Q&A: Timothy Sands

Marjorie Malpiede / March 13, 2017


When speaking about the mission and culture of Virginia Tech, Timothy Sands sounds more like a philosopher than a PHD in science and engineering. Sands became president of VT in 2014, well after the school had successfully transitioned from a traditional land grant college into a multi-disciplinary institution offering STEM degrees as well those in the arts and the humanities. One of Sands’ jobs is to take the state university to the next level involving an even larger culture shift.

Having achieved academic balance, Sands hopes VT will apply a transdisciplinary approach to becoming an authentically diverse institution with a worldwide impact and reputation.      

Like many change agents, Sands is a quick study. While he has only been on campus a little over two years, his knowledge of “Hokie” history is spot on, as is his assessment of the students who choose to go there. Founded in 1872 as a college focused on “agriculture, military service, and engineering,” the school, which sits in the middle of two mountain ranges in Appalachia, had been predominantly white, with an all-male student body until women were admitted in 1921.   

Though there have been efforts in the past to increase diversity and gains have been made in gender, the school is not yet where Sands says it needs to be in this area. His motivation ranges from expanding the talent pool, to social justice, to ensuring all students are prepared for the 21st century.  

Not only does Sands understand where VT has been, he has a vivid vision of where it needs to go. Globalization requires students to be better prepared for the interconnected world in which they will live and work. This means that hailing from a homogenous environment will be a disadvantage for students if they are lacking empathy, curiosity, and the life skills to collaborate with people from all cultures and backgrounds.

Meanwhile, demographics demand that the school attract new pools of students, including minorities, first generation, and lower income students.  

Sands has set very ambitious diversity goals through a new initiative called “InclusiveVT” and in August 2015, he challenged the university community to engage in a visioning process to view “the university we aspire to become in a generation’s time.” The project, called “Beyond Boundaries,” focuses on student preparedness and creating the campus of the future, among other goals.  

Student affairs and student health and wellness are a large part of Sands’ agenda, due to what he says is VT’s moral imperative to lead in this area after the tragic 2007 mass shooting by a mentally ill student, and partly because he clearly believes in the power of people and relationships. He talks often of developing the “VT-shaped student” and incorporating the school’s mission “Ut Prosim” (that I may serve) into all of university life.   

In his office overlooking the university’s iconic Drillfield on an unusually warm day in February, Sands talks about VT’s aspirational agenda, student health and safety, and why he thinks the traditional financial model for higher education is broken.  

Mary Christie Quarterly: How would you describe Virginia Tech’s environment? What kinds of students come here?

Timothy Sands: There is a very strong sense of community in Blacksburg and at Virginia Tech. I think that most people who come here for the first time feel it right away and it creates a filter.  You are either attracted to it or you are repelled by it. If it is a priority for you to be engaged in a community where people will want to know and support you, then VT shoots way up your list.  If you really want to study a specific thing and be left alone, this isn’t the place for you.

When I first arrived here, we commissioned Gallop to interview our alumni for the Gallop Purdue Index and what we learned was fascinating to me as a newcomer. Forty-two percent of our alums reported having a strong, emotional attachment to the institution, while our peers are at 18-22 percent.  

MCQ: Isn’t the community feel sort of unusual for a school so focused on STEM?  

  1. VT is very different. We aren’t an MIT or a CalTech. There are only a handful of schools like us that have both a strong STEM component and then something else like business or liberal arts.

We have a new initiative called Beyond Boundaries, which was a challenge for the university to imagine what we would be like a generation from now. In that, we talk about the university of the future being driven by a transdisciplinary approach that defies the confines of today’s higher-ed systems, even further eliminating the STEM/non-STEM dichotomy.  

Related to that is something we call the “VT-shaped student,” which is about integrating the university experience across artificial boundaries based on majors and disciplines. This effort also involves creating intentional learning opportunities that build capacities such as a commitment to curiosity, pursuing self-understanding and integrity, practicing civility, courageous leadership, and embracing Ut Prosim (our motto) as a way of life.  

Ut Prosim – “that I may serve” – was developed some 120 years ago from the Corps of Cadets, which are still very active on campus today. Originally, service was about leading your team into battle – and not just metaphorically – but actually taking the hill in front of your troops.

It has morphed from that original idea into something that is more inclusive and centered around preparing yourself, harnessing your skills and pursuing your passion so that you can be of maximum value and ability when you leave Virginia Tech.

We have a lot of people here who would say, “Hey, I’d really like to solve this problem for humanity.”

MCQ: Currently, about 12 percent of your students are underrepresented minorities. You say you want to increase that to 25 percent by 2022. Eventually, you would like to see 40 percent of VT’s enrollment be made up of minorities, first generation and low-income students.   

That is a very ambitious goal. Where does this come from? And how do you plan on achieving it?

TS: What we’re trying to do is prepare our students for the world they are going to be entering and that is one that involves different perspectives, with difficult conversations that you don’t get in a homogenous environment. Diversity makes for deeper conversations and stronger solutions.

There’s obviously a social justice aspect to it.

When you talk about service, you need to think about whom you are serving. You’ve got to have experiences around a developing group of people whose experiences are very different than your own.

It is not only the right thing to do; it is necessary for our admissions goals to recruit from new pools of students. We have to ask ourselves “Why is it that two-thirds of the talent out there doesn’t even look at Virginia Tech? Is it because we are perceived to be a predominantly white institution that won’t work for them?”

If so, we’ve got to change the way we look.  

We’ve been doing very well from suburban high-income areas of Virginia, but in the urban areas, the rural areas, we have not done very well. Some of it is money but a lot of it is community. There’s a lot of data out there on critical mass where you get to a certain point in terms of representation that it becomes self-propagating in terms of recruitment. We are aggressively recruiting in areas where we see opportunity to bring in new profiles of students.  

We have made diversity and inclusion an urgent issue at Virginia Tech.  We call it “Inclusive VT” – that means it is a part of everything we do.

On my first day as President, there was a report on my desk about flipping the model for diversity and inclusion so that it wasn’t seen as an “office down the hall,” but rather something that everyone at the university needs to be accountable for.

I really appreciated this approach because I had worked on many diversity initiatives in the past and had seen the weakness in the traditional model. Diversity was always someone else’s purview to handle.  

We needed to solve this problem with ingenuity that is distributed, not centralized. Part of the model was to decentralize it by closing down the diversity office and hiring a new leader in this area (Menah Pratt-Clarke from the University of Illinois who is now Vice President of Strategic Affairs and Vice Provost for Inclusion and Diversity) who could facilitate all of the many efforts going on.

Everyone had to propose something within their own spheres and departments so we have dozens of initiatives going on in this area going on at once. There was some pushback because some people got the feeling we were sort of pushing this down their throats, but we didn’t back off. We just kept saying, “We’re going to do this. The conversation is starting now.”  

I felt that a big part of this had to start with me so I made myself VT’s “chief diversity officer.” Not that I took on those duties specifically, but if I’m not the one talking about it, and if the Board isn’t backing me up on this, it isn’t going to happen.

Our challenge now is to turn our commitment to diversity into action. We’re making progress. The freshman class of 2016 was the most diverse ever.  

MCQ: Diversity and inclusion is obviously related to student mental, emotional and behavioral health. What developments have you made in this area, and how has the tragedy of 2007 impacted your programming? (Note: This April is the tenth anniversary of the mass shooting incident of 2007 where a VT student and lone gunman killed 32 people. The school is acknowledging the tragedy with a series of events intended to remember the victims and support survivors and families.)  

  1. With mental health and wellness, you always think about safety concerns on campus because these issues are tied together. “April 16” had Virginia Tech and the whole country rethinking all of that.

Being that this happened here, Virginia Tech had to be at the forefront of major changes in this area. I think because of what we went through, our programs in mental health, wellness, and violence prevention are very strong. We were early adopters of innovations in safety and security, and that make us one of the safest campuses in the country.  

I think the strength of our community was a huge factor as well. Many of the people who work in the counseling center, in student health and wellness issues, in campus police remain impacted by April 16 and have that on the top of their minds at all times.  

As far as mental health and wellness, we spend a lot of time and attention on this. The Gallup work we did applied to current students as well as alumni. We were able to look at health dimensions and where our students were most stressed. Like most schools, we’ve seen an increase in counseling appointments year to year, which in many ways is a good thing.

One of our programs that has been very effective is the QPR program which stands for Question, Persuade, and Refer. QPR is offered to all faculty and staff and is required training for all RA’s.  These are the people on the front lines, the people who are living in the first and second year residence halls who see the students most likely to engage in risky behavior, those who are questioning their surroundings or experimenting with going off of their medications.  

We have an integrated approach to health and wellness here where five units form a leadership team that integrates physical activity, mental health, nutrition and physical health, alcohol and drug programs. We have a new Hokie Wellness department that works with all departments on campus and strives to provide care in three ways: prevention, intervention, and reaction.

This is also a very fitness-oriented campus with most students taking advantage of our geography and weather. Nutrition is a big priority for students (VT ranks among the best in terms of dining services).

Again, we believe our strong community model is key to wellness. About 37 percent of our on-campus students are in residence communities or other “living learning” communities like the women’s engineering community. I really think these smaller communities help students succeed. We have a fairly high graduation rate compared to other schools and I think a lot of that has to do with people feeling like they’re part of a community.  

MCQ: What are your biggest challenges?

TS: I’d say keeping an eye on what kind of institution we want to become and not being distracted by the day-to-day push and shove.

A big problem here is that the financial model for higher education is really broken. States are dealing with so many budget constraints, and higher-ed is on the losing end of all that.

We have lost sight of the public good in the work of these institutions. The state system model has shifted so far towards the private good model that I don’t think we can come back. The idea that education is really only about the private value to the student is worrisome. I think Virginia Tech has done a very good job of keeping that at bay and keeping the public good in mind.