Steger, 65, said he will leave the presidency after the school’s governing board chooses a replacement, adding that he has pondered the right time for a transition for several years.
“It is my belief that to be responsible as I pass the baton to the next generation of leaders, I should leave the institution when it is doing well — as it is today,” Steger said in an interview Tuesday. He said it would have been an “utter disaster” to quit in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, which still resonates on campus.
The ledger of Steger’s accomplishments since becoming president in January 2000 is significant. Enrollment, which had been nearly 28,000, surpassed 31,000, an increase of nearly 11 percent. A seven-year fundraising campaign netted $1.1 billion. More than 2.5 million square feet of building space sprouted on campus. Annual funding for sponsored research rose from $192 million to $450 million.
Under Steger, Virginia Tech also launched a biomedical engineering school and a medical school. U.S. News & World Report now ranks Virginia Tech 72nd among national universities, tied with the University of Iowa and Michigan State University.
In athletics, Steger secured Virginia Tech’s entry into the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2004, and the Hokies promptly won four ACC football titles in their first eight years.
But Steger’s tenure always will be linked to April 16, 2007. That day, a mentally ill student from Fairfax County named Seung Hui Cho killed 32 students and faculty members before shooting himself, the deadliest shooting massacre by an individual in U.S. history.
Critics said that university leadership, under Steger, was caught flat-footed in the unfolding tragedy. They said that many lives could have been saved had alarms been raised immediately and a campus lockdown instituted after the first burst of deadly gunfire, about 7:15 a.m. in a dormitory. A second round of shootings, beginning about 9:40 a.m. in an academic hall, claimed most of the victims.
Steger was briefed on the first shootings by the campus police chief in a phone call at 8:11 a.m., an official chronology found. The first mass alert to the campus community was distributed through an e-mail at 9:26 a.m. It told of a “shooting incident” in a dormitory, said that police were “on the scene and . . . investigating,” and urged the community to “be cautious” and contact police with any relevant information.
Afterward, Steger repeatedly maintained that the university responded as best it could, in consultation with law enforcement.