President’s Posts

Michael Rao, Ph.D.

WOW! What a great way to start our morning. We have so many impactful stories to tell at VCU!

Thank you for being here in person and virtually. Throughout the pandemic, there’s been one constant: your dedication and compassion to help those who need us most.

At VCU, students and patients are at the center of our mission and they come first.

I’m thankful for our faculty and staff who meet students where they are to ensure their learning, career and personal success. And having rounded regularly in our hospitals and clinics, I’m deeply grateful to our health care team members — particularly our dedicated nurses — who provide exceptional and compassionate care to all of our patients everywhere.

Creating a culture of care for students and patients at VCU changes and saves lives everywhere. At VCU, our students and our patients come first

So, let’s start out by thanking our amazing teams for creating and growing our culture of care!

The past two years have shown us how fast we can change and innovate centuries-old systems in education and in health care. Today, we’re a stronger institution – we’ve moved forward!

Our students, faculty and community aren’t seeking the previous “normal” university and health care experiences. They want better experiences and more timely outcomes that are driven by their needs

We will keep shaking things up.

Our teaching, discovery, community service, and healing are the foundations of our transformative innovations in education and health care at VCU.

This morning I’ll share some — but certainly not all — of VCU’s recent successes. I’ll begin with a story that only a place like VCU can tell.

Thirty years ago, Drs. Todd Stravitz and Arun Sanyal became colleagues at VCU. They bonded over their passion for human liver research and how they could help save and improve lives around the world.

For three decades, Todd and Arun worked together, pushing each other and their colleagues to be at the forefront of liver research and technologies … and so much more.

In the earliest days of the pandemic, VCU was selected to lead clinical trials of remdesivir, at that point, an investigational COVID-19 drug. Arun led a team of VCU experts in a first-of-its-kind partnership among hepatology, infectious disease, critical care-pulmonology, and cardiology.

Today, remdesivir is an essential tool in saving lives in this pandemic. I’m proud about how VCU played a role in this global transformative innovation.

Todd retired from VCU in 2020. In December, Arun was tapped to lead VCU’s new liver disease institute. The institute will foster scientific inquiry, scholarship, and clinical innovation to help meet current and future health challenges connected to the liver.

But more on that to come … A LOT MORE!

For now, let’s turn our attention to the video screen to watch how VCU is shaking it up.

As we talk about VCU successes, everything begins with our unwavering commitment to creating a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable VCU and world. This commitment starts with our nationally recognized work around equity, inclusion, and success.

For the third consecutive year, INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine has given VCU the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award, with special distinction as a Diversity Champion. VCU is one of only 14 institutions nationally to be recognized like this.

At VCU, we know inclusion is the spark that lights the flame on our journey of excellence.

All of us at VCU are dedicated to being an institution that serves and reflects our communities. This means being purposeful about how our actions, inactions, words and perspectives contribute to creating an equitable, inclusive, and diverse institution.

A memorable example of this happened last fall when we dedicated the Murry DePillars Building to honor our former pioneering dean of the School of the Arts.

Dean DePillars brought diverse communities together to learn, create, and engage in needed conversations. He was an exemplary artist and educator who elevated our school’s profile nationally and globally. Today, our School of the Arts is the fourth-ranked graduate program for the arts in the U.S.

Our Board of Visitors and Board of Directors champion our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. I’m really thankful for their leadership in all that we do. To all our board members, Rector Ben Dendy and Vice Rector Carolina Espinal, thank you for your leadership and for helping us to hold ourselves accountable as a public good.

This morning, I’m proud to share the outstanding work in our VCU Massey Cancer Center. During the pandemic, Massey director Dr. Rob Winn recognized that faith leaders had really crucial roles to play as ambassadors for their communities and trusted sources of accurate information.

So, we launched “Facts and Faith Fridays,” an open-dialogue discussion between faith leaders and science and medical experts about the intersection of science and religion. Our community outreach attracted national attention.

We’ve been proud to welcome first lady Jill Biden, Francis Collins, the Director of the NIH, Xavier Becerra, Secretary of HHS, our U.S. senators, Governor Glenn Youngkin, and former Governor Ralph Northam.

Caring for our community through the pandemic has been, and continues to be, a top priority. At the same time, VCU Health also tackled some of the most ambitious projects in our history during the past year.

In December we launched Epic, a fully integrated electronic health record that will help us make better and more coordinated care decisions, with less work and in less time. This upgrade required thousands of hours of training and preparation on the part of thousands of members of our team.

Though not without hiccups, Epic is positioning VCU to be a leader in real-time, data-driven health care.

At the same time we implemented Epic, we opened our Adult Outpatient Pavilion, which has transformed how we deliver care. Our largest-ever facility, the Pavilion is an enabling lynchpin in our mission to expand access and to put patient needs first.

This space fosters learning, collaboration, and healing to ensure the best and safest possible patient experience at VCU.

The Pavilion is part of our mission to serve all the patients who need our care. It is also supporting our mission to be the mid-Atlantic’s healthcare system of choice for tertiary and quaternary care. These are the most complex and specialized services in medicine.

We’ve got to achieve both of these missions to meet our patients’ needs.

The Pavilion embodies a promise that is also embedded in the work of our Health Equity Initiative and its “History and Health Program.” The program, now in its third season, helps participants better understand VCU’s history and contribute to a health process that will bring change that is very meaningful.

Let’s watch the screen to see what I mean.

As we celebrate our successes, the rest of the nation is learning about VCU.

In the past year VCU — your university — has been featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Today Show, NBC Nightly News and so many more. These hard-earned recognitions reflect your work and the work of our colleagues, and they are further proof that our story — the VCU brand — is growing in national prominence. 

National prominence also allows us to attract top talent to VCU. Last fall we welcomed Fotis Sotiropoulos as our provost. Fotis has quickly become an impactful leader, focusing on prioritizing key faculty and student outcomes for VCU.

Fotis will share his vision for Academic Affairs on February 28. His vision for growing research, creating transformative student experiences and embracing inclusion will help VCU grow its national impact and reputation.

Our successful athletics programs are another way VCU is featured on the national stage. The Rams won six … yes, SIX … Atlantic 10 Championships last year. Our exciting men’s basketball team earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament for the ninth time in 10 years and Bones Hyland was named A-10 Player of the Year and was drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft.

Go Rams! And we’ll keep going!

Last week, the University Innovation Alliance invited VCU to become its 12th member institution. This is a pioneering consortium of national public research universities dedicated to increasing the number and diversity of college graduates.

Alongside our partner universities like Ohio State, Purdue, Arizona State, UC Riverside and so many more, we will lead and inspire universities and colleges to improve graduating students across the socioeconomic spectrum … particularly low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color. We do this because it improves the human condition and is imperative for individual social mobility and U.S. global competitiveness.

Membership in the alliance is truly recognition of VCU’s commitment to enrolling and graduating all students. I am really proud that our work, placing student needs first, will now be featured on the national stage.

More national progress came this past year when VCU totaled $363 million in sponsored research funding. That total is an institutional record – and reflects a 25% increase in the past three years.

According to the National Science Foundation, VCU now ranks 58th among public universities nationwide for federally funded research expenditures, putting us within reach of quickly breaking into the top 50 in the nation.

Research and research funding matters because it allows VCU to lead in areas that improve the quality of the human condition – the things that are essential for our existence, and for our quality of life.

It is a tremendous honor to be one of Virginia’s top three public research universities. We are shaping solutions and building an economy that helps everyone.

One of our most promising research ventures is the Medicines for All program in our College of Engineering. The program is dramatically improving global access to life-saving medicines.

Supported with millions in funding from the federal government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Medicines for All is reimagining every step of the pharmaceutical manufacturing process.

We’re designing a better future, because at VCU, leadership means doing the difficult things that others can’t … or maybe won’t. 

Designing a better future is one of the reasons we are recalibrating our Quest 2025 strategic plan. That plan was developed based on the assumptions we had in 2018. Since then, our world has changed, and similarly, our strategic priorities have got to be refocused.

We’ve sought feedback from faculty, staff, students, alumni, employers, and our communities throughout this process. We’ll share findings and recommendations with the VCU community in the coming weeks. We will submit the recalibrated plan to the board in May.

As I look to our future, it is clear that the needs of our students come first in everything that we do at VCU. Focusing on transformative experiences is how we will help them, and VCU, reach our fullest potential.

This will continue to be our guiding goal!

One of our transformative innovations I am most proud of is how VCU’s first-year retention and six-year graduation rates are above national averages and continue a more-than-decade-long upward trend.

We also continue to close the gap in graduation rates for underrepresented minority and Pell Grant-eligible students.

Last year, the Governor’s Office recognized our student-focused work by naming Vice President Tomikia LeGrande a Champion of Change for leading VCU’s work on our Student Financial Services Center. I really enjoyed meeting recently with this team of financial counselors.

They work with students one-on-one, providing them with timely and accurate information about their finances — skills that will last them a lifetime!

Let’s learn more about our VCU Student Financial Services Center.

As you’ve heard and seen, VCU is dedicated to making a difference in people’s lives.

Now, let’s return to Todd and Arun … and to our big news.

In December, we created VCU’s new liver institute. The institute is a ONE VCU vision that unites our deep clinical strength with complex disease and research excellence to create a transformative innovation for the university and for health care.

We’ve had a deep and successful history in solid organ transplantation, including the liver. And because of the work of Todd and Arun — and so many others — we are learning more about the connection between the liver and critical conditions like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and so many more.

Liver disease is one of the top 10 factors that reduces life expectancy in the U.S., disproportionately affecting particular underrepresented ethnic populations. Todd and Arun’s work is critical to saving more lives and meeting patient needs.

This is a moment at VCU when our aspiration matches our ability. When someday becomes right now.

It is with tremendous pride and gratitude on behalf of all of  VCU that I share that Todd’s family foundation has donated $104 million dollars to fund the new Stravitz-Sanyal Institute for Liver Disease & Metabolic Health at Virginia Commonwealth University!

This gift provides a tectonic shift in VCU’s journey and sets a vision for our new institute. This historic donation is:

  • The largest individual gift in VCU’s history.
  • The largest publicly shared gift for liver research in U.S. history. More than four times beyond the previous largest gift.
  • And the second largest publicly shared gift to a university in Virginia history. 

As part of this gift, Todd’s family foundation is also funding two endowed chairs, The Arun Sanyal Endowed Professor of Medicine and The Phillip Hylemon Endowed Professor of Medicine and Microbiology.

I’m so pleased that we are recognizing Dr. Hylemon in this way. Dr. Hylemon joined the VCU faculty nearly 50 years ago and is an incredibly productive researcher, mentor, and teacher.

He was one of the visionaries who, along with Dr. Reno Vlahcevic, dreamt of a liver center at VCU. Dr. Hylemon, thank you so very much for being here today, and on behalf of VCU … congratulations!

This gift validates our ability, ambition, and vision. It’s generous and it’s generative.

This gift is about patients; it’s about the power behind medical research; and it’s about VCU being on the cusp of really changing medicine. It is about putting patients’ needs first.

This gift allows us to bring together top teams to deliver clinical care, to ask important questions, develop new tools to explore what causes liver disease and how we stop it, prevent it, and even reverse it.

These teams will represent the full VCU enterprise, including medicine, engineering, nursing, pharmacy, social work, arts, business, and VCU Health.

Arun and Todd, thank you again on behalf of all of VCU. The gift is a catapult and a catalyst on what’s already a 50-year legacy of excellence in liver care and research at VCU.

We are one of the few institutions with the vision, ability and ambition to focus on patient needs and care with this critically needed research.

Another of our most transformative innovations we’ll see in our lifetimes at VCU.

As we look at 2022 and beyond, I’m really proud of our VCU community. Our emphasis on serving and reflecting our community continues to lead us to greater success. 

Your work helps students, patients and the community live better, healthier lives. We’re graduating more students and leading more research … and we’re just getting started. 

Thank you for the successes we have achieved in the past year …  and the ones we will achieve this year. 

The best is yet to come!

Categories 21st-Century University, Community, Diversity, Health, News, Periodic update, To VCU, Uncategorized, VCU Health
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