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Virginia Tech President Charles Steger Reflects

After more than 14 years as President of Virginia Tech, Charles Steger is handing the reigns over to his successor, Timothy Sands who hails from Purdue.

During his tenure, Steger led the largest building boom ever seen at the school, and expanded its presence beyond Blacksburg to Roanoke, the National Capital, Europe, Asia and beyond.

To paraphrase a familiar line about the presidency; you might say that any Virginia Tech Freshman could go on to become President of the university. That’s what happened for outgoing President Charles Steger.  In many ways, his own life has paralleled that of the university he led for more than 14 years.  Steger grew up in Richmond and came to Virginia Tech in 1965 as a freshman with an interest in Architecture.

 “Many people have asked me ‘how has studying architecture equipped you to be president of a major university?’  And I have to say I used the creative tools and innovative thinking that design education develops in an individual. I use it every day.  You deal with problems, they are present in design education but they’re present everywhere in society where you have problem sets with large numbers of variables where you have high uncertainty where there’s never enough time or information to make a decision and you have to develop the capacity to recognize patterns of association and be able to reason through that in very short periods of time and come up with innovative solution s which are not necessarily ones which would follow the logical path might not follow the logical path. And I do that in areas that range from budgets to organizational culture to everything else and it’s been a great asset to me," he said.

It’s perhaps no surprise that the architecture Dean would go on to change the physical look of the university with more new, state of the art buildings than it had ever added in its history-- more than 3 million square feet of space, including the first environmentally sustainable structures which have earned LEED status.

Now one of the top research universities in the country, under President Steger’s tenure total research expenditures rose from $192 million dollars to more than $450 million. And those are not the only costs, which have gone up.

“Higher education is increasingly expensive. To me, providing access to education for individuals from all walks of life is the building block of Democracy. And we want to be sure that the young people who have the motivation and ability can have that can of social mobility that inspires them and others to lead this country in the future. And the minute we prevent people from coming to major universities because they don’t have the money I think is a tragic strategic error for society."

One lesson everyone at Virginia Tech learned is that tragedy can strike anywhere.  The April 2007 mass shooting still haunts him. 32 students and faculty were killed before the gunman committed suicide.

"Well I think because of what happened here is far better prepared to cope with you know we’ve seen these things over and over again.  But it does cause concern when we look at the stress the students are under, we look at the things that trigger this kind of behavior and whether or not we understand enough about it to be able to intervene in a proactive way to prevent, if we can, these things from happening in the future. I don’t’ know if that’s really possible. But we’re going to see these events, they seem to be growing in number rather than declining and it’s areal concern to me that our society is stressed to a level that these kind of phenomena continue to occur."

Perhaps one antidote may be to take the university motto to heart – Ut Prosim – "that I may serve."

“If you look at every major religion in the world the giving of oneself and being able to relate to the emotions and tragedies in other peoples’ lives and doing what you can, it doesn’t mean you can solve the worlds problems, but giving of one self is the most rewarding experiences and there are many people who go their whole lives --and I look at some of the great fortunes and I look at what many of them have done, the Fords and Rockefellers and all those folks, they've changed society by giving away what most they had and  there are others who don't’ realize the benefit of giving to society, but obviously we don't have those fortune to give away but I think each person can make a decision to contribute in a way that they can help to weave the fabric of the community and it makes everybody stronger as a result."


Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.
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