Rao: VCU is a public university committed to the public good

VCU president emphasizes diversity, upward mobility, research and public health efforts at annual State of the University Address.

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., highlighted university accomplishments from the past year and o...
VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., highlighted university accomplishments from the past year and outlined details of VCU’s next strategic plan Thursday at his fifth annual State of the University Address.
Photo by Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing

Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao, Ph.D., outlined key steps to shape the university’s future and provided details of VCU’s next strategic plan Thursday at his fifth annual State of the University Address. First, he took a moment to acknowledge VCU’s history.

“This is an institution that began 180 years ago with a commitment to the social good,” Rao said at James Branch Cabell Library. “And when we came together under the VCU name 50 years ago, our charter asked us ‘to confront on an intellectual and practical level the social environment which surrounds [us]. To relate [ourselves] to the community … and participate in the solution of existing problems.’”

That mission remains unchanged, Rao said in a speech in which he highlighted university accomplishments from the past year and emphasized VCU’s role as a public university committed to the public good.

“We have grown exponentially,” Rao said. “[But] we will never outgrow our mission. It is still, as it has ever been, simple in phrase but enormous in prospect: to improve lives, to save lives, and to give life meaning.”


VCU’s new ‘Quest’

In a few months, Rao said, VCU will launch a new strategic plan, “Quest 2025.” It will build on the current plan, “Quest for Distinction.”

VCU has achieved much under the current Quest, Rao said. The university today confers 50 percent more degrees and 25 percent more doctoral degrees than when Quest was implemented in 2011. More than 135 academic programs at VCU rank in the top 100 nationally for graduating underrepresented minorities, Rao said.

VCU is graduating more students than ever, he added, and the university has done this while also raising academic and admission standards.

“Very few universities can tell the story of increasing graduation rates, diversity and academic standards at the same time,” Rao said. “It’s an amazing story. And it’s VCU’s story.”

That story — and that growth — has put VCU in a unique position, he said. A 2017 Brookings Institution study found that only 20 percent of U.S. public universities provide both “high social mobility” for students and conduct a “high volume of research” with a social benefit. VCU is among that 20 percent.

“In other words, our educational experience helps students graduate with more opportunities than they had when they got here,” Rao said. “And the research and creative activity we pursue helps society by solving some of its most vexing problems.”

VCU: A Public University, a Public Good


A social ladder

The university’s educational experience is a social ladder for students, Rao said. Eduardo Rodriguez, M.D., D.D.S., is the son of Cuban exiles and graduated from the School of Medicine in 1999. In 2015, Rodriguez — a premier transplant surgeon— performed the world’s most extensive face transplant, giving a badly burned firefighter a new life.

VCU, Rao said, has transformed the lives of countless similar students who rise from humble beginnings to do incredible things.

“That’s because VCU educates students unlike so many of the students we find at research universities,” Rao said. “We are more diverse. VCU educates — and graduates — more low-income students than William & Mary, U.Va., and Virginia Tech combined.”

The university’s educational experience is, and will continue to be, defined by this diversity and upward mobility, Rao said. About 17 percent of VCU students move up two or more income quartiles after they graduate, according to the Brookings study. That number is among the highest of any university in the mid-Atlantic, Rao said.

“We have an obligation to ensure [our students] receive the kind of education that will help them become that next generation of great leaders, creators and problem solvers,” Rao said. “We have the obligation to change as our students change.”

VCU will do that, he said, by emphasizing deeper engagement, creativity and interdisciplinary collaboration in its curriculum. Some steps — including the creation of the da Vinci Center and VCU’s investment in student entrepreneurship, Rao said — already have been taken.

“This lays a great foundation,” Rao said. “There is still much building to do.”

Very few universities can tell the story of increasing graduation rates, diversity and academic standards at the same time. It’s an amazing story. And it’s VCU’s story. 


A social lab

Through research, Rao said, VCU also functions as a social lab for positive change.

“The purpose of our research is to help people live longer and better lives,” Rao said.

This, he said, is research “with a social conscience.” VCU’s School of Engineering was awarded a $25 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in August to establish the Medicines for All Institute and fund the institute’s work on global health treatments for HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases. VCU, Rao said, also is leading efforts to combat the opioid epidemic through research, treatment and education.

“These are two examples of our commitment to bringing together colleagues from across disciplines to solve public crises from all angles,” Rao said.

This kind of research, Rao said, builds on VCU’s commitment to the public good by strengthening areas where faculty and research expertise meet public need. In the coming years, he said, VCU will continue to invest in these areas of strength — including in neuroscience research to help people struggling with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, autism and brain damage resulting from stroke or traumatic injury.

“We’re going to take an even greater role in neuroscience research,” Rao said Thursday. “I’m envisioning constructing a neuroscience research center in the next few years. And given the breadth of VCU’s talents, I want us to bolster the participation of the arts, humanities, and social sciences in this neuroscience initiative.”


A social lever

VCU also is a public good because it commits to the health and well-being of people, Rao said.

“We are a social lever for human health,” he said. “We are where you want to go when you need good care.”

Some of the university’s largest efforts in public health are taking place in Richmond, he said. VCU and VCU Health System announced in November the development of a health education and wellness center that will bring together 16 academic and clinical units to serve residents of Richmond’s East End. This spring, the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs will add new focus to the university’s efforts to address inequalities in health care, housing and safety in Richmond, Rao said.

“As you saw in the news recently, 54 families in Creighton Court were forced to live without heat,” Rao said. “That’s unacceptable.”

VCU is obligated — as a public research university and an anchor institution in Richmond — to help find solutions to these issues, Rao said.

It will not be easy, he cautioned.

“But I’m not going to push us any less just because it’s hard,” Rao said. “We have the chance to change lives. And we’re going to change lives.”


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