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Thirty miles from D.C., Virginia campus still searches for its identity

Hatchet File Photo
While the Virginia Science and Technology Campus benefits from its location in rapidly growing and prosperous northern Virginia, top administrators say the campus still doesn’t have a clearly defined mission.

Updated: Nov. 15, 2017 at 10:33 a.m.

Tucked between a bustling highway and a wooded area in Ashburn, Va. sits a small cluster of buildings housing GW researchers and graduate students who say their 122-acre campus remains disconnected from life at the rest of the University.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, researchers are busy holed up in their labs and, apart from the occasional student hastening to catch the 3:30 p.m. shuttle back to Foggy Bottom, the Virginia Science and Technology Campus is largely deserted.

More than 25 years after GW began conducting research on the campus, officials say VSTC is still searching for a clear identity. While the campus benefits from its location in rapidly growing and prosperous northern Virginia, top administrators say developing a clearly defined mission for the campus has proven to be a vexing task.

VSTC houses most facilities for the School of Nursing, a program for biology research, the cybersecurity undergraduate program and several large lab spaces for researchers.

But officials admit that while owning the campus has proved lucrative, they have struggled to unite its various programs and projects behind one clear goal. Before leaving office over the summer, former University President Steven Knapp said finding an identity for VSTC was one of the biggest unanswered questions of his tenure.

“I think we still haven’t answered the question of exactly what we’re doing at our Virginia Science and Technology Campus,” Knapp said in an interview at the time. “Still the question is ‘what is the identity of that campus, what is the purpose of that campus, how is that campus related to the rest of the University?’ I think that’s just kind of a large unanswered question.”

Creating an identity
Ali Eskandarian, the dean of the College of Professional Studies and VSTC, said even though the campus is still without a distinctive culture, he sees a future where the campus can host large labs for research projects and build more student-centered spaces to develop a more traditional campus culture.

University President Thomas LeBlanc visited VSTC last month, telling officials a focus on innovation in non-traditional fields united the campus, Eskandarian said.

“Based on the growth we have observed, I am very confident that we will see growth both in learning and in research on that campus,” Eskandarian said. “The number of activities on that campus and the people engaging in those activities will increase dramatically.”

In an interview last month, LeBlanc said the campus could be a place for the University to launch projects and student programs that it couldn’t on either of the other campuses because of concerns about space and strict enrollment caps mandated by D.C. officials.

“I think the University has struggled with an identity for that campus,” LeBlanc said. “It was an original thought that there was high-tech development going on out there. If we had a presence out there, we could leverage that presence with the high-tech development to create some unique programs, but then some of that development kind of dissipated.”

Officials have said more administrative offices will be moving out to VSTC with the planned redevelopment of Rice Hall into a Pennsylvania Avenue investment property.

Eskandarian said he wants to create more physical spaces on the campus in the next several years. Officials already plan to add a student study and lounge space to a newly-opened building on the campus by end of the year, according to the campus’s website.

The University has also moved high-profile cyber security and health science programs to the campus in the last few years, a decision officials estimated will add about $1 million to the budget because of the cheaper real estate prices in suburban Virginia.

Pamela Jeffries, the dean of the School of Nursing, which launched seven years ago, said the campus harbors a strong learning environment for nursing students. She said the campus’s large labs house clinical simulation equipment like mannequins that students use to practice treating patients, which couldn’t be built in Foggy Bottom.

“Nursing has a strong identity on the campus, especially in the Innovation Hall,” Jeffries said.

Building boom goes bust
Leo Chalupa, the vice president for research, said VSTC is “largely underdeveloped” due to lack of capital funding from the University. He said he hopes to see the campus partner with corporations to collaborate on research projects.

The University has sought to leverage the booming technology and data industries near VSTC to its advantage, building relationships with firms in the area.

In 2010, officials launched a strategic plan for the campus, calling for three new academic and research buildings over the next 10 years — including new facilities for nursing, energy and transportation safety programs.

“It hasn’t really panned out in a way that we would like it to pan out,” Chalupa said.

Two new buildings, including one that houses health science classrooms and another which is an extension of the textile museum on the Foggy Bottom Campus, have been built so far, officials said.

Eskandarian said the plan was implemented before he became dean and that it evolved after economic prospects changed.

Chalupa said he has met with LeBlanc to discuss developing a strategic plan to attract more funding for VSTC and create a campus culture that connects students and faculty doing research on both campuses.

“It has to be something that doesn’t replicate what we already have here,” Chalupa said. “It’s got to be something that fits the geographic area and exploits the possibilities out there.”

Feeling isolated
Faculty and students said VSTC can feel secluded from the Foggy Bottom campus 30 miles away, creating a disconnect with the rest of the University.

Max Alekseyev, an associate professor of mathematics and computational biology, said if the shuttle ran more frequently between VSTC and Foggy Bottom he would expect more students to attend his seminars and workshops hosted on VSTC.

Alekseyev added that since the shuttle no longer runs on the weekend, students who go back and forth between the two campuses for research projects on a Saturday or Sunday have to rely on other forms of transportation, which can be costly and less accessible.

“Rather than expanding the commuting options between the two campuses, they are shrinking,” he said.

The shuttle currently departs from the Foggy Bottom Campus five to six times a day. Eskandarian said the shuttle schedule is based on “demand of ridership,” and that the University carefully monitors student and faculty demand.

Pavel Avdeev, a third-year graduate research assistant in the Computational Biology Institute and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Mathematics, said he often has to choose between meeting with his professor or attending a seminar on the different campuses.

“Of course it’s disconnected, but my main concern is that there’s no people there,” he said. “If you want to talk with people you should go to the main campus. It’s very lonely on this campus.”

But some faculty and students said being in Virginia gives the campus unique advantages – like open space – to build new programs well outside the crowded Foggy Bottom Campus.

Karen Dawn, an assistant professor of nursing, said the distance between VSTC and the Foggy Bottom Campus does not impact student and faculty relationships. She added that more space for classrooms and research labs and lower real estate costs make being in Virginia a “win.”

“We have the option to attend either campus, so it works out very well for us,” Dawn said. “I think it’s a win-win to be in Virginia and also be affiliated with GW.”

Andrew Goudsward contributed reporting.

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