Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business

by James A. Bacon

Virginia Tech wants another $70 million of your tax dollars. That’s a lot of money, but give Tech credit for thinking big. Its audacious plans for a $225 million Global Business and Analytics Complex could be the next big thing that elevates the university to ever greater heights of prominence. Of course, it also could represent a massive bet on a passing intellectual fad. But one way or the other, it’s BIG.

Here’s the idea: Tech wants to expand its Blacksburg campus to accommodate four new buildings — two academic and two living-learning residential communities for about 700 students. The academic buildings would become the new home of the Pamplin College of Business and house research space in Tech’s data analytics and decision sciences destination area.

“We believe that Virginia Tech can become an international leader in the complex nexus of data and decision making; where people, communities and policy meet big data analytics to produce solutions that improve the human condition,” said Executive Vice President and Provost Thanassis Rikakis, as reported by the Roanoke Star.

The dorms are expected to cost $73.5 million, which university officials say could be financed by state bonds. The academic buildings would cost about $140 million, half of which Virginia Tech would raise and the other half officials hope will come from the state.

Virginia Tech is infusing data and decision sciences into every corner of its teaching, research, and outreach, says Naren Ramakrishnan, director of Tech’s Discovery Analytics Center. “We are preparing students to be data-literate and empowering them to use the methods of data science to complement their disciplinary work. Our data analytics and decision sciences planning group draws members from engineering, sciences, business, liberal arts, humanities, and the natural resources.”

Tech’s long-term goal includes developing a health analytics complex at its Roanoke campus and a technology-focused complex in Northern Virginia.

Bacon’s bottom line: No question, Tech is tapping into a powerful economic trend. Big Data is one of the most all-pervasive forces at work in society today, and the harnessing of Big Data is one of the great challenges of government and industry. Someone has to teach this stuff — why not Virginia Tech? If Tech is an early entrant in this educational field, it could be very successful. Moreover, the economic benefits of hiring more professors and teaching more students — a lot of economic activity — could be leveraged many times over if Virginia businesses hire Pamplin graduates to reinvent their enterprises and become more globally competitive.

But that’s a lot of “ifs.” Tech wants roughly $70 million from the state to make this happen, and it will compete with Virginia’s other public universities, all of which have grand schemes of their own, for scarce funds. It doesn’t help that the General Assembly will be cutting spending, not adding to it, in the current budget cycle.

Here are some of the issues legislators need to consider:

  • How else could the state invest that $70 million? That sum is larger than the $60.8 million allocated in 2017 to economic incentive funds for industrial recruitment, small business, brownfields, enterprise zones and movies put together. Those funds, incidentally, largely benefit working class Virginians and/or economically depressed communities.
  • How much direct economic activity will the Global Business and Analytics Complex create in added payroll and other spending?
  • What will be the indirect impact, in terms of improved competitiveness of Virginia business enterprises? Is that question even possible to answer?
  • Where will the students go? If Virginia taxpayers are going to invest a massive sum in human capital, can we be assured that most graduates of this program will subsequently work for Virginia companies, enhancing their competitiveness? Or will out-of-state companies recruit them, meaning Virginia taxpayers are effectively subsidizing the human capital of our competitors?
  • How many other higher ed institutions are pursuing similar strategies? Is this the next higher-ed empire-building fad in which everyone is hypes Big Data in order to bamboozle money from alumni and taxpayers? Are Stanford, MIT, Michigan State, Georgia Tech and a dozen other prestigious institutions all pursuing the same angle? Or does Virginia Tech really, truly have a unique idea?

This is just a start. I’m sure the list of questions can be refined. The payoff is potentially very big. But Tech is asking for serious money. Legislators need to give the idea serious deliberation.

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6 responses to “Virginia Tech Makes Big Bet on Big Data”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    May not be unique but certainly Virginia will benefit.

    This is sorely needed. Data analytics is becoming the “literacy” of the 21st century. If you don’t understand and can’t articulate what data analytics is and what it does – it’s like not having a good command of the mother tongue.

  2. First and foremost, congratulations to Virginia Tech for developing a realistic and focused plan to capitalize on an area that will invariably become ever more important over time. Compare this to UVA’s flaky slush fund plan to “do good stuff”.

    The problem is that Virginia Tech is just in the wrong place., geographically speaking. An initiative like this would substantially benefit from private company participation. They could bring in corporate executives for training sessions and charge the companies that send people. They could do joint initiatives. They could establish internships and work-study programs with local companies. One problem – there aren’t many local companies. If Virginia Tech were in Tidewater, Richmond or NoVa this would be a much better plan. Executives could get there for one thing. How accessible is Blacksburg from Atlanta or New York? Students can’t go to technology “meet ups” in Roanoke because there are very few to attend. Most students who graduate won’t stay around Blacksburg because there are too few jobs and no real twenty-something social life. Once they leave the area why not leave for California or Silicone Alley in NYC?

    Virginia needs a decade of focused technology investment in ODU, VCU and GMU. None of those schools have the STEM strength of Virginia Tech but they have something more valuable – they are in urban areas. They can catalyze public-private cooperation like UTexas and Austin, Stanford and SF / Silicone Valley, MIT and Cambridge.

    This is a very good idea. It just needs to be in one of Virginia’s urbanized places.

    1. Cville Resident Avatar
      Cville Resident

      Again, this is a question of: Does the state continue to invest in Virginia Tech from a higher ed perspective? Or, is the university a leading engine of economic growth in the 21st century?

      It’s an interesting question.

      If this is a higher ed question, eh…..VT is the largest university in the state….the facility housing Pamplin is old and cramped. So, from a strictly higher ed perspective, it could make sense in terms of a physical plant decision.

      Of course, MIT is already deeply involved in this research as is McCombs….gonna be hard to compete with them from the academic perspective.

      Turning to the other angle: if research universities are drivers of economic prosperity in the 21st century (and there’s some good evidence that they are), then there probably isn’t a more wasteful use of taxpayers’ dollars than investing in Virginia Tech.

      No, this isn’t a “sport rivalry” comment. Yes, I went to U.Va. undergrad and Cornell for my MBA. I’ll freely admit that. But, I’ve always advocated for U.Va. to go private. I couldn’t care less if another state dollar came to U.Va. so long as the state allows it to privatize. So this is not a “oh give the money to U.Va. instead” post.

      But from the rational business perspective….Virginia Tech investments are wastes if you are talking economic development. When you go to Raleigh (a neighboring state), and look at what that city and state have leveraged from NCSU in the past 20 years, it’s awesome. Or Atlanta-GT, Austin-UT, Stanford-Silicon Valley, Madison-UW, Seattle-UW, etc. etc.

      Then go to Blacksburg. Yeah. It’s a nice, quiet, quaint town, but it ain’t no Austin or Raleigh.

      There is no doubt that having your state-funded research university in a major city and commercial hub is very beneficial for your state. There is no doubt that having Virginia’s research university in SWVA is a drag on economic development investments. Turning George Mason or VCU into the state’s research university would return a much higher ROI in terms of economic activity for Virginia than those dollars going to VT. That’s just a fact.

      So does the General Assembly view this from the higher ed perspective or the economic development perspective? The answers are very different.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’d actually argue that Va Tech is the right place in the age of the internet – and let it become a de-facto MSA for Southwest Va so they can pay more for their own K-12 education instead of need subsidies from NoVa.

    Give that region of RoVa – the opportunity to build up it’s own region… for the folks who live in that region – and let it attract investors and entrepreneurs and jobs…

    Why Not?

  4. FromTheInside Avatar

    Tech could have done a better job of explaining the funding formula for this. First half the cost – the dormitories – are paid by the users, just like all other dorm projects. The state doesn’t pay for any dorms on any college campus. Tech is growing and needs new dorms. Nothing new here.

    Second, their college of business has been bursting its seams for years. A new building has been on the books for many years as well. Truly need a new facility.

    Kudos to them for positioning it as a big data initiative, but the scope of the project isn’t nearly as big at the $225 million price would seem to indicate. And if it truly were an almost 1/4 billion dollar project, the state would leverage nicely a $70 million investment.

    Indeed, Virginia already gets tremendous ROI on a relatively small investment. The state’s universities routinely rank among the nation’s best. Yet Virginia’s investment in higher education ranks among the lower quartile nationally.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: “wrong place, quaint place”

    Think about places like Austin, Tx, Boise, Id, Butte, Mt, Bend, Oregon and Redmond, Washington, Ashville, NC – all places with high tech companies that attract Millennials with active lifestyles that ski, kayak, bike, etc. and where housing prices are affordable.

    Blacksburg is such a place with the requisite outdoor geography and venues that urbanized locales often lack and it will attract Millennials and the high tech companies that seek them as employees.

    With a little vision – it’s not hard at all to envision an I-81 high tech corridor and the perfect antidote to Virginia’s current vulnerability with respect to dependence on the military and Federal govt jobs..

    We should embrace it and invest in it. It’s a win-win.

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