President Tim Sands and the faculty-led leadership team for the long-range “visioning” project, Beyond Boundaries, presented concepts to the board of visitors at its quarterly board meeting in March.  

Sands reiterated his challenge to the university community in the process — to advance Virginia Tech as an internationally recognized global land-grant university and to address challenges and opportunities facing higher education over the next several decades.

Introducing the leadership team, President Sands described how task forces were developed around four themes:

  • How can we become a land-grant university on a global scale?
  • What will the campus of the future look like?
  • How can we prepare students for a much different world than today?
  • What new funding models might be employed one third century in the future?

Steering Committee Co-Chair Alan Grant, dean of College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, identified four values that should undergird near and long-term future university directions: remain committed to academic excellence, world-class research, and Ut Prosim (That I May Serve); engage the whole-person; innovation; and maintain affordability and accessibility.

Discussing the Virginia Tech graduate of the future, Jill Sible, assistant provost for undergraduate education, introduced the “VT-shaped student”.  Educators speak of T-shaped individuals as those with deep knowledge and skills in a particular discipline combined with interdisciplinary capacities such as solving problems creatively, working in diverse teams, and conducting oneself ethically.

But Sible added, “We believe Virginia Tech is positioned to add another dimension that will differentiate its graduates.  A Virginia Tech education will be grounded in learning that is purpose driven, a manifestation of "Ut Prosim.”  Students will come to Virginia Tech to work collaboratively on issues about which they care deeply. This purpose-driven learning provides the V in the “VT-shaped student” and provides context and motivation for the more formal elements their education."

VT-shaped students will be cultivated in "communities of discovery," where they will join other students, faculty, and citizens to collaborate on problems of mutual interest. Sible highlighted the impactful work of Marc Edwards, his students, and the citizens of Flint, Michigan, as a compelling example of a community of discovery addressing the pressing issue of clean water.

To facilitate a VT-shaped education, the curriculum must become more flexible and adaptable in ways that support purpose driven learning. “In short, the VT student of 2047 learns by doing and does so not in isolation or as an academic exercise but rather with the support of community and in the service of humanity,” said Sible.

Sible says different learning experiences will require different learning environments.  Sanjay Raman, associate vice president for the national capital region, said that the campus of the future will not be place bound. Reflecting the importance of experiential education stressed by Sible, Raman noted that campus may not even be a campus as we think of it today.

He referenced emerging urban “innovation districts” around the globe which co-locate innovators, entrepreneurs, knowledge workers, and academics who ‘live, work, learn, and innovate’ in localized geographic areas. Raman suggested that the campus of the future may revolve, physically and virtually, around “integrative innovation hubs,” focused on complex societal problems. The full spectrum of the land-grant mission — learning, discovery, and engagement — can be deployed through innovation hubs addressing such problems. 

“We can reimagine the campus around innovation hubs that address ‘big issues’ but are adaptive, flexible spaces and systems that evolve as these problems change over time.  Most importantly, these innovation hubs would be linked to thematic areas of global/societal importance, something like themes envisioned in the upcoming Destination Areas,” said Raman. A key is integrating living/learning communities, research labs, classrooms, innovation spaces, companies and startups and commons that facilitate productive collisions amongst students, faculty, workers and the community.

Innovation hubs will be bolstered by pervasive “human-centered smart environments.” Continuously advancing information and communications technologies will enable connections obviating need for place-bound learning or research. Human-centered smart environments enabled by technology are already blossoming within Virginia Tech and “distribute the campus” while also allowing students and faculty to experiment and “fail safely.”  Raman noted living labs such as LumenHaus, virtual environments such as the
Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology Cube, and complex system simulations such as those underway in the Biocomplexity Institute.

In their preliminary report, the Campus of the Future task force, suggests that Virginia Tech consider mirroring planning concepts from innovation districts merging functions that are currently segregated on campus, such as teaching, residential and dining facilities, research labs, and even the Corporate Research Center.

 “Projecting” the university strengths around the globe by “applying disciplinary excellence to complex problems” affords one way for Virginia Tech to advance a global mission, said Chris -Barrett, executive director, Biocomplexity Institute.  Mining the intersections of disciplinary excellence yields “destination areas” Barrett said.  And clarifying some campus syntax confusion, he says we should think of destination areas as topics or areas of excellence in which the world seeks us — where we become their destination for problem solving. 

Barrett’s committee emphasized need for global partnerships on a very large scale among institutions of higher education, private sector, government agencies, and NGOs to fund robust academic and research environments. Graduating students with a global mindset will surely entail diverse and inclusive communities and culturally enriching opportunities on and off campus.

Tom Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, speaking for the funding model task force, emphasized need for agile funding strategies. He noted that state support and tuition, which currently comprise the bulk of Tech’s university division budget, must be bolstered by other sources such as “learner centered revenues” derived from new non-traditional academic programs.  Philanthropy in the form of transformational gifts he called world-class philanthropy must be coupled to university strategic initiatives. 

Calling for better data and better understanding of how and where we spend money, Dingus suggested a more rigorous approach to analysis going beyond traditional return on investment or cost/benefit analysis using an approach he dubbed “Evaluating Value to Experience.”  “Higher education finances are complex.  While we need see cost control as a revenue source, we must look at all value aspects of expenditures, not just whether they have a positive bottom line,” said Dingus.

Alumni Distinguished Professor Rosemary Blieszner, who is also associate dean of the Graduate School, suggested that it’s possible, with the notions and systems envisioned by our futurists, that the whole world becomes the Virginia Tech campus in 2047.  Curriculum will become customizable and adaptable to each learner and, in order to foster purpose-driven and experiential learning envisioned for the next generation, maybe curricular design be can be unbound from grades and credit hours.  The university must continuously evolve and evaluate its programs in order to achieve these high-level goals.

This summer, Virginia Tech will launch the Beyond Boundaries incubator — a mechanism to fund faculty-led proposals that act as the first step in implementing this vision.

Find more information on the Beyond Boundaries website or download the Board of Visitors presentation below.

Beyond Boundaries progress update.pdf
Share this story