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The Torgersen Years (1994-2000)

With President McComas forced to resign for medical reasons, the board of visitors asked Paul Ernest Torgersen, interim president between the Lavery and McComas administrations, to serve in an interim capacity again. Two months later, on Dec. 9, 1993, the board tapped him to become McComas’s official successor and 14th president of the university, effective Jan. 1, 1994.

The university leader continued to hold the John W. Hancock Jr. Chair in Engineering and to teach a class each semester, saying that he considered himself “a professor who also is president.” Torgersen joined Virginia Tech’s department of industrial engineering in 1967 as department head. Three years later, he was appointed dean of the College of Engineering, where, over the next 20 years, he guided the college to high national rankings and helped it amass more than 40 endowed professorships. In 1990 he became president of the university’s Corporate Research Center, a position he kept for four years.

Torgersen, who had also served as interim dean of engineering and interim vice president for development and university relations, entered the presidency during fiscally austere times and faced tough decisions in restructuring the university. He merged the College of Education with the College of Human Resources, drawing a flurry of protests, and issued a five-point plan for restructuring Virginia Cooperative Extension, which had lost more than 20 percent of its budget between 1990 and 1995. Under his leadership, Tech further thinned administrative ranks and combined University Placement Services, Cooperative Education, and the Career Resource Center into the Career Services Center.

The deterioration of state support also forced the university to raise tuition, leading to a decline in out-of-state students. That decline, retention problems, increases in costs for such unfunded items as insurance and meeting environmental regulations, and reduced state support created a $12.2 million shortfall for the 1995-96 fiscal year. The university covered the shortfall through expense reductions and reallocations. To entice out-of-state students, it implemented three new scholarship programs and held the line on tuition.

Despite budget problems, Torgersen guided Virginia Tech to numerous notable achievements. For the first time the university hired a woman as executive vice president and provost and another woman as dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. Tech used a $2 million anonymous contribution to establish a Center for Leader Development for the corps of cadets, created a Women’s Center, and opened two new schools: the School of the Arts and the School of Public and International Affairs, both interdisciplinary schools housed in existing colleges. The Campaign for Virginia Tech kicked off its public phase in 1995, and by its close, $337 million--$87 million more than its goal—had been raised. The university developed its first homepage on the World Wide Web. A graduate student was named to the board of visitors for the first time. The corps of cadets initiated a program to increase its numbers to 1,000 by the year 2000.

Torgersen worked diligently to rebuild the university’s resource base and to position Virginia Tech to be the model land-grant university of the 21st century. He traveled around the state to build relationships with members of the General Assembly whose support was crucial to the university, and he secured both state and private resources for building projects and salary equity.

In academics, the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine received full accreditation from the American Veterinary Medical Association and opened its doors to students outside the Virginia and Maryland borders. U.S. News & World Report ranked the engineering and business colleges in the top 50 undergraduate programs in the country. Vocational and technical education, wildlife, and fisheries programs received top three rankings from other evaluators. And a record number of first-year students (nearly 4,800) enrolled in fall 1996.

During Torgersen’s tenure, Virginia Tech became a national leader in information technology. A Faculty Development Initiative, which provided intensive teacher training, infused technology throughout the curriculum, and the Math Emporium was created to teach lower level math. The university also developed Network Virginia, a broad bandwidth network, for the commonwealth. And the university experienced explosive growth in the number of on-line courses it offered.

Research continued to grow. By June 1995, sponsored research had reached $92.7 million. With 28 patents in 1994, the university ranked 16th in the nation in the number of patents issued to U.S. universities–fifth among universities without medical schools–and then moved to 12th in 1995 with 29 patents.

In economic development, the university’s “smart” road proposal—the project became known as the Smart Road—moved ahead, a project that began to attract millions of dollars in research. The Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center opened in April 1995, creating 300 private-sector jobs in Roanoke. By June 1996, residency in the Corporate Research Center exceeded  55 companies and 800 employees.

In athletics, the men’s basketball team won the National Invitational Tournament championship, the women’s basketball team took the Metro Conference Tournament championship, and the football team won the Independence and Sugar bowls and played in the Gator Bowl. The Athletics Department added lacrosse and softball to women’s varsity sports.  The university then joined the Atlantic 10 Conference for 15 sports, including basketball, in 1995, but football remained in the Big East Football Conference, which Tech had helped form in 1991, and wrestling remained in the Eastern Wrestling League.

Under Torgersen, the physical plant expanded greatly. The university broke ground for a new Virginia Tech/University of Virginia Northern Virginia graduate center and completed the Fralin Biotechnology Center; Burchard Hall; a new engineering building, which was later named Durham Hall; a library storage facility; airport terminal; Phase IV of the veterinary college; three residence halls; the Merryman Center, an athletic training facility; a track and soccer complex; a women’s softball field; and the Student Health and Fitness Center envisioned by President McComas. When Torgersen announced his retirement, more than $150 million in capital projects were under way, including the Advanced Communications and Information Technology Center (ACITC), a state-of-the-art facility to house researchers and teachers advancing the use of technology. The ACITC facility, which was later renamed Torgersen Hall, included a massive enclosed bridge (now called Torgersen Bridge) over Alumni Mall, linking the ACITC with Newman Library.

Throughout his term, Torgersen focused on guiding Virginia Tech to become the model land-grant university of the 21st century.

On Feb. 22, 1999, Torgersen announced his retirement, effective Dec. 31, 1999, at age 68, capping a 33-year career at Virginia Tech in which he always taught at least one class each semester and signed, as dean and president, 62,191 diplomas.  F.W. Stephenson, then dean of engineering, persuaded Torgersen to continue to teach as an adjunct professor, which he was still doing a decade later. In searching for a new president, the board of visitors turned to alumnus Charles William Steger Jr., vice president for Development and University Relations and former dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. With the university’s football team headed to a national championship playoff with Florida State University in the Sugar Bowl during the first week of January 2000, Steger offered Torgersen the opportunity to remain in office until after the game, an opportunity the avid Hokie football fan gratefully accepted.

Upon his retirement, he was named president emeritus by the board of visitors. Torgersen is the namesake of two prominent structures on campus, Torgersen Hall and the Torgersen Bridge that spans the Alumni Mall. He died on Sunday, March 29, 2015, at age 83.