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Editorial: Are university presidents more important than governors?

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When we talk about periods of history — at least those periods of time shorter than, say, the Jurassic Era or the Industrial Age — we tend to identify them by who was in charge at the time.

So if we want to talk about the economic might of Great Britain in the late 19th century, we talk about the Victorian Era. Or if we want to talk about how the American economy rebounded from the recession of the early 1980s, we talk about the Reagan Recovery.

In Virginia, governors come and go every four years, so it’s harder to pin a name on any particular era. Still, we try to do it anyway.

What if, though, we had it all wrong? What if, instead of charting progress in terms of this administration or that administration in Richmond, we were missing something bigger than was going on?

This “missing the forest for the trees” thought came to us as we watched the memorial service Monday for the late Virginia Tech President Charles Steger. Specifically, we were struck by something our current governor, Ralph Northam, had to say. “Dr. Steger built Virginia Tech into a school for a 21st century economy,” Northam said. “In doing so, he built Virginia into a state ready for the 21st century.”

These might seem rather bland words from some political boilerplate, but they are actually a revolutionary observation. It’s commonplace to refer to universities as economic engines, because in the post-industrial Knowledge Economy they are where many of the raw materials of that economy often come from — workers with skills, and ideas that can be commercialized. Viewed in that light, perhaps we need to focus less on who sits in the governor’s chair and pay more attention to who sits in the presidential chair at our biggest state universities.

That’s not to discount what governors do, because you can argue governors are actually more important now than they once were. Even a bad Industrial Age governor wasn’t going to make a difference in where the coal was. But a good Information Age governor might be able to change the economic direction of his or her state based on policies that attract workers and companies. However, university presidents might be even more important — because they often serve longer, and are closer to the source of creating those Knowledge Economy assets.

Consider Steger, who was inaugurated in 2000 and retired in 2014 — a span that covered all or part of the terms of five governors. And look at the influence that his institution had on Virginia over that time. At Monday’s service, many speakers told stories about Steger. How he liked to walk the Virginia Tech campus at least once a week to talk with students. How this architect was also a lover of the arts and arranged for the Virginia Tech Foundation to buy a historic (and very expensive) violin — which was played at the service. How he could play the guitar. Here’s the story, though, that might matter most. Ben Davenport, a former rector of Tech’s Board of Visitors and an influential businessman from Pittsylvania County, told of meeting with Steger in December 1999. Steger had just been named to the office he would take over the following month.

“My home, southern Virginia, was in a downward economic spiral,” Davenport said. The three mainstays of Southside’s economy — furniture, textiles, tobacco — were all dying at once. “My hope was to engage Virginia Tech in a new kind of outreach,” Davenport said. “Well, Charles quickly saw the infrastructure we could create. And through helping us he began the creation of a new model for the role of a land-grant university. His backing attracted support from the General Assembly and I’m happy to say the rest is history.”

That rest that Davenport was referring to is The Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, a research center in Danville. At the time the idea of a high-tech research center in Danville seemed far-fetched. Today, though, Danville is a city on the rebound — and staking a claim in the new economy in a way that couldn’t have been imagined back then. Earlier this year, a popular travel website named Danville as the third best small city to move to. Danville’s work is certainly unfinished. In many ways, it’s just begun. But Danville’s new direction was set in motion by Steger’s decision to engage Virginia Tech in the Southside economy more than 21 years ago.

Steger was pushing that research center at the same time that then-Gov. Jim Gilmore was getting ready to veto a bill passed by fellow Republicans in the General Assembly to provide assistance to localities that had just seen their main industries collapse. “Virginia as a whole would be hurt in trying to assist one community,” Gilmore said in his veto message.

Steger, though, saw the world in a different way — that the state was only as strong as its weakest link, and that Virginia Tech had the tools to help Southside Virginia start building a new economy. At the time, Gilmore’s veto was headline-making news. Steger’s decision was more quietly announced and certainly less well-understood. Two decades on, though, who had the most impact on that part of Virginia? Gilmore’s inaction was a temporary hurt; Steger’s action laid the foundation for longer-term benefits. The lesson seems clear: States can endure a governor with poor judgment here or there; it’s far more essential to have university presidents who are engaged in their communities, especially at big, research universities such as Tech.

The Danville example is a very specific one but there are others, perhaps less dramatic but no less important. The Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute, created under Steger’s watch, will in time transform the Roanoke Valley economy. The Tech spin-offs in the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center already have created a new economy in the New River Valley. We don’t even need to talk about Tech’s operations in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

Thought experiment: Think about the reverse. What if Virginia had a more engaged governor in 2000 and a less engaged Tech president? The aid to Southside would have helped at the time but by now would have been long since gone — and today there might not be any Tech research presence in Danville. That’s why it’s fair to say that Steger had more impact than a governor, and why perhaps the first part of the 21st century in Virginia ought to be regarded as The Steger Era.

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