Hokie alum commits $35 million, fueling long-awaited replacement of Virginia Tech engineering building

New River Valley News

BLACKSBURG, Va. (WFXR) — Thanks to the largest gift ever donated by a Virginia Tech alumnus, the university will be able to replace the more than 60-year-old engineering building with the biggest building on the Blacksburg campus. 

On Tuesday, Dec. 7, Virginia Tech announced that Norris Mitchell, Class of 1958 and his wife, Wendy Mitchell, have committed $35 million to the Virginia Tech College of Engineering.

This gift will go toward construction as well as activities and programming for a showcase building for the college, which will replace the aging Randolph Hall and be known as “Wendy and Norris E. Mitchell ’58 Hall,” school officials say.

According to the university, the current plans are for Mitchell Hall to be 284,000 square feet with classrooms; instructional labs; space for student team projects; research labs; office spaces for faculty, staff, and students; and significant space for student advising and a variety of collaborative uses by students and faculty.

Norris reportedly grew up without running water or electricity in his home in Carroll County. He then got into college on scholarship, worked his way through Virginia Tech in a co-op program, and earned his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering in 1958.

“My mother was a schoolteacher and principal, and the value of education has been clear to me ever since I was a boy,” said Norris, who was an aerospace executive with several leading firms before shifting careers to found companies in real estate and banking. “Virginia Tech equipped me with the knowledge and skillset to have an extremely fulfilling career across several industries. I appreciate the university’s key role in my life. Wendy and I are happy to be able to make this gift to help Virginia Tech prepare tomorrow’s engineers.”

Norris Mitchell pictured with members of the Sylvatus High School Beta Club, which consisted of juniors and seniors with the highest grade point averages in their classes. Mitchell, who was valedictorian of his class, graduated in 1953. (Photo: Courtesy Norris Mitchell via Virginia Tech)

Wendy also attended Virginia Tech briefly before leaving to help address a family emergency, but then she embarked on a career in banking that saw her rise to senior leadership positions at several institutions.

“Out of all the ways that we could give money to Virginia Tech, we thought this building project was the right choice,” she said. “You can have as many bright students as possible, but if you don’t have places for them to get together and work on projects, they’re not going to get as far. We hope this money will be a turning point for this great building the university has in mind to get built.”

Randolph Hall was built between 1952 and 1959 in the university’s North Academic District, but after more than 60 years of use, the building needs to be replaced, school officials say.

Along with having modern spaces and resources, Mitchell Hall is projected to be more than 70 percent larger than Randolph Hall, providing enough space to accommodate the university’s growing engineering programs and account for shifts in how modern research and teaching take place.

“The Mitchells’ inspiring story illustrates the power of education to create new opportunities for service and achievement,” Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said. “Their extraordinary gift will make this important project a reality, and I look forward to seeing Mitchell Hall become a nexus of ideas, innovation, and learning experiences that support the success of our students, our university, and the commonwealth.”

Total project costs are projected at $248 million, most of which would come from state funding, but school officials say the gift from the Mitchells satisfies the university’s obligation to provide funding to the project.

Depending on the timing of approvals from the General Assembly, the project could be ready for construction funding by summer 2023, according to the university’s capital budget request to the state.

Virginia Tech says Randolph Hall is connected to one of the largest university-owned stability wind tunnels in the country. Plans call for Mitchell Hall to accommodate the wind tunnel and potentially enclose it. However, current plans are for the wind tunnel to remain open for research and teaching throughout much of construction.

Norris and Wendy Mitchell at their home in Great Falls, Virginia. (Photo: Courtesy Peter Means for Virginia Tech)

The Mitchells’ gift comes as the engineering college continues to grow through Virginia’s Tech Talent Initiative, a statewide push to increase graduates in key computing fields. As the university’s largest college — including programs spanning 12 departments and two schools — school officials say engineering’s total enrollment grew to more than 12,000 in 2020.

According to Virginia Tech, expanding and improving the College of Engineering’s physical infrastructure is a key component of the college’s strategic priorities.

Meanwhile, other notable projects include a renovated and expanded Holden Hall — home of the materials science and engineering and mining and minerals engineering programs — which is set to open to students in fall 2022. In addition, space in the new Data and Decision Sciences Building, as well as several other facilities, will welcome computer science programs and faculty.

“This record gift is a historic moment for our college, as well as the entire university,” said Julia M. Ross, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering. “It comes at an exciting time of growth in our student programming, research enterprise, and new statewide initiatives. It supports an absolutely crucial project that will enable our students and faculty to remain on the leading edge of engineering education and research for decades to come. And it also endows permanent, flexible support that makes it easier to act quickly to address needs and pursue new opportunities as it relates to academic programing within the building. We are incredibly grateful to the Mitchells for their long-standing and game-changing generosity.”

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