Creating a University

T . Marshall Hahn Jr. died in May 2016 at the age of 89, 54 years after undertaking the presidency of Virginia’s historically white male military land-grant institution, known then as VPI (Virginia Polytechnic Institute) and now as Virginia Tech. VPI grew up in the Blacksburg area, a small town west of the Blue Ridge and far from major population centers. It was a good school with real strengths and limitations. Marshall Hahn said that he had accepted the office “deliberately, with the idea that with engineering and agriculture, both of which had some national prominence, that you could develop a nationally prominent institution…that you could really build.” “There was real opportunity to stir things up,” Hahn explained. “The state needed to be awakened, the institution needed to be vitalized, and the opportunity was just hitting you over the head every morning.” What transformations did he seek, what did he accomplish, and how did he transform the institution, building a comprehensive university, a nationally prominent institution? Marshall Hahn brought many advantages to his new position. He had lived his entire 35 years in association with the public land-grant education system. His father was a physics professor at the University of Kentucky, and there Hahn Jr. earned his undergraduate degree at the age of 18. He did his doctoral work at another land-grant school,MIT, then taught physics at Kentucky, before moving to VPI for five years as professor of physics and department head. Then he departed

sciences, and home economics. Into the hands of these new deans he entrusted the recruitment of new department heads and faculty. A serious commitment to research as well as teaching was required of each new faculty, and greatly increased emphasis on research in the growing cohorts of graduate students. Hahn also cultivated the governor of Virginia and the lieutenant governor who became the next governor, as well as the state legislature. He would need a big boost in financial resources, and he energetically sought that funding. Beyond his own institution, he actively sought to enhance the entire Virginia public higher education system, and he was instrumental in securing enactment of a new system of community colleges. Marshall Hahn had advantages beyond his personal characteristics and institutional experiences. In the 1960s, the nation and the state were prospering. Hahn arrived when the legislature was receptive to substantial increases in taxes and spending for education. He began his presidency when the baby boom was about to crest, so he perceived the opportunity and obligation to make space available for an additional thousand students every year. New funding would enable the rapid growth of faculty and salary raises that could make the institution attractive to the best new faculty, as well as the physical infrastructure to supply additional classrooms, residence halls, and labs. Uncoupling the campus from its twenty- year connection to Radford College was crucial. He believed he could not have the

for another land-grant school, Kansas State University, as dean of its new College of Arts and Sciences. After three years away, he returned to VPI, prepared to move VPI along the path he had observed and nurtured in Kansas. He came to his new post determined to build mightily on VPI’s strengths. Moreover, Hahn had boundless energy, tremendous people skills and a photographic memory. But it was how Hahn went about his leadership roles at VPI that shaped his super- sized legacy. The ways he presided over VPI provide a model for anyone embarking on a leadership role in central administration in higher education or any nonprofit. Hahn came to VPI with a clear strategy and a strong set of tactics, but he did not presume to dictate a transformation. He articulated his goals and his rationale, and he set out to persuade people to join him. President Hahn cultivated his core stakeholders, without whom he would almost surely have failed utterly. Most of all, that meant securing the active support of the board of visitors, the trustees who had enormous sway in steering the enterprise. Hahn’s administration swiftly recruited deans for the emerging colleges of engineering, agriculture, business, architecture, arts and

30 I Nonprofit Performance Magazine

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