starting salaries in the university,” Taylor said, has its roots in Sorensen’s visionary direction.

“One of the first things Rich did upon his arrival as dean was to insist that our department — at that time only a service department offering courses — develop a major. He felt this was critical for the long term health and sustainability of our department, and a necessary component of the college.”

As dean, Sorensen was also Taylor’s supervisor, but “one of his many qualities that I appreciated was that he never acted like my boss,” Taylor said. “Rather, he was a friend, a colleague, an advisor, and a leader. He was infinitely patient with me and others and always acted with grace and calmness. Unlike many in academia, he was not ego driven, and, as an administrator, he was apolitical, honest, and straightforward. Although I didn’t always agree with Rich, he took great care to explain his decisions, and I always knew he was honest with me.”

That Sorensen was well regarded by so many was amply demonstrated through the years by the substantial gifts made by corporations and individuals to create the Richard E. Sorensen Dean’s Chair, the Richard E. Sorensen Professorship in Finance, and the Richard E. Sorensen Junior Faculty Fellowship.

Veteran finance professor Art Keown recalled the dilemma he faced when asked to make remarks, on behalf of Pamplin’s faculty, at the dean’s retirement event on Sorensen’s years of service. Instructed to be succinct, he was not sure how he could do justice to his subject.

“I started preparing by asking a number of faculty members what they would like me to say,” said Keown, who had served as department head for nine years in the 1980s and three years more recently. “It was amazing to hear all the different qualities, initiatives, and accomplishments that they pointed out.”

Most inspiring of all, the comments about “his personal side — his caring, honesty, and trustworthiness, the fact that he’s a truly wonderful person” — underscored “how much Dean Sorensen is admired and loved,” Keown said. “He will truly be missed.”

That the college grew and matured under his leadership, Keown said, is evident in the many initiatives Sorensen led — “many of them before their time, like his commitment to diversity — and all the money for scholarships and professorships he’s raised.”

Sorensen and his wife Carol acknowledge the applause of Pamplin faculty and staff and other guests at his retirement reception in 2013.
Sorensen and his wife Carol acknowledge the applause of Pamplin faculty and staff and other guests at his retirement reception in 2013. Photo by Logan Wallace.

Taylor attributed the college’s “growth in numbers, quality, stature, and resources” largely to Sorensen’s leadership and perseverance.

“Rich initiated the college’s relationship with the business community throughout Virginia and especially, the Pamplins, and he was instrumental in the college’s fundraising and development efforts, which, before his arrival were nonexistent.

“He was always out on the road, working for the college to sell Virginia Tech to the employers who would hire our students and to ask them for more money, which he was remarkably successful in doing.”

A believer in leading by example, Sorensen was himself a generous donor who established or contributed to scholarships in memory of others or to support students.

Sorensen’s pursuits in business and management education reached beyond campus boundaries and national borders. “Rich was very influential among business deans worldwide,” Sumichrast said.

Over the years, Sorensen served AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business) International in senior leadership roles, including chairing its board and many committees. He also did pro bono consultancy work for business schools at historically Black colleges and universities.

He received AACSB’s Distinguished Leadership Award, and, after retiring from Virginia Tech, was appointed special advisor to AACSB’s president, a role that focused on understanding the needs of business schools in emerging economies and working with member schools to further develop and support high-quality education in emerging regions around the world.

Throughout his tenure as dean, Sorensen taught the Introduction to Business course and established or grew innovative programs within the college, including international studies, the executive and professional MBA, and the Master of Information Technology.

In addition, he advanced diversity initiatives, including in student recruitment and faculty hiring.

His accomplishments included securing the $10 million naming gift for the college that enabled the construction of an addition to Pamplin Hall and strengthening the Pamplin Advisory Council, which brings together alumni and friends to plan for and advance the college’s future initiatives.

A leader in business innovation for Virginia Tech, Sorensen was a founding director of the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center. He also served regional and national corporations as a director or consultant.

His contributions to business scholarship and practice included publications in major academic journals, service on the Government Accountability Office’s educators’ advisory panel, and service, through appointments by governors in Virginia and North Carolina, on various state commissions, councils, committees, and task forces on tourism marketing, small business advocacy, economic development, and prison and jail overcrowding.

A native of Staten Island, New York, Sorensen received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute (now Polytechnic University) and an MBA and a Ph.D. in management from New York University.

Sorensen served as an airborne-ranger qualified officer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Vietnam. He received the Bronze Star and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross.

Those who would like to donate in his memory may contribute to funds that include several that Sorensen and his wife Carol established to benefit students. For enquiries, please contact pamplin_advancement@vt.edu.