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Do Core Values Reflect the University?

By David A. de Wolf, electrical engineering

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 23 - March 13, 1997

Nineteen different focus groups with more than 200 people collaborated somewhat more than a year ago in producing a set of "core values" at Virginia Tech that cause me to wonder at the usefulness of the exercise. The five main values arrived at are, common bond, diversity, education of the whole person, excellence, and service. Of these, only the third and the fifth have any connection to missions of Virginia Tech: teaching, and service, and none of these refers at all to the third mission: research.

It appears to me that there is wide-spread confusion about our values as members of society and our values as a university community. Common bond and diversity are matters of significance to ALL segments of society; moreover, they are polar opposites, each of which dilutes the apparent effectiveness of the other by being mentioned in the same context. Excellence, while laudable, is an attribute to which everyone strives in any activity undertaken. To those who disagree, I would say: who is going to claim mediocrity as his or her core value?

It is not useful to argue further; too many man/woman hours have gone into this already. Our activities and values concern knowledge: the collecting, preserving, disseminating and increasing of it. Here follow several statements that I deem to be much more characteristic of Virginia Tech as a university and that I would prefer to see in the place of the above core values:

1. Imparting knowledge is the backbone of Virginia Tech's activities, and one it shares with all institutions of learning. The university commits itself to teaching to students current and past human knowledge in science and technology, in arts and humanities, practical applications of our knowledge, and-to whatever extent society around us deems it useful-other and newer forms of human endeavor. Virginia Tech commits itself to doing so as effectively as possible with whatever tools that enhance effectiveness.

2. Preserving knowledge is a specific responsibility of the university. No other institution in society has undertaken the systematic recording, storage, and making available of the collected wisdom of generations of human endeavor. Virginia Tech commits itself to continue, within the bounds of its resources, to collect, categorize, and store the status as well as the historical development of our knowledge in the arts, sciences, technology, and all other areas of human endeavor relevant to activities at the university.

3. Increasing knowledge is the most difficult and responsible task of a research university which Virginia Tech aspires to be. Virginia Tech commits itself to conduct research first and foremost in selected areas of excellence, and further in all other areas of its intellectual activities within the bounds of available resources. The main purposes of such research shall be to further the state of human knowledge and to develop applications of such knowledge that are useful to society.

4. Knowledge for service is a specific mission for a land-grant university such as Virginia Tech. The university commits itself to make every effort to put its expertise to use in serving the citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia. While traditionally that has been in the areas of agriculture and engineering, Virginia Tech will continue to value its position as a provider of expertise in all of the areas of its endeavors.

Some will argue that these are not "core values." Whether they are or not seems immaterial to me; the issue is that these statements reflect what we are about at Virginia Tech, and the core values I question do not.