Virginia Tech wanted real-world feedback about its Destination Area and Beyond Boundaries initiatives. It got it on Thursday.

More than 140 people, including agency and industry leaders and Virginia Tech faculty, gathered at the Hilton in Arlington, Virginia, to discuss the university’s plan for continuous innovation.

Comments ensued.

“The idea of Virginia Tech as a sensor for well-being of the world is exciting,” said Lynne Doughtie, chairman and chief executive officer of KPMG LLP, the fastest growing “Big Four” professional services firm in the U.S.

The “Virginia Tech as a sensor” concept emerged from a brief description of the Data and Decision Sciences destination area, presented by Sallie Keller, director of the Biocomplexity Institute's Social and Decision Analytics Laboratory.

The idea expands on Virginia Tech’s capability of collecting and making sense of data, adding value by liberating data and returning insight to overloaded offices and agencies that may be working with problems of an aging population, childhood obesity, or precision agriculture, for examples.

Destination areas, the “sweet spots” where disciplines talk and gather in places that raise Virginia Tech above other universities, will be outlined in more detail at noon Monday at a town hall meeting led by Provost Thanassis Rikakis at Squires Student Center's Commonwealth Ballroom.

Also overheard during the NCR feedback:

  • “Jobs are changing faster than degrees are changing.”
  • “The case for change right now is greater than it has ever been.”
  • “You need to solve complex problems once with the best thinking.”
  • “You have to look at collaborative ways to make international experiences happen.”
  • “Excellence emerges from what people are doing.”
  • “We can’t use yesterday’s solutions to solve problems of today and tomorrow.”
  • “Connect strongly with the real world.”

The exercise was important to Steve McKnight, vice president of the National Capital Region and organizer of Thursday’s workshop.

“It was gratifying to see the direction that we are moving is aligned with how external people see the world,” McKnight said. “There is also agreement the VT-shaped student could address perceived and real gaps in the work force.”

The idea of a VT-shaped student builds on the T-student concept, which combines a pillar of disciplinary depth with a broad stroke of interdisciplinary talent, and overlays it with a “V” representing Tech’s Ut Prosim and land-grant missions to drive purpose-driven engagement. In addition, the Beyond Boundaries process, which looks at what Virginia Tech could become a generation from now, also challenged the group.

“My recommendation is scenario-based plan,” said Wayne Clough, a secretary emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution, a former president of Georgia Tech, and a former dean of the Virginia Tech College of Engineering. “You know you can’t predict everything, so you build a framework for the unexpected to fit into your plan. For Virginia Tech, it is how do you differentiate yourselves? Virginia Tech needs to think of what it can do that others cannot, and it can’t lose sight of students. Students will do what you recommend, and their access is important. How do you help young people of modest means get an education?”

An outside-looking-in perspective was important to Doughtie and Martin Dunn, the associate provost for research at the Singapore University for Technology and Design. Both were members of the Beyond Boundaries panel, which also included Clough, Rikakis, Business-Higher Education Forum Chief Executive Officer Brian Fitzgerald, and Virginia Tech President Tim Sands.

Sands ended the day with a thought to ponder, challenging the university community to reframe how they think about what they do on a daily basis.

"Determine the human condition you want to change, and work backward from there,” Sands said. “When you do that, the university takes a much different shape. I credit [Virginia Tech professor] Marc Edwards and what his team did for the people in Flint, Michigan, for this example. Everything they did was about safe drinking water — with that goal in mind, what they had to focus on and do next became very clear. Taking the same approach in everything we do will transform the university."

Written by John Pastor

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