Oct. 1, 2020
New book by former VCU president, history professor tells four-decade history of the university
“Fulfilling the Promise: Virginia Commonwealth University and the City of Richmond, 1968–2009,” by Eugene Trani and John Kneebone illuminates the past and future of American public higher education.
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In “Fulfilling the Promise: Virginia Commonwealth University and the City of Richmond, 1968–2009,” VCU President Emeritus and University Distinguished Professor Eugene P. Trani, Ph.D., and Associate Professor of History Emeritus John T. Kneebone, Ph.D., tell the story of VCU from its founding in 1968 through the end of Trani’s tenure as president in 2009, and the university’s role in Richmond.
The book, published by the University of Virginia Press and released in September, shows how VCU — created from the merger of the Medical College of Virginia and Richmond Professional Institute to serve a city emerging from an era of desegregation, white flight, political conflict and economic decline — reflects a larger, national story of urban universities and the past and future of American higher education.
Sen. Tim Kaine wrote the foreword of the book, and dust jacket blurbs were provided by former UVA President John Casteen III; former VCU basketball coach Shaka Smart; Susan Gooden, Ph.D., dean of VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs; bestselling novelist and VCU alumnus David Baldacci; and Roger Gregory, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and former rector of the VCU Board of Visitors.
The authors’ royalties from sales of the book will go to the VCU Foundation to fund student scholarships.
Trani and Kneebone recently spoke with VCU News about “Fulfilling the Promise,” which they say shows how VCU has been, and continues to be, a force for positive change in Richmond and Virginia.
What inspired you to work together to tell the story of VCU?
Kneebone: We were coming up on the 40th anniversary and, at that time, people felt like we had something to celebrate. The city had come back and VCU of course was quite successful — it had a large enrollment, enrolling more Virginia students than any other city university.
In the summer of 2009, I got a call from the president’s office. Dr. Trani, who was just stepping down, proposed that he and I work together on a history of VCU. My first instinct was to think, well, maybe this isn’t for me. Let me propose to him that I’ll do oral history interviews and we can put together a biography of Dr. Trani, a transformative leader.
He immediately said, “No, that’s too narrow. VCU’s story is much bigger than just one person and more complicated.” He said, “You know, VCU’s last history was Virginius Dabney’s 1988 book on the 20th anniversary. And he gave more attention in that book to the history of the Medical College of Virginia and Richmond Professional Institute than to VCU itself. So VCU really needs a proper history.”
We talked a bit and I said I know a lot about Virginia and Richmond. I’m not sure about higher education. And he said, “Well, I know something about higher education, so we can collaborate.” We set out with me doing research on the earlier years and interviewing him, sort of preliminary interviews.
Of course I could come to him and say, here’s something that was going on in Virginia higher education back then, do you have any thoughts? And he’d go, “Yeah. You know, this is what I was seeing in Nebraska. This is what seemed to be happening in Missouri.” So we had a sense of that larger context as well. We talk about the process in the book’s introduction. I think our different strengths actually worked together.
What is it about VCU’s story that makes it serve as a good microcosm for higher education in the U.S.?
Trani: Sen. Tim Kaine, in the foreword to this book, states there have been three trends that have led to a “powerful transformation in Richmond.” They are the emergence of VCU, the desire of its citizens to change long patterns of discrimination, and a concerted effort to emphasize the city’s natural beauty, especially the James River. This book explains the first of the three, how two institutions — MCV and RPI — came together to create a university that has worked with its community and that by doing so, showed that a large public institution with a significant medical center can not only survive but thrive and play a role in what is known as the “eds and meds” phenomenon that is typically played in urban America by elite private institutions with large medical centers. In that way, VCU can be a role model for higher education in the U.S.
Kneebone: We say that VCU is sort of exemplary of the fall and rise of urban universities. And we tell the story. Urban universities, of course, have always existed but today’s universities in urban areas are more than half of the total number of institutions. City education has become the norm, and that wasn’t always the case. Higher education, the idea was that putting students out in the countryside in a bucolic location where they weren’t distracted gave them a chance to engage in the high jinks of fraternity and sorority life and college life in general.
Urban universities, which catered to working-class immigrant minority students, students who were occupation oriented rather than liberal arts types you might find at traditional schools, seemed to be lower status. The higher status was for more selective schools and schools engaged in research. Urban universities, coming from a low point where they were in the midst of cities that were falling apart, suffering from suburbanization and white flight and conflicts, and with a mission to help solve some of these city issues as well, ended up becoming sort of the exemplars of higher education.
Students today at just about every school are career oriented, are thinking ahead to what they’re going to do in the future, less connected and less worried about fraternities and sororities. And urban universities, particularly, I think, for students who grew up in the suburbs, are a place that is actually lively and exciting instead of scary and dangerous as it was 40, 50 years ago. So it’s a success story that we’re telling.
That’s the “promise” of the book’s title, right? VCU was founded with a mission to be a university that serves a city emerging from the era of urban crisis in the late ’60s. How do you see that mission as having been fulfilled? Do you see VCU as having more work to be done along those lines as it moves into the future?
Kneebone: The urban crisis in Richmond extended for a long time, it’s not just 1960s with population dropping as people moved to the suburbs and businesses and hospitals followed. Richmond went through political conflict in the 1970s over annexation and the emergence of an African American majority in city government. The city went through a variety of financial problems through the 1980s, battles over urban renewal and so on. And then crime. Until in the early 1990s, Richmond was one of the top cities for homicide rate, which people took as measuring all crime. And so Richmond had a long period of struggling to get ahead and VCU found itself, found its mission in fulfilling that original promise, which was to be of service to the city.
That’s been from faculty engaged in research to the university as an economic anchor to the city through hard times. Richmond does not have a public hospital, so the medical center has served as a de facto public hospital while also keeping the highest standards of an academic health center.
So in all these ways, as Richmond has come back and become a place where people want to reside rather than escape from, VCU has been present. It has been a source of investment on its part, but also a reason for others to invest in the city.
Trani: What has been fulfilled is that VCU is now one university — located in a major city — that has had a major positive impact on the growth of that city.
Even after the merger, VCU did not consider itself as one university, did not think of itself as one university. However, by 2009 the university community took pride in its two well-established campuses, the Monroe Park and MCV campuses. The Monroe Park Campus boundaries are defined by the growth north and west on Broad Street, and the Siegel Center, and the movement east of Belvidere, for the Schools of Business and Engineering. The MCV Campus boundaries have been fortified by VCU Health opening the Gateway Building and the Critical Care Hospital and the Children’s Hospital [under construction], as well as by the growth of the Biotech Research Park just east of the MCV Campus.
VCU has many nationally ranked programs on both campuses, with a strong inter-campus focus on the life sciences that covers so many of its programs. That is what makes VCU so attractive as a university. It is located in a city, it is a public institution, it has a diverse student body, and it has many programs that are focused on the professions. And it has a major medical center, VCU Health, located right in downtown Richmond, offering high-quality health services to everyone. I believe that all of this has more than fulfilled the hopes and promises of its founders.
What kind of research did this project entail? I imagine both of you have a lot of firsthand knowledge, but I’m sure there was lots of research that went into it as well. What did that process look like?
Kneebone: We certainly sought out all of the archival sources that we could. Cabell Library and Tompkins-McCaw Library have very good special collections departments. So we were able to find correspondence and meeting notes, pretty much up to the mid-1980s. In the aftermath of computers and email, that became much more difficult. People were deleting emails rather than making carbon copies and saving them. So we ended up with the Richmond newspapers and, of course, The Commonwealth Times as a source, and then a lot of interviews. Fortunately, Cabell Library and Tompkins-McCaw have been good about [conducting] interviews earlier — they have a number of interviews with people who are no longer with us, so we had that available as well. So it’s a mixture of sources — archival sources, newspapers, firsthand knowledge and interviews with people with firsthand knowledge.
Did anything that you found in your research surprise you or change your thinking about VCU and its history?
Kneebone: I’m not sure if I was surprised, but maybe pleasantly pleased that when I talked with a variety of people who had different experiences, every one of them — students, faculty administrators and so on — were proud of what they had done at VCU. They might disagree with some of the things other people did, there’s always disagreements along those lines, but there was nobody saying, “Gosh, I have so many regrets. I wish we hadn’t done this.” People were [overall] pleased with their time at VCU.
One thing that I was struck with is that when VCU came into being, one of the constants from people looking for ways to make Richmond’s future better was [the view] that Richmond needed to merge with the suburban counties, particularly Henrico County. That never happened of course, and people in the county and Black folks in Richmond saw that as a scheme to limit their power.
But that as a solution has disappeared. Richmond in the 21st century has been standing on its own and not looking to get rescued by being incorporated by the counties.
In your view, did VCU have an important role in changing that debate?
Kneebone: Yes, for a variety of reasons. One is simply that VCU puts lots of money into the local economy. But I think for Richmond, the chicken and the egg problem for revitalization was, if you want to build up the city you need people residing there. But to get people to live in the city, you need to have retail and restaurants and amenities. But to get the amenities, you have to have people living in the city. So how do you get things rolling? It’s VCU, with the thousands of students coming and living in Richmond and deciding to stay here. And then that helps bring in the amenities. You can see that on Broad Street and you can see it on Main Street, and of course all the apartment [developments].
So I think VCU is really important in Richmond getting past that difficulty of getting residents and the retail that the residents need.
Who do you envision would be interested in reading “Fulfilling the Promise?” And what do you hope readers get out of it?
Trani: Certainly the more than 100,000 living alumni, the majority of whom are living and working in Virginia. They will no doubt take much pride in the university they helped create. That pride is clearly evident by the more that 100 sellouts in a row for the men’s basketball games at the Siegel Center. The fact that the book is only $35 and that all of the authors’ royalties are going to the VCU Foundation for student scholarships will interest them also.
But beyond its graduates, the community of our city will learn even more about how this great university has worked to create a better Richmond, serving as an economic anchor and as a major provider of health care for our whole metropolitan area. VCU is a force for positive change that is making use of being located in a great city and that will be obvious to all who read this book.
Kneebone: I hope that people associated with VCU — students, alumni, faculty and staff — will get a larger perspective and pride in the institution [from reading the book]. I hope that Richmonders will see the city’s last half century captured in the book. And I hope that people interested in higher education will get a sense of what can be done.
At the same time, there is a sub theme to the book that is about the steady reductions in public [financial] support for higher education and increasing pressure on tuition to make up for it. And that is certainly a problem that we face today.
Probably I’d say the real story here — and this is certainly important in 2020 — is that VCU throughout its history has shown lots of resilience. People at VCU can make their way through hard times and keep on pushing ahead.
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