Dear College Community Members,

I hope this message finds you well despite these unsettling times. I know the emotional and physical toll of the last several months is cumulative. Juggling caregiving and work. An exhausting and divisive political season. The searing pain of racial injustice. Loved ones devastated by the pandemic and economic distress. The struggles are profound.

But in this darkness, there is still joy and hope for a better “normal” on the other side. And for our college, we have much to celebrate. I write today to share some of that good news with you.

Since 2014, the size of our first-year class has more than doubled. In 2020, 836 first-time freshmen enrolled in primary majors in the college’s departments and programs, an increase of 6.6 percent that exceeded the goals set by Enrollment Management. This year’s first-year class includes students from 397 high schools, and nearly 39 percent of those students are considered underserved and/or underrepresented. New transfer students to our college represent 18 percent of the university’s incoming transfer class.

The number of undergraduate majors in our college (4,281 primary / 797 secondary) and the student credit hours taught by our faculty (216,174) are the highest in a decade (and perhaps ever). Our students currently compose 14.26 percent of the entire Virginia Tech student body and I have every confidence we will soon surpass 15 percent.

As you likely know, one of the college’s top priorities is diversity and inclusion. Our college leads the university in student diversity numbers. This amazing growth is the direct result of our remarkable recruiting team and the faculty, advisors, and students who help them.

In 2019–2020, the college made 31 tenured and tenure-track faculty hires, 8 dual career accommodations, and 8 rank conversions—one of the biggest hiring cycles in the history in the college. In 2019–2020, the college had 154 (51.9 percent) female and 143 (48.1 percent) male full-time and part-time tenured and tenure-track faculty; 67 (22.6 percent) of these faculty members identified as members of an underrepresented group.

Our graduate students are valued members of our college community. We instituted a 20 percent across-the-board increase in graduate teaching assistant stipends, significantly strengthening our ability to recruit and retain top-notch graduate students and compete for talent with our peer institutions.

In the past academic year, our ever-prolific faculty published 20 books, edited or co-edited 20 volumes, contributed 113 book chapters, wrote 345 journal articles, gave 592 conference presentations and 483 artistic and professional performances and productions, and produced 124 creative works. They served as editors of 60 journals and as editorial board members for 170 journals. And their talent in teaching and research continue to earn them a disproportionate number of university awards.

Our college continues to thrive programmatically as well. In March 2020, for example, the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures was honored with a Russian Flagship Program designation in a highly competitive process jointly run by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Defense. After running a very successful Arabic program under the auspices of Project Global Officer for several years, the department launched an Arabic major. The college has also instituted new minors in Adaptive Brain and Behavior, Integrative Security, and Peace Studies and Social Justice.

In June 2020, the college launched its Juneteenth Scholars Program in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. The program supports faculty members in early stages of their careers who are involved in research topics such as emancipatory movements, structures of oppression, institutional silences about violence, the courage of activists, and the need for systemic structural change, in the United States and globally. The following faculty compose the inaugural class of Juneteenth Scholars: Amaryah Armstrong, Religion and Culture; Andrea Baldwin, Sociology; Brandy Faulkner, Gloria D. Smith Professor of Black Studies in the Department of Political Science; Lucien Holness, History; Allan Lumba, History; Desirée Poets, Political Science and ASPECT Core Faculty; and Edward Anthony Polanco, History.

The college and several of its schools and departments issued calls for racial justice. The college also launched a series of virtual teach-ins that draw on many scholarly perspectives and are commanding large audiences.

The School of Communication was approved by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and went into effect on August 1, 2020. The school offers majors in Communication Science and Social Inquiry, Multimedia Journalism, Public Relations, and Sports Media and Analytics. The traditional master’s program has been complemented by a second track in Reputation Management, which was introduced on August 1.

Our college has also launched several new initiatives, including the Center for Refugee, Migration, and Displacement Studies. Earlier this year, Yannis Stivachtis, professor of political science and director of the International Studies program, was awarded a prestigious Jean Monnet Chair. He and others were instrumental in Virginia Tech’s since being awarded a Jean Monnet Center, one of only 12 U.S. universities with this distinction. The center is officially known as the Center for European Union and Trans-European Space Studies — A Jean Monnet Center of Excellence.

As thrilled as I am about the successes occurring during my first year as dean, I would be remiss not to acknowledge some of the challenges we face. Although enrollment incentives earned under the Performance Incentive Based Budget (PIBB) model shielded us from a larger financial blow, the college nonetheless sustained a 6 percent base cut as part of the university’s larger budget reduction strategy.

For FY21, we have been able to structure the college’s finances in a way that prevented us from having to enact cuts at the school and departmental level. We have been able to protect our valued faculty and staff. We have not had to reduce support for graduate students. We have a strategy moving forward for absorbing these base reductions, but we must be vigilant and cautious in these times of economic uncertainty.

The faculty, staff, and students who compose our college community remain my biggest concern. I worry about the impact of Zoom fatigue on faculty and staff and how we can best support each other and our students when we are so isolated. We are formulating strategies to keep early-career faculty on track for promotion and tenure. We are actively exploring ways to increase scholarship support for undergraduates, many of whose families are under economic duress. And we have instituted a new weekly digest to help keep you informed with fewer emails.

None of us knows how long it will be before we can return to the simple pleasures of easy camaraderie, travel, and time with cherished colleagues. But let’s share the collective hope that when I next give a state-of-the-college message, we will be gathered together, in person, freed of the burdens this very hard year has exacted. I dream of that time and cannot wait to host a big celebration of the wonderful college community it is my enormous privilege to lead.

Be well,

Laura Belmonte
Dean, Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences