Michael Rao speaks into a microphone.
VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., announced a transformational gift at his 2022 State of the University address. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

‘Transformative innovation’: VCU President Michael Rao delivers 2022 State of the University Address

A $104 million gift in support of new liver institute served as the centerpiece of Rao’s speech.

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In Virginia Commonwealth University’s 2022 State of the University Address, VCU and VCU Health President Michael Rao, Ph.D., said Tuesday that nearly two years into the pandemic, the university is emerging as a stronger institution – one that is transforming education and health care.

In a powerful illustration of his point, Rao announced a $104 million gift from R. Todd Stravitz, M.D., and his family’s Barbara Brunckhorst Foundation in support of the new Stravitz-Sanyal Institute for Liver Disease and Metabolic Health at VCU to radically expand treatment options for liver disease and invest in research to stop, prevent and reverse liver disease, a leading factor in the decline of life expectancy in the United States. Arun J. Sanyal, M.D., professor in VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Internal Medicine and a researcher and liver disease specialist at VCU Health, will serve as the institute’s director.

The gift is the largest in VCU history, the second-largest publicly shared gift to a university in Virginia and the largest publicly shared gift for liver research in U.S. history. The gift also funds two endowed chairs, the Arun J. Sanyal Endowed Professor of Medicine and the Phillip B. Hylemon Endowed Professor of Medicine and Microbiology.

“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,” Rao said. “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. [It is among the] most transformative innovations we'll see in our lifetimes at VCU.”

A transformational $104 million gift from R. Todd Stravitz, M.D., and his family’s Barbara Brunckhorst Foundation will advance the new Stravitz-Sanyal Institute for Liver Disease and Metabolic Health at VCU.

While the gift was the most prominent example of VCU’s recent innovative initiatives, Rao highlighted numerous others in his address, including Shift Retail Lab at VCU, a new space for student entrepreneurs to test their ideas through sales and customer feedback; the Health Equity Initiative, which integrated the principles of health equity into VCU and VCU Health’s mission through patient care, education and training, and research; and VCU’s Student Financial Services Center, in which financial counselors work with students on an individual basis and provide them with timely, accurate information about their finances.

“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'll keep shaking things up,” Rao said. “Our teaching, discovery, community service and healing are the foundations of our transformative innovations in education and health care at VCU.”

Diversity driving excellence

Driving all VCU’s success, Rao said, is the institution’s commitment to creating a more diverse, inclusive and equitable VCU and world. He noted how for the past three consecutive years, INSIGHT into Diversity magazine has awarded VCU the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award, with special distinction as a Diversity Champion. VCU is one of only 14 institutions in the country so designated.

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

VCU continues to strive to serve and reflect the community, Rao said. “This means being purposeful about how our actions, inactions, words and perspectives contribute to creating an equitable, inclusive and diverse institution,” he said.

As an example, Rao highlighted last fall’s dedication of the Murry N. DePillars Building, honoring the pioneering dean of the School of Arts from 1976 to 1995. Today, the School of the Arts is the fourth-ranked graduate program for the arts in the U.S., according to U.S. News & World Report.

“Dean DePillars brought diverse communities together to learn, create and engage in needed conversations,” Rao said. “He was an exemplary artist and educator who elevated the school’s profile nationally and globally.”

Rao also described how Robert Winn, M.D., director of VCU Massey Cancer Center, recognized that faith leaders had a crucial role as trusted sources of accurate information amid the pandemic. He convened an open-dialogue discussion with them, called Facts and Faith Fridays, that has welcomed first lady Jill Biden, Ed.D.; Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., the director of the National Institutes of Health; Xavier Becerra, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services; U.S. senators; Gov. Glenn Youngkin; and former Gov. Ralph Northam.

Rao recognized the work of VCU Health for its launch in December of Epic, a fully integrated health care data system that will enable better and more coordinated care decisions, and that positions VCU as a leader in real-time, data-driven health care.

He also celebrated the recent opening of the Adult Outpatient Pavilion on the MCV Campus, a 17-story complex that is expanding access to care and putting patients first.

“This space fosters learning, collaboration and healing to ensure the best and safest possible patient experience,” he said.

National prominence

Last week, VCU joined the University Innovation Alliance, a consortium of national public universities dedicated to increasing the number and diversity of college graduates in the United States. As the consortium’s 12th and newest member institution, Rao said VCU will work to lead and inspire higher education 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,” he said. “Membership in the alliance is a 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.”

VCU is also emerging as a national leader in research, Rao said, with the National Science Foundation ranking VCU at No. 58 among public universities for federally funded research expenditures, putting the university within sight of its goal to break into the top 50.

Over the past year, he said, VCU set an institutional record for sponsored research funding, with a total $363 million in combined grants, contracts and more. Over the past three years, VCU’s sponsored funding has climbed more than 25%.

“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,” Rao said.

Designing a better future

Rao said he is particularly proud of VCU’s improving student outcomes, particularly in retention and graduation rates. VCU’s first-year retention and six-year graduation rates are both above the national averages and reflect a more than decadelong upward trend for the university.

VCU also continues to close the gap in graduation rates for underrepresented and Pell Grant-eligible students, he said.

Looking ahead, Rao said the university is working to recalibrate its Quest 2025 strategic plan to update VCU’s strategic priorities. The university has been gathering feedback from faculty, staff, students, alumni and communities throughout the process, and the findings and recommendations will be shared in the next several weeks. The recalibrated plan is expected to be presented to the Board of Visitors in May.

“As I look to our future, it is clear that the needs of our students come first in everything we do at VCU. Focusing on the experiences is how we will help them, and VCU, reach our fullest potential,” Rao said. “This will continue to be our guiding goal.”