Education and business converge at summit

Panel discussion from left: Dominion CEO Tom Farrell moderating, Sen. Dick Saslaw, Del. Kirk Cox, Del. Steve Landes and Sen. Tommy Norment.

From left: Dominion CEO Tom Farrell as panel moderator, Sen. Dick Saslaw, Del. Kirk Cox, Del. Steve Landes and Sen. Tommy Norment at Thursday’s Virginia Summit on Higher Education and Economic Competitiveness. Photos by Jonathan Spiers.

With some big names on hand, a campaign aimed at improving Virginia’s private sector and economic development growth turned its focus this week toward investment in higher education.

Supporters converged on the VCU Siegel Center on Thursday for the 2015 Virginia Summit on Higher Education and Economic Competitiveness, which was presented by GO Virginia, the Virginia Business Higher Education Council and the Council on Virginia’s Future.

With just two months remaining before legislators convene the next budget-enacting session of the General Assembly, the coalition of business leaders, educators and government officials behind the recently launched GO Virginia campaign stressed the link between investment in higher education and private sector growth that fuels both the state and regional economies.

At Thursday’s event, the groups continued a message they first delivered in July with the launch of GO Virginia, which aims to work with the governor and General Assembly to develop incentives and secure funding in the next state budget to encourage cooperation between regions, localities and individual businesses.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe speaks at the event.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe speaks at the event.

Those efforts would include: financial incentives for cost-saving collaborations between local governments, schools and higher education institutions; matching-fund support for labs and research facilities; grant support for startups; and state investment in capital projects that would result in strong private-sector growth.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe was among the speakers at Thursday’s summit. He noted the state’s recent ranking as 48th in the country in gross domestic product growth, and he stressed that his budget, which he’ll present Dec. 17, would put a heavy emphasis on education and economic development.

“They are intrinsically combined. There is not one without the other,” he said. “You cannot have economic development if you don’t have a great higher ed system, and a great K-12 system – I would argue a great pre-K system, as well. And it wouldn’t happen without the business community.”

McAuliffe noted preparations for a $3.5 billion bond package that would support, among other things, capital projects – specifically research facilities – at universities and colleges in the state.

“I have been very frank with our college presidents: I’m not into building any new cafeterias and things like that; I am into helping you build new research facilities,” he said.

“Over the last couple years, because of budget constraints, we’ve pulled back a little bit on our higher education system. Now is the time to invest,” he said. “There is not a better bang for our buck than investing in our education system. It is absolutely critical for what we have to do.”

VCU President Michael Rao addresses the audience.

VCU President Michael Rao addresses the audience.

Speakers said investment has been needed in the wake of federal budget cuts and sequestration that shined a light on Virginia’s heavy reliance on federal funding and Department of Defense contracts.

“We as business leaders are partly to blame, frankly, for where we find ourselves,” said John “Dubby” Wynne, a council board member and former CEO of Norfolk-based Landmark Communications. “We have not been as engaged as we should have been.

“I really believe that, working together, the business, local government and even some federal activities will strengthen our regional economies, enhance Virginia’s economy and recapture our state’s reputation as the best state in America to do business and raise a family,” he said. “In return, private sector growth will produce the revenues necessary to reinvest in our colleges and universities to produce that next generation of leaders, thinkers and entrepreneurs.”

The summit included panel discussions, including one moderated by Dominion Resources CEO Tom Farrell, who discussed previous impediments to regional cooperation and the prospects for GO Virginia with state Sens. Tommy Norment and Dick Saslaw and Dels. Kirk Cox and Steve Landes.

Other legislators in attendance included state Sens. Glen Sturtevant, Walter Stosch and John Watkins and Del. Jimmie Massie. The event also included remarks from VCU President Michael Rao, Virginia Tech President Tim Sands and a keynote address from Brian Fitzgerald, CEO of the Business Higher Education Forum.

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