BLACKSBURG — Thanassis Rikakis isn’t afraid of mixing it up.
As a researcher, he found ways to bring together musical and visual stimuli in combination with tried and true medical practices to rehabilitate stroke victims.
Now, as Virginia Tech’s provost — the university’s chief academic administrator –— he’s the mastermind of a new brand of cross-discipline education. Rikakis, 53, is leading a trial-and-error method that university administrators and faculty said is faster than the norm in academia, to the chagrin of some and the delight of others. He’s being paid $408,000 a year to pull it off.
In his thick Greek accent, Rikakis has engrained new buzz terms into the fabric of Tech’s plans: “destination areas,” “innovation districts” and “VT-shaped knowledge.”
Those phrases have become part of any presentation he gives to audiences ranging from religious groups to faculty. The new vocabulary is shaping an educational philosophy that fosters an environment that’s different and disruptive on the land-grant campus. Rikakis’ goal: To bring students together with expert faculty and private industry to tackle society’s major challenges.
He’s trying to move the campus toward a future in which researchers will work on big problems together in ways that emphasize collaboration over smaller, separate innovations, Tech President Timothy Sands said.
To a significant degree, as Rikakis goes so will Sands’ legacy.
“I’m really excited by the degree to which Thanassis Rikakis has taken ideas… of taking down boundaries,” Sands said. “With Thanassis’ leadership, we’re going into an area that’s more 21st century than 20th century.
“I’m very impressed with how far we’ve come under his leadership.”
Formed by music, soccer
The Virginia Tech women’s soccer team arrived at the Blacksburg Hilton Garden Inn early on a blustery October morning. Coach Chugger Adairname said the players had to be there.
The squad wasn’t there because of its top 25 ranking but because its 3.4 grade-point average was the highest for any Tech team. Rikakis wanted to get to know the players.
“This is the best part of my job,” he told them before hopping between tables to pepper the young women with questions.
“This is my classroom and I have 20 very good instructors.”
Rikakis inquired about challenges faced by student-athletes. How could he help?
The players were initially shy. But they opened up. The most common complaint was the difficulty of keeping up with hectic schedules and classes that conflict with the obligations to athletics, which partially or fully fund their educations.
Rikakis could relate to their love of soccer and a thirst for positive outside influences. He played goalkeeper at his English high school. In college, he picked up extra money by refereeing games in New York near his alma mater, Ithaca College.
That structure helped, Rikakis said. At age 14, he said, he was listless.
“I wasn’t very good at school,” he said.
He found he was a good songwriter. Singing and making music were a daily part of his life, as they’re a major part of Greek culture, he said.
Military strife caused the Athens, Greece, native to miss school frequently in the 1970s. It also claimed his father’s life. Asked for details, Rikakis answered: “We don’t really talk about.”
The future provost’s mother sent him to England’s Dartington Hall, a now-defunct boarding school that concentrated on the arts. He recalled it as life-changing.
He started playing the recorder and worked his way to piano and trumpet — a trio of instruments still featured on his 13-page resume.
Early in his academic career, Rikakis composed dozens of pieces that since have been featured in U.S. concert halls and on Greek television. That music sparked a teaching and administrative career that now reaches beyond making sound to trying to find ways to combine it with other disciplines in an effort to improve lives.
In spring 2015, Virginia Tech called Rikakis about applying for the open provost position. Then Carnegie Mellon University’s vice provost for design, arts and technology, Rikakis initially said no.
He had his young daughter Iris and lived in a historic home in Pittsburgh that he and his wife, Aisling Kelliher, had just spent a year remodeling.
But Tech’s search committee was insistent. Rikakis was just what the university needed to implement what would become Sands’ ambitious vision for shaping the future of Tech. That vision is laid out in “Beyond Boundaries” – a challenge Sands made to the university in 2015 to make Tech a global leader equipped to handle the challenges of higher education over the next 40 years.
During an initial interview at Washington Dulles International Airport, Rikakis impressed the committee with his passion for education and his interest in interdisciplinary structures, said Paul Knox, founding dean of Tech’s honors college who chaired the provost search committee.
“I’ve never seen that level of excitement in that setting,” Knox said of the interview. He said he remembered thinking, “Here’s a person who knows a lot about what a university has to be like in the next 25 years.”
Rikakis brought his experience with the excitement. From his time as a professor of arts, media and engineering at Arizona State University, beginning in the early 2000s, he was passionate about creating cross-disciplinary projects.
During that time, Rikakis heavily was involved in a project on mixed reality rehabilitation. It uses virtual reality, featuring movement and sound, to help people regain lost motor skills.
Steven Wolf, a professor of rehabilitation at Atlanta’s Emory University, worked with Rikakis on the project. Many of the ideas had their genesis with Tech’s future provost.
Wolf said Rikakis did a good job of communicating across disciplines and helped test virtual reality as part of the project.
Rikakis founded Arizona State’s School of Arts, Media and Engineering in 2003. He oversaw the hiring of 12 interdisciplinary teachers along with staff members. By the time he left in 2012, enrollment in the school was about 300.
His next stop took him to Carnegie Mellon. There, he launched an ambitious program, called IDeATe. It combines industries to create undergraduate concentrations and takes up a couple floors of Carnegie Mellon’s library, said the school’s former provost, Mark Kamlet, who hired Rikakis.
There are eight undergraduate programs in IDeATe. Students take courses from professors and colleges that otherwise might have been unconnected, Kamlet said.
Some greeted the move with skepticism. Kamlet said Rikakis avoided that mostly by making the project open to new hires and making it clear to current faculty that they were welcome to not participate in the program.
“It was a controversial idea for some who wanted to do things in a more traditional way,” Kamlet said. “For individuals who weren’t a part, he said ‘fine’ and made it clear that this wouldn’t supplant what they were doing.”
Kamlet said about 20 teachers are involved and about 500 of the university’s 6,000 students participate. Susan Finger, associate dean for the program and professor of civil and environmental engineering, said students “love it.”
“I’ve had students say it’s the reason they decided to come here,” she said.
“If we hadn’t brought in Thanassis, this would not have happened,” Kamlet said. “He was our guide.”
Soon, Rikakis brought similar plans to Virginia Tech, along with great enthusiasm, according to those who work to implement many of his goals.
“He’s a ball of fire,” said Tom Dingus, director of Tech’s Transportation Institute. “He’s got big visions, and he’s extremely intelligent.”
“I think he’s got really good initiatives for our students.”
A man with a plan
From the beginning of his interview process with Tech, Rikakis said, he wasn’t afraid of pushing change.
In the world of academia, where that can come slowly, there was something different about this provost, said Dennis Dean, director of Tech’s Fralin Center of Life Sciences Institute.
Dean, who was interim vice president for research when Rikakis arrived in summer 2015, remembered a particular meeting within weeks of Rikakis’ arrival. Rikakis wanted to know Virginia Tech’s signature strengths. What academic programs make students flock to the university?
Dean said he gave about a half-dozen ideas — mostly related to biology — but he also told Rikakis that it seemed like the new provost wanted to know which academic areas were destinations for students. The phrase ‘destination areas,’ now central in Rikakis’ work, was born.
Rikakis said he had many meetings like that early on.
The point was to identify strengths, make strategic investments and have faculty and students in those areas work together to create hirable graduates and cutting edge research, Rikakis said.
Tech has vowed to invest millions of dollars and significant faculty hiring in destination areas.
Destination areas are voluntary educational paths in which students can take core classes but also pursue cross-disciplinary opportunities, meaning they can concentrate on a unique field while also working toward a more traditional degree, such as engineering or English.
Future faculty hiring and university infrastructure and building investments will be tied to destination areas. Lab space and classrooms will be linked with new learning communities. For example, the university pledged a $225 million investment in a business and analytics complex that will feature office space and dorms for living-learning communities.
Details in the curriculum for students concentrating in certain destination areas still are being ironed out. The initiative will offer students concentrations that Rikakis said will be attractive to industry employers who also will participate.
“You’re going to want all students to be touched by this,” Rikakis said.
Then comes Rikakis’ “VT-shaped” student.
In meetings with faculty or administrators, he frequently moves both his hands in motions making V’s and T’s.
The capital T is the cross between a student’s disciplinary depth and transdisciplinary knowledge and technological experience. The V connects those traits through informal communal and guided experiential learning.
The VT-shaped graduate will be well-rounded, both hirable and ready to serve the community, Rikakis said.
So far, Rikakis’ effort has met with approval from Sands and the president’s bosses on Tech’s Board of Visitors, Rector Jim Chapman said.
“Globally, I think Tim and Thanassis are moving us in the right direction,” Chapman said. “I’m fortunate because I’ve got a front-row seat for some of the most innovative thought in the world.”
How many people will take part in destination areas remains unclear, though Sands has said he hopes to increase the university by 5,000 students over the next few years.
Last May, Rikakis told The Roanoke Times he expects about 3,000 students to be in the intelligent infrastructure by 2022.
Tech administrators recently have backed away from that prediction. Rikakis said it was just a ballpark figure. It’s part of the learning curve, being the leader of the university’s academic unit.
“I’ve figured out when the provost says 3,000, it means 3,000,” Rikakis said.
Backing off specific goals or purposes will be critical for the success of Rikakis’ big ideas marrying disciplines to solve problems, Sands said.
“All Thanassis and I can do… is to create a scaffold or a framework to simplify the conversation,” Sands said. “In the end, it has to be the students, faculty, staff and partners to make it work.”
Try keeping up with Rikakis in conversation. He drops higher ed jargon phrases in one breath and ancient Greek philosophy in the next.
And it translates into how he makes changes.
“The signature thing about him is he makes decisions quickly and he moves quickly,” said Dean of Tech’s life sciences institute. “He wants to get stuff done.”
For some at Tech, it’s a necessity in a world of shrinking state subsidies for universities and unsustainably swelling tuition bills for students.
Rikakis’ vision is just what the university needs, even if it makes some uncomfortable, said Karen DePauw, dean of the graduate school at Tech.
“Universities today have to be thinking … about how we’re going to do and provide education at the undergraduate and graduate level, how we’re going to serve our various constituency groups,” DePauw said. “We need to be thinking more quickly because change is happening so fast. We have to try as hard as we can to be ahead of the curve.”
DePauw and others have gone all in on destination areas. Faculty members who are part of design teams putting the initiative together expressed excitement.
Anne Khamdemian, director of the School of Public and International Affairs at Tech’s National Capital Region campus in Northern Virginia, said the innovative nature of creating partnerships between industry and academic units is needed.
“I think we need to be thinking big to solve these problems,” Khamdemian said. “And we are thinking big.”
Other faculty, however, voiced concerns about the speed of change — particularly about the destination areas.
The Roanoke Times reached out to about a dozen faculty members and academic administrators for this story to talk about Rikakis’ vision. Most did not return messages or declined to comment.
But a few did.
“There’s a lot of disappointment and frustration with the destination areas,” said Brett Shadle, a history professor.
Shadle said destination areas are focused on the hard sciences, and when he tries to offer input, he learns he’s commenting on an old iteration of the plan.
“We the faculty always seem to be giving feedback on a version that’s already been superseded by something else,” Shadle said. “We’re always reacting to a version that’s been updated.”
Physics professor Uwe Tauber said he’s noticed “an interesting mixture of excitement and anxiety” over destination areas.
He recognizes plenty of potential, but “it’s not always clear how much influence we can actually have,” said Tauber, who also is vice president of Tech’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, a national advocacy group.
Rikakis said he’s heard those types of complaints.
He stressed that if faculty members don’t want to participate in destination areas, they won’t be forced to do so. Things like new hires will be more impacted by the destination areas, he said.
He and Sands said they have decided to slow the process and attempt to get faculty more involved.
They’re now setting up the second phase of designing destination areas.
Teams of faculty and other stakeholders have been created to allow ground-up development, Rikakis said. It now won’t be until May 2018 that destination areas are fully implemented, even as aspects such as a $75 million in investment in Tech’s new infrastructure education project move forward.
Rikakis said he doesn’t want to overstay his welcome.
He said he thinks it will take a decade to implement his vision — three or four years to get things in place and three or four more to get it rolling and self-sufficient.
“I’ll be here 10 years, if they’ll have me,” Rikakis said, laughing. “And not a day longer.”
If it all works out, it’ll be time to move on. After all, he said, he’s more into creating an outcome where successful students graduate from Tech than becoming president of a university.