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Fotis Sotiropoulos, Ph.D., provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, on Monday laid out a vision to make VCU a leading example of the “university of the future,” an institution defined by access and excellence. Doing so, he said, will require a collective commitment by VCU faculty, staff and students to aspire to greatness.

Sotiropoulos, who joined VCU six months ago, outlined his vision in the university’s inaugural State of Academic Affairs Address at the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU.

“Great universities do not just happen. They are being built by excellent faculty, brilliant students and dedicated staff, by setting aspirational strategic goals, by aiming high, by striving to do better, always trying to reach higher,” Sotiropoulos said. “Our time is now to make VCU the national model for the university of the future.”

VCU, he said, will be a university that not only provides access but is also “relentless and deliberate in pursuing inclusive excellence in everything we do.”

He added that VCU will advance transdisciplinary educational paradigms that meet the needs of students in a rapidly changing world. It will lead the nation in educating those from underrepresented backgrounds and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. It will be a research institution that solves societal problems that improve lives. It will be the driver of prosperity and social mobility to everyone in the community. And its culture will be defined      by inclusivity, caring and a “laser-sharp focus on excellence.”

“Let us always keep in mind this quote attributed widely to Michelangelo: ‘The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark,’” he said.

Closing the gap

Sotiropoulos described how he, VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., and P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., vice president for research and innovation at VCU, recently met with National Science Foundation director Sethuraman Panchanathan, Ph.D., who told them his goal is to focus the foundation on the “missing millions” of people from underrepresented backgrounds and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities who are capable of succeeding in science and technology but lack access to pathways that lead into those careers.

Closing that gap, Sotiropoulos said, will be essential for the U.S. to remain globally competitive in science and technological innovation. He added that there are many more millions, beyond STEM, who are missing the global creative enterprise and entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“What institution is better positioned than VCU to emerge as the national model for what the universities of the future that will close this gap and find these missing millions should look like?” he said. “Because diversity, equity and inclusion is in our DNA. And because transformative innovation is in our DNA.”

Adapting to a changing world

VCU will need to adapt to meet the needs of a world that’s constantly changing, and increasingly defined by exponentially growing technologies, big data and artificial intelligence, as well as growing global income inequality, health disparities and racial and climate injustice.

“In that context we need to prepare for what the future of work will be like as artificial intelligence and automation cause a big chunk of human jobs to disappear in the next few decades and create many new jobs,” he said. “We need to urgently engage in conversations about how to prepare our students to be productive and successful in this new emerging world.”

VCU, he said, could lead the way in imagining and putting in place “educational paradigms that prepare humans to work and creatively coexist with technology by cultivating higher-order human cognitive abilities, which are less likely to be surpassed by intelligent machines.”

The VCU of tomorrow will teach all students to be proficient in computational thinking but also in critical thinking, the ability to design and work with complex interconnected systems, entrepreneurship, compassion and cross-cultural understanding.

“Preparing our students to compete and succeed in this future of work is also critical for closing the widening income inequality gap,” he said. “It is about financial justice and providing opportunities for social mobility. It is about what President [Michael] Rao has been so succinctly and eloquently articulating: Meeting our students where they are.”

VCU is in the process of recalibrating its Quest 2025 strategic plan, and the changes will position VCU to meet the needs of the changing world, he said.

Sotiropoulos said he has challenged the university’s general education committee and the rest of the VCU community to re-imagine what the curriculum looks like as VCU adapts to prepare students for the future of work.

“A general education that, in addition to the fundamental coursework that forms the bedrock of a VCU education, is flexible and agile enough to incorporate foundational literacies in racial justice, computational thinking and entrepreneurship,” he said.

As an example, he highlighted VCU’s new course on racial literacy that will be a required general education course for all VCU students in fall 2023     .

Additionally, he said, racial, cultural, computational and entrepreneurship literacies will be woven into the fabric of VCU’s curriculum across all disciplines and degree programs.

Less emphasis will be placed on the classroom, he said, and more on transdisciplinary, experiential learning.

VCU has already achieved major progress in providing students with experiential learning opportunities. More than 50% of VCU’s undergraduate degree programs require a transformative experience. However, he said, there remain significant gaps in the diversity and socioeconomic background of students who are able to participate.

“I am challenging us all to collectively commit that by academic year 2027 we will realize President Rao’s vision that 100% of VCU students will graduate after having participated in at least one transformative educational experience,” he said.

Access and academic excellence

VCU is proud to have many programs that are highly ranked by U.S. News & World Report, he said. Yet the institution’s overall ranking has stayed essentially flat – currently at 172 – for the past five years.

Sotiropoulos described how VCU will focus on the two highest factors that contribute to the rankings: peer perception and the six-year graduation rate.

For peer perception, he said, VCU must aim high and measure its achievements against aspirational peers, even peers VCU may be uncomfortable comparing itself to.

“Doing so, however, will help lift us all up, will increase our institutional prestige, and solidify VCU’s position as one of the nation’s greatest research universities,” he said. “In other words, it will help us achieve national and international prominence.”

On improving VCU’s six-year graduation rate, Sotiropoulos said the university has an uphill battle because VCU is an inclusive institution and ranking algorithms tend to favor institutions that distinguish themselves by how many students they exclude.

“That means we need to keep working harder than others to expand the success and social mobility of our students – but we do this anyway  – not because of whatever rankings happen to be the flavor of the day but because our core commitment to equitable access and inclusion is in our institutional DNA,” he said.

He challenged VCU to work even harder to achieve Rao’s bold goal of 78% six-year graduation rate with no equity gaps and a 90% retention rate.     

“We [VCU] do have a rich legacy of excellence to build on,” he said. “Access and academic excellence need not be mutually exclusive.”

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