A Transformative Presidency

by Larry Hincker '72, M.B.A. '94

An era is coming to a close. Elsewhere in this publication you will read of the many outstanding contributions made by President Charles W. Steger, who will soon step down after about 14 years as president. (He will serve until his successor is appointed and takes office.) After Steger's 40-plus-year career that began as a student in 1965, his plaudits are numerous, striking, and transformative.

Instead of recounting his many successes, I will reflect on the man. I've known Charles for about a quarter-century and worked directly for him for 20 years. In my role I've had the opportunity to help him tell the story of Virginia Tech in myriad ways. While helping to shape the message, one gets a sense of a person's style and persona.

Steger has an uncanny ability to see over the horizon to craft a strategy for the university. One case in point was state support for higher education. While still a vice president in the '90s, Steger sensed and understood the coming fiscal problems for the commonwealth; Virginia would not or could not continue its historical financial support of higher education. The university would need to develop alternative business models and different funding streams. We would need to expand our public and private partnerships to leverage the assets of each partner. He also recognized the need to improve our university's reputation for top-quality academics and championed our efforts to grow our brand nationally and internationally.

Visitors to Steger's office almost immediately come to understand and appreciate his polished style and courtly demeanor. In another era, he might be dubbed a southern gentleman. In all my years with him, I rarely heard him raise his voice. Yet beneath this calm and friendly deportment is a person with a steely resolve to reach an end point. Whether it was enduring two major financial catastrophes (including a 25 percent loss of state funding over two years) or the dark days that began in April 2007, Steger always knew where the university needed to go. And he kept the institution on track.

Of all the attributes assigned to Charles Steger, I most often hear him hailed as a visionary. I agree. Moving and pointing a large research university is akin to turning an aircraft carrier. Yet throughout his presidency, we adopted and followed three strategic plans, all related and quite functional.

Like most good leaders, Steger listened. He tried to understand all sides of an issue. He labored over tough decisions. In the end, though, he focused and focused again on what was best for the university and its many stakeholders—and then not only did he stick by the plan, he made it happen. Anyone who has worked in large bureaucratic organizations knows of institutional inertia, but he pushed and pushed until the vision became reality.

Today, the successes are too numerous to recount in this small space: new classrooms, increased enrollment, the brightest students in our history, the doubling of research dollars, a new medical school, membership in the Atlantic Coast Conference, a new Center for the Arts, a successful billion-dollar fundraising campaign, a European campus, and dozens of new buildings … and the list goes on.

Charles Steger likely will be remembered among the best Virginia Tech presidents, right up there with John McBryde, Julian Burruss, and T. Marshall Hahn. If he is, the honored position might be a result of that rare combination in a leader—one with vision and managerial skill coupled with the attributes of a gentleman and an all-around nice guy.

Larry Hincker (M.B.A. '94), Class of 1972, associate vice president for University Relations, is responsible for all university-wide communications programs.

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