Lance R. Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering at Cornell University, has been selected as the inaugural vice president and executive director of Virginia Tech’s new Innovation Campus in Alexandria, Virginia Tech President Tim Sands announced today.

Collins, who has led Cornell’s College of Engineering since 2010, was a key member of the  leadership team that successfully bid to partner with New York City to build Cornell Tech, which opened its Roosevelt Island campus in 2017.

“Lance Collins is a world-class leader with impeccable credentials, a commitment to collaboration, and experience scaling up both an undergraduate student talent initiative and a new graduate campus in an urban area,” President Sands said. “He’s the ideal person to build on our momentum and launch a campus in the greater Washington, D.C., area that will expand the pool of tech talent and lead our exploration of the human-computing frontier.”

Collins’ appointment culminates an international search for the leader of the Innovation Campus, which was announced by the university as part of the state’s successful effort to attract Amazon’s HQ2 to Northern Virginia. Virginia Tech’s plan to build a graduate-level campus in Alexandria and to add at least 2,000 more undergraduate students studying computer science and computer engineering in Blacksburg have been cited as key reasons that Amazon opted to build its second headquarters in Arlington.

Collins, who joined Cornell in 2002 as a professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, will start at Virginia Tech on Aug. 1 in advance of the inaugural class starting in the fall 2020 semester.

“I’m energized by the opportunity to build a campus from the ground up in the burgeoning National Landing district,” he said. “Our inaugural students, faculty, and new and developing partners will collaborate to advance technology to meet societal needs rather than allowing technology to define our lives,” Collins said. “Virginia Tech’s delivery team, under Founding Managing Director Brandy Salmon’s leadership, has established an innovative and effective foundation for the campus. I look forward to working with Brandy and the team to move forward aggressively and with purpose.”

Related story: Lance Collins: A track record of service, engagement, and significant fundraising

Salmon said Collins impressed the search committee with his vision for how the Innovation Campus can offer a new approach to graduate education while also helping to double Virginia’s tech-talent pipeline. “At the start of the project we made a strategic decision to launch an international search to find an amazing leader for this unique opportunity — and that’s exactly what we’ve done by attracting Lance to Virginia Tech,” Salmon said. “He brings a deliberative, mission-oriented, and collaborative approach that fits perfectly with Virginia Tech’s culture.”

Dan Huttenlocher, who served as the founding dean and vice provost of Cornell Tech and is now the inaugural dean of the Schwarzman College of Computing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called Collins’ appointment a significant milestone for Virginia Tech.

“Lance loves to take on big challenges and he knows how to develop and nurture partnerships that are vital to creating a new campus,” Huttenlocher said. “Without his leadership in the Cornell Tech proposal to the City of New York and his subsequent support and guidance on development of the campus, there would be no Cornell Tech."

In his role with the Cornell Tech initiative, Collins organized an effort to link fundamental research and undergraduate education on the Ithaca, New York, campus to the Cornell Tech campus in New York City, maximizing the commercialization potential of Cornell technology in the urban environment.

Collins said the Innovation Campus, located right in the heart of a global capital, offers an unprecedented opportunity to take a human-centered focus to technology development while influencing the policy that regulates its use and protects the public’s right to privacy.

“I’m eager to get started,” he said. “We will initiate searches for key leadership roles immediately so that we are ready to welcome our first students in August.”

The first class of Innovation Campus students will enroll in fall 2020 in existing Virginia Tech academic space in Northern Virginia. The first campus building in Alexandria’s North Potomac Yard is scheduled for completion in 2024, while temporary space will be brought online in the interim to begin creating the tech ecosystem for the future campus.

Julia Ross, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering at Virginia Tech who headed the search committee, said Collins quickly emerged as a top candidate.

“With each conversation with Lance, I got more excited about what we could achieve together,” she said. “We were impressed with the deep understanding that he already has of all the challenges and opportunities that we face with the Innovation Campus.”

David Calhoun, CEO of Boeing and a Virginia Tech alumnus who gave the university $20 million to launch the Calhoun Honors Discovery Program, said attracting Collins to lead the Innovation Campus is a big win for Virginia Tech.    

“I’m impressed with Lance’s work to build a culture of excellence in areas like entrepreneurship and project-based learning at Cornell,” said Calhoun, who has served as an advisor to President Sands and the Innovation Campus delivery team. “And he has a strong track record of recruiting diverse talent at both the student and faculty levels. These are exactly the things we need at the Innovation Campus to be successful.”  

As the engineering dean at Cornell, Collins has led one of the largest capital campaigns in the college’s history.  During his 10-year tenure, the college raised over $400 million in new gifts and commitments, and Collins secured the two largest gifts in the history of the college, a $50 million gift to name the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering and a $50 million gift to name the Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

He has accelerated efforts to diversify the college’s faculty and student body: Since 2010, the proportion of underrepresented minority students has increased from 8 to 19 percent and the undergraduate female enrollment from 33 to 50 percent. Collins has also focused on entrepreneurship in the college, establishing new programs and incubators to usher new technologies into the marketplace.

Prior to Cornell, Collins spent 11 years as an assistant professor, associate professor, and professor of chemical engineering at Penn State University. His research combines simulation and theory to study a variety of turbulent flow processes. His work on mechanisms of droplet breakup in turbulence was recognized with the 1997 Best Paper Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

Virginia Tech Provost Cyril Clarke said Collins’ strong research background and commitment to teaching position him well to lead the campus.

“Not only does Lance have a stellar track record in leading one of the world’s finest engineering colleges at Cornell, but he has also contributed to building a tech campus in a major metropolitan area,” said Clarke. “His experience and expertise in recruiting faculty and students, raising private support and creating partnerships with corporate and government leaders will be critical to Virginia Tech’s success in meeting the workforce needs of the commonwealth and building upon our strengths in teaching and research at the Innovation Campus.”

Collins earned a bachelor’s degree in 1981 at Princeton University and a master’s degree in 1983 and a Ph.D. in 1987 at the University of Pennsylvania, all in chemical engineering. At Virginia Tech, in addition to leading the Innovation Campus, Collins will have an appointment as a professor of mechanical engineering.

When complete in about 10 years, the Innovation Campus will enroll up to 750 master’s candidates and hundreds of doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows to meet the needs of the commonwealth. As a comprehensive research land-grant institution, Virginia Tech expects to grow other essential programs in Northern Virginia and in Blacksburg to meet the broad range of needs for the commonwealth.

Virginia Tech leaders anticipate that Hokie undergrads will use the $1 billion Innovation Campus in a variety of ways, including through internships, undergraduate research, and accelerated graduate programs. Other academic programs and research related to computing and the opportunities it provides to improve the human condition could also be located on the new campus.