For universities in Virginia, Amazon’s HQ2 came at the perfect moment

A rendering shows Virginia Tech’s planned 1 million-square-foot technology-focused campus in Alexandria, Va., near Amazon’s future headquarters. (N/A/Virginia Tech) Susan Svrluga Reporter covering higher education for the Grade Point blog November 18 at 2:50 PM When George Mason University heard that was hunting for a site to open a second headquarters, officials contacted state leaders in Virginia right away. The public school had seen dramatic growth in computer science and related programs during the past five years, with enrollment doubling. Administrators were working with the state on expanding those initiatives. Virginia Tech was ready, too. That school’s engineering program was large and growing, and — even more crucially — the university had been nurturing the idea of an innovation campus in Northern Virginia for several years. And for state officials, the announcement that Amazon was expanding came just as they were wrapping up a strategic plan that envisioned technology as the heart of new employment opportunities. That would require a serious investment to ensure the pipeline of talent could meet current and future demand. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Higher education, said Stephen Moret, president of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, “was right in the bull’s eye.” Especially in a state poised to expand its commitment to technology education. “With Amazon,” he said, “it seemed like an imperative.” So the Amazon sweepstakes came at a perfect time. Suddenly, state leaders were willing to pour money into tech higher education — more than $1 billion over 20 years. That commitment, not a formal part of the final agreement with Amazon, was announced at the same time it was revealed Northern Virginia had been chosen as one of two winning sites, along with New York. State leaders said the commitment to higher education played a key role, assuring the company of a continued supply of workers with tech expertise. It wasn’t included in the formal agreement because the state was committed to making the investment with or without Amazon, Moret said. But it was part of the pitch they made to the company for more than a year. [Here’s how Virginia officials found out Arlington won half of Amazon’s HQ2] Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus — a $1 billion graduate site inspired by Cornell Tech on New York City’s Roosevelt Island that would be within walking distance of Amazon’s new headquarters in Northern Virginia — is the most striking symbol. But schools across the state are expected to encounter heightened demand and significantly increased funding for technology education. Early in the process, state officials contacted the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and individual schools, asking whether they would think about how higher education could factor into a bid. They wanted to be sure to address education in a very big way, Moret said, making it the centerpiece of the proposal. His background is in higher education, and his doctorate focused on the intersection between education and the job market. He was hearing the same message from tech companies: They needed talent. Moret hosted a conference call with schools explaining that the Virginia Economic Development Partnership and a consulting firm were leading the effort to coordinate a Virginia proposal. “There must have been 50 or 60 people” on the call, said Deborah Crawford, George Mason’s vice president for research. “It was a very messy conference call. You could ask questions, but there was no way to synchronize who could talk when. People were talking over one another.” Then, they drilled down. The Virginia Economic Development Partnership followed up with questions about how schools might contribute, especially in developing tech talent at the undergraduate and master’s degree levels. Crawford had hoped for questions about doctoral and research capacity, too, but the proposal was focused on bachelor’s and master’s degree production. The questionnaire from the agency asked what level of expansion would be possible with — and without — state money. It included the notion of a campus similar to Cornell Tech, and asked institutions what they thought. Virginia Tech officials responded that they were prepared, with state support, to raise hundreds of millions of dollars toward such a project, Moret said. Bolstering Virginia Tech’s presence in Northern Virginia is something school leaders see as essential to its mission as a land-grant institution, said Brandy Salmon, who will be chief operating officer at the planned innovation campus. When the school was founded nearly 150 years ago, serving the commonwealth meant training farmers and workers in mechanical science, spokesman Mark Owczarski said. Now, Tim Sands, the university’s president, is thinking about what its mission is in 2018 and decades into the future. Technology, and the innovation campus, are central to that vision. Virginia Tech was a leader in the discussions, with a large team of people actively working on its plans. But George Mason, Northern Virginia Community College, the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary were all integral, Moret said, and many more were part of the process. The schools submitted their responses to the questionnaire in September of last year, Crawford said. Then, they waited. One evening in January, Crawford got a text from Moret, asking whether she had a quick moment. “At first I was like, ‘Oh, shoot,’ ” thinking “quick” signaled bad news, she said. When Moret called, he told Crawford that Virginia was one of 20 finalists, and Amazon’s focus was on Northern Virginia. She started jumping up and down. And then she was anxious to know the next step. Amazon would do a site visit in the next couple of weeks, Moret told her. In February, George Mason got a call that the site visit was imminent and that it was hoped Mason’s president, Angel Cabrera, could meet with the team. That was a drop-everything kind of message. Cabrera was there. “He didn’t have much time to prepare for it, but this was a really important priority for us,” Crawford said. Within days, at a hotel in Arlington, a few people from educational institutions and other organizations met with the site visit team. There was a clear understanding that other schools, including K-12 schools, would be involved — something the Virginia team thought would prove attractive to Amazon. Moret said when Sands and other Virginia Tech leaders met with Amazon officials, he felt they were on the right track. At George Mason, they heard nothing more for two or three more months. In early summer, Crawford learned that Northern Virginia might make it to a shorter shortlist. She was excited, thinking for the first time this might be Northern Virginia’s to lose. That’s when they began preparing extensive data around computer science enrollment projections, how many additional students they might be able to enroll over how many years in which programs, working out the operating costs of ramping up quickly. Amazon wanted to see more degrees awarded in fields related to computing, and universities in Virginia were asked for projections for the next 20 years. Because some universities in the state had been working on a cyber initiative with similar goals — to increase graduates in computer science — Crawford felt they had a significant head start. They refined the data and cost projections. George Mason focused on adding a building at its Arlington campus, “a hop, skip and a jump” from the site Amazon was considering, and the site of graduate programs in policy, law and business that would be complementary. State officials were refining a financial model to produce an additional 25,000 to 35,000 bachelor’s and master’s degree graduates over the next 20 years. At George Mason, as officials homed in on how many faculty they would need to hire and continued sharpening cost estimates, they began in August and September to get a sense of wha
t the commonwealth might contribute. In September, media reports emerged that Northern Virginia was a strong front-runner. State officials held a meeting with the higher-education presidents — not just the top schools, but everyone — about what the higher education piece of the bid was likely to include. The state has committed up to $125 million over the next 20 years to expand George Mason’s Arlington campus with an emphasis on research and graduate education in technology, a figure the school will match. Virginia Tech plans to launch its innovation campus by matching a $250 million commitment from the state. [Amazon HQ2 arrival spurs Virginia Tech to build innovation campus in Northern Virginia] Crawford heard a lot of rumors, and read a lot of stories, but, she didn’t really know until Monday night. Cabrera got a call, she said: Be ready for Tuesday. “That was a happy phone call,” Crawford said. Virginia Tech officials saw the news on TV, and celebrated. “It was exhilarating,” Salmon, chief operating officer of the new Virginia Tech campus, said. “It is one of the most exciting opportunities of a lifetime.” It wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon, though, that it really sunk in for Crawford. She saw all the black Suburbans idling outside, a sign that officials from Richmond had arrived, and walked into the warehouse. It was already packed, and the room was buzzing. She saw Moret, and hugged him. “You did it!” A rendering of the planned Virginia Tech Innovation Campus. (Virginia Tech) (Courtesy of Virginia Tech)
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