Lance R. Collins, 60, Cornell’s dean of engineering since 2010, will become vice president and executive director of the campus in August, Virginia Tech announced Monday.
From that position, Collins will be a key player in forging partnerships among academia, business and government as the campus takes shape. He grew accustomed to such challenges after helping to conceive and launch Cornell Tech.
That project, a collaboration between Cornell and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, is devoted to applied sciences and engineering. Its campus opened in 2017 on Roosevelt Island in New York. The parallels to Virginia Tech’s initiative are numerous.
“This new Innovation Campus is really going to be focused on technology development — particularly technology that’s relevant to society,” Collins said in a telephone interview. “That’s a very different mission than a traditional academic campus.” He said he was “thrilled to be taking on this role.”
Collins will arrive along with the first graduate students recruited for the project. Starting in the fall, they will take classes in computer science and computer engineering at Virginia Tech’s satellite in Falls Church while the campus is being developed in the Potomac Yard neighborhood of Alexandria. The 15-acre project site lies just south of Reagan National Airport.
Plans call for the first campus building to open in August 2024. The state is supplying $167.7 million for its construction. Within a decade, Virginia Tech expects to have up to 750 master’s degree students on the campus and hundreds more doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows. The campus expects to hire about 50 research and teaching faculty members.
Several universities in the Washington region already supply talent for technology companies, including the public University of Maryland at College Park and public George Mason University in Northern Virginia.
But demand for a highly skilled workforce is likely to intensify as the tech industry grows. The Alexandria campus of Virginia Tech and an expansion of George Mason’s operations in Arlington were selling points in the campaign to lure Amazon to Northern Virginia. Based in Seattle, the online retailer announced in November 2018 that it would build a second headquarters in Arlington. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Collins emphasized that the campus will not cater to just one company. “There will be strong ties with Amazon,” he said, “but I want to be clear: It won’t be an exclusive relationship. There are a lot of companies that are going to be interested in this campus, and we want to be open to all of them.”
Businesses will be partners, he said, but they won’t dictate what the campus does. “The faculty and the administration set the agenda,” he said. “There’s no question about that. That’s not even up for discussion. Otherwise, it’s not academia.”
Collins holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Princeton University and master’s and doctoral degrees in that discipline from the University of Pennsylvania. He will be a professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech.
In the search for a campus leader, said Virginia Tech President Timothy D. Sands, Collins stood out in part because he had helped Cornell ensure close ties between its main campus in Ithaca, N.Y., and Cornell Tech. Sands wants to forge a similar connection between Virginia Tech’s main campus in Blacksburg, which lies more than 200 miles southwest of Alexandria, and the Innovation Campus. A central issue, he said: “How do you make it feel like one university?”
Sands said he was also impressed by what Collins accomplished as dean of a premier engineering school with 230 faculty members and about 5,000 students.
Under Collins, Cornell recently erased the gender gap in a field historically tilted toward men: Half its undergraduate engineering students are now women. The engineering school also has expanded enrollment of students from underrepresented minority groups, including African Americans and Latinos.
“To see that he had done that there gave us optimism that he will be able to broaden the pool of talent coming into the pipeline in the Washington region,” Sands said. “That’s dearly needed.”