If you live in our apartments in Blacksburg, VA then odds are you attend or know someone who attends Viginia Tech. Virginia Tech is a public university that seeks to be known as an engine of innovation. The incoming president of Virginia Tech holds 17 patents and was co-inventor of a laser process crucial for making white-light-emitting diodes.
When Timothy D. Sands takes office June 1 as the 16th president of what is formally known as Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, he will bring an inventor’s eye for unexpected breakthroughs to his job at a moment when higher education itself is being reinvented.
As a professor of materials science and engineering, first at the University of California at Berkeley and then at Purdue University in Indiana, Sands exhorted his students to keep careful notes and exploit “things that happen by the wayside” in a laboratory.
“The trick is not to leave it on the wayside, but to pick it up and do something with it,” Sands said in an interview here this month. “You don’t know which ones are going to be valuable.”
The same might well be true of experimentation in research and teaching at universities.
Sands, 56, is moving to Virginia Tech after serving as provost, or top academic officer, of a school similar in many ways: Purdue. Like Virginia Tech, Purdue is a public university founded in the 19th century after the Civil War with help from federal land grants. Both schools have strengths in engineering and research as well as comprehensive academic programs spanning the arts, business and social sciences.
Virginia Tech has many students and faculty who are itching to pursue interdisciplinary research as never before — think combining molecular biology with computer science, or economics with agriculture — and apply their findings to real-world problems. Often they spin off ideas into commercial, social or artistic ventures, a phenomenon gaining momentum in academia. The University of Maryland, under its president, Wallace D. Loh, also is a hotbed of academics-turned-entrepreneurs.
These trends raise questions about the operation of institutions steeped in tradition. How should colleges, schools and departments be organized? How should courses in various departments be numbered and sequenced to facilitate interdisciplinary study? How should junior faculty members be rated as they pursue tenure? Is an aspiring professor best judged through volume and impact of published scholarship? What if that young assistant professor uses research findings to launch a business — and therefore misses some deadlines for submitting an article to a scholarly journal?
Sands said a university president can’t dictate the answers.
“When you’re talking about promotion and tenure, it’s a very sensitive topic because the faculty own that,” he said. “It’s not something that can be administrated.”
He is careful to add that publication of peer-reviewed scholarship is “absolutely fundamental” in academia. But that doesn’t mean, he said, that patents and other signs of innovation and entrepreneurship should be ignored.
“They should be used as evidence of impact,” Sands said. “If you want to talk about impact, you’ve also got to look at how that work changes the marketplace, how it changes the technology, how does it enable people to do things they couldn’t do before.”
Sands is taking over a university comfortable with reinvention. With 31,000 students, Virginia Tech significantly expanded its campus and its research enterprises during the 14-year tenure of retiring President Charles W. Steger.
Named to the post in December, Sands has spent six months shuttling from West Lafayette, Ind., to Blacksburg to learn about his new job. His wife, Laura Sands, a nursing professor at Purdue, plans to continue her gerontology research at Virginia Tech. They have four grown children.