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Through triumph and tragedy, Charles Steger kept Tech pointed toward excellence.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
Charles Steger earned three degrees from Virginia Tech and devoted most of his professional life to his alma mater, working tirelessly to push it into the top tier of the nation’s elite universities. When he steps down in the next year as Tech’s 15th president, he will leave a voluminous legacy that includes major academic and research advances, a significant expansion of the university’s footprint, and the darkest days in the history of the Blacksburg campus.
Steger moved into the president’s office at the dawn of a new millennium and moved Tech on a path toward elevating its research enterprise and redefining its land-grant mission for a rapidly changing economy. Since 2000, the university has increased its research portfolio by more than 300 percent. It has established seven centralized research institutes, positioning the school to win large-scale research grants.
While Tech has not reached Steger’s goal of becoming a top 30 research institution, it remains on an upward trajectory despite two recessions and deep cuts in state support for higher education. The university receives less state funding today than it did the year Steger became president, making it more difficult for Tech to sustain excellence while remaining affordable.
Steger has presided over a campus building boom that included The Inn at Virginia Tech, the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute complex and a new Center for the Arts. Tech also expanded its footprint in the Roanoke Valley by partnering with Carilion Clinic to develop the state’s fifth medical school. The Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute in Roanoke could be a catalyst in transforming the region’s economy and strengthening ties between the Roanoke and New River valleys. That alone would be a legacy worth celebrating.
Sadly, the history of Steger’s tenure includes the chapter of April 16, 2007, when a lone gunman killed 32 people and himself on the campus. Steger has been criticized for decisions that university leadership made as the horror unfolded, and for his responses to the public and victims’ families in its aftermath. Steger maintains that he and the university did the best they could under the chaotic circumstances they faced.
An ongoing lawsuit by the families of two shooting victims may prevent Steger from conveying the true depth of his feelings. He made no reference to the shootings in the campuswide email he issued announcing his retirement plans. But there’s no doubt that Steger also played a vital role in holding the Tech community together and moving it forward after the shootings.
Steger set ambitious goals for his alma mater, pushing Tech to be a leader in higher education while staying true to its motto, “Ut Prosim.” That I may serve. He could not have envisioned the challenges Tech would face when he assumed leadership in 2000. But through triumph and tragedy, he kept Tech striving toward excellence.
“When one is totally absorbed in doing what one loves, 14 years pass in a nanosecond,” Steger said Tuesday.
If so, that nanosecond has positioned Virginia Tech for decades of success.
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