Rao: Fascination of what is difficult ‘is our fundamental mission’

VCU president stresses connecting university work to community needs at annual State of the University Address.

Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao, Ph.D.
Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao, Ph.D.

At his fourth annual State of the University Address on Thursday, Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao, Ph.D., stressed the need for VCU to continue the difficult work of advancing society through discovery, scholarship and innovation.

Speaking at James Branch Cabell Library, Rao highlighted university accomplishments from the past year. He also outlined the need for VCU — and higher education — to strive for progress in spite of challenges, "so we can move the human experience beyond what it is today so that some day we can decide what we want it to become." 

"Collectively we have to make sure that what we do matters beyond the borders of our campuses, that we focus our limited resources toward solving urgent and vital problems that lots of people face, and that we make the biggest possibilities of life more accessible to more people," he said.

Rao, who has emphasized VCU’s real-world responsibilities in previous speeches, focused Thursday on the “fascination of what’s difficult” and VCU’s role in tackling pressing issues, especially those affecting Virginians.

“Why is this our mission? Well, there are a lot of reasons,” Rao said. “Because it’s in our DNA … because society absolutely needs us … because we can’t wait around for everybody else to do it.”


‘It’s what we were born to do’

VCU is uniquely equipped to do what is difficult, Rao said. That attitude can be traced to the university’s origins and its expressed aim from the outset to find solutions to local urban challenges.

VCU’s founding mission was to take head-on society’s most vexing problems.

“VCU’s founding mission was to take head-on society’s most vexing problems, through our mission, education, research, health care and service — to do what’s difficult,” Rao said. “It’s what we were born to do.”

He provided several examples of the university’s local and regional influence Thursday, including data from the university’s latest economic impact report that shows VCU generates nearly $6 billion in economic activity and supports 63,000 jobs in Virginia."More than economics, this report shows that we help to shape Richmond's culture; that we really build the partnerships that move Richmond forward; that VCU Health helps make certain that people live longer, better, fuller lives; and that we model diversity for a region and a state that, frankly, historically has struggled with this issue," Rao said.He stressed a need to focus on the people behind the numbers. In the coming year, he said, VCU will launch a Center for Urban Communities, which will intensify the university’s work in two areas critical to Richmond: K-12 education and health disparities.

“Our work through this center — and across VCU — will help make Richmond a stronger, more just, more accessible community,” Rao said. "And it will support our faculty, our staff and our students in continuing to integrate their great work into our great communities, where we can learn and discover together what actually works, and what is effective in addressing the difficult challenges facing urban neighborhoods."


Aligning resources with mission

VCU researchers currently are testing a new diagnostic tool for Parkinson’s disease, training leaders in the field of childhood disabilities and advancing youth violence prevention strategies in Richmond. Sponsored research at the university reached an all-time high in 2016.

VCU’s brand of scholarship advances the community as much as it advances the university, Rao said Thursday.

“Our innovations drive society,” he said. “It’s time, then, that we innovate ourselves to ensure that we always do what’s difficult but profoundly important.” 

Aligning resources with VCU’s mission is an important step in that process, Rao said. The university launched its $750 million Make It Real Campaign last fall — the largest philanthropic effort in VCU history. Additional infrastructure efforts include a new budget process, a modernization of the university’s human resources plan and a new strategic plan. VCU’s priority during the state General Assembly session is addressing permanent and needed salary increases, Rao said.

The intense focus on infrastructure isn’t glamorous, he said, but it is necessary.

“For years, we have been a university of incredible growth — in size and reputation,” Rao said. “It’s time that our infrastructure catches up to where we are as a modern university, and we must make sure that it catches up to us as one university.

“These initiatives will do more than build a stronger VCU, they will build a VCU that serves all of us — and our commitment to our mission — better.” 


Strength through diversity, local partnerships

The university will continue to build bridges, Rao said. American research universities are power centers for diversity and community partnerships.

“Forty of the world’s top 50 universities are American,” Rao said. “Enrollment of underrepresented minority students has jumped 12 percent in the last decade, and more international students come to U.S. research universities than anywhere else.”

VCU’s commitment to improve diversity and inclusion, Rao said, “is unbreakable.” On Thursday he reaffirmed the university’s support for students protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy and its continued investment in strengthening Title IX efforts.

Rao also highlighted the importance of local partnerships. While VCU will always be a leader in focusing on what is difficult, he said, it will never do it alone.

“The support we receive — from government, from corporate and civic partners, from philanthropists, from students and their families, from each other — is foundational to our work,” Rao said, highlighting several VCU-Richmond efforts, including the Richmond Teacher Residency Program and Carver-VCU Partnership.

“We lead in critical areas for our communities, but we do none of these things alone,” he said. “And we will continue to build bridges across Richmond, and beyond, to ensure that what we do here is always as essential as it is effective — because our fascination with what’s difficult must be joined with a commitment to what’s vital.”


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