Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger has shepherded the public university for more than 13 years, overseeing enviable growth in scientific research, financial endowment, student enrollment and national prestige.
But Steger's announcement Tuesday that he will soon step down also drew renewed attention to his actions — and what critics call his inactions — on Virginia Tech’s darkest day, when a student fatally shot 32 faculty members and fellow students on the Blacksburg campus in 2007.
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.
Some relatives of the victims dismiss his explanations.
“President Steger should have been fired for not following the policies and procedures that were in place, which we believe resulted in the murder of our daughter, Nicole,” said Tricia White, her mother, of Smithfield, Va. “She sat in a desk in her German class April 16th, never knowing that two murders had taken place almost two hours before she walked onto campus.”
Suzanne Grimes, whose son, Kevin, still has a 9 mm bullet in his femur, accused Steger of exploiting the tragedy for the university’s financial aims.
“In the next few weeks, they’re going to talk about all the wonderful things he’s done and all the money he raised,” said Grimes, of Florida. “To us, it just feels like another slap in the face.”
In August 2012, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan concluded that Virginia Tech’s response to the shootings violated a federal law requiring colleges to issue timely warnings of imminent threats to students and staff. Duncan ordered a fine of more than $27,500 for the violation of the Clery Act. Steger said the university is appealing that decision in federal court.
Steger said he also faces a Virginia Supreme Court hearing in coming months related to an effort to reinstate him as a defendant in a wrongful-death lawsuit stemming from the massacre. Other legal claims connected to the massacre have been settled.
Steger said the timing of his retirement was unrelated to the litigation. Steger said he believes he became a focal point for anger in some quarters in part because the gunman is dead. That anger, he said, is “regrettable but understandable.”
Mike Quillen, rector of Virginia Tech’s governing Board of Visitors, said that Steger showed strong leadership before, during and after the crisis.
“It was a tragic event, it had to be dealt with, and he has dealt with it as professionally as he could,” Quillen said.
Quillen said the board will seek to name a successor sometime in the first half of 2014.
Steger is among the highest-paid public university leaders in the country, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which reported this week that he received total compensation of $858,000 in 2012. That ranked him seventh in a survey of 214 leaders of public higher education.
Steger does not work under a contract, choosing to serve at the pleasure of the board. That arrangement — a reflection of Steger’s stature at Virginia Tech and the long run of positions he held at the university before his presidency — is somewhat unusual. He holds three degrees from Virginia Tech and is a former dean of architecture at the university.
John T. Casteen III, former president of the University of Virginia, said that Steger forged what proved to be an exceptionally strong bond with the Virginia Tech campus.
“He has a remarkable kind of engagement with faculty members and students and alumni and the community — the Blacksburg community,” Casteen said. “He’s had extraordinary support from those groups through what has obviously been some tough times.”