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Va. Tech president retires, reflects on massacre

Updated at: 05/14/2013 5:36 PM
By STEVE SZKOTAK

(AP) RICHMOND, Va. - The president of Virginia Tech announced his retirement Tuesday, satisfied he had elevated the university’s reputation and acknowledging that the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history on his campus would be a part of his legacy.

Charles Steger, 65, continues to be a central figure and criticized for the way the Blacksburg campus responded on April 16, 2007, when a student-gunman killed 32 students and faculty before killing himself.

"It’s part of our legacy, it’s part of history," Steger said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It was an unprecedented tragedy."

Steger said he will draw on the killings, in part, for a book he plans to write in retirement on the resilience of communities to recover from disasters, manmade and natural. Tech, he said, was able to move on after the shootings because of a strong sense of community.

"I think the community is probably closer together as a result of that," he said. "I think there’s a common bond."

Through his 14 years as president, Steger has won much praise.

The university increased its research portfolio more than 300 percent, with university research growing from $192 million in 2000 to more than $450 million currently, the school noted. It also increased enrollment, capital projects and raised more than $1 billion in private funding. The university also formed a school of biomedical engineering and created a school of medicine.

However, he has been criticized by some parents of shooting victims and others for not warning the campus sooner that a shooter had killed two students in a residence hall on April 16. More than two hours later, when the alert was issued that a shooter remained at large, student Seung-Hui Cho was chaining shut the doors to a classroom building where he killed 30 more students and faculty before turning the gun on himself as police closed in.

The state Supreme Court will hear arguments in June that Steger should be put on trial for his actions that day.

The attorney representing two families who lost their daughters criticized Steger’s parting statement.

"His university suffered the greatest loss of human life on any college campus during his tenure, but he couldn’t find it in his heart to recognize and honor the 30 dead students and faculty ... who might be with us today had he shared with them the alert he sent the governor after the first two shootings: `We have one dead and one wounded, gunman on loose,’" Robert T. Hall said in a statement.

Steger defended his actions on Tuesday. He said investigators at the scene of the first shootings believed the victims were specifically targeted and the gunman did not pose a threat to the larger campus.

"We did the best we could knowing what we knew at the time," he said.

Steger also was commended for his steady hand leading the university through tough times after the shooting.

The announcement of his retirement brought praise for his tenure from Gov. Bob McDonnell, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., among others, and from Steger’s counterpart at the University of Virginia, Teresa A. Sullivan. "During his term as president, he has strengthened Virginia Tech’s programs in Blacksburg while extending the university’s reach on the state, national and international levels," she said in a statement.

McDonnell said the state "will be forever indebted to Dr. Steger for his stalwart leadership and strategic vision in transforming the land grand institution into one of the leading research institutions in the nation."

Steger will remain on the job until a successor is found. "Be prepared to work seven days a week," he said he’ll advise his replacement. "I’m not joking about that, by the way."

Steger is a three-time Virginia Tech grad. He became the youngest dean of architecture in the nation when he assumed the head of the university’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies at age 33. He was named president in 2000.

While he didn’t address the shootings in his note to the campus community, Steger complimented the Virginia Tech family on its "indomitable spirit."

"We have the entrepreneurial culture, the creativity, the ability to leverage our strengths, and the willingness to take calculated risks that sets us apart from other universities and enables us move forward," he wrote.

Mike Quillen, rector of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, said the board "sadly" accepted Steger’s desire to step down.

"Charles has truly been outstanding, visionary, and productive," he said in a statement. "I believe when history looks back upon his tenure as president, he will be ranked among the best of Virginia Tech’s strong leaders."

Besides the book, Steger said he will be involved with an international conference in Switzerland and various research projects.

"I haven’t quite decided all that yet, but I’m certainly not going to play golf five days a week," he said.

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Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)