Rao: 'We have become one of America's premier research universities'

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Over the summer of 2014, Virginia Commonwealth University junior Anna Moore took her skills and education to a poor, remote village in eastern Ghana where she taught music to 100 second-graders and built community stores that will fund their school.

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., highlighted the distinctive accomplishments of Moore and several other members of the VCU community today during his second annual State of the University Address. More than 250 people attended the event, and others watched the speech online.

While nodding to its origins as the region’s first medical school 177 years ago, Rao focused on VCU’s rapid emergence as “one of America’s premier research universities.”

The address featured many indications of recent success – particularly since the launch four years ago of the Quest for Distinction, the university’s strategic plan:

·     VCU faculty achieved a record level of sponsored research and creative activity in 2014 – more than $262 million – and started six companies while mentoring students to begin eight more.
·     More than one in seven VCU students will start a business before they graduate.
·     VCU Medical Center is both the region’s safety net hospital and its highest-ranked hospital; it also earned the American Hospital Association’s coveted McKesson Quest for Quality Prize.
·     Since Quest began, VCU’s graduation rate is 9 percent higher, and a record number of freshmen – 82 percent – are enrolled in a full course load, up from 62 percent.

And a key to this success, Rao argued, is VCU’s distinctiveness, which he believes finds expression in four notable ways.


“We have the most diverse and inclusive student body of any university in Virginia,” Rao said, and “graduate more minority students than any place else in the state,” making VCU a “national model.”

Addressing “those who say that a research university can’t promote both excellence and diversity,” Rao pointed out that “our new freshmen class is both the most academically accomplished and the most diverse in our history.”

Beginning this fall, your ability to succeed at VCU will no longer depend on your ability to pass a test that’s fundamentally flawed.

In addition to initiatives aimed at recruiting and retaining “premier underrepresented faculty members” and diversifying the university’s student body, Rao announced the elimination of “a required SAT score for admission to VCU for many students.”

Citing studies that show the “racial and socio-economic biases” of the SAT as well as its failure to “accurately predict how a student will perform in college,” Rao said, “Beginning this fall, your ability to succeed at VCU will no longer depend on your ability to pass a test that’s fundamentally flawed.”

Vibrant urban environment

Rao touted the “innovation ecosystem” that exists between VCU and the many communities it serves – in Richmond and throughout the commonwealth – a symbiotic relationship that “nurture[s] great minds and promote[s] great ideas.”

As an example of this virtuous circle, Rao offered the story of Nazgol Norouzi, a young woman from Iran who came to the VCU da Vinci Center to study packaging.

Because her classrooms were just down the street from one of the world’s leaders in this area – MeadWestvaco – Nazgol went to work there.

Now, after graduating in December with a master’s degree in product innovation, Norouzi will help VCU launch a new living-learning program this fall that’s focused on innovation, while also pursuing her Ph.D. in nanoscience and nanotechnology at VCU.


Rao described VCU as “committed without compromise” to both making the university accessible to diverse students and faculty and promoting their academic excellence once they’re here.

“We cannot sacrifice excellence for the sake of access,” Rao said. “And we will never slam shut the doors of opportunity so that we can look like someone else.”

Emphasizing that the issue of resources, including competitive compensation, is among his “highest priorities,” Rao said he would soon announce “a plan to reward those members of our faculty and staff whose contributions to the university and to the academy outpace their compensation.”

For students, access at VCU means that “students who enroll here can also graduate here.”

To this end, Rao said the university is committed in many ways: among others, by increasing its online and hybrid curriculum; continuing to invest resources in student counseling and well-being, academic advising, undergraduate research, safety, and in spaces such as the Cabell Library; and strengthening efforts to serve active-duty military, veterans and their families who want to pursue higher education.

Commitment to making it real

“The trademark of the VCU experience – why we are distinctive – is that what we do here has real impact on our world,” Rao said.

Faith Ajayi, a VCU alumna from Nigeria, personifies this idea.

Believing that no family anywhere should struggle to find the obstetric care they need, Faith came to VCU to study biomedical engineering because – in her words – “when you come here, you do more than learn something new. You learn how to make it better.”

Rao said he finds this spirit in VCU’s distinctive ability to “work together as one university to solve real problems that matter to real people.”  

As evidence, he cited pathbreaking cross-discipline collaborations at the university, including work among colleagues in the Schools of Art and Medicine “to use sculpture to change the way surgeons think about the body”; in the Schools of Social Work, Nursing, and Pharmacy to serve patients with special needs but little access to health care; and in the Schools of Engineering and Education to “ensure that Americans will have enough STEM teachers to meet the demands of the 21st century.”

Throughout his address, Rao expressed gratitude for the efforts of many on behalf of the university, such as John Wiencek, Ph.D., for his service as interim provost and vice president for academic affairs, and Sheldon Retchin, M.D., former senior vice president for health sciences and CEO of VCU Health System, for his 35 years at VCU.

The trademark of the VCU experience – why we are distinctive – is that what we do here has real impact on our world.


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