President’s Posts

Michael Rao, Ph.D.

Official seal for VCU in black and gold.

Thank you, Gail, for your introduction. You’re a vital partner in our urgent work supporting and leading faculty and staff as we shape our students’ educational experiences in a society that’s changing so fast.

And wow! Great video! Would those of you featured in the video please stand so we can recognize you?

It’s always astonishing to see the depth and the breadth of talent across VCU—and the lives we touch. This is why VCU is the quintessential 21st century American research university. We’re elevating the human experience in transformative ways, and we’re elevating the extraordinary impact a university can make.

Let me give you some examples from just this past year.

In 2019, our research expenditures topped $310 million, a record and an incredible 14% increase over 2018. What’s more important, though, is making a 14% greater impact—or more!—on society because our innovative spirit answers humanity’s most important challenges.

Like our colleague Steve Woolf’s work documenting why life expectancy in America continues to decline despite remarkable advances in modern medicine. We saw his findings on the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post just before Thanksgiving.

Or Dave Cifu’s stunning progress in helping veterans overcome traumatic brain injuries, backed by a new $50 million research grant from the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. Dave and VCU lead a team of 42 universities and treatment centers and builds on the $62 million grant to VCU in 2013. In other words, more than $112 million of research and treatment for traumatic brain injury that is helping our nation is being led right here at VCU. That’s extraordinary.

Or Christine Bae’s revolutionary approaches to helping kids in urban middle schools learn the language of science so they can be the architects of our future. The National Science Foundation supports her with a $1 million grant.

Frank Gupton is expanding access to lifesaving medicines. He was just honored by the National Academy of Inventors.

Heather Lucas is discovering how metals in the brain may accelerate Parkinson’s disease. Heather is part of our Wright Center, which is a national leader in biomedical informatics.

Then there’s Tressie Cottom’s brilliant examination of black womanhood, Thick: And Other Essays, which earned nationwide praise, was a National Book Award finalist, and drew the interest of Trevor Noah, on whose “Daily Show” Tressie appeared.

Our faculty is forward-thinking about the things that will matter to all people.

Last year, we also reached our goal in the Make It Real Campaign for VCU—a year early! But we’re still going strong, dedicating a new phase to ensuring MORE students can stay in school and graduate on time. This is our “Invest in Me” scholarship campaign, and that’s exactly what we’re doing:  Investing in the success of all of our students.

It’s not surprising, then, that our students are succeeding in record ways, including a graduation rate that’s 40% higher than a decade ago—now 10% higher than national average.

And we’ve done this at a time when, across the United States, fewer than half of college students now graduate on time. And it’s fewer than 15% of students from the lowest socioeconomic bracket—those who can benefit most from a college degree.

At VCU, we continue to focus on the outcomes and experiences of every student on their way to graduation. And we’ll continue holding ourselves to the highest worldwide standard.

Students choose VCU because of our unique educational opportunities, like the nation’s very first Ph.D. in pharmaceutical engineering, which we’ll launch this fall. And our College of Engineering’s new recognition as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense.

Our new certificate in digital literacy—which we developed with the Greater Washington Partnership—matters more than ever in our modern economy…and it needs to become a signature of every VCU student’s educational experience going forward. Our students—no matter their major or degree—will be innovative and digitally savvy so they can help shape the 21st century human experience. We will help them get there.

Our students can also learn in facilities of the future like our Health Professions Building we opened in June, or our 6,000-square-foot Biomedical Informatics facility that fast-tracks life-saving research in neurology, opioid addiction, and other critical areas.

Most know that I have long held the completion of our children’s pavilion as a top priority. Well underway are both our children’s inpatient and adult outpatient pavilions and the Engineering Research Building at Cary and Belvidere. Soon, we’ll break ground on a new STEM Building on the site of the current Franklin Street Gym. We have nearly 11,000 STEM majors at VCU. I’m so grateful to our General Assembly partners for supporting this project at a university that largely serves Virginia residents.

We are also serving our patients in new ways, and it’s making a difference. Once again, our hospital, the state’s safety net hospital, was ranked the region’s top hospital by U.S. News—and it’s easy to see why. We performed more life-saving transplants in 2019 than ever before, nearly 500—about twice the number of people in this room today.

Put all of this together, and it’s no wonder VCU rose 14 places in the U.S. News national rankings of universities last year.

The world is noticing the amazing work you do.

You’ve made us a national leader in education, discovery, innovation, and healthcare. You’ve brought together our diverse talents, expertise, and vision to solve perplexing problems for people everywhere. You move quickly and purposefully to serve a new generation of students and patients who join us in elevating the human experience everywhere.

You are VCU. And you’ve made VCU amazing.

When VCU was founded, Lyndon Johnson was in The White House. He focused his presidency on equal rights and access, including in education, because he knew our Great Society needed all of us to be well-educated and deeply engaged.

Just days into his presidency, Johnson pushed for civil rights legislation that got stalled in Congress. An adviser told him he was wasting his time, that the bill would be far too difficult to advance. But he was undeterred and said: “Well, what’s the presidency for?”

So here I am, having spent more than a decade at VCU and more than half my life as a college president, asking the same question.

What’s the presidency for? What can I do to help make the biggest difference for our university, our health system, and the people we serve?

Now…I just cited a long list of our achievements from this past year. So you might wonder:  Why I am advocating for change?

Because VCU has the chance to lead 21st century American higher education and healthcare, and 21st century America really needs us to.

Here are some hard facts.

A new Gallup poll showed a 16% drop—since just last year—in the number of Americans who believe going to college is worth it. A 16% drop in one year!

On top of that, Pew Research found that 61% of America thinks higher ed is headed in the wrong direction. Standard & Poor’s just posted a negative outlook for the U.S. higher ed market.

In other words, a lot of America is losing faith in higher education.

How did we—as an industry—get here? How is it that in 2020, we look like we did four hundred years ago? I think it’s because for centuries, newer universities simply aspired to the elitism of colonial colleges that came before them.

Think about all the people American high ed has left behind. Imagine what our world could be if everyone could live their best lives—if everyone could dream the American Dream.

At VCU, we’re changing that story by focusing on performance, not prestige. This is what a 21st century university should do. It’s what VCU is doing and needs to take to the next level. It’s why we’re here.

This will be hard. But the harder it is to do, the more it will matter. The more we’ve got to do it.

It’s time to do it.

And here’s how we’re going to do it:

  • with a new student experience…
  • a new faculty and staff experience…
  • and a new patient experience.



First…our students.

Yessica Flores has an incredible calling to service. Two years ago—while just starting college herself—Yessica helped launch a network of programs and initiatives called “You First at VCU,” which help first-generation students—like she is— to thrive.

About a third of our students are first in their family to attend college. So Yessica is helping about 10,000 of her classmates get to graduation day on time.

Today, more than 50 “You First” student-mentors have joined in this work. And this fall, “You First” partnered with the Grace Harris Leadership Institute to help our faculty focus on the unique needs of our first-gen students.

This matters! Relative to their peers, first-generation college students more often struggle academically and with finances and mental health. They’re also more likely to need outside employment while in school…which means they’re less likely to take bridge-building internships and grow professional networks that can help them down the road.

Enter Yessica Flores.

She said recently: “Every one of us is starting something here. We’re the beginning of the legacy.”  She’s combined what she’s learning at VCU with a motivating purpose—a purpose that helps other people succeed. I want more of our students to have this kind of opportunity.

Yessica, we’re so proud of you. Would you please stand so we can thank you for your extraordinary work?

As I’m sure Yessica knows, VCU enrolls more first-generation college students than any of our peers. That’s because we know diverse perspectives and experiences make us a better, stronger university that graduates better, stronger leaders for the world.

VCU is about excellence, not exclusion. We are elite, not elitist.

One in five of our students grew up in a home where English wasn’t spoken. We’re in the top 1% nationally in conferring degrees to minority students—and we’re proud of that. We were inaugural winners of the First Forward Award for serving first-generation college students, and Insight into Diversity gave us their 2019 Higher Education Excellence Award for our commitments to social mobility and social justice.

We’ve certainly seen the social mobility of our students: 17% move up two or more income quartiles after they graduate, among the highest of any university in the Mid-Atlantic. Two percent jumped from the very bottom quartile all the way to the very top, the most in Virginia. And a student born into the bottom one-fifth of family incomes has a 27% chance of reaching the very top one-fifth after graduating from VCU.

VCU is a place where students can succeed because they’re ambitious, brilliant, and focused—even when they don’t come from privilege, prosperity, and prominence.

What we’re doing at VCU is critically important because, across America, about a quarter million fewer people went to college last year. And about 36 million Americans have college credits but no college degree.

VCU will help remedy that by continuing to innovate our curriculum and retention efforts and by re-engaging students who have started but not finished college and help them complete their degrees. Our goal for all our students is this:  If you start your educational journey here, you will complete it—and it will help complete you.

Let’s make sure more students can come to—and succeed at—VCU. By 2025, we’ll measurably increase enrollment for freshmen, transfer, working, and master’s-level students—from Virginia and beyond. And we’ll help them develop the skills they need to solve society’s vexing problems, including problems that haven’t even happened yet.

And we’ll do this in a couple of ways.

At this occasion three years ago, I introduced the REAL Initiative, which helps students put their college education to concrete use. Since then, REAL has become part of VCU’s soul.

Today, more than 75% of our students have a REAL experience, putting us in the top 5 for universities nationally. About half of our undergraduate courses now include a REAL experience. And that number’s growing.

REAL captured what we’ve always done in our professional programs—allowing students to learn by doing, showing them how they can use what they learn to help solve problems and create new opportunities that help people.

And we’ll make it easier to access VCU in various ways, including more online courses at the bachelor’s and master’s levels.

We’ve also redesigned academic advising at VCU by making advisers more available, introduced technologies that keep students on path to graduate, and realigned Career Services in ways that ease the transition from the classroom to the boardroom.

We’ve integrated student success under Maggie Tolan, whose development of Major Maps are a key reason our booming graduation rates are a national story.

We’re seeing increased satisfaction in advising and student services, and we’re investing more resources here. And we’re working to keep the VCU experience accessible and affordable to more students. I commit to continuing these improvements in student service and student success.

We’ll accelerate the commitment we make to our students—with a student experience that’s more inclusive and more empowering and helps them make the human experience better everywhere.



Next…a new faculty and staff experience.

Paul Wehman had a big year last year. Paul directs two centers in our schools of Medicine and Education. Most importantly, he is one of our nation’s early pioneers in supported employment.

Paul has worked to ensure millions of people with neurological and physical disabilities can succeed in whatever ways they choose…and that society is better prepared to help them do that.

He once said: “I vote for unleashing human potential…happiness…and satisfaction.”

And he certainly is. Last year, Paul earned two research grants totaling almost $9 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to help more people with intellectual disabilities find careers and to help universities—like us—support and prepare them for the workforce.

In both these grants, by the way, VCU leads a national team that includes Vanderbilt, the University of Wisconsin, and others.

Paul, please stand so we can thank you for your incredible work.

Paul is just one example of the commitments our faculty and staff make to improve the human experience through research, innovation, creativity, and discovery.

For four years in a row, we’ve had more patent applications and licensing income than any university in Virginia. And this year, we set institutional records for clinical research, including 900 studies that resulted in nearly 600 clinical trials—also most in Virginia.

Our work matters—and it’s just beginning.

In December, the Board of Visitors endorsed our plan for achieving social impact through a culture of research collaboration.

This will accelerate our commitment to research and innovation in four ways:

  • Number 1 is enriching the human experience through arts, humanities, and social sciences.
  • Number 2 is achieving a just and equitable society by reducing inequality, discrimination, and disparities and creating knowledge and solutions with real-world impact.
  • Third, we’re going to optimize human health by leveraging emerging science and technologies—including that which we create—and transforming health and wellness across diverse populations.
  • And finally, we’ll support sustainable ecosystems and translate environmental research to shape our planet in positive ways.

These inclusive areas will engage more members of the VCU community to have a greater impact on humanity. They will also move us forward:  By 2025, we will be among the top 50 public universities in research and top 25 among our urban peers. We will surpass $400 million in sponsored awards, which will accelerate our commitment to addressing Virginia’s most-vexing problems and its people’s most-urgent needs.

This is important. Not because of our metrics. Because of our mission.

We’re accountable to those who come here to teach, learn, discover, create, collaborate, and heal…and also to those who have never heard of VCU but will benefit from the technologies we pioneer, the cures we discover, the art we create, and the planet we help sustain.

This is where we will invest…because it’s where we’re called to be.

And let’s be clear:  Students must be at the center of where we’re going…because they’re the heart of what we do.

That’s why—this fall—we will open a new student innovation storefront on the ground floor of Grace And Broad Residence Hall—a first-of-its-kind place where entrepreneurial students can join in creating innovations that accelerate their student experience and advance the human experience. This is happening because we commit to research, innovation, and education at every level … and because of the generous support of Mark Hourigan and the Hourigan Group.

Mark, please stand so we can thank you.

And Garret Westlake, leader of our DaVinci Center, would you also stand so we can thank you for your commitment to engaging our diverse students in innovation?

You know—whether it comes from our students, faculty, or staff—the trademark of research and innovation at VCU is that it’s persistent and pervasive. It’s all of us working together to solve problems that exist far beyond ourselves.

The Science Coalition recently asked Americans what they thought about their tax dollars being given to universities for research. And the answer is…well…they felt very good indeed! Ninety-five percent—in other words, almost everyone—felt like the research we do is critically important for our nation’s future in terms of healthcare…security…economic development…and energy independence. And 60% believed even more public appropriations should go to university research.

These are ALL areas where VCU leads and—as I mentioned—will continue to focus. Not for the sake of rankings or funding. For the sake of humanity.


Finally…a new patient experience.

Tyrees Dandridge lives a life of service—a school custodian for 21 years, most recently at Pole Green Elementary in Mechanicsville.

He’s called “Mr. D” there.

One day, Mr. D wasn’t feeling so good. Doctors told him his kidneys were failing and began dialysis…and his heart was pumping at just 10% of normal strength.

Mr. D got medication. But he needed a miracle.

He’d require both a kidney and heart transplant, ideally from the same donor to minimize rejection risks. While he waited, Mr. D continued dialysis for his kidney…he carried a drip bag for his heart …and he kept praying for that miracle.

It came from VCU.

A few months ago, our team from our Pauley and Hume-Lee Centers gave Mr. D his new heart and kidney in an intricate 13-hour process that will extend his life by decades.

His care team—led by Keyur Shah and Gaurav Gupta—have performed hundreds of transplants. But it’s exceedingly rare to transplant both a heart and kidney together. So their work made national headlines, including on Good Morning America…Inside Edition…and in People magazine.

More importantly, it saved Mr. D’s life.

On his first day back to work, students and colleagues greeted him with cheers and hugs. To Mr. D, that was more than expected. He had only one thought about that day:  “I just wanted to be on time,” he said.

I’m so happy that Mr. D continues to be on time—and he has much more time still to come. He couldn’t be with us today because he’s at work, and we are so grateful for the impact he makes.

Keyur also couldn’t be here with us today…but Gaurav, would you please stand so we can thank you?

Thank you. Thank you for being here.

For 182 years, VCU Health has worked to give longer, better, healthier lives to everyone we serve…like Mr. D, and 261,000 other patients last year.

I’ll always remember a patient telling me, “I’m leaving in the same wheelchair…but I’m leaving with more hope.”

That’s our mission! And that inspires me.

It reminds me of the critically important work we do every day—across VCU and VCU Health together as one enterprise—to advance health and wellbeing and to give better outcomes to those who need us most.

We serve patients others can’t in ways others can’t.

Like colleagues in Medicine and Pharmacy who work together to treat drug addiction and the damage it wreaks. Seventy-thousand Americans died last year from addiction, about 50,000 from opioids alone—the leading cause of accidental death in our nation.

Back in October, Bill Dewey earned a $7 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to help solve this problem.

In the last few weeks, we’ve certainly had help in telling our story from our own Camille Schrier, an extraordinary pharmacy student here who also happens to be the new Miss America. Camille is using her national stage to talk about the work we do to combat substance abuse…and her platform will make a difference.

Joyce Lloyd in the Center on Health Disparities earned a $2.5 million NIH grant to make medical education more accessible to more students so that they can save more lives.

Hu Yang from Engineering and Shobha Ghosh from Medicine work together on drug delivery systems that prevent strokes and heart attacks. The NIH is funding their work at $2.5 million.

In April, Chandra Bhati performed the first robotic kidney transplant on the East Coast…one of the first done anywhere in the world.

We’re doing amazing work in a lot of places.

But we need to do even more. People need us. And it’s going to take all of us—not just our clinicians, not just our health science schools. All of us working together as one VCU.

Because listen to what we’re up against.

For five years in a row, U.S. healthcare has been ranked worst in the developed world. The U.S. is last in both quality of and access to care. The U.S. is the most expensive, least efficient, and least equitable. Americans also pay more than twice the citizens of any other developed nation.

I’ll frame this differently:  VCU will lead in healthcare access, affordability, and excellence at a time when it’s needed most.

As one of the nation’s premier academic health centers, that’s what we’re going to do.

First…VCU will be number one in terms of safety. We will be the safest hospital in the country.  We will also be top decile in overall patient experience, including quality and service. We already have the best people committed to the best care for all of our patients. Thank you to the many of you who have already made this your focus.

Next…we’re going to lead in our commitment to discovery, including through our Healthcare Innovation Consortium, which I introduced here last year. We already have 37 prototypes and seven new technologies ready for clinical testing—with nearly 60 more still in development. That’s in 12 months!

Even more impressive is who’s doing the innovating. Forty faculty members, 17 students, 15 clinicians, and two patients have innovations moving forward in the H.I.C, including new medical devices, therapeutics, and healthcare I.T. solutions.

This is revolutionary. Let’s keep building on it.

Finally…we’re going to expand our commitment to health equity.

We recently launched the Health Equity Initiative to ensure everyone in Greater Richmond has a fair chance to live a long and healthy life. We’re working with local and national partners, including Urban Serving Universities, to address social determinants of health—in partnership with faculty teams from eight VCU colleges and schools.

Together, we’re addressing health inequities through clinical services, education, and research. And we’re looking at new ways to support patients—especially those with high re-admission rates—by tackling issues like food insecurity, housing instability, and transportation needs.

We’ll continue to expand this work in the new year.

With every patient, we will get their care right, get their service right, and get them home as soon as possible. We will build respectful, civil, professional, and inclusive environments that lead to better experiences for our patients and every member of our team, including our students. This is about quality…service…and safety together.

We’re well on our way.

In 2019—for the fourth year in a row—VCU was in the top quartile nationally for patient experience. Eight of our inpatient units are in the top 10%, and Pediatric ER is in the top 5%.

But it’s not about numbers. It’s about lives. There is nothing more important.

I’m on a mission that involves human lives—and I expect everyone to be with me. Because I need everyone’s help, and because it’s just the right thing to do at VCU.

I ask you to make these things priorities, because they all center back to our patients, the reason we’re here.

We will get this right. I believe in you. I believe in us.


So in closing, let’s go back to LBJ’s question:  What’s the presidency for?

In my case, it’s for everything I’ve just outlined in terms of our student, faculty and staff, and patient experience. It’s to ensure that we are collectively focused on our mission.

This presidency is dedicated to that.

And as we do this, we’ll redefine the extraordinary impact a 21st century university can make.  The public awaits us and we’re going to do this really well.

Thank you for a great year. I look forward to the BOLDER things that we will do together in this new year for a society that needs us.

Thank you.

Categories 21st-Century University, News, Periodic update, To VCU