Charles W. Steger, who shepherded Virginia Tech to national prominence and unprecedented growth but whose tenure as president was shadowed by a gunman’s slaying of 32 people on campus during one of the deadliest shooting rampages in recent U.S. history, died May 6 at his home in Blacksburg, Va. He was 70.
The university announced Dr. Steger’s death, but a spokesman had no immediate word on the cause.
With Dr. Steger at the helm from 2000 to 2014, Virginia Tech expanded enrollment, raised more than $1 billion in private funding, bolstered its reputation as a scientific research powerhouse and joined the Atlantic Coast Conference to gain wide exposure in football, basketball and other sports. Virginia Tech’s 15th president held three degrees from the public land-grant university and profoundly shaped its development at the outset of the 21st century.
“Not many of the hundreds of leaders who have led American universities in modern times have influenced their institutions as powerfully as Charles Steger influenced Virginia Tech, or as gently and wisely,” John T. Casteen III, president emeritus of the University of Virginia and a contemporary of Dr. Steger, said in a statement.
Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said he knew Dr. Steger “not only as an advocate for Virginia Tech, but for educational opportunity for all Virginians, at every level.”
A defining moment came midway through Dr. Steger’s tenure, on April 16, 2007, when a gunman killed 32 students and faculty members before taking his own life.
Some relatives of victims later contended the university could have saved many lives if it had raised campuswide alarms and ordered a stay-in-place lockdown soon after the first burst of gunfire occurred at about 7:15 a.m. Police responded quickly to the scene in a dormitory where two students were fatally wounded.
By 8:11 a.m., the campus police chief had briefed Dr. Steger, federal officials later concluded. The president and his team were led to believe at the time that the gunman was probably off campus, according to an official state review of the incident, an assessment that helped shape the initial response.
At 9:26 a.m., the university emailed its first mass alert, notifying the campus of a “shooting incident” in a dormitory and urging the community to “be cautious.” It said police were on the scene and investigating.
At about 9:40 a.m., the gunman, student Seung Hui Cho, began a second round of shootings in the academic building Norris Hall. Most of the victims died there. Cho killed himself.
In the hours and days that followed, Dr. Steger led Virginia Tech through a period of mourning after what he called a “tragedy . . . of monumental proportions.” The university’s response to the shooting became a case study in crisis management.
Investigators found in 2010 that Virginia Tech had violated the federal Clery Act by failing to give the campus community timely warning of a safety threat — a conclusion the university strongly disputed. Virginia Tech officials said there was no way to know that the discovery of two bodies in a dorm room was a prelude to a mass shooting, and some law enforcement experts questioned whether a lockdown of a campus of 35,000 people was even feasible.
In 2012, Dr. Steger testified in a wrongful-death suit brought by parents of two Norris Hall victims. Jurors found the university negligent for a delay in notification about the gunman. But the next year, the Virginia Supreme Court overturned that verdict, ruling the university had no duty to inform the campus of the potential for criminal acts.
In 2014, shortly before Dr. Steger left office, the university paid the federal government a $32,500 fine for Clery Act violations.
Dr. Steger became a leading advocate for emergency preparedness after the shootings, as universities everywhere sought to update communications systems, lockdown protocols and other elements of crisis response. He recalled the 2007 events in an essay he contributed to a recently released book called “Leading Colleges and Universities: Lessons from Higher Education Leaders.”
Among other steps, he suggested having a set of emergency notifications written in advance for various scenarios, because there is no time for wordsmithing when crisis strikes.
“Perhaps it is self-evident, but the most significant emergency will occur without warning,” Dr. Steger wrote. “A peaceful and predictable day can turn into chaos if you are not prepared.”
Charles William Steger Jr. was born in Richmond on June 16, 1947. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1970 and a master’s degree in 1971, both in architecture. He obtained a doctorate in environmental sciences and engineering in 1978.
Dr. Steger rose quickly from the faculty to become dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies in 1981, at age 33. He became vice president for development and university relations in 1993 and president in 2000.
Known as a builder, Dr. Steger oversaw significant expansion and renovation of the Blacksburg campus. Forty major buildings went up on his watch, as enrollment grew 11 percent, to 31,000. Funding for sponsored research more than doubled, to $450 million a year.
Dr. Steger championed the creation of institutes to tackle real-world problems and share expertise across disciplines, in areas such as transportation, life science, bioinformatics, and “critical technology and applied science.” He also oversaw the creation of an institute for creativity, arts and technology.
Hokies sports fans celebrated the university’s entry into the ACC in 2004. The football team captured several conference titles in the years after it joined.
Survivors include his wife of 48 years, Janet Baird Steger of Blacksburg; two sons, Christopher Steger of San Francisco and David Steger of Arlington, Va.; a brother; and two sisters.
Dr. Steger recognized that a big part of his job as a leader was to help the university rally after its darkest days. At an emotional commencement in May 2007, he told the crowd about the thousands of messages of sympathy and support the university had received.
“How can we not be resolute and determined to go forward when we are reminded so poignantly — and by so many — of why Virginia Tech is here and what it stands for?” he asked.