VCU President Michael Rao: VCU has the chance to lead 21st-century American higher education and health care

In his annual address, Rao outlined his vision for VCU’s future in a challenging national landscape, and revealed the launch of a new student innovation storefront.

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

In his annual State of the University Address on Thursday, Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao, Ph.D., outlined his plans to focus on and improve the experiences of VCU students, faculty and staff, and patients of VCU Health.

“VCU has a chance, like no other institution I know, to lead 21st-century American higher education and 21st-century health care,” said Rao, speaking before a crowd of hundreds at James Branch Cabell Library. “And, I have to tell you, 21st-century America really needs us to.”

Rao cited troubling statistics facing higher education nationally. A new Gallup Poll showed a 16% drop since last year in the number of Americans who believe going to college is worth it. The Pew Research Center found that 61% of Americans believe higher education is headed in the wrong direction. And Moody’s posted a negative outlook for the U.S. higher education market for the second straight year.

“How did we get where we are? How is it that in 2020 we look like we did 400 years ago? … I think it’s because newer universities that came along, they just aspired to the elitism of colonial colleges that came before them,” Rao said. “Think about all the people that American higher education has left behind. We’re trying to get around that at VCU and I think we’re doing a good job. But I want you to imagine what the world could be if everyone had a chance to live their best lives, if everyone could be a part of the American dream. Just imagine. At VCU, we are changing that.”

VCU, he said, is going to change that story for the rest of the United States by focusing on “performance, not prestige.”

“This is what a 21st-century university should do. It’s what VCU is doing, and needs to take to the next level. It’s why we’re here,” he said. “This will be hard. But the harder it is to do, the more it will matter, the more we’ve got to do it.”

A focus on students

Rao promised to continue VCU’s efforts to support students from all walks of life. One in 5 VCU students, he noted, come from homes where English is not spoken. And the university is in the top 1% in the U.S. in conferring degrees to minority students.

He also cited social mobility statistics showing that 17% of VCU students on average move up two or more income quartiles after graduation, among the highest of any university in the mid-Atlantic; and that 2% rise from the bottom quartile to the highest, the most in Virginia. A student born in the lowest one-fifth of family incomes has a 27% chance of reaching the top one-fifth after graduating from VCU, he said.

“VCU is a place where students can succeed because they’re ambitious, they’re brilliant and they’re focused — even when they don’t come from privilege, prosperity and prominence,” he said.

Nationally, about a quarter-million fewer people went to college in 2019, and roughly 36 million Americans have college credits but no degree. To help address that, Rao said, VCU will continue to innovate its curriculum and retention efforts, and by re-engaging students who have started but not finished college and helping them complete their degrees.

“Our goal for all our students is this: If you start your educational journey here at VCU, you will complete it — and we’re going to help complete you,” Rao said.

By 2025, he said, VCU will measurably increase enrollment for freshmen, transfer and master’s degree-level students from Virginia and elsewhere. “And we’ll help them develop the skills they need to solve society’s vexing problems, including those that haven’t even happened yet,” he said.

The university will continue efforts to provide students with experiential educational opportunities through its REAL initiative, which ensures that VCU students can access hands-on learning experiences that are directly relevant to their personal and professional goals.

And VCU will make it easier to access the university in various ways, including more online courses.

He also noted that VCU has redesigned academic advising by making more advisers available, introducing new technology aimed at supporting students and realigning Career Services to better facilitate the transition from the classroom to the workplace.

“We’re seeing increased satisfaction in advising and student services, and we’re investing more resources here,” he said. “We’re working to keep the VCU experience accessible and affordable to more students. I’m committing to continuing these improvements in student service and student success.

“We’ll accelerate the commitment we make to our students, with a student experience that’s more inclusive, more empowering and helps them make the human experience better everywhere,” he said.

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

A student innovation storefront

Students will continue to be at the center of everything VCU does, Rao said, “because they’re the heart of what we do.”

Along those lines, Rao announced the creation of a new student innovation storefront that will open this fall on the ground floor of the Grace & Broad Residence Center.

“[It will be] a first-of-its-kind place where entrepreneurial students can join in creating innovations that accelerate their student experience and advance the human experience,” he said. “This is happening because we commit to research, innovation and education at every level.”

The project is being supported by contributions from Mark Hourigan and the Hourigan Group and Thomas “TJ” Johnson III, with the goal of creating new opportunities for students and advancing Richmond as an innovation hub.

“The VCU student storefront space will be one of the first of its kind in the country and provide a cutting-edge facility for student innovation and entrepreneurship education and community engagement,” said Garret Westlake, Ph.D., executive director of the da Vinci Center, a collaboration of VCU’s schools of the Arts and Business and the colleges of Engineering and Humanities and Sciences that advances innovation and entrepreneurship through cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Hourigan said he and his company are proud to partner with VCU and the da Vinci Center in this new endeavor.

“Hourigan was founded with a goal to develop uniquely remarkable relationships and buildings,” he said. “Our long-standing relationship and the caliber of exceptional buildings that VCU designs and builds captures the essence of that vision. The clarity of vision, entrepreneurial spirit and out-of-the-box thinking that VCU demonstrates aligns well with the culture at Hourigan and makes this newly formed partnership with the da Vinci Center particularly exciting. It will be a partnership with limitless opportunities to grow and innovate.” 

Research and innovation

For faculty, Rao discussed a plan endorsed by the Board of Visitors in December to achieve “social impact through a culture of [research] collaboration.”

The plan, he said, will accelerate VCU’s commitment to research and innovation by:

  •  Enriching the human experiences through arts, humanities and social sciences
  •  Achieving a just and equitable society by reducing inequality, discrimination and disparities and creating knowledge and solutions with real-world impact
  •  Optimizing human health by leveraging emerging science and technologies, including that which is created at VCU, and transforming health and wellness across diverse populations
  •  Supporting sustainable ecosystems and translating environmental research to shape our planet in positive ways


“These inclusive areas — and I say inclusive because this is only the beginning; this is just the first step — will … engage more members of the VCU community and beyond to have a greater impact on humanity. They will also move us forward: By 2025, we will be among the top 50 public universities in research and top 25 among our urban peers,” Rao said. “We will surpass $400 million in sponsored awards, which will accelerate our commitment to addressing Virginia’s most-vexing problems and its people’s most-urgent needs.

“This is important. It has nothing to do with being important because of metrics. It has everything to do with the mission,” he said.

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. speaking to an audience
VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., spoke to members of the VCU community at James Branch Cabell Library during the State of the University Address. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Quality, service, safety

VCU is also focused on continuing to improve the VCU Health patient experience, Rao said.

“I’ll always remember something a patient told me. … This person said to me: ‘I’m leaving in the same wheelchair, but I’m leaving with so much more hope,’” Rao said. “That’s really our mission at VCU. And it’s what inspires me. It also reminds me of the critically important work we do every day — across VCU and VCU Health together as one enterprise — to advance health and well-being and to give better outcomes to those who need us most.”

In 2019, for the fourth straight year, VCU was ranked in the top quartile nationally for patient experience, he said, noting that eight of VCU Health’s inpatient units are in the top 10%, while the pediatric emergency room is in the top 5%.

“With every patient, we will get their care right, their service right, and get them home as soon as possible,” he said. “We will build respectful, civil, professional and inclusive environments that lead to better experiences for our patients and every member of our team, including our students. This is about quality, service and safety together. We’re well on our way.”

VCU and VCU Health are doing amazing work, he said, noting efforts to treat drug addiction, to make medical education more accessible, and to conduct innovative research in the area of drug delivery systems that prevent strokes and heart attacks.

“The truth is, we’re motivated to do even more,” he said. “Because we know that people need us. And it’s going to take all of us — not just our clinicians, not just our health sciences schools. All of us working together as one VCU.”

VCU, he pledged, will be ranked No. 1 in terms of safety. “We will be the safest hospital in the country,” he said. He also said VCU will be in the top decile in overall patient experience, including quality and service.

And VCU will lead in its commitment to research and discovery, including through the Health Innovation Consortium, which he announced in last year’s State of the University Address and that has led to 37 prototypes and seven new technologies ready for clinical testing — with nearly 60 more still in development.

“Even more impressive is who’s doing the innovating,” he said. Forty faculty members, 17 students, 15 clinicians and two patients have innovations moving forward in the [Health Innovation Consortium], ranging from new medical devices to therapeutics to health care [information technology] solutions.”

He also said that VCU would continue to expand its commitment to health equity, noting that the recently launched Health Equity Initiative is aiming to ensure that everyone in Richmond has an “open door to health care.” Working with local and national partners, the initiative is aiming to address social determinants of health and involves faculty teams from eight VCU colleges and schools.

“Together, we’re addressing health care inequities through clinical services, education and research,” he said. “We’re looking at new ways to support patients — especially those with high readmission rates, they keep coming back to the hospital. We’ve got to do this by tackling issues that we know are affecting people, like food insecurity, housing instability and transportation needs. … We’ll continue to expand this work in the new year.”

Future focus

Looking ahead, Rao said, VCU will continue to innovate and work to solve problems facing society.

He noted that The Science Coalition recently polled Americans about how they view tax dollars spent at universities for research. The organization found that 95% believe research is critically important to the nation’s future in terms of health care, security, economic development and energy independence. Moreover, it found that 60% of Americans believe more public appropriations should go to university research.

“These are all areas in which VCU leads and — as I mentioned — will continue to focus on,” Rao said. “Not for the sake of rankings or funding, but for the sake of humanity.”

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