What’s a hokie? I am. Hoo? Yes, that’s me, too. Yes, I know, very confusing. I’m part of the rare breed of individuals that has made a home of both Virginia Tech (VT) and the University of Virginia (UVA). After completing my undergraduate degree in Biomedical Engineering at UVA, I decided to pursue my PhD in Biomedical Engineering at VT. I can honestly say that I love both schools (and cities). I’m often asked to compare the two universities and that’s a very difficult task. If I had to describe VT, or at least my personal experience at VT, in two words they would be engineering and service. Likewise for UVA, I would say honor and tradition. These descriptors may not come as much of a surprise if you are at all familiar with VT or UVA. Virginia Tech’s motto of Ut Prosim, That I May Serve, emphasizes the university’s commitment to service, not to mention the uniformed Corps of Cadets roaming campus. As for engineering, the shear size of VT’s College of Engineering speaks for itself with over 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled during the 2016-2017 academic year. For comparison, during the 2017-2018 academic year there were just over 3,500 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in UVA’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. At UVA, my experience was largely defined by honor and tradition. I appreciated the Honor Code and cherished the traditions, everything from “Guys in ties and girls in pearls” to Student Self-Governance. In addition, I enjoyed tasting the tradition through my elective liberal arts classes, including Commercial Law and Theology, Ethics, and Medicine. That’s my take, in four words: engineering & service and honor & tradition. Now, how does my perception align with the universities’ mission statements?
Considering both institutions are public Virginia universities, I would expect the mission statements to have a number of similarities. However, I would also expect the mission statements to be unique as they reflect different histories and foundations. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, a.k.a. Virginia Tech, was founded in 1872 and grounded in Blacksburg, VA as a land-grant university. Defined in U.S. Code Title 7 Chapter 13 Subchapter I Section 304, land-grant universities historically focus on practical education including engineering, agriculture, and military science:
…where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.
I would say Virginia Tech generally fits this mold with strong engineering and agriculture programs and a massive military presence. Of course, a university’s history is only part of the story. The Virginia Tech Mission Statement was last adapted in 2006:
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) is a public land-grant university serving the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world community. The discovery and dissemination of new knowledge are central to its mission. Through its focus on teaching and learning, research and discovery, and outreach and engagement, the university creates, conveys, and applies knowledge to expand personal growth and opportunity, advance social and community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve the quality of life.
Generally, research and teaching are two major focuses of higher education. I never thought about this much as an undergrad. However, as a grad student these two pillars become more defined, if for no other reason than to distinguish funding. Grad students are often paid as GTA’s (graduate teaching assistants) or GRA’s (graduate research assistants). In addition to these staples of higher education, VT’s mission statement includes outreach as a focus. To me, this echos the land-grant mission. Interestingly these three pillars are each listed with a pair; teaching & learning, research & discovery, and outreach & engagement. The language of learning, discovering, and engaging comes with a certain call to action, which seems appropriate for the 21st century land-grant university.
In contrast, the University of Virginia was established in 1819 in Charlottesville, VA by Thomas Jefferson. The flagship public university last adapted it’s mission statement in 2013:
The University of Virginia is a public institution of higher learning guided by a founding vision of discovery, innovation, and development of the full potential of talented students from all walks of life. It serves the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world by developing responsible citizen leaders and professionals; advancing, preserving, and disseminating knowledge; and providing world-class patient care.
We are defined by:
- Our enduring commitment to a vibrant and unique residential learning environment marked by the free and collegial exchange of ideas;
- Our unwavering support of a collaborative, diverse community bound together by distinctive foundational values of honor, integrity, trust, and respect;
- Our universal dedication to excellence and affordable access.
The visions of discovery, innovation, and development offer some variation from the three pillars of teaching, research, and outreach, with a heavy research focus as expected from the research university. We can also compare the language used to discuss knowledge. For UVA, we read about advancing, preserving, and disseminating knowledge in contrast to VT’s statement with creating, conveying, and applying knowledge. Preserving knowledge and responsible citizen leaders, align with my earlier observations of tradition and honor at UVA. The mention of patient care also stands out to me. As a biomedical engineer, I was able to experience firsthand the close association with the UVA Health System and be apart of the ongoing medical research. Finally, with a history dating back to nearly colonial times, UVA has battled inclusion and diversity. Originally only open to white men, the university has come a long way. The commitment to creating a diverse Academical Village is stated multiple times in the mission statement.
Analyzing the mission statements from two of Virginia’s premier institutions for higher education provides glimpses of unique characters. I believe it is important to understand each school’s distinctive history. Moving forward, I hope we as a Commonwealth can learn from each school’s strengths and weaknesses. So yes, I’m proudly a hokie and a hoo. Some say House Divided (did I mention both my siblings are hokies) but I prefer Virginia Strong.