A campus and a county with room to grow

by Cory Weinberg

The Virginia Science and Technology Campus
Media Credit: Francis Rivera | Photo Editor
The Virginia Science and Technology Campus

Scattered along Route 7 in leafy Ashburn, Va. sit four University buildings. Inside, engineers simulate car crashes, and nursing students draw fake blood from dummy patients. Outside, businesses popping up have accelerated job growth in Loudoun County over the past decade.

And because of GW’s ties with the Loudoun County and Virginia governments, developments inside and outside the 120-acre Virginia Science and Technology Campus are feeding off each other.

The friendships with government officials are paying off, dean of the campus Ali Eskandarian said.

The University is planning a decade of expansion in Ashburn, months away from breaking ground on another multi-million dollar building.

“There is the intention and purpose on our part to engage the Commonwealth of Virginia on a different level than we had in the past,” Eskandarian, also the dean of the College of Professional Studies, said.

Enrollment in its graduate and certificate programs like nursing, business, education and health sciences has risen by about 15 percent in the last five years.

The campus is tucked eight miles from Dulles Airport in a development zone called University Center, down the street from a Holiday Inn and a BB&T bank, along with about 2 million square feet that GW could still develop.

In Virginia, Eskandarian said, the University could bypass the kind of “love-hate relationship” it has with its Foggy Bottom neighbors, which has improved since the passage of GW's 2007 Campus Plan that limits how many students can live and take classes there and also outlines development projects.

Ties between Foggy Bottom residents and students soured after two decades of development projects and campus expansion that reshaped the neighborhood. The University also agreed to cap its enrollment on Mount Vernon Campus in 2010.

“[In Virginia], we actually have a lot more goodwill from the neighbors,” Eskandarian said. “One thing the neighbors want us to do...is to expand our programming, expand our presence. If we went and put a full-blown university out there, it’d make the neighbors happier than anything.”

To link the campus – which houses more than 20 graduate programs and more than a dozen research centers, to its surrounding region – the University has stacked representatives on local groups like the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce, Loudoun County Economic Development Commission and Northern Virginia Technology Council. It has also looked to “be a good neighbor” in other ways, University spokeswoman Latarsha Gatlin said.

GW partnered its Virginia nursing program with local hospitals in April, and added education professor Diana Burley to Virginia’s Joint Commission on Technology and Science Cybersecurity committee in July. This spring, the University joined hands with an advocacy group to help the Metro earn the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors’ approval for the Silver Line to Dulles Airport.

Ties to Loudoun County officials – who have lured tech companies and private contractors to the area – could also help GW bypass potential roadblocks from the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, which shot down George Mason University’s plans to add a satellite campus there six years ago.

But Buddy Rizer, assistant director of the Loudoun County Department of Economic Development, said GW has demonstrated it is a driver of economic growth, attracting businesses to the region with academic programs in cybersecurity and health sciences.

“They’ve been real partners when we have a prospect that’s coming in and we’re pitching someone on moving a business to Loudoun. We’ve called on teachers and administrators from GW’s Virginia campus to talk about workforce availability and talk about the region from an educational standpoint,” Rizer said. “With GW continuing to grow here and putting together programs that make sense with this region, they can embed themselves in this process of growth.”

The University has also built up ties with D.C. officials by taking part in economic and sustainability plans. But in the District, GW must try harder to stand out among neighboring Georgetown and American universities. In Northern Virginia, an hour away from the Foggy Bottom Campus, GW mostly stands alone, with George Mason next door in Fairfax County and a community college and Shenandoah University in Loudoun County.

Suzanne Volpe, who was elected to the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors in November and represents the Algonkian District that includes the Virginia campus, said the campus fits in well with officials’ economic development plans. In addition to housing GW’s transportation safety, energy and nursing research and academics, it also started housing a new computational biology research center this fall.

Volpe said as technology companies and research centers like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute move in, the campus is making its mark.

“They’re moving to the area because of the specialized work being done at the Virginia Science and Technology Campus in Ashburn,” Volpe said.

The campus has also developed professional programs that educate nearby businesses' employees.

“We have a work force in Loudoun County that supports and believes in education. A lot of these graduate programs are ideally suited for our residents,” Volpe said.

A 2010 strategic plan for the Virginia campus outlines the construction of three new academic and research buildings over the next 10 years. Construction projects have not yet been approved or planned, but the plan envisions new buildings for nursing, energy and transportation safety programs.

Most immediately, the November groundbreaking will start to give rise to a 52,000 square-foot conservation facility for the Foggy Bottom Campus’ GW Museum and additional academic space. The Board of Trustees signed off on that plan in May 2011.

These plans could start to turn around the reputation as GW’s quieter campus, sometimes dogged by a negative reputation among the researchers and staffers who commute from Ashburn to Foggy Bottom.

Few visible signs announce GW’s presence near Loudoun County Parkway. The campus also has few walkways to connect its four buildings, which are separated by multi-lane roads.

Eskandarian said despite the added research space that GW will add in 2015 with the opening of the Science and Engineering Hall in D.C., the University has not wavered in its commitment to the Virginia campus – which was largely ignored in the early 2000s.

With the 2010 strategic plan, Eskandarian said the campus will now double down on research “of national importance,” like national security and computational research.

The campus is also strategically important to the University’s space needs, Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Planning Forrest Maltzman said.

“We have space to grow there,” he said.

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