Rao outlines ambitious efforts to keep VCU a ‘place where American dreams come true’

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D.
VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., announced the creation of a $7 million initiative to support innovations in health care Thursday at his annual State of the University Address. 

The three-year, $7 million Health Innovation Consortium will leverage VCU faculty research, talented students and VCU Health in partnership with Richmond’s entrepreneurial ecosystem to support innovations that solve important problems in health care, he said.

“This consortium will allow students or faculty who have an idea to innovate health care to move seamlessly from concept to commercial viability to mature startup,” Rao said.

The 10th-year VCU president also outlined steps to make the university more student-centric and a stronger institution for faculty innovation during his speech at James Branch Cabell Library. 

Supporting the American dream 

Advances in health care, entrepreneurship and student success, and VCU’s emergence as a nationally prominent university, were among topics Rao discussed Thursday. All are connected to the ways in which VCU helps advance the American dream, he said.

That dream sometimes appears harder than ever to realize.

“The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that in terms of occupational mobility, the United States is roughly average among its 34-member free-market nations. And we’re dead last for economic mobility,” Rao said. “By this study, Americans face more obstacles to economic progress, from one generation to the next, than do citizens of almost any other capitalist democracy in the world.” 

But, he stressed, this doesn’t mean the American dream is dead. Most people still believe higher education strengthens society, and education remains a key marker for upward mobility, personal success and a stronger society. 

“Those who hold college degrees contribute to our nation’s success collectively,” Rao said. “A bachelor’s degree increases lifetime earnings by nearly 70 percent — and it’s exponentially more for advanced degrees. As a group, first-generation college graduates surpass their parents’ median household income just six years after earning their degrees.

“We’ve certainly seen this at VCU, where 17 percent of our students move up two or more income quartiles after they graduate. VCU is the place where American dreams come true.”

The challenge, Rao said, is to remain that place. This involves recommitting to students, faculty and patients.

A Nationally Prominent VCU

Rethinking general education

VCU’s six-year graduation rate has increased 37 percent since 2008, Rao said. The university has closed gaps in the graduation rate for historically underrepresented students and Pell grant recipients. 

“That’s unheard of at almost any other research university in America,” Rao said.

He envisions VCU becoming more student-centered in several ways, including rethinking general education.

“The idea of a corpus of base courses goes back 400 years in American universities and it’s changed little since then,” Rao said. “In some ways, earning a degree in 2019 isn’t all that different from earning one in 1719. Our nation and our students are changing. We’re going to change, too.”

VCU will do this, he said, by building on what it already does well, like the small, seminar-style classes it offers through the Department of Focused Inquiry that provide students an opportunity to investigate problems in society through community-based learning.

“Imagine, for example, students focused on vexing global health issues,” Rao said. “How could they — even as undergraduates — consider why people in one ZIP code live years longer than their neighbors one ZIP code away? Or think about how powerful — and motivated — [students] can be when they take on climate change. Or cancer. Or social equity.

“I’m asking us as a faculty to reimagine the educational experience at VCU to make it more meaningful for our students and more connected to our society.”

As a group, first-generation college graduates surpass their parents’ median household income just six years after earning their degrees. We’ve certainly seen this at VCU, where 17 percent of our students move up two or more income quartiles after they graduate. VCU is the place where American dreams come true.

Bringing innovations from lab to market

Rao said Thursday that one of his highest priorities in 2019 is to address challenges faculty face in their ability to pursue national prominence through teaching, research and service.

“Since 2016, we’ve had the highest percent increase in hiring minority faculty members in our history — among them, Guggenheim Fellows, Fulbright recipients and NIH Career Award winners,” he said. “[But] we need more of you. And we need to be more diverse, and more committed to inclusion. 

“We also need more options to keep on board the outstanding faculty we already have. This includes better compensation, which is one of my highest priorities working with the General Assembly.”

Rao said he also wants to make it easier to move innovations from lab to market. Steps to streamline this process already have been made through VCU Venture Lab, a pre-accelerator that launched this fall and pairs innovators with investors and potential product users.

“This will help faculty researchers commercialize their discoveries,” Rao said. “And it will also help fill a void for Virginia. Across the state, the volume of research exceeds the capacity to commercialize it.

“As a faculty, we perform at extraordinary levels. I want nothing to stand in our way as we exemplify our national prominence and its profound impact on the human experience.” 

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D.
President Michael Rao, Ph.D., announced the Health Innovation Consortium on Thursday during the State of the University Address. (Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing)

Merging research, health and entrepreneurship

VCU earned a $21.5 million Clinical and Translational Sciences Award last year — the largest National Institutes of Health grant in the university’s history. The grant will promote and expand research that could find cures for cardiac, pulmonary and addiction diseases. 

It was one of many milestones for VCU Health, Rao said. Chandra Bhati, M.D., associate professor of surgery in the School of Medicine, performed the first robotic-assisted kidney implantation on the East Coast. Massey Cancer Center became the first in Virginia to offer CAR T-cell therapies that use a patient’s immune cells to attack and kill cancer. VCU Health broke ground on a new outpatient facility.

These are all examples of how VCU Health ensures patients have chances at a better, longer life, Rao said. So, what’s next?

“For one, VCU will be ranked in the top 20 by 2022 for children’s health,” he said. “Next, we’ll make Massey the first NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center in the state. This includes a much larger commitment to clinical trials that will put us on the leading edge of medical science.

“We are also improving patients’ abilities to access the lifesaving services we provide by removing obstacles. This isn’t a VCU problem alone:  Around the nation, some 24 million Americans end up in emergency rooms each year just because they can’t get in to see a primary care physician. They have no place else to turn. We are fixing that.” 

This is why the Health Innovation Consortium is so critical, Rao said. It merges VCU’s commitments to research, human health and student success. The demand is there, he said. Last fall, VCU students pitched more than 60 health care startups through the university’s da Vinci Center.

“The need is there, too,” Rao said. “And this new initiative will help more people benefit from the innovative spirit of VCU. For the patients we serve, this means more access to our nationally prominent health care.”