A group of people assembling personal protective equipment supply kits.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the facilities management team created an assembly line in the department’s warehouse to bottle, label and put together 7,000 personal protective equipment supply kits. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

In State of the University speech, Rao reflects on recent challenges and the road ahead

President praises the resilience of the VCU community and describes ambitious plans for the future.

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In 2020, Virginia Commonwealth University encountered challenges unlike any it had ever seen before, according to VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. Still, he said during his annual State of the University address, released today in video format, he’s proud of the way the VCU community responded to those challenges, and he’s excited at what lies ahead as the university emerges “stronger than ever.”

“It’s really awe-inspiring to see what we — all of you, together — have achieved in fulfilling our mission under the most challenging of circumstances,” Rao said. “We’ve said before that at VCU, we do what’s difficult. This past year has proved that.” 

VCU State of the University 2021: Emerging Stronger Together

In his address, Rao pointed to a host of successes both the university and health system achieved despite the unique difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among those accomplishments, he said, VCU set an institutional record for research funding in 2020 — a mark that was 8% higher than 2019’s previous record — and students graduated at the highest rate in the university’s history.

“We continue to make significant strides in graduating our students,” he said. “When I came to VCU, our six-year graduation rate was 49%. This semester, it was higher than the national average at 69%. This is one of the greatest achievements at VCU, and it will only get better.” 

Despite those gains, though, he said VCU has a great deal yet to accomplish in the area of student success. Rao said VCU must think differently “about what curriculum is and what it means to our students” and must address barriers to retention and graduation, while ensuring that students receive engaging experiences.

“Our first-year student retention rate needs to be 90%, 84% for second-year and 80% for third-year,” Rao said. “We have about 5% to 10% to go in each category to meet our goals. That’s doable, and we will do it.”

In addition, Rao said VCU’s efforts to improve student outcomes must include steps “to better support our faculty who’ve shown tremendous efforts, especially during the pandemic, toward student engagement and improving pedagogy.”

A graduating student seated among other graduating peers waves at a person.
VCU's six-year graduation rate, now at 69%, is the highest in the university's history. (File photo)

Looking ahead, Rao said VCU has started to vaccinate eligible faculty, staff and students under the state’s phased plan, and the university anticipates that the broader VCU community could be vaccinated by the start of the fall semester.

“Our fall return may not be exactly the way it was pre-COVID, but it’ll be closer to what we’ve known,” Rao said. 

Rao praised VCU Health’s steadfast and often heroic work caring for patients throughout the pandemic. 

“Our VCU Health System continuously maintained access to the lifesaving care we’re known for, and we were among the first in the state to reactivate services to give access to all patients,” he said. “Case in point: We performed a record 459 lifesaving organ transplants. And we also made a big impact on COVID. Some of the record research this year — led by faculty on both campuses — focused on innovations in COVID treatment, inequities and impact on the elderly, K-12 education and much more.” 

Rao said VCU Health continues to strive to improve the health care experience “here and everywhere.”

“We’ve made tremendous progress in the quality of care we provide our patients in our hospitals and in our clinics because of our teams,” Rao said. “And we’ve done this with the added pressures and stress of the pandemic.”

Audrey Roberson receives a vaccination shot with Virginia Governor Ralph Northam looking on.
Audrey Roberson becomes the first at VCU Health to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 16. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Through the Black Lives Matter protests and other efforts, Rao noted that 2020 was a year that “raised the social consciousness of our nation about the inequities and disparities that exist in America.” 

“Our pursuit of justice and equality, coupled with our location in the heart of Richmond, demands that we acknowledge the lasting and harmful impact of racism on educational and health disparities — issues that particularly affect African Americans,” Rao said. 

The pandemic and its impact also “brought to light social inequities across society and its systems that cannot be ignored or explained away; inequities that we have to help address; inequities that are core to our mission to solve,” Rao said. “We must direct our intellectual and creative prowess toward education, research and clinical care that more intently addresses education and health equity issues in communities.”

VCU is not alone in reaching “a unique moment in time,” he said. 

“Clearly one filled with uncertainty and pain, but one that allows us to recognize inequalities and address them,” Rao said. “To learn from mistakes and be better. And not just talk about a more equitable, healthy and prosperous future, but to lead a movement that makes that future a reality for all human beings.” 

To view the entire State of the University address, visit the Office of the President website.