BLACKSBURG, Va., Feb. 4, 2014 – When Timothy D. Sands, currently the executive vice president for academic affairs and provost at Purdue University, was leading the six-month orientation process for Purdue’s new president, he was focused on ensuring a smooth transition for Purdue.
Little did Sands know that the orientation experience would prove beneficial in his next role — as the 16th president of Virginia Tech. On Jan. 28, Sands and his wife, Laura, arrived in Blacksburg for the first of seven or eight visits that will prepare him to take office on June 1.
The orientation at Purdue, Sands said, “gave me a sense for what kind of information I needed, what I could do without, what order I needed it in. I feel fortunate that we have a few months to give the same process an opportunity in my transition.”
In the first visit, which stretched from Tuesday to Saturday, Sands was shuttled across campus for briefings on issues ranging from information-technology initiatives and research computing to development efforts and enrollment management. He attended a press conference to introduce the new athletic director, posed for his Hokie Passport photo, toured various buildings, and much more. In a hectic schedule that began with breakfasts before 8 a.m. and ended with dinners lasting into the evenings, the incoming president and first lady made the most of their time on campus.
The flood of information — a crash course in everything Virginia Tech — is something Sands is prepared to handle. “I’m learning what the critical issues are and what I need to be thinking about in the coming months, and it gives me a chance to ask some basic questions. But at this stage, it’s not necessary for me to remember all the facts. I have plenty of documentation behind the meetings and interviews to go back to. Mostly, it’s been an opportunity to get to know the people, to get a sense of what their concerns are, what motivates them, and what kinds of working relationships they have with others on campus,” Sands said.
By the time he takes office, Sands said he expects to have a sense of “where Virginia Tech has been going and where the Hokie Nation wishes to go.” Over time, as he gathers input and continues to reflect, his specific goals will emerge. “Right now, I have a very open mind about where we’re headed. I don’t have a firm agenda yet,” said Sands, who generally envisions his presidency as one of service that enables the university to accomplish its goals while also leading the way and raising aspirations. “I think I need to understand the institution better and get a sense for where people think the institution is now and what its opportunities are.”
Initially, Sands senses forward momentum and the potential for the university’s continued growth in such areas as engaging the world, working with government and industry partners, and interdisciplinary collaboration. “From the outside I didn’t recognize the degree to which Virginia Tech had taken a leadership role in engaging across the disciplines. I’m incredibly impressed with what Virginia Tech has done to draw disciplines together to solve big problems,” Sands said, citing as an example the connections between arts and humanities and science and technology. “A lot of institutions are trying to figure out how to make those connections and I think Virginia Tech is really in the lead — one of the few institutions that seem to get it — and that’s going to be very important for the students.”
In his evaluation of the university, both before and after being publicly introduced at an early December press conference, Sands has been encouraged. “I believe that Virginia Tech is indeed the institution I signed up for. Sometimes you sign on the dotted line and you find out, ‘Well, here’s really what’s going on.’ I don’t have that sense at all. I’ve been very pleased.”
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Sands first thought he might be a naturalist or graphic artist until he decided to go into engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. “I always liked to build things, and I started off in [civil] engineering at Berkeley, which was our ‘local public school,’” Sands said with a smile. “I had no idea that that was a top university. It was 30 miles away, and it was $212 a quarter, and that made it feasible for me.”
The undergraduate soon found that he enjoyed his science and math classes, particularly physics, and he worked toward a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics. Meanwhile, an undergraduate research experience on a positron-electron project pointed him toward research. “I was just running punch cards through a computer to optimize an RC circuit in a particle detector,” Sands said of the project. “I didn’t really understand what I was doing. But I got to interact with scientists from Berkeley, scientists from CERN in Switzerland. I met all sorts of really exciting people who were both good with their hands — they could build anything — but they were working on the most fundamental questions in science. That really made me reflect on the idea that maybe I would like to do scientific research, and that stuck with me.”
Soon thereafter, motivated by the mid-1970s oil embargo, Sands focused his passion on photovoltaics and solar cells, and he earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in materials science and engineering at Berkeley before beginning his professional career in 1984 at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. He then spent nine years with Bell Communications Research Inc. (Bellcore) in Red Bank, N.J., before returning to Berkeley in 1993 as a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. He joined Purdue in 2002, later becoming director of the university’s Birck Nanotechnology Center, an interdisciplinary center encompassing 12 academic disciplines.
Sands became the Purdue provost in 2010 and, in the fall of 2012, served as acting president, which led him to ponder his future. As provost he focused on students and faculty, while as president his role involved interaction with alumni, government stakeholders, athletics, funding agencies, and more. “I don’t know that we knew we were going to enjoy that,” Sands said of he and his wife, Laura, who is the Katherine Birck Professor in the School of Nursing at Purdue. “What we learned from that experience is we could serve in that role as president and first spouse and be effective. That’s when the light bulb went off.”
At the moment, Sands finds himself pulled in two directions, winding down his time at Purdue as he spends more and more time at Virginia Tech. Still, his excitement is palpable. “It’s been very encouraging and rewarding,” Sands said of his first orientation visit. “I’m just happy that we’re finally able to come to campus and not hide out, and actually engage with people. I’m looking forward to the first opportunity we have to maybe eat at a dining hall, or attend an athletic event, or meet with faculty in a casual setting.”