From within an expansive mural entitled "The Spirit of the LandGrant College," Abraham Lincoln presides over the stream of students who pass through Purdue University's Stewart Center.
In Lincoln's hands is a document whose significance anchors the expansive piece: the Morrill Land-Grant Act. The mural's scenes tell the story of the establishment of land-grant colleges and the impact of higher education on American society.
Like Virginia Tech, Purdue University evolved as the premier land-grant institution in its state, historically specializing in disciplines such as engineering. The parallels between the peer institutions are many, and in many instances—from enrollment and rankings to research funding and endowment market value—Virginia Tech may well want to look to Purdue's lofty numbers for inspiration and motivation.
Ask around at Purdue, and you'll begin to uncover those parallels. Ask around some more, and you'll begin to understand why Purdue Provost Timothy D. Sands, after a dozen years at an ideal training ground, was tapped to become the 16th president of Virginia Tech.
"When [Tim] told me he was looking at Virginia Tech, I thought, 'Well, that's a great fit,'" said Vic Lechtenberg, special assistant to the Purdue president and former vice provost for engagement, whom Sands regards as a mentor and credits with instilling in him the values of a land-grant institution. "It's an institution that's a lot like Purdue."
As the presidential search unfolded in Blacksburg, the search committee and Virginia Tech Board of Visitors (BOV) felt the same. "Dr. Sands impressed many from the start and garnered even more support after our personal interviews," said Mike Quillen (civil engineering '70, M.S. '71), BOV rector, in a statement released at the Dec. 6 press conference announcing the selection. "He has stellar academic credentials and administrative experience from some of the nation's outstanding land-grant and public research universities. We were particularly impressed with Tim's sense of the modern research university's role in advancing American society and its economy."
On an unseasonably warm mid-March day, in West Lafayette, Ind., Laura Sands paused in front of the academic building where her husband spent his early years on Purdue's campus. Gesturing toward the Engineering Fountain, a 38-foot monument in front of Hovde Hall, the main administration building, she explained that Purdue students run through the fountain before graduation.
From his office window in Hovde Hall, Timothy Sands—who will become the third consecutive Purdue provost to "graduate" into a university presidency—has an iconic view of the fountain and the Engineering Mall, a view that will soon be replaced by Burruss Hall windows framing the Drillfield. The transition is now in full swing. In mid-March, the incoming president had recently returned from Virginia Tech's National Capitol Region on his third orientation visit (a total of seven or eight are planned before he takes office on June 1).
The Sandses' first orientation visit was in late January. They thought they had flown away from Indiana's brutal winter, only to spend their first day in a Blacksburg snow storm. In a jam-packed, five-day schedule, Timothy Sands was shuttled across campus for briefings that ranged from information-technology initiatives and research computing to development efforts and enrollment management. Meanwhile, Laura Sands, the Katherine Birck Professor of Nursing at Purdue, met with faculty members in Virginia Tech's Department of Human Development, of which she'll be a part, and interacted with a number of others.
Timothy Sands said the orientation sessions were more about getting to know the people and the issues than remembering specific facts. By the time he takes office, Sands expects to have an understanding of where Virginia Tech wishes to go. And the sessions, spaced out over the weeks and month, allow the Sandses time to digest an onslaught of new information.
Amid the beginning of a new chapter at Virginia Tech, the end of Sands' time at Purdue coincides with the usual hectic schedule for the provost: a busy spring semester, 25 direct reports, a speaking engagement per day, a search for a new provost—and packing. "I'm starting to be panicked about packing. Have I started? No, I haven't," Sands said with a laugh as he looked around his office.
Two office mementos are certainly on his packing list: pictures of his grandfather, a researcher at International Nickel. One depicts him looking into a metallurgical furnace, and the other shows him in front of his lab. "It's the 1915 or 1920 version of what I do today," said Sands, who applies physical metallurgy principles to research in electronic materials. "Looking back on that history is something I like to do."
Born in San Francisco, Sands grew up in East Bay and Hayward, Calif., nestled between San Jose and Oakland. His parents still live in the same house, and his younger siblings—a brother and a sister—both live in the Bay Area. As a youngster interested in art and science, Sands considered himself a "budding naturalist." "I spent most of my free time outdoors," he said. "If I had a chance to hop on my bike and ride 15 miles to the local marsh, I'd get up at a ridiculous hour and do that."
As he approached his college years, his knack for building things pushed him toward engineering. Enrolling at the University of California, Berkeley, Sands soon found that he truly enjoyed his math and science courses, and he pursued a bachelor's degree in engineering physics.
By way of a combination of scholarships and jobs, Sands paid his way through college. One of those jobs was as a house boy at a sorority, handling maintenance, repairs, and the like. As Laura Sands tells it, he was comfortable taking the job because he knew the women in the sorority and felt they weren't on his radar for anything beyond friendships. "And then I moved in," she said with a grin. "That wasn't part of his plan." Sharing similar interests, from jogging on the same trails around Berkeley to playing on the same intramural softball team, they found that their paths continued to cross, and they were married in the fall of 1981.
By then, Timothy Sands was studying materials science and engineering on the graduate level, motivated by a driving interest in photovoltaics and inspired by an undergraduate summer internship at the Solar Energy Research Institute in Golden, Colo., now known as the National Renewable Energy Lab. He finished a master's degree and Ph.D. at Berkeley.
Following several years as a fellow at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Sands joined Bell Communications Research Inc. (Bellcore) in Red Bank, N.J., as a member of the technical staff and later as a research group director. There, one of his earliest and most influential mentors was Vassilis Keramidas, a division manager who oversaw about 50 scientists. The team had a service role toward other Bellcore groups, and Keramidas asked his team to balance that service with leadership. "[That] balance between leading and supporting is something that I will always remember, and I always apply it," Sands said. "If you have that balance, everyone's on the same level."
Sands recognized a common denominator among his mentors over the years. "I think they're all true to themselves and honest. That has certainly shaped the way I approach problems and the way I approach people."
Honesty and approachability are characteristics Sands possesses that will translate well to a presidency—those and overriding calmness, said David J. Williams, president of the Purdue University Senate and a professor of medical illustration. For decades, and to no avail, the faculty at Purdue had sought to place a faculty member on the university's governing body, the Board of Trustees. In February, the board voted to add a faculty member to its academic affairs committee as a non-voting, ex-officio member, thanks in part to Sands' "low-key, quiet" work behind the scenes, Williams said. "He was always so calm. 'Don't worry. I'm talking with [the board].' He would just say, 'This is going to happen.'"
Sands has been drawn to the leadership styles of various university presidents he's observed, beginning with Chang-Lin Tien, the Berkeley chancellor from 1990-97 (Sands returned to Berkeley as a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in 1993). Ever present at university events, Tien maintained his research group and was an energetic fundraiser, Sands said. "The one thing I've learned is there's no one style that works. You have to be yourself. You can't try to be like someone else. But you do pick up from each of those individuals traits and approaches that work."
Sands values three leadership traits. "One of the most important things is being efficient at what you put energy into. There are 100 things that come across your desk as a provost or a president, and you just can't do them all."
"Communicating more than you think you have to communicate" is the second key trait Sands has adopted, and "staying healthy and not pushing yourself to the brink all the time" is the third. At Virginia Tech, Sands plans to continue his regimen of early-morning pick-up basketball, and he and Laura—both raised around the California mountains—are thrilled to begin exploring the natural beauty of Southwest Virginia.
Five Ph.D. students gathered in Birck Nanotechnology Center on a Tuesday afternoon in March, awaiting Timothy Sands, their faculty advisor. Home to one of the largest academic clean-room nanotechnology facilities in the world, Birck is the largest of 10 centers in Discovery Park, a hub that houses Purdue's large-scale interdisciplinary research efforts.
About 12 years ago, Purdue came knocking as the university sought to bolster its nanotechnology capabilities, and the Sandses left California. In 2006, Sands was named director of Birck, which opened in July 2005. He was charged with transforming it into a smoothly operating research institute, defining and guiding its strategic vision, and building a community of researchers. Today, approximately 150 affiliated faculty members and 200 graduate students call Birck home.
Whether or not Sands' students fully understood the role that their mentor had played in the creation of the center in which they sat, they laughed out loud to hear him described as an "administrator." To them, he's their reference point, their sounding board, for all things nano-tech.
As a listener, Sands tends to lean back in his chair, relaxed, shifting his weight onto his left elbow and armrest. He clasps his hands and maintains eye contact, offering the speaker frequent "mm-hmm" affirmations. "He's a phenomenal listener. He has probably the best active listening skills that I've ever seen," said Morgan Burke, the long-time Purdue athletic director who has worked alongside Sands in the president's cabinet and under Sands when the provost served as acting president. "Even if he's not really enthused about the conversation, you won't know it. I think that's a beautiful trait."
Opening the research group discussion, Bivas Saha, a Ph.D. student in materials engineering examining the growth, characterization, and plasmonic and thermoelectric applications of nitride metal/semiconductor superlattices, presented his most recent findings to Sands. As Saha spoke, Sands teased out the significance of an unexpected spike in the data and referred back to literature on the topic, grounding the students in what was known and how to prioritize the next steps. Sands encouraged Saha, saying that the student's findings likely represented a significant addition to the field's base of knowledge.
Sands clearly cherishes his time with students, a feeling reinforced when he reentered the academic world after Bellcore. "It's great to be on the frontlines of discovery. It's great to build things that people can use. But in the end, the main reason you're doing this is to bring the next generation along. And that cannot be replaced. That's something that's very special," he said.
Initially, Sands thought he would have give up a research group to take on a presidency, but his early conversations with Virginia Tech's nanotechnology experts have him reconsidering. "I still think it'll be a challenge, but I am going to try to stay in touch with my field."
Sands brought an industrial mentality to his role as director of Birck. At the time he left Bellcore, the CEO there emphasized that he wanted the researchers to be "market-savvy technologists," and it's a descriptor Sands has embraced: When discoveries have practical applications, pursue those applications. "A lot of institutions do … either problem-inspired research or curiosity-driven research. What I see at Virginia Tech is a great blend of the two," he said.
Sands' experience with Birck reinforced the human element of research and how to create an environment for interaction among disciplines. "One of the successes of Discovery Park was getting faculty and students from 12 different disciplines together in the same building," he said. "You see them create new ideas, new research directions, just by bouncing into each other."
Sands also found that graduate students, eyes wide open, are more willing to cross disciplines, whereas faculty members may worry about treading on another person's area. "Usually [the student interaction] was the ignition point for something new," Sands said.
Mixing disciplines is at the forefront of the incoming president's mind. Said Sands, "I typically find myself reading books about science and entrepreneurship and connecting them to other fields in the humanities and the arts—which actually is interesting because that's the way I see Virginia Tech. It's very well connected between the disciplines."
Sands' ability to unite people has lived on in the Birck center, said Al Rebar, the senior associate vice president for research and executive director of Discovery Park, who hired Sands into the director's role. "I think his greatest contribution to Birck without a doubt was not so much a tangible research focus as creating a community of researchers who were able to work together unselfishly," Rebar said. "And he's a consensus builder. He brings people together; he's able to lead discussions rather than arguments. I think he's very good at diffusing emotions with good common sense."
When problems arose at Birck, whether in research direction or personnel, Sands relied on an analytic approach. "The first thing he'll do is take a step back rather than react," said Rebar. "He'll analyze and redirect. He won't shoot from the hip. And at the same time, he's not overly careful. His legacy is that he builds confidence—you have confidence that this is a person you can follow."
The interdisciplinary collaboration, similar to the path pursued by Virginia Tech, has yielded tremendous growth in research dollars for Purdue. Rebar and Sands have been a part of a paradigm shift from single-investigator to multiple-investigator research grants. "Honestly, I think he'd tell you if you asked him why he came to Purdue, he saw that that was in the cards," Rebar said of Sands.
Sands' performance at Birck paid dividends. "That's really what gave him, frankly, the visibility and the credentials to be considered as a provost," said Lechtenberg, the special assistant to the president who reported to Sands as vice provost for engagement.
Sands can sit atop an organization and see all of its inflection points. "He has the ability to conceptualize what appear to be different issues, different concepts, and all of a sudden say, 'Wait a minute, those four things in different quadrants of the university all connect; there's a synergy there. Does anybody notice that?' He'll do that a lot," said Burke, the athletic director.
Dale Whittaker, Purdue's vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs, noticed certain qualities in Sands' questioning and feedback. He has a "driving curiosity, and he's totally unpoliticized," Whittaker said. "When he asks a question, there is no second agenda behind it. It's a scientific question."
Added Laurel Weldon, Purdue's interim vice provost for faculty affairs, "You don't feel like he's driving his agenda, even when he is driving his agenda. When you work with some people, you feel like they have a lot of ego invested, and it's hard to communicate with them. You can't critique their idea. I just never even think about that at all [with Sands]."
Weldon said Sands offers "constructive and empowering feedback without squelching your idea. He never says just 'no.'"
"He also almost never says 'yes,'" Whittaker added. "And what I mean by that is you always get a balanced view from him. He'll always support what he sees as the positives and bring up the what-ifs or the risks, and it's in a very diagnostic way."
Describing Sands as "fact-driven," Burke said he always shared data with the acting president ahead of their regular meetings. "Particularly if there were spreadsheets, he'd remember the direction of the numbers and what it meant, and that [condensed] what might be a 20-minute conversation [into five minutes]. ... I didn't have to repeat things. A month went by, and I came back to a topic and," Burke said, snapping his fingers, "he'd remember what we talked about."
In his time as provost, Sands led efforts to elevate student success that enhanced retention and graduation rates, initiated a move toward year-round use of facilities, led development of the university's first comprehensive assessment of all degree-granting programs, and launched an online teaching and learning platform that emphasizes interactive, computation- and simulation-rich learning environments. True to form, Sands' demeanor made politically sensitive topics—such as year-round teaching and the assessment program—manageable. "Whenever you embark on something like that," Rebar said of the assessment program, "obviously that's controversial. To be able to do that without causing a lot of friction within the university I think was a major accomplishment."
Sands had been the provost for a couple of years when the search began for former Purdue president France Cordova's replacement, and for the first time it occurred to the Sandses that a presidency was a possible next step. Then the Board of Trustees asked him to serve as acting president from July 2012 to early January 2013, until President Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. finished his term as Indiana governor. In the role, the Sandses "realized that we could have impact beyond our regular jobs in a role that was really rewarding," Sands said.
Whereas the provost dealt more with internal audiences, they found the president's role to be outward-facing—and they really enjoyed it. Said Lechtenberg, "Both Tim and Laura are both very focused on others [and] what they can do to help the institution. He was very good at working with alumni, meeting with people, meeting with political leaders, and working with the external elements of the university."
Meanwhile, serving as acting president rounded out Sands' professional credentials, giving him broader experience in the areas in which he had not had as much exposure—namely, fundraising, alumni relations, and athletics. Lechtenberg said Sands "became much more stump-comfortable" as a provost and then acting president, able to relate to all sorts of audiences.
On the athletics front, Sands was fully engaged, from thriving in the pace of a home football weekend to working with Burke to replace a football coach. Burke noted that Virginia Tech and Purdue have similar attitudes toward the academic side of "student-athlete." "We take [academics] pretty seriously, and he likes that," Burke said.
After returning to the provost's role, Sands led a study to develop a 10-year funding forecast for the university, allowing him to scrutinize the institution in its financial totality. "I think what it did is it showed him the overall blueprint," Burke said. "The 10-year plan exposed him to different aspects of the university from a cost-benefit ratio and then acting [as] president kind of rounded him out with these external functions.
"If you were to draw up a training plan … it wasn't done by design, but it turned out to be pretty effective," Burke said.
Sands' stint as acting president gave him an extra measure of visibility. "People warned me," Sands said. "They said, 'Now that you've done this, search firms are going to come after you.' It happened a few months after I came back to the provost's position. … I remember getting a call from someone representing Virginia Tech, and that's where things started clicking."
When he was introduced to the Virginia Tech community and members of the media at a press conference on Dec. 6, Sands got a laugh when he said the driving tour of campus during the secretive interview process—hiding him in a "tinted-window vehicle"—obscured how beautiful the campus was.
Sands' intuition and insight into Virginia Tech was by no means obscured, however. At the press conference, he said that as he consulted with close friends and family members in order to make a decision, he found that the university's aims were resonant with his values and experiences.
Sands was drawn to the purpose of the land-grant institution as first expressed in the 1862 Morrill Act: to prepare citizens from all classes of society to be active participants in our democracy and to prepare students to perform research and engage the community in order to advance economic prosperity. "Nothing's really changed," Sands said. "It's as relevant today as it was back in the 1860s."
In championing those aims, Sands said, Virginia Tech took an unusual track. "Matter of fact, I only count six or seven institutions that went this route—and that was to maintain the strength of the engineering and science disciplines but to carefully balance them with the arts, the social sciences, and the humanities. If you really think back to the Morrill Act, you've got to achieve that balance. A lot of institutions really strayed along the way, at least in my view, maybe going one way or the other. Virginia Tech maintained that balance, and we're very well positioned.
"If you look at what is needed in the community, what's needed in the commonwealth, what's needed in the nation, and also what the world needs, Virginia Tech is the kind of institution that you would create today for the 21st century. And I don't say that lightly. … When I look at Virginia Tech, I see the image of an institution that is exactly what is needed now."
The Virginia Tech community may say the same thing about its new president.
Produced by University Relations