BLACKSBURG, Va. — The incoming president of Virginia Tech, a public university that seeks to be known as an engine of innovation, holds 17 patents and was co-inventor of a laser process crucial for making white-light-emitting diodes.
When Timothy D. Sands takes office June 1 as the 16th president of what is formally known as Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, he will bring an inventor’s eye for unexpected breakthroughs to his job at a moment when higher education itself is being reinvented.
As a professor of materials science and engineering, first at the University of California at Berkeley and then at Purdue University in Indiana, Sands exhorted his students to keep careful notes and exploit “things that happen by the wayside” in a laboratory.
“The trick is not to leave it on the wayside, but to pick it up and do something with it,” Sands said in an interview here this month. “You don’t know which ones are going to be valuable.”
The same might well be true of experimentation in research and teaching at universities.
Sands, 56, is moving to Virginia Tech after serving as provost, or top academic officer, of a school similar in many ways: Purdue. Like Virginia Tech, Purdue is a public university founded in the 19th century after the Civil War with help from federal land grants. Both schools have strengths in engineering and research as well as comprehensive academic programs spanning the arts, business and social sciences.
Sands was acting president at Purdue in 2012 as Indiana Gov. Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. (R) was preparing to move from that elected office to the presidency of the university. Daniels said Sands helped him acclimate to academia.
“Because I’m a higher-ed rookie, he was an indispensable partner and coach for me,” Daniels said. He called Sands “a straight shooter” with credibility and diplomatic skills to show faculty how and where university resources should be realigned.
Virginia Tech has many students and faculty who are itching to pursue interdisciplinary research as never before — think combining molecular biology with computer science, or economics with agriculture — and apply their findings to real-world problems. Often they spin off ideas into commercial, social or artistic ventures, a phenomenon gaining momentum in academia. The University of Maryland, under its president, Wallace D. Loh, also is a hotbed of academics-turned-entrepreneurs.
These trends raise questions about the operation of institutions steeped in tradition. How should colleges, schools and departments be organized? How should courses in various departments be numbered and sequenced to facilitate interdisciplinary study? How should junior faculty members be rated as they pursue tenure? Is an aspiring professor best judged through volume and impact of published scholarship? What if that young assistant professor uses research findings to launch a business — and therefore misses some deadlines for submitting an article to a scholarly journal?
Sands said a university president can’t dictate the answers.
“When you’re talking about promotion and tenure, it’s a very sensitive topic because the faculty own that,” he said. “It’s not something that can be administrated.”
He is careful to add that publication of peer-reviewed scholarship is “absolutely fundamental” in academia. But that doesn’t mean, he said, that patents and other signs of innovation and entrepreneurship should be ignored.
“They should be used as evidence of impact,” Sands said. “If you want to talk about impact, you’ve also got to look at how that work changes the marketplace, how it changes the technology, how does it enable people to do things they couldn’t do before.”
Sands is taking over a university comfortable with reinvention. With 31,000 students, Virginia Tech significantly expanded its campus and its research enterprises during the 14-year tenure of retiring President Charles W. Steger.
Seven research institutes at the university convene faculty from a variety of disciplines to solve problems in areas such as transportation, life science, bioinformatics, and “critical technology and applied science.” Six of the seven were created under Steger. The latest, called the Institute for Creativity, Arts and Technology, has experts in computer science, digital music, electrical engineering, spatial audio, gaming and a host of other fields working on projects that marry art, science, engineering and design. A laptop orchestra, for instance. Or a sculpture installation depicting the intricacies of parallel computing.
R. Benjamin Knapp, director of the institute, briefed the incoming leader on its cutting-edge work. “He really gets it,” Knapp said of Sands. “He really gets this idea of collaboration.”
Named to the post in December, Sands has spent six months shuttling from West Lafayette, Ind., to Blacksburg to learn about his new job. His wife, Laura Sands, a nursing professor at Purdue, plans to continue her gerontology research at Virginia Tech. They have four grown children.
On a recent trip, Sands met with Provost Mark G. McNamee to discuss his first meeting as president with the governing Board of Visitors (scheduled for the same day he takes office) and took a spin on a “smart road,” which can produce foggy or rainy conditions for driving experiments, at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. He also greeted 1,000 uniformed members of the school’s famed Corps of Cadets at 7:30 a.m. as they lined up in formation on a quadrangle for the daily ritual of raising the nation’s flag. The corps, which trains students for military and civilian leadership, is a reminder of deep connections to the armed services on a campus where the central green is called the Drillfield.
Sands told the cadets he was impressed by how they embodied the motto of the university, “Ut Prosim,” Latin for “that I may serve.” Their example, he said, “has infected the entire population of Virginia Tech.”
Sands is mindful that his arrival marks a transition for the university seven years after its darkest day — April 16, 2007, when a student gunman killed 32 people on campus and himself. Afterward, Steger was criticized for his handling of the crisis. The university, after contesting a federal finding that its response to the shootings violated a law requiring timely warning of campus threats, quietly paid a $32,500 fine in February.
Sands said he was glad the matter was settled. “As a new president coming in, that’s good that that is in the past,” he said.
Born in San Francisco
16th president of Virginia Tech, starting June 1
Acting president of Purdue University from July 2012 to January 2013
Provost of Purdue from 2010 to 2014
Director of Birck Nanotechnology Center at Purdue
Professor of materials science and engineering at University of California at Berkeley
Worked for Bell Communications Research
Degrees from UC-Berkeley: bachelor’s in engineering physics, master’s and doctorate in materials science