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The McComas Years (1988-1994)

The man hired to guide Virginia Tech back into smooth waters had served two other institutions as president. James Douglas McComas, who assumed his duties on Sept.1, 1988, as Virginia Tech’s 13th president, had been president of the University of Toledo for three years when the board of visitors announced his appointment on May 23, 1988. He also had served as president of Mississippi State University, which named its creative arts building in his honor, and had been a professor and administrator at several other universities.

From the beginning of his administration, McComas placed major emphasis on undergraduate education. He kept an open-door policy for students, personally visited over 4,500 of them in the residence halls, and advised 16. He established the Center for Excellence in Teaching and the Academic Advising Center, bolstered the honors program, saw that food in the dining halls was improved, created an Office of the Dean of Students, began planning a student recreation and fitness center, brought back fall commencement ceremonies, and developed EXPO, a “road show” of information about Virginia Tech for high school students throughout the commonwealth. He also established incentives to attract more National Merit Scholars to Virginia Tech, moving the university into the nation’s top 20 in the number of merit scholars it enrolled.

McComas had been in office only a year when the state learned that its projected revenues had been vastly overestimated, and Gov. L. Douglas Wilder ordered severe funding cuts to higher education to balance the budget. Cuts to Virginia Tech alone in the 1990-92 biennium totaled $37 million (general fund reductions 1990-96 totaled $46.7 million, but the university was able to offset $16 million). As Virginia dropped to 43rd in the country in state funding for higher education, McComas publicly decried the assault on higher education, resulting in strained relations with Gov. Wilder. The cuts forced the university to hold numerous faculty positions vacant for a period of time; 49 classified staff members lost their jobs.

On the positive side, the Norfolk Southern Corporation gave Hotel Roanoke to the university in 1989. McComas, who had played a leading role in forging stronger ties with the City of Roanoke, directed Virginia Tech as it worked with Roanoke leaders to raise approximately $50 million to renovate the century-old hotel, build an adjacent conference center, and make road and pedestrian-access improvements in the adjacent area.

The president placed special emphasis on Tech’s traditional land-grant role of outreach and service, established a Public Service Division, and appointed an acting vice president for public service. He led the effort to make the university a force in economic development, helped form the New Century Council to create a strategic vision for the region, and initiated a series of public service forums throughout the state. He worked with town officials to bring a Family Motor Coach Association convention and the Tour duPont to Blacksburg to boost regional economic development.

On campus he stressed the importance of community and emphasized the value of all employees to the operation of the university. He supported an overhaul of the university’s governance structure and the inclusion of classified staff in that structure. He encouraged diversity–minority student enrollment increased 26 percent in 1990–and supported the appointment of minorities and women to administrative positions. He oversaw the reorganization of athletics and the recruitment of an academic advising coordinator for athletes, transferred operations of the Alumni Association to the university’s administrative system, and placed administration of Virginia Cooperative Extension under the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

During his tenure, research spending reached $125 million, moving Virginia Tech into the country’s top 40 research universities; the School of Forestry became Tech’s ninth college; U.S. News & World Report ranked Tech in the top 50 national universities; Tech joined the Big East football conference; Cheddi Jagan, president of Guyana, visited campus to discuss possible partnership efforts with his country; McComas established the Presidential Award for Excellence to recognize outstanding classified staff members; Tech joined the town and C&P Telephone Company in unveiling the Blacksburg Electronic Village; and serious planning began for a “smart” highway between Blacksburg and Roanoke.

Additionally, the university raised $17 million in a campaign for athletic scholarships and facilities and initiated the Campaign for Virginia Tech to raise $250 million by 1998. State voters approved a $472 million bond issue, which included $46 million for construction at Virginia Tech. McComas had campaigned heavily for the bond issue. The university secured final federal funding for a biotechnology center, and the Virginia Tech Foundation purchased facilities in Switzerland to house a new international studies center. A flash flood left over $4 million in damages, principally to the Donaldson Brown Center and War Memorial Gym, spurring a much-needed renovation of the center. The university also began charging faculty and staff to park on campus, as required by the state, and improved campus accessibility, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

On Sept. 28, 1993, McComas, diagnosed the week before with colon cancer, announced that he was stepping down immediately to begin chemotherapy and would resign effective Jan. 1, 1994. The board of visitors appointed Paul E. Torgersen, who had been a candidate for the position when it went to McComas, as interim president until a new one could be selected. In December 1993 the board adopted a resolution to present McComas with the Ruffner Medal. He died on Feb. 10, 1994.