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President Torgersen's Founders Day Remarks

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 30 - May 2, 1996

(Editor's note: The following remarks were presented by President Paul Torgersen at the Founders Day convocation April 19.)

Let me begin by offering congratulations to our distinguished students, faculty, staff, and alumni. These people are the essence of the university.

Today is a celebration of our university's founding; I ask your indulgence while I review a bit of history. Reflecting on the past enables us to focus on the future. And before I conclude this afternoon, I intend to share with you a modest proposal for the future.

We are in the business of education. That statement contains no surprises. In a few weeks we will celebrate Commencement. Graduates will depart with an "education." What does that imply? We believe an educated person should be able to think and write clearly and effectively. He or she should have an appreciation of the ways we gain knowledge and an understanding of society and ourselves. A university graduate should appreciate other cultures and other times and also be expected to have some understanding of, and experience in, thinking about moral and ethical problems.

And we also assume, particularly at an institution such as ours, that a college education can and should prepare a graduate for a job and a career.

We recognize the modern American university is deeply intertwined with the needs of commerce and society.

This last assumption was not always true. Harvard was founded to provide a steady supply of candidates for the parsonage, but until the middle years of the last century, higher education did not have a vocational component. It was also reserved for the well-to-do. But in 1862, the Morrill Land-Grant Act dramatically changed not only the content of higher education, but the nation's destiny. The "A&M College" was a radical concept. First, it was intended for the common people--the sons and daughters of working men and women and youngsters off the farm. Matching the clientele, course work focused on agronomy, as well as art history. On civil engineering as well as civics. Lastly...and this is the unique nature of land-grant colleges...the creation and application of knowledge was intended to be used, to be disseminated, to be transmitted to all of society.

The explosion of knowledge, expansion of opportunity and improvement in the quality of living for Americans in the first half of the twentieth century is partially the result of this novel concept--the land-grant college. Research findings were taken off the campus and hand-delivered to farms, homes, and work places of ordinary citizens.

One extraordinary result is the formidable feeding machine of U.S. agriculture--one of the most productive enterprises on the planet. In addition, roads and bridges were built and banks and industrial complexes were developed by A&M graduates.

So much for history.

Today we have heard the call for universities to be more closely coupled with forces within the community--to develop local economies, to attract new businesses, or to help those already here to remain competitive. Virginia Tech is already doing this and we plan to do more: in a few weeks we will formally announce the formation of the Virginia Tech Economic Development Council.

Recently we have also heard another call--colleges and universities need to pay attention to the costs of education.

We have restructured; we have effected economies and placed more resources in the laboratory and in the classroom. We are a lean institution.

Finally, we have been asked to examine the relevance and the currency of our curricula....the process of education. We may teach, but do we teach the right topics and do we teach them well? Are our laboratories current? What of our library holdings?

W. Edwards Deming taught us something about measuring quality and improving quality through a systems approach. He spoke of customer expectations and customer satisfaction. The academy has long used professional societies for curricula evaluations. Accreditation agencies link academics with working professionals to ensure the applicability and utility of the curriculum. This is very helpful.

But we need to do more. At Virginia Tech we are doing more.

Over the past decade we have established advisory boards for our colleges and often for departments and research centers. These boards consist of alumni and potential employers of graduates. More recently, we have also put into place a formal five-year assessment program for each undergraduate degree program. More about each assessment program in a moment. But these, when coupled with a university-level representative committee meeting with the provost and the president, will constitute our analogue of Edwards Deming's systems approach.

At the college and department level we have no fewer than 33 advisory boards--most research centers also have advisory bodies.

In Human Resources, for example, advisories exist for every department ranging from interior design, to family and child development, to hospitality and tourism management. These bodies draw membership from throughout their respective constituencies--industry, government, trade organizations, trade media, and academe.

Over the years, these feedback loops have considerably modified our direction. Degree programs and curricula have been shaped by advice provided to the faculty. In Agriculture and Life Sciences, we were proud of the fact that our graduates possessed considerable computer skills.

But our advisory boards suggested we also focus on business-related computer skills such as financial worksheets and we responded.

The accounting department's advisory board suggested that we consider an information systems option for accounting grads, because they knew from experience that MIS (the Management Information Systems double major) was an important component of the job. We have no problem finding jobs for these graduates.

For as long as I can remember, we have required English Composition--the required writing course. But that was not enough. In recent years, we have experimented with "writing around the curriculum." Still, our Engineering advisory boards suggested that skills in traditional prose or memo writing were not enough. Now each department also focuses on its own unique requirements--civil engineers, for example, must be able to write detailed bidding specifications; in ESM it is important to perfect the experimenter's notebook for possible patent protection. And in accounting, again--students must know how to write an opinion after an audit.

Through the Parent's Council, which advises the Dean of Student's Office, we have responded to the great concern of parents today for safety on campus and in the dorms. One baby-boomer-aged mother even suggested a return to curfews in the residence halls. That irony is not lost on us--after all it was the boomer generation that demanded removal of such restrictions some 20 to 25 years ago. Now she has a daughter of her own.

The university has been successful in bringing onto these boards alumni and others of significant stature. For example, Jim George, vice president of Motorola, and a party to the Motorola location in Richmond serves on the Electrical Engineering Advisory Board. Bob Delano, formerly national president of the American Farm Bureau and now also on the Board of Visitors, is on several agriculture advisory boards. And Joe Jenkins, chief financial officer of Heilig Meyers Corporation and now on the Board of Visitors, began with us on the Department of Accounting Board.

In addition to the mandatory self-assessment required of each department every five years...and in addition to the feedback, advice, and guidance from the 18 various accrediting bodies with oversight of components of the university...these boards and councils are a tremendous help. They are links to the worlds for which we prepare our students.

Now I propose taking all this one step further. These existing advisory boards are invaluable to the individual departments and colleges they serve. But there is not a university-wide view of these issues, and little cross-college communication at the advisory board level. I believe that the whole of the university is greater than the sum of its parts and the provost and the president can also greatly benefit from an advisory body. So we plan to form a University Advisory Council by asking each dean to appoint at least one representative from each college committee and possibly some department boards. Thus, we hope to personally communicate with those helping guide departments and colleges...from the school superintendent to the farm manager, to an architect and accountant, to a geologist or veterinarian. And, more important, we plan to listen.

This link can provide valuable cross-fertilization of ideas. It will be advisory in nature, sharing with the provost and president their thoughts and feedback concerning collegiate initiatives, successes and problems, or reports from their disciplines or industries. We in turn will share proposals for significant changes in operations, issues of regional or national concern for higher education, departmental-assessment reports, accreditation reports, or major new programs. We will benefit, I believe, from bringing together the enormous experience and wisdom to be found in the many advisory boards we have developed over the years.

Revolutions in communication technology are rapidly permeating and transforming our country. But these can never replace good old- fashioned talking to each other one-on-one. What I propose will be the glue that ties together a very extensive, but diffused system of quality control existing across the university to ensure the relevance of degree programs and curriculum for our student body. We will have our first meeting this fall.

I am excited about this initiative as I have been excited throughout my three decade career at Virginia Tech for the future of this great university.

Thank you.