The New Orleans Pelicans of the National Basketball Association recently traded their star player, Anthony Davis, to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Davis was unhappy in New Orleans, and he was expensive. The Lakers needed some additional talent to put around the aging LeBron James. In return, the Pelicans picked up three young (and inexpensive) players, plus three first-round draft picks to go with the No. 1 pick they already had (and which they used to select Duke star Zion Williams). The trade was a win-win for both teams, as trades are intended to be: The Lakers got the help they need now; the Pelicans got the help they need for the future.
Trades are such a routine part of sports that sports pages reduce them to agate type. Other fields don’t trade people or things back and forth like that. Our job, though, is to prompt people to think, and here’s what we’d like people — especially state policymakers — to think about: The University of Virginia should trade its College at Wise to Virginia Tech. We’re not sure what Tech would give UVA in return: Draft picks? Cash considerations? Or maybe forgiveness for UVA luring away the executive director and 37 research faculty from Virginia Tech’s Biocomplexity Institute? Maybe the University of Virginia’s College at Wise is the proverbial “player to be named later”? This solution may be facetious, but the problems it attempts to address are quite real, so bear with us.
A few days ago, we got an email from a reader to our west who asked: Why doesn’t Virginia Tech build an “innovation campus” in Southwest Virginia? Tech, of course, is planning a $1 billion “innovation campus” in Alexandria. This was a key part of Virginia’s winning bid for the new Amazon headquarters that will be next door. Indeed, a columnist for the Seattle Times — Amazon’s current hometown — believes that the campus was a bigger incentive than any of the tax breaks that Virginia offered. Stephanie Landrum, director of economic development in Alexandria, says it’s possible that someday we’ll look back and the Tech campus will be regarded as a bigger deal than Amazon itself. U.S. Rep. Don Beyer, D-Alexandria, says he expects the new campus to someday rival the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That’s great for Northern Virginia, and thus for Virginia, which collects more tax revenues from that part of the state than any other. But our reader poses an excellent question. The Tech campus in Alexandria, and the growth it’s expected to bring, is a case of the rich getting richer. What about parts of the state that aren’t so economically fortunate?
Yes, yes, Virginia Tech has lots of extension programs for rural Virginia, but there’s nothing on the scale of this innovation campus. What if there were?
Yes, yes, Tech’s innovation campus in Alexandria is intended to help grow an existing technology sector that’s already significant enough to lure Amazon. It’s not there to create one from scratch. But what if Tech did build an “innovation campus” in Southwest Virginia (meaning something a lot further southwest than Blacksburg)? Could that jump-start a technology economy in, say, the coalfields?
Actually, there’s no need for Tech to plan such a campus. One already exists — it’s just run by the University of Virginia. UVA’s College at Wise is an artifact of the post-war college boom prompted by the GI Bill. Through the 1950s and ’60s, the state’s four-year schools started setting up branch campuses. Some of those later got absorbed into the new community college system — Tech’s decision to give up its two-year branches was a big political moment that put pressure on UVA to do the same. Others, such as George Mason and Old Dominion, grew into separate four-year schools. The branch in Wise, though, stayed part of UVA even as it became a four-year school. There’s no other arrangement in the state like that.
People in the coalfields are rightfully proud of the school’s UVA connection. There’s also the political reality: How much attention would an eastern-dominated state government give to UVa-Wise if it were an independent school? Unfortunately, we all know the answer to that. But would a Virginia Tech connection be better?
Here’s why we ask: During his campaign for governor in 2017, then-candidate Ralph Northam mused about starting a new university in Southwest Virginia — or at least greatly expanding UVa-Wise. His quite-sound rationale: Universities are economic engines. Southwest Virginia needs a new economy. Northam talked boldly about making either UVa-Wise —or that mythical new school — a center for research into renewable energy. “It’s a great opportunity to have expertise in solar and wind and energy storage,” Northam said at the time. “If you bring in talent, big talent, talent attracts other talent.” That, he said, might help the coalfields transition from the old economy to the new one and still be a leader in energy — just a different type. Maybe we could call them the “energy fields” instead?
Since his election as governor, we’ve seen absolutely no action from his Northam’s office on this campaign proposal — but we have seen some from Republican legislators in the coalfields. Del. Terry Kilgore of Scott County and state Sen. Ben Chafin of Russell County sponsored a bill to create an “energy research center” somewhere in the coalfields. The logical place would be UVa-Wise. Here’s where someone ought to ask some pointed questions: This proposal sounds more like the type of work that a land grant school such as Tech specializes in. Which university would do a better job of turning UVa -Wise into a research-oriented college that would spin off start-up businesses — Tech or UVA? Yes, there’s research at UVA — even some biocomplexity research now, we hear — but an energy research center sounds a lot close to Tech’s core mission than UVA’s. UVa-Wise is also doing some interesting work already with cybersecurity and has established itself as a regional leader in trying to develop a post-coal economy for the coalfields. Once again, this feels closer to the work Tech is doing than what UVA is known for. Maybe UVa-Wise ought to be VT-Wise. There’s your innovation campus. Ultimately, this isn’t about either school but what’s best for Virginia.
And then there’s this: UVa-Wise has struggled to attract students. Virginia Tech has too many. In a more logical world, instead of encouraging some of its freshmen to take a “gap year,” it would offer them a place at Wise instead.
Is any politician brave enough to propose this? Or just us?