This year marks the 125th anniversary of the university's founding as Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College in 1872. The land-grant concept has contributed significantly to the quality of life Americans enjoy today. However, our institution was not born under promising conditions. VAMC (now Virginia Tech) rose from the ashes of the Civil War, during the Reconstruction, when government was a confusing mixture of carpetbaggers and untested legislators. On occasion, I remind myself of that era as I leave for Richmond. It is helpful.
No less than 24 Virginia colleges vied for the federal scrip that would fund this untested conception -- a land-grant college. Believe it or not, even the University of Virginia wanted to become Virginia Tech. Years of political wrangling ensued before a proposal from a little known Methodist school in Blacksburg dropped onto the desks of legislators. Probably as a compromise, the impoverished Preston and Olin Institute became the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College -- the commonwealth's land-grand college.
These new land-grant institutions were egalitarian and accessible to those of modest means. They stressed practical education as well as the classics, agriculture as well as philosophy. And they offered Extension services across the state.
Business graduates founded banks; engineers built railroads. But it is in agriculture, in the reduction of hunger, that the contribution of these institutions has been most impressive. Even today, hunger is the predominant concern of most of the world's population.
In 1860 one farm worker fed four and a half people. Today one U.S. farmer feeds more than 100 individuals. Contemporary American consumers spend less than 12 percent of their disposable income on food, the lowest in the world. The land-grant college system, including Virginia Tech, plays a major role. Beginning as a small college devoted to engineers and agriculturists, Virginia Tech has now completed the transformation to a full-fledged research university.
And in the last decade Tech has emerged as a leader in information technology. Cyber school courses abound on campus. We are partnered with Bell Atlantic and Sprint to "network Virginia" and make possible the connection of public agencies, including the secondary school system via a broadband network. Tech helped Blacksburg become an electronic village; now we are helping the commonwealth become an electronic state.
There will be changes in the way we deliver education in the future. New technologies will alter the limitations set by space and time. But information technology will enhance rather than replace the professor in the classroom. It has been suggested that higher education is in danger of becoming a commodity. But neither technology nor the Internet will replace the university campus and the classroom. Intellectual discovery is stimulated by a campus environment.
For the undergraduate experience, I doubt that there is a substitute for the "kid in a candy store" experience of roaming the library's stacks or having coffee with a favorite teacher or serving as president of a sorority or being a resident advisor in the dormitory or forming the lifelong friendships that inevitably begin at college.
As the years pass, I find satisfaction in the likes of an e-mail message I received from a student of 30 years ago who, referring to my course, said. "While I didn't excel, the subject matter still made a lasting impression. The course has proven extremely useful to me over many years. It is my understanding that you are still teaching that course. My daughter, who is a junior at Virginia Tech, is interested in taking your course." That note of thanks, that course recommendation, is to me what a university is all about. It will not be replaced by the Internet.
And so we proceed in this, our 125th anniversary year. We celebrate where we have been, but we are not constrained by this history. We look forward to the next millennium.
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