Virginia Tech Magazine
Feature -|- Fall 2006

Mapping the future of Virginia Tech
by Sherry Bithell

Reading about an institution's strategic and master plans likely sounds as appealing as watching paint dry. But at Virginia Tech, it's a worthwhile endeavor: recent updates to these plans reveal several bold new steps the university will take to transform its future.

Innovation through collaboration

About every five years, Virginia Tech re-examines its strategic plan through the lens of its mission and its core values. (See below). Other factors must also be considered, such as the increasingly competitive landscape of American higher education and the demand for more accountability to the university’s stakeholders--from the government and taxpayers to its students and supporters.

How, then, could Virginia Tech's 2001 strategic plan be updated to allow the university not only to simply survive but also to thrive in such an environment?

Essentially, the college deans met the challenge by finding commonalities in their individual college goals that could then be reworked into collective initiatives to benefit the entire university. The deans' approach to creating the plan reflected a degree of interdisciplinary collaboration that is unique in higher education, notes University Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Mark McNamee. At a typical university, he explains, individual colleges tend to compete with each other. Yet during the planning process, Virginia Tech's deans instead focused on finding commonalities in their college curricula and promoting new areas of interdisciplinary research. "It's a new way to do business at Tech," McNamee says.

The plan also reflects input from other members of the university community. President Charles W. Steger asked the community at large for feedback on the efficacy of the 2001 strategic plan, and faculty members and departments contributed to the individual college plans that helped the deans articulate their vision for the university. In addition, the plan was reviewed by a 27-member University Academic Advisory Committee, the provost's council, and the administrative vice presidents and their respective units. By the time the document was finalized, says McNamee, it had been through both horizontal and vertical processes of approval. As a result, the 2006-12 Strategic Plan Update builds upon the university's strengths through innovative cross-college and -department collaborations--and embodies the new way of doing business at Virginia Tech.

Establishing the domains

The updated strategic plan singles out the three scholarship domains--learning, discovery, and engagement--as focal points for the broad array of programs that meet the university's missions.


The learning domain component was designed to encompass a broad range of academic experiences, including undergraduate students and the university's desire to educate "the whole student." As a large, diverse institution, Virginia Tech offers students a range of educational opportunities, such as study-abroad programs and state-of-the-art technology in the classroom, along with social forums that include athletic events, residence hall life, and more than 600 student clubs and organizations. As part of its focus on the whole student, Virginia Tech also wants its students to participate in service-learning and leadership activities.

To help ensure that undergraduates take full advantage of all opportunities offered by a Virginia Tech education, the university adopted a new core curriculum, the Pathways for Learning, for the 2006-07 academic year. Now, students are urged to begin working with academic and career advisers during their first semester on campus, and the emphasis on thoughtful learning will continue through their senior year, when students will be encouraged to participate in research or other capstone projects.

The new core curriculum is about more than academics, however--it also incorporates elements that encourage students to be good citizens and to be prepared for changes, both in life and in the workforce, McNamee explains. "Today, things change quickly, and if you’re not able to adapt to them quickly, you're at a disadvantage. We want our graduates to have the advantage."

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this approach to undergraduate education is that a university of Virginia Tech's size is taking such personal interest in its undergraduates. McNamee describes the Pathways for Learning as a good way to combine the strengths of a large research university with the level of personal attention that you would like a student to get from a college education.

The learning domain also focuses on strengthening graduate education at Virginia Tech. Certainly, the university's commitment to research has grown over the past 20-30 years, but McNamee says that Virginia Tech is not yet "fully developed in terms of the breadth and depth and strength of its graduate programs in order to be an excellent, frontier, leading-edge research university."

Today, under the leadership of Dean Karen DePauw, the Graduate School works with the college deans not just to enhance their graduate programs but also to create a sense of identity for graduate education at Virginia Tech.

A significant factor in creating that identity is the new Graduate Life Center, which opened in September 2005 in the former Donaldson Brown Hotel and Conference Center. Created to serve as a hub of graduate student life by including graduate residences, offices, study areas, and presentation areas in one complex, the Graduate Life Center will set new standards for graduate education. Here, graduate students are encouraged to interact with faculty and peers in their own and other disciplines and to maintain a healthy balance between life and work. "No other university in the country has a complex like this," notes Vice President for Business Affairs Kurt Krause (marketing management '80).


Fittingly, the term "discovery," which evokes images of exploration, invention, and innovation, is applied to the new expression of the university's research goals. The college deans, in creating their draft of the strategic plan, agreed to commit faculty and resources to four strategic research areas: energy, materials, and environment; health, food, and nutrition; social and individual transformation; and innovative technologies and complex systems.

The strategic research mapped out in the plan will be conducted in numerous departments and colleges--some of which may be surprising.

For instance, the usual leaders in the area of energy research are faculty from the College of Engineering. However, faculty and administrators in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are not only excited about but have also increased their support of biofuels--growing certain crops specifically as an energy resource. The College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences will also be involved: experts can be found in the Department of Science and Technology, analyzing societal impact on the development and implementation of new energy technologies; in the Department of Sociology, examining the effects of energy consumption on human behavior; and in the Department of Political Science, evaluating the political ramifications of enacting new energy policies.

In a campus-wide survey of activities related to energy, these examples are just a few that were uncovered by the new Deans' Energy Task Force. Moreover, energy research is only one of the new strategic research areas. Across the university, experts are already working to better health and nutrition, to explore social and political issues and nurture creative expression, and to discover and apply new technologies. By amplifying its strengths and channeling its resources in these areas through interdisciplinary collaboration, Virginia Tech seeks to solve issues across the country and around the world.


The Virginia Tech tradition of looking outward and considering society as a whole remains true to the spirit of a land-grant university. When creating the strategic plan, there was also a focus on setting goals that would, in the near or far future, promote economic development. These two factors are the bedrock of the engagement domain, which focuses on enhancing PK-12 education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); engaging students in service-learning activities; strengthening the economic vitality of numerous entities throughout the commonwealth; and expanding international education and research.

Specific examples of the research benefits to external audiences can be easily detected in the PK-12 goal. "Everyone realizes that if we don't pay attention to primary education, we’re not going to have qualified students or a quality workforce in the future, especially when it comes to international competition," McNamee notes.

Because Virginia Tech is a national leader in the STEM fields--which are today considered the underpinnings for any successful advanced society--the university is well positioned to help PK-12 educators shape programs in these areas. "We have a unique responsibility to connect our classrooms and labs for broader outcomes," says John Dooley, vice provost for outreach and international affairs.

By applying its research to public schools, Virginia Tech can help ensure that young students "achieve not only in college but also throughout their lives," Dooley adds. An even broader outcome of this initiative is that the university's focus on developing the best practices for PK-12 education in the commonwealth will be applicable for schools everywhere.

As with the other scholarship domains, the engagement mission will benefit from interdisciplinary collaboration. "PK-12 issues are applicable to all of our colleges," Dooley notes. "We offer a multitude of programs that allow us to educate teachers with enhanced skills in different fields, particularly the STEM fields, and we'll produce teachers who will enter their profession already skilled in both methodology and individual disciplines."

The 2006-12 Strategic Plan Update includes specific goals for each Scholarship Domain. Here are the projected profiles of each domain by 2012.

• 29,000 total enrollments;
• 2,600 Ph.D. enrollments;
• 3,900 masters enrollments; and
• 22,500 undergraduate enrollments, including 3,000 who enter as transfer students

• $540 million in research expenditures
• Increased stature in strategic research areas

• Significant number of patents filed, spin-off companies established, and regional economic development
• Five international regional centers established

A foundation for success

The last portion of the strategic plan update highlights Foundation Strategies that will support the university's mission and goals. And the incorporation of these strategies is yet another new approach to creating the plan. "Including a financial component that explicitly ties planning to the university budget is unprecedented in Virginia Tech's past planning efforts," notes Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer James Hyatt.

The Foundation Strategies are divided into three primary goals, all of which reflect the core values of the university. The first strategy, which focuses on ensuring Virginia Tech's status as a high-quality institution, includes a top priority on campus today: sustaining a diverse and inclusive university community by fostering a welcoming environment for all of its members. This strategy also incorporates plans to develop and reward faculty and staff and to tap as resources alumni, emerti faculty, and partners in business and government.

The second foundation strategy is a commitment to investing in the campus infrastructure to provide a healthy and rewarding environment for the entire university community. The third strategy encompasses the goals of effectively developing, allocating, and managing resources, including those from state and private sources and from existing and new partnerships.

Some of the foundation strategies are already works in progress. The plan's commitment to support a diverse academic environment began nearly two years ago when the Principles of Community were created (see "A principled approach to transforming Tech"). In addition, Hyatt notes that the administration has begun to implement the other strategies, including organizational development; investments in campus infrastructure; and resource development, allocation, and management.

Reinventing the landscape

The campus master plan, which targets current and future land use, was also updated and approved this year. And the timing was no coincidence; the master plan was created with the goals of the strategic plan in mind.

For instance, when the planning committee looked at the strategic plan goal of strengthening research at Virginia Tech, the desired outcome was to define the type of facilities that would support that research. A review of the dollars and people per square feet of research buildings at both Tech's peer universities and those ranked among the top 30 research institutions led the committee to recommend that the university add approximately 1 million additional square feet of dedicated research space. And that's simply one focus area--to support all the initiatives in the strategic plan, the master plan calls for a total of 2.9 million square feet to be added on campus. Considering that today's campus encompasses some 8 million square feet, the university is looking at a 30 percent increase of new space over the next 10 or 15 years.

Beyond the strategic plan elements, the planning committee had to consider other factors, such as requests from President Steger and the board of visitors to no longer build high-rises--i.e., Slusher Tower--and to promote the continued use of the quadrangles, which are a critical component of the university's character. In addition, Steger wanted to maintain a "green space," or corridor, from Main Street and the University Mall through the Drillfield and beyond the Grove and the Duck Pond. Also mandated was that all new buildings incorporate the classic Virginia Tech combination of Hokie Stone and design that is referential to neo-Gothic architecture. Finally, the president wanted to look for ways to incorporate architectural iconic structures in future design plans--in other words, to plan for tomorrow's Lane Stadium, Burruss Hall, or the clock tower at The Inn at Virginia Tech.

While the prospect of meeting these requirements may seem daunting, Krause notes that Virginia Tech is actually better positioned for land use than other universities because of its 2,600 acres of core campus. To use that land in a manner that will best support the strategic plan, planners created districts represented by overlapping concentric circles (see graphic below).

campus map

Two of these districts already exist on campus. The Academic Core District, created to encompass the undergraduate focus of the learning domain, includes the Upper Quad, Burruss Hall and its environs, the Drillfield, and the residence halls and buildings on the site of the former Prairie. Plans are to keep current functional zones with most of the residence halls on one side of the Drillfield and most of the academic buildings on the other and to add future buildings in the parking lots.

A work in progress, the new Life Science District is designed to support the strategic plan's research goals. This district will focus new construction in the area encompassing the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, and the parking lot between Wallace Hall and Litton-Reaves Hall. The first new building of the Life Sciences District, Life Sciences I, is already under construction on Washington Street, and ICTAS II (the second Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science building) will be located in the Litton-Reaves parking lot next to Bioinformatics Phase I and Phase II. Future buildings in the Life Sciences District will complete quadrangles west of Litton-Reaves and will be located in the Duck Pond Drive Resident Lot (also called "the Cage").

Down the road, the Corporate Research Center District will be expanded to help support the discovery and engagement domains. "The idea is to take another 90 acres and add incubator-type buildings," says Krause. Also on the horizon is an Arts District, which will include the new Performing Arts Center on Main Street and the Alumni Mall, the performance venues in Squires Student Center, the black box theatre to be added to Henderson Hall, Blackburg's Lyric Theatre, and the Armory Art Gallery.

Finally, the master plan reserves a "land bank" on the site of the old golf course, which will allow future buildings to be on the same side of U.S. 460 as the main campus.

In total, the master plan proposes 2.9 million square feet of growth. However, the districts, designed so that students, faculty, and staff can walk across each one in 10 to 15 minutes, ensure that the expanded campus will not be overwhelming. That each district could be quickly crossed on foot was important to the planners, who envision three interlocking, pedestrian-friendly areas, Krause says. "We wanted to maintain the pedestrian-oriented nature of today’s core campus." He adds that it's not just about the campus character, either--walking is part of the wave of Tech's future.

More changes afoot

University Mission

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) is a public land-grant university serving the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world community. The discovery and dissemination of new knowledge are central to its mission. Through its focus on teaching and learning, research and discovery, and outreach and engagement, the university creates, conveys, and applies knowledge to expand personal growth and opportunity, advance social and community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve the quality of life.

Core Values

• Freedom of inquiry
• Mutual respect
• Lifelong learning
• A commitment to diverse and inclusive communities
Ut Prosim (That I May Serve)
• Personal and institutional integrity
• A culture of continuous improvement

Because Virginia Tech already faces parking issues, the master plan's strategy of building future structures in existing parking lots will require the construction of up to six parking garages across campus (see page 15 for locations). Since there are currently 20,000 registered cars on campus and only 14,000 parking spaces, some of which will be removed to add the garages, Krause points out that there will never be a one-car-to-one-space ratio. "We as a university society need to not be as reliant on cars but on alternative means of transportation, such as walking, taking the bus, or biking."

One leap in that direction will be the university's new transit center, which will be located at the planned parking garage on Perry Street. The center will be built in partnership with the Town of Blacksburg, which will seek 80 percent of the building costs in federal grants and will fund the rest, while the university will provide the land and the expertise to construct and maintain the center. The end result will be a multilevel transit center that provides not only another commuter parking lot but also central bus-loading zones--a move that will remove buses from Drillfield Drive.

The new transit center and the focus on encouraging alternative modes of transportation clearly support aspects of the strategic plan, McNamee says. "We'd love to have greener buildings, a pedestrian-friendly campus. We'd like the campus to be a living laboratory for energy sustainability and social transformation."

In keeping with the plan's environmentally friendly tone, many of the new buildings will be designed with green-certification standards in mind. And some plans take those standards a step further. A portion of the new life science building, for example, will literally have a green roof--the project now under construction includes a roof with a vegetated section. "Not only will it be interesting architecturally, but it will also allow our faculty to put some of their research on a vegetated roof," Krause comments.

Alumni can come home again
Although the Virginia Tech campus will experience a metamorphosis over the next several years, Krause points out that "the face of the campus--the texture, the feel, the sense of welcoming--will not change."
The Inn at Virginia Tech

One example of the plan's desire to maintain the old while embracing the new is evidenced in the renovation plans for Davidson Hall. The labs in Davidson have remained unchanged for decades, and since the Chemistry/Physics Building has replaced the outdated teaching labs in Davidson, there is an opportunity to radically change the hall while retaining the best aspects of it. Although he master plan indicates that the middle section of the building will be razed and rebuilt into a state-of-the-art research environment, the front portion that faces the Drillfield will be touched up, keeping its historic look intact. "You'll be seeing the same façade of Davidson that you always have," Krause says.

"When I talk to alumni," he continues, "they're impressed with the growth they've seen so far and they feel that we still have that inviting sense of welcome. We're not going to make this a mammoth, 50,000-person university. We plan to maintain the same feel we've always had. We're just going to move the campus into the future."

All of Virginia Tech’s planned changes come at what Ellen Plummer, special assistant to the provost overseeing the strategic-planning process and director of the Women's Center, calls "an interesting time in institutional history." Plummer is referring to the university's charter-restructuring initiative (see News & Research, Spring 2005 issue) and such outside factors as competition in higher education at home and abroad, and a rapidly changing and increasingly technology-based society.

The goal of the strategic plan, she adds, is to articulate exactly what Virginia Tech is--and what it isn't. Both the strategic and master campus plan updates address the issues facing the Virginia Tech of today to create the Virginia Tech of tomorrow, and the next several years hold the promise of an exciting transformation for the university. In other words, it's a great time to be a Hokie.

To learn more about the 2006-12 Strategic Plan Update, go to For more on the 2006 update to the Campus Master Plan, go to

Virginia Tech