Athletic rivalry masks academic collaborations by Sally Harris

The HokieBird flaps his wings and Virginia Tech fans roar. The Cavalier sweeps the opposing University of Virginia (U.Va.) crowd into a frenzy. Yes, the much-heralded sports rivalry between Virginia Tech and U.Va. is fierce--and it's a competition that began before Virginia Tech was even much more than a notion.

Shortly after the Civil War, several institutions, including U.Va., vied for land and funding through the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 to support education in agriculture and the mechanical arts. In the end, the idea of a new polytechnic school won that competition. After the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (VAMC) opened in Blacksburg, the enmity turned to sports, particularly football. U.Va. clobbered VAMC repeatedly until 1905, when Tech finally beat U.Va. Eighteen years passed before the teams played each other again [see sidebar]; then, a thundering rivalry became a tradition.

Because that competitive spirit continues to this day, U.Va.’s support of Tech’s bid to enter the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) might have seemed like a sudden about-face to both schools’ fans. But to those watching the academic side of the schools, the cooperation came as no surprise: The two sports rivals have been academic friends for years, and their ACC rivalry provides even more opportunities for collaborative academic endeavors.

Statewide campuses

The two universities have been investing in cooperative academic ventures for years. For instance, because adults across the commonwealth often need educational programs specially designed to fit their needs, Virginia Tech and U.Va. occupy several shared facilities and work together in numerous educational endeavors.

The Northern Virginia Center and the Richmond Center grew out of the need for Virginia Tech and U.Va. to provide graduate education in those areas, says Roger Avery, senior associate dean of the Graduate School. According to John Dooley, vice provost for outreach and international affairs, in Northern Virginia, the two schools share facilities, the library, a bookstore, and the latest digital capabilities, and offer graduate courses by bringing professors to the site and beaming courses to other areas of the state. At the Richmond Center, the schools, along with Tech's Cooperative Extension/Agricultural Experiment Station Division, share a building.

Two other centers, independent agencies of the Commonwealth of Virginia, facilitate the collaboration of several state institutions at their sites, Dooley says. The Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon was created by the state to "strengthen the economy of Southwest Virginia through education and training of the workforce," according to its website. Virginia Tech operates its Southwest Virginia Center there, as do U.Va. and several other universities, allowing working professionals to complete graduate-degree programs or classes from nationally ranked programs and to receive degrees or certificates. The same is true at the Roanoke Center; however, "all the places have a slightly different flavor," Avery says, and they also offer courses in a variety of disciplines.

Recently retired Tech Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Minnis Ridenour, who was instrumental in securing funding for the Northern Virginia Center and has been active in the charter-university initiative, says, "U.Va.'s and Virginia Tech’s skills, capabilities, and programs complement each other at our off-campus programs. These centers enable us to provide educational opportunities at the times and places professionals and other students can take advantage of them."

Preserving the South Atlantic culture

In 2002, the South Atlantic Humanities Center (SAHC)--after extensive competition with other institutions for funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities--was created to explore and celebrate the differences that give each locality its unique identity, as well as to understand the commonalities that bind communities together as a region. The center, headquartered in Charlottesville, serves Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Virginia and "represents a groundbreaking partnership among Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities through its emphasis on the humanities," says Anita Puckett, Virginia Tech planning project coordinator. "The center is supported by its endowments and externally funded programs."

By using the resources of all three institutions, the SAHC supports academic research, public programming, publications, media presentations, and K-14 educational projects that show the people and communities of the U.S. South Atlantic as being constituents of a complex region. "In so doing, the center brings to the foreground Virginia Tech's humanities contributions and places the university in a mutually beneficial relationship with two highly recognized humanities organizations," Puckett says.

Managing natural resources

The Virginia Natural Resources Leadership Institute, another cooperative effort between Virginia Tech and U.Va., is aimed at improving the capacity of commonwealth citizens, businesses, communities, and public officials to discuss and resolve issues concerning the management of Virginia's natural resources and the quality of Virginia's environment. The institute, sponsored by U.Va.'s Institute of Environmental Negotiation, Virginia Tech's Center for Economic Education, and the Virginia Department of Forestry, helps people who work with such natural-resource issues as water quality and supply, human and animal waste management, and urban and rural forestry.

Improving health

One of the main goals of a research university is to solve society's problems, and Tech collaborates with U.Va. on a number of projects to meet that goal:

• David Kingston of Virginia Tech works with researchers from U.Va., the University of Pittsburgh, and Galileo Biosciences in California on a project aimed at discovering new anti-cancer agents from the natural world--in particular, plants and marine sources. This team makes up one of several National Cooperative Drug Discovery Groups funded by the National Cancer Institute.

• Virginia Tech's Craig Nessler and researchers from U.Va.'s medical school are trying to express from plants a protein that is missing from stomach cancers. If successful, the team will then determine whether the protein can be used in prevention and treatment of cancer.

• Fabricio Medina-Bolivar of Virginia Tech and U.Va. scientists are working to develop plant-based vaccines that can be taken orally or nasally to stop the parasite Entamoeba histolytical, which kills thousands of children in third-world countries. Also, the two schools have joined with Virginia Commonwealth University, through the Commonwealth Technology Research Fund, to form the Virginia Consortium for Mucosal Therapy of Infectious and Autoimmune Diseases to make plant-based nasal vaccines targeting gonorrhea and periodontitis, an advanced stage of gingivitis.

Pulling together

Recently, the most visible collaboration between the two schools, along with the College of William and Mary, is the attempt to persuade the General Assembly to create charter-university status for all three institutions. In exchange for fewer state dollars, commonwealth-chartered universities would have more control over their revenues but would remain public institutions accountable to the state. The 2005 General Assembly will address the issue, which many believe will save money.

"Preservation of quality lies at the heart of this proposal," according to Tech President Charles Steger. "Virginia schools have, over the past several decades, built a national reputation for excellence and value. But they cannot continue to live on reputation alone. Investments are needed now."

Working toward charter status: profitable partnerships, promising future

"Strategic academic partnerships," says Steger, "are imperative for our future because the barrier to entry, or start-up cost, for new research or scientific programs is so high. Partnerships help us develop new programs without the staggering financial investments of going it alone." Virginia Tech has partnerships with several other universities--such as the School of Biomedical Engineering and Science's collaboration with Wake Forest University--but it has found a great deal of success in working with its athletic rival to the northeast. "The collaborations with the University of Virginia help us not only develop research partnerships, but also, through our satellite campuses, bring the benefits of those programs to the entire commonwealth," Steger says. "We want to see these programs grow and become major forces in the state, the nation, and the world."

Fierce rivalry, high drama--and a helping hand

1913 Gobblers

The 1913 Gobblers

It took Virginia Tech 10 years to beat the University of Virginia (U.Va.) in football after the two started playing in 1895, and by then the rivalry was fierce.

So fierce that when the two teams disagreed over the eligibility of Tech's star player after the 1905 win, they did not play again for 18 years, "each stubbornly [persisting] in pretending the other didn't exist," according to 'Hoos 'N' Hokies: The Rivalry by Doug Doughty and Roland Lazenby, Virginia Tech instructor of communication studies. According to Lazenby, during the following 67 years, neither team broke into the national spotlight. " ... Virginia struggled with faculty complaints that the school placed too much emphasis on sports. The Hokies, meanwhile, made a clear decision not to emphasize football and fell into miserable patterns of losing.

"Finally, things got so bad that Coach Frank Moseley, an old roommate of Bear Bryant's at Alabama, was hired in 1950 to turn the program around. ... By 1954, Moseley had produced a team that went 8-0-1 and made an appearance in the AP rankings. ... Jerry Claiborne [built] the program in the 1960s, bringing two Liberty Bowl invitations. Virginia would not really find football success until George Welsh took over in the 1980s, which boosted the rivalry to where it could draw the large modern crowds it enjoys."

In 1996, the establishment of the Commonwealth Cup heightened the competition. Although Virginia Tech holds a 43-37-5 edge in the schools' series of games, U.Va. currently holds the coveted cup. This year, they will play as members of the same conference.

The move to the ACC was a drama that affected many schools and conferences. Looking to expand, the ACC first courted Miami, Syracuse, and Boston College. But Virginia politicians and U.Va.'s President John Casteen and Athletic Director Craig Littlepage supported Virginia Tech, leading to Tech's invitation to join, along with Miami.

"This has been an outstanding rivalry in the past," says Athletic Director Jim Weaver, "but now it has more on the line than just the Commonwealth Cup. Every time we compete against the University of Virginia, the outcome will have an impact on the Atlantic Coast Conference standings in the respective sport. Thus the rivalry is enhanced as a result of Tech's membership in the ACC."

It's that very membership for which Tech owes much thanks to U.Va. And it looks as if the rivalry just got a lot more complicated--and enticing.

Sally Harris is a communications manager in University Relations.