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VCU opens academic year with recognition of distinguished faculty

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VCU honored distinguished faculty with annual awards for excellence, service, teaching and scholarship Wednesday at faculty convocation. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Relations)

Blue Wooldridge once lived in a section of Lexington, Virginia, called “Mudtown,” so named for its lack of adequate street paving. Every time it rained, Wooldridge said, the neighborhood would be covered in mud.

The experience sparked in Wooldridge an early interest in government, one he still holds as a professor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.

“My work is in public administration,” he said. “And the first question is: ‘Is a program effective?’ The second question, and equally important, is: ‘Effective for who?’”

Wooldridge, D.P.A., an expert in public and nonprofit finance and social equity, has spent his career asking these questions. On Wednesday, he was one of six faculty recognized for teaching, scholarship and service achievement at the university’s Opening Faculty Address and Convocation.

“I particularly make sure that our programs are effective in improving the quality of life of the most disadvantaged,” Wooldridge said of his work teaching public and nonprofit management. “That's what a successful government is — it isn't the one that spends the most or spends the least; it's ‘what's our impact?’”

Blue Wooldridge, D.P.A, was recognized with the Distinguished Service Award. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Relations)
Blue Wooldridge, D.P.A, was recognized with the Distinguished Service Award. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Relations)

‘Our work is … like purpose’


Faculty recognized Wednesday have defined their careers by looking to make a difference in the lives of others, said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D.

“They see something,” he said. “What I mean by that is they are all visionaries but they are visionaries who have been able to figure out how to take that vision and move it forward to the benefit of other people's lives.”

Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ph.D., does this as a national voice on social equity and mobility, Rao said. Cottom, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, said VCU’s mission as a public university committed to the public good gives her added credibility to be that voice.

“When I'm at the White House and when I'm on Capitol Hill and I'm working with senators and public policy people, we go around the room talking about higher education equity and inclusion and mobility,” she said. “I am almost always the only person in that room like me — the only person representing a public institution whose stated mission is to transform the mobility of students who have been systematically excluded from upper mobility in our society.

“Our work is a lot like purpose. Public goods — our collective faith in each other — are potentially transforming.”

Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ph.D., middle, receives the Outstanding Early Career Faculty Award from VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., and Montse Fuentes, Ph.D., dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Relations)
Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ph.D., middle, receives the Outstanding Early Career Faculty Award from VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., and Montse Fuentes, Ph.D., dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Relations)

That transformation occurs at an individual level, many times because of a relationship with a mentor, said Gretchen Brophy, Pharm.D., a professor in the School of Pharmacy. In 22 years at VCU, Brophy has served as a mentor and adviser to countless students, residents and fellows, often leading students on patient care rounds in the Neuroscience Intensive Care Unit.

She said her professional growth is a result of support she received from family and industry professionals who helped her early in her career.

“Because of those good mentors, I became a good mentor,” she said. “I always wanted to be a good teacher.”

That was a recurring theme among Wednesday’s honorees. For Stephanie Ann Call, M.D., a professor in the School of Medicine, the desire to be a good educator has grown out of a life surrounded by people interested in learning.

“I was fortunate to grow up in a household that very much valued education, in a home of educators,” she said. “And I live in a household that values education. Learners are really what makes any of us tick — they are where we find our passion.” 

Paul Wehman, Ph.D., accepts the Distinguished Scholarship Award. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Relations)
Paul Wehman, Ph.D., accepts the Distinguished Scholarship Award. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Relations)

Regenerating lives


Human development can also be clinical or research-oriented, Rao said. Arun Sanyal, M.D., a professor in the School of Medicine, is a pioneer in developing management for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NASH) and metabolic syndrome. Incidences of NASH — a life-threatening disease that can progress to cirrhosis and liver failure — are increasing in the United States and worldwide. One out of three Americans have excess fat on their livers and of that number, one out of five will eventually develop cirrhosis.

Sanyal, selected as one of Virginia’s outstanding scientists earlier this year, is trying to change that.

“This is not a time to rest on our laurels,” he said. “We have to take on the challenges to meet the gaps that we still have to overcome in order to help all patients with disease.” 


2018 faculty honorees


Arun J. Sanyal, M.D., professor, School of Medicine
University Award of Excellence

Paul H. Wehman, Ph.D., professor, School of Medicine, School of Education
Distinguished Scholarship Award

Stephanie Ann Call, M.D., professor, School of Medicine
Distinguished Teaching Award 

Blue E. Wooldridge, D.P.A., professor, L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs
Distinguished Service Award

Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Sociology, College of Humanities and Sciences
Outstanding Early Career Faculty Award

Gretchen M. Brophy, Pharm.D., professor, School of Pharmacy
Outstanding Term Faculty Award

Creating positive change for a patient gives that patient a voice, Sanyal said. Paul Wehman agrees. Wehman, Ph.D., a professor in the Schools of Medicine and Education, was an early pioneer in assisting people with disabilities in obtaining and maintaining employment. That simple concept — having a job — can lead to transformational improvements for patients, Wehman said. 

“There was a time when people with severe autism, severe traumatic brain injury, quadriplegic, nobody thought they could work,” Wehman said. “And guess what? We figured out a way to help them get into jobs.”

In the past 10 years, Wehman said, studies into the effects of vocational rehabilitation have unlocked additional benefits. 

“We have been able to document that work is therapeutic. People get better,” he said. “Somebody awakes out of a persistent vegetative state after three months, and six months later we're using supportive employment job coaching, we have them working. They have less headaches, less fatigue, better self-esteem. And we're documenting this.

“It’s regenerative medicine, in my opinion. When you take somebody who has had a severe bipolar disorder and their lives are empty, and you can get them employment and they are able to be full again, you are regenerating their lives.”