A man facing the left speaking into a microphone
"Across our university and health system, we’ve seen our colleagues and students rise to meet the challenges of the past few years. It has been inspiring to see how people help each other," said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., during his State of the University Address. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

In time of transition, VCU is stepping forward to lead a transformation, Rao says in State of the University speech

“We will revolutionize how we make the world a better place for all human beings through higher education,” Rao said.

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During his annual State of the University Address today, Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao, Ph.D., said that VCU is positioned to excel and provide leadership in a changing and uncertain higher education landscape.

“VCU will not only survive – in fact, we will thrive,” Rao said. “We have a distinctive mission that positions us well for the future. We believe that every person can reach their full potential – no matter where they start in life. Everyone admitted to VCU has the potential to succeed – and we’ll do everything we can to help make sure of it. As a Pell Grant student, that’s what drew me to VCU, and it’s why I continue on this mission.”

Rao, who spoke in the Lecture Hall of James Branch Cabell Library, said that the current moment is one marked by rapid change and transition, creating both challenges and opportunities.

“The pandemic’s upheaval impacted everything from health care, to education, to how we work, to how we feel about many things in life,” Rao said. “We’re still feeling the ripple effects, financially and emotionally. Across our university and health system, we’ve seen our colleagues and students rise to meet the challenges of the past few years. It has been inspiring to see how people help each other. But it’s also a reality that these years have put strain and stress on people. We’re seeing the needs of our students – and our patients – change rapidly.”

VCU consequently is “going to get ahead of change so that we don’t get changed,” Rao said.

“The gap between higher education in general and the people who need colleges and universities is growing, and our response needs to be big, timely and innovative,” Rao said. “We’ll be expected to focus on how we teach, learn and transform education. We will revolutionize how we make the world a better place for all human beings through higher education. That’s a bold transformation. But it’s what I’m confident we will do.”

For instance, Rao said VCU “will reimagine what student success looks like for a new generation.”

“At VCU we haven’t been known to follow the status quo,” Rao said. “We’re here to transform students’ lives with the skills and tools they need to build the lives they want and need for themselves and the many others they’re concerned about.”

Rao noted that the six-year graduation rate for VCU students has risen from 57% to 68% during the past decade. The university aims to reach a 78% six-year graduation rate by 2028 as part of Quest 2028, its strategic plan.

Rao emphasized the importance of experiential learning to VCU’s students today. He shared the experience of Nejla Pasic, who turned an internship with the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Richmond into a job. Pasic received financial support to participate in the internship through VCU’s Internship Funding Program.

“Our students want and need contextualized experiences, knowledge, understanding and skills that will help them to be successful in their lives,” he said.

Rao said VCU’s continuing emphasis on research is reflected in its $405 million in sponsored research in 2022 – a 49% increase in just five years. In December, the National Science Foundation’s Higher Education Research and Development fiscal year 2021 survey ranked VCU among the top 50 public research universities in the U.S. based on research expenditures. “Our communities and society rely on our research,” Rao said.

“VCU’s research enterprise reflects our commitment to pursuing impactful research that makes discoveries, tackles our greatest challenges, addresses opportunities for all people, reduces disparities and lifts and literally saves people’s lives,” Rao said.

Student participation in research is integral to those efforts.

“We’re getting more students involved with research – a great way for them to get work-based learning experiences in their fields, shaping the skills and critical thinking they need to solve problems and move our communities forward,” Rao said.

For instance, Rao shared the example of sophomore Ananya Udyaver who is working with her faculty mentor, Baneshwar Singh, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Forensic Science, to research the dental biomes of the ancestral remains discovered in an abandoned well during construction on the VCU Health campus in April 1994. The research can help provide information about the lives of those buried there.

Rao highlighted several ways that VCU Health is adapting to emerging needs in patient-based health care. For instance, the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU held a ribbon-cutting on Tuesday for its new Children’s Tower, bringing inpatient, emergency and trauma and outpatient care under one roof. Meanwhile, the Stravitz-Sanyal Institute for Liver Disease and Metabolic Health, which was created last year with a $104 million gift, is helping to transform liver care in the United States.

“We’re here to treat every patient as they want to be treated – and find innovative treatments, causes and cures for the most complex and chronic illnesses,” Rao said.

Rao previewed that VCU soon will make an official announcement that the VCU Massey Cancer Center has received comprehensive status from the National Cancer Institute, the institute’s highest rank.

“We’re doing groundbreaking work with immunotherapy – and when you combine that with our focus on the care of patients with liver disease, the Children’s Hospital, and the Pauley Heart Center, what we’re building here is a truly comprehensive public health institution,” Rao said.

Among the ways that VCU is helping the community, Rao used the example of the VCU Massey Cancer Center’s partnership with the Chickahominy Tribe, which had noticed that an unusually large number of its members living in the same area were getting cancer.

“Our cancer team saw a problem and took an engaging approach to solving it,” Rao said. “That’s what we do at VCU. And that’s what we’ll keep doing.”

Ultimately, Rao said VCU’s mission positions it “to leverage our creativity and innovation as we adapt to a world in transition, meeting the rapidly changing needs of our students, our patients and our communities.”

“The world around us is changing in so many ways,” Rao said. “It demands that we keep up. And we will.”