President's Message

Torgersen bridge

Research and the academy

by Charles Steger '69

Learning takes place fundamentally in two different ways: 1) through the transmission of knowledge through the canon, a generally accepted body of information; 2) through the discovery of new truths through scholarship and experi-mentation. The former is the basis for our instructional enterprise, the way we pass on our culture and train the professionals of tomorrow. The latter expands our understanding of our world and satisfies our uniquely human curiosity. Today, academic research also undergirds the new economy.

For these and many other reasons, we have endeavored to bolster and improve Virginia Tech's research enterprise. The Commonwealth of Virginia has recently entered the discussion. The State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) recently released a report, "The Condition of Research at Virginia Colleges and Universities." It is gratifying to see renewed interest at the state policy level on this key function of the academy. Unfortunately, the report was not flattering for the commonwealth. Basically, it found that across the state, Virginia's academic research lags behind research powerhouses such as California, Michigan, and New York. Only two of Virginia's state universities were among the top 100 research institutions--Virginia Tech at 51 and the University of Virginia at 58. (Tech has been in the top 50 for 16 of the past 18 years.)

For those interested in the arcane of public policy, I commend to you the report available at However, in my mind, here is the key recommendation: "If Virginia seeks to advance its research agenda, it will need to develop strategies that promote a more conducive environment for research and strategically invest its resources--monetary, human, and physical--into strengthening the quality, effectiveness, and productivity of our academic research programs."

In today's information-driven economies, academic research is the lifeblood of new businesses, new tech-nologies, and new ideas about the world around us. The SCHEV report goes on to say, "Without a strong R&D effort, Virginia undoubtedly will limit its ability to advance the state's economic development and improve the well-being of its citizens."

We applaud Virginia leadership for beginning the exploration of how to better fuel the academic research engine. We will need to make major selected investments to achieve excellence. While all univ-ersities make valuable contributions to the state, only a very limited number of institutions can carry out a major research mission.

States similar to ours usually designate one, two, or possibly, three schools as flagship institutions with a comprehensive research mission. Why does it matter? For a few reasons: 1) research universities are expensive--Ph.D. programs are personnel intensive, and science and technology programs require expensive labs and support personnel; 2) a university needs a critical mass of personnel across many disciplines to collaborate; 3) concentrating excellence in a few universities enables world-caliber competition.

Virginia colleges and universities have an enviable reputation for academic excellence, due in part to their auto-nomous governance over the years. The commonwealth now proposes to undertake a more strategic (and presumably centralized) funding policy for research. We agree. However, a realistic assumption based on facts must be made to assess which schools have the potential to reach the top ranks of research universities.