The newly announced inaugural executive director and vice president of Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus will be remembered at Cornell University for how he pushed the engineering college to new heights while significantly growing the number of women and underrepresented minorities among the faculty and student population.

He also led one of the largest capital campaigns in Cornell Engineering’s history and, as dean, secured the two largest gifts in the history of the college.

But in New York City, where Lance R. Collins provided early leadership for Cornell Tech, he’s best known to residents for saving the L Train.

Cornell Tech grew from then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s applied sciences competition to develop an elite graduate school campus of engineering and applied sciences in New York City that would partner with industry to maximize technology commercialization. Cornell Tech began operations in 2012 and by 2017 opened its Roosevelt Island campus.

That momentum prompted New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to call Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering at Cornell, when he needed help with the subway in 2018. The tunnel that was home to the L Train, which runs between northern Brooklyn and Manhattan, had been damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Renovations meant the subway line would be closed for 15 months, and the planned closure had already created a small exodus of residents and businesses from the area.

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Collins teamed with Columbia Engineering Dean Mary C. Boyce and, over the winter holiday break, formed a team of faculty that developed 16 recommendations that would allow the tunnel to be renovated but without the 15-month closure.

The team’s recommendations were eagerly adopted by the city. The plan allowed the renovation to be accomplished on nights and weekends, leaving the L Train in full service during the day.

“He is now the savior across New York because of that work he did with Columbia and the governor,” said Greg Morrisett, the Jack and Rilla Neafsey Dean and Vice Provost of Cornell Tech. “And the governor just loves Lance because of that work.”

This is how Virginia Tech’s inaugural vice president and executive director of the Alexandria-based Innovation Campus serves his community and makes the world better for the people who live in it.

“Virginia Tech is very fortunate to have hired an individual with the special talents and capabilities of Lance Collins,” said David J. Skorton, president emeritus of Cornell. “Lance’s leadership in creating the Cornell Tech campus set it up for success. He’s uniquely qualified to take the helm at the Innovation Campus for Virginia Tech. Between Lance’s abilities and the vision demonstrated at Virginia Tech, this feels like a perfect fit for both.”

Collins, who officially joins Virginia Tech Aug. 1, has lent his talents to the world through higher education since 1990, when he started his career in chemical engineering at Penn State University. After 11 years, he moved to Cornell University’s Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in 2002. A few years later, he was hired as the school’s director. Collins served in that role for five years before he was appointed as the dean for Cornell Engineering

Lance Collins is interviewed by members of the media.
Lance Collins (left) met with members of the media as part of his introduction as the vice president and executive director of the Innovation Campus on Feb. 3. Photo by Erin Williams for Virginia Tech

Kent Fuchs, president of the University of Florida and former provost of Cornell, called Collins “one of the greatest deans of the history of Cornell’s college of engineering.”

“Lance Collins was recognized as a leader from the day he arrived at Cornell in 2002,” Fuchs said. “He has the rare ability of working effectively with everyone: students, staff, faculty, those that report to him, other leaders, and those to whom he reports.”

Melanie Li Sing How, a Ph.D. candidate in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, said, “As an advisor and a boss, too, he’s been just phenomenal. When I think of someone who leads by example, he truly embodies that.”

Collins’ time as school director and college dean taught him how to effectively administer an organization.

“I’ve learned the skill of running an existing enterprise and trying to maximize what it can do,” Collins said. “When you’re a faculty member, you can have impact in terms of your research area. As an administrator, you get to have institutional impact.”

Collins led one of the largest capital campaigns in the college’s history. He also significantly increased the diversity of the faculty and student body. Since 2010, Cornell Engineering has more than doubled the proportion of students from underrepresented communities, from 8 to 19 percent. At the same time, undergraduate enrollment by women increased from 33 to 50 percent. The Class of 2021 contains more women than men — the first time that has happened in the engineering college’s history.

“Many people are asking me, because I’m in my last year as dean, to name my biggest achievement,” Collins said. “It is this — a remarkable milestone I didn’t imagine in my entire lifetime — an undergraduate population that has equal numbers of men and women.”

Now, as Collins turns his attention to Virginia Tech, he faces a “thrilling” opportunity: the chance to build a new campus from the ground up. Yet this, too, is a challenge that Collins has met in the past, with Cornell Tech, a partnership between Cornell Engineering, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and the city of New York. Collins served as part of Cornell Tech’s leadership team.

“One of the things I appreciate the most about Lance is he wants to take on the very hard, very challenging things, and be very thoughtful about it,” said Cornell Tech’s Morrisett. “Lance played a critical role in just forming the ideas behind Cornell Tech, along with Dan Huttenlocher [its first dean and vice provost] and others.”

“One of the things we thought about early on is that, rather than having a traditional campus with academic departments, we would design the campus to meet the mission of advancing an economic goal as well as an academic goal,” Collins said. “People would also have the opportunity to be affiliated with hubs, or interdisciplinary units, aimed at meeting the economic needs within the city of New York.”

That gave Cornell Tech’s researchers and faculty the chance to make their mark not just on traditional academics, but within the private sector. Collins played a key role in turning Cornell Tech into a success, and now he’s aiming to apply the lessons learned from the experience to building Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus in National Landing, with access to entrepreneurs, thought leaders, and the federal government.

“I’m very excited by the interest in having a campus that’s not just technical disciplines but that also includes disciplines relevant to business creation,” Collins said. “There’s something powerful when engineering and business come together. There’s also an important role for this campus to play with the federal government, and with the people and policies relevant to the federal government. We can provide training that spans technical as well as social and political disciplines, to train thought leaders to design and manage technology that moves at today’s incredibly fast pace. It’s important we take full advantage of that opportunity.”

— Written by Mason Adams