Spectrum Logo
A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

University Progress Highlighted

Remarks by President
Paul Torgersen
April 4, 1997

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 28 - April 17, 1997

As an institution, we are celebrating 125 years...not a bad birthday against a human calendar. But even after 125 years, we are a new institution compared to the European universities--some date back to the middle ages. Still, we have come a long way and as a member of a set of institutions--the Agricultural and Mechanical Colleges--have contributed significantly to the quality of living Americans enjoy today.

Our own origins were not promising of a bright future. Recall that this land-grant university rose from the ashes of post-Civil War reconstruction. When we were created, the commonwealth had been re-admitted to the union only two years earlier. Politics and government were a confusing mixture of Carpetbaggers and untested legislators. On occasion I remind myself of that reference as I leave for Richmond. There has been modest progress.

Across a period of a few years, no less than 24 Virginia colleges laid claim to the federal scrip which would be used to fund a land-grant college. Even the University of Virginia submitted a bid. And I suspect Thomas Jefferson would have approved of implements of agriculture on the grounds in Charlottesville...possibly not on the lawn, but certainly on the grounds.

Years of political wrangling ensued before a proposal from a little-known Methodist school in Blacksburg dropped onto the desks of legislators. Probably as a compromise, the impoverished Preston and Olin Institute became the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College--the commonwealth's land-grand college.

The new institutions were egalitarian. One didn't have to be well-to-do to consider college. They stressed practical education as well as the classics, agriculture as well as philosophy. And they offered a service that extended across the state.

Business graduates founded banks; engineers built railroads. But perhaps in agriculture, the contribution of these institutions was most impressive. In the course of human history, no problem has been more immediate for more people than that of hunger. Even today, hunger is the predominant concern of most of the world's population.

It is not, however, a concern for the vast majority of Americans who enjoy a relatively inexpensive food supply. In 1860 one farm worker fed four-and-a-half people. In 1960 one farm worker supported 26 people and today one U.S. farmer feeds more than 100 individuals. Today the American consumer spends less than 12 percent of disposable income on food, the lowest in the world. This is half of what it was just 50 years ago. And the agricultural-and-mechanical college system played a major role in all of this.

Virginia Tech has made its share of contributions. A vaccine was developed here that prevented New Castle disease and made possible the mass production of poultry. Genetic selection for growth--the work of Paul Siegel--further facilitated the commercial broiler. New pruning practices for apple trees have resulted in significant increases in yields. A new peanut variety has increased peanut production in Virginia. Approximately half of the soy beans and wheat grown in Virginia are cultivars developed by our experiment station.

Tech's commitment to agriculture has been a success story. So, too, has been the business graduate, Robert Pamplin, who founded the Georgia Pacific Corporation and who this morning announced the creation of the Pamplin Scholarship Program--placing in each and every public high school in Virginia a scholarship to attend Virginia Tech--a $7-million program, thereby underscoring a commitment of access for academically qualified Virginians.

The College of Engineering produced graduates...perhaps most noteworthy is the man we honor today with the Ruffner medal. Clifton Garvin retired 10 years ago as chairman of Exxon. Not bad for a student who worked his way through college as a plumber's helper at 19 cents an hour.

Being one hundred and twenty-five years young and perhaps feeling the need to be accountable to society, Tech has not been bound up in tradition such that change and progress have been impeded. During the last quarter of its existence--the last 30 years--Tech has completed the transformation first to a university and then to a research university.

And in the last decade Tech has emerged as a leader in information technology. Recently Tech was identified as one of four universities in the country named as winners of the Thomas M. Hesburgh award for our innovative Faculty Development Institute. Since 1993, we have assisted more than 1,000 faculty members from 90 departments in incorporating new technology into their teaching. Former Provost Fred Carlisle had the foresight to make that possible.

We are partnered with Bell Atlantic and Sprint to "network Virginia" and make possible the connection of public agencies, including the secondary-school system via a broadband network. Tech helped Blacksburg become an electronic village; now we are helping the commonwealth become an electronic state.

Through the leadership of Joy Colbert we have begun reaching out to secondary schools across the commonwealth and enhancing their science education.

Is all this being recognized? I believe so. We received final funding this year for our new Advanced Communication and Information Technology Center. We will break ground in September. These are exciting times. We are well on our way to become the model land-grant university of the 21st century.

But let me add a prediction in closing. Clearly there will be changes in the way we deliver education in the future. New technologies will change the dimension of space and time in supporting human communication. But information technology will not replace the professor in the classroom; rather it will enhance her ability to do the same job.

It has been suggested that higher education is in danger of becoming a commodity. Some like Peter Drucker even claimed that universities are obsolete. If you seek knowledge, you can find it on the Internet. But neither technology nor the Internet will replace the university campus and the classroom. The intensity and productivity of intellectual discovery is heightened by a campus environment. Indeed, the corporate world has adopted this model for their research facilities.

Further, the undergraduate experience includes other things...participating in the Marching Virginians, serving as president of a sorority, being a resident advisor in the dormitory, or even attempting to persuade a professor to accept yet a different solution on an examination.

And for me, as the years pass, I find satisfaction in the likes of an e-mail message I received just last week from a student of 30 years ago who, referring to my course, said..."while I didn't excel, the subject matter still made a lasting impression, and you think your `C' students never listen. The course has proven extremely useful to me over many years. It is my understanding that you are still teaching that same course. I have a daughter who is a junior at Virginia Tech. She is interested in taking your course, if you still teach it."

That course recommendation is also what a university is all about. It will not be replaced by the Internet.

And so we proceed in this, our 125th anniversary. We celebrate where we have been but we are not constrained by this history, we look forward to the early years of the next millennium.