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2013 Faculty Convocation

Aug. 21, 2013
Siegel Center

Thank you, Bev. You’re a tremendous partner and colleague.

I’m so proud to congratulate our award winners this morning. You represent the best of a university community that is committed to excellence. We talk a lot about excellence, but today, we have the chance to honor excellence — and I look forward to helping honor all of you in a few minutes.

I was thinking this morning: What better occasion is there than a celebration of faculty excellence to have the chance to talk about the future of research universities, and in particular the future of this research university?

I love our mission. At Virginia Commonwealth University, our mission is really about people and advancing the human experience. As a research university, what matters is not just publishing — although I have to remind you that publishing will always be important — but the value of what we discover to other human beings’ lives. It’s not just helping students get jobs — although I know the parents here today think that’s pretty important — but empowering them to lead and provide opportunities for others as job creators. It is not just producing beautiful art forms, but evoking human senses that have never been felt. It’s not just studying diseases, but saving the lives of people who need help.

I love that I can count on you as my colleagues, as professors, researchers and clinicians, to be catalysts of the human experience. I know I can count on you to help VCU become a new kind of research university.

What does a new research university look like? It’s really about the future, so we can’t rely on historical models. It is about making a difference in people’s lives. We do this by what we discover, create and teach, and how we empower others through your service. By engaging our diverse student population, and adding value to their lives — and also enriching ours by what we learn from them. By treating people, including our students, patients and each other, with professionalism, respect and dignity. By re-imagining what is possible in our fields, and what it means to be a human being. Remember that the highest ceiling we know today is not a platform to deliver a solution but a jumping-off point to innovate.

You, my colleagues, are among the most talented faculty anywhere in the world. Bev just mentioned some of your awards, like members of the National Academies and the Institute of Medicine, Guggenheims, Pulitzers, Career Award winners and the list goes on.

You are also focused on innovation. At VCU, innovation is patents in engineering or chemistry or a breakthrough in a clinical trial, but it is also applied to everything we do.

I was thinking about how in our School of the Arts, students from the interior design, fashion design and graphic design departments designed new medical attire for VCU Massey Cancer Center. They designed shirts made of breathable fabric that have invisible snaps which allow easy access for patients with port catheters. They also designed a series of very brightly colored, playful hospital masks that help put patients, especially young kids, more at ease. For kids who are scared of going to the doctor, this is innovation.

I thought about one of our colleagues in psychology, Jody Davis, who is really a national leader in a burgeoning field called conservation psychology. She examines antecedents and consequences of a person’s commitment to the natural world and finds out, are they willing to make self-sacrifices to benefit nature? In an era of human-accelerated change in our world, and really in our universe, this is absolutely innovation.

And there’s our Ph.D. program in media, art, and text, which is a joint endeavor between [the department of] English, [and the schools of] Mass Comm[unications] and Arts. It is redefining how we study the media. It’s the only program of its kind in the nation, and this is innovation.

VCU understands innovation better than anyplace. Where else can you find a top-ranked arts school working with a top-ranked hospital, or find a student who’s the first in her family to attend college working alongside an internationally renowned scientist? But this is what happens at the new type of research university, because this is what happens at VCU every day.

In building a new type of research university, one that’s focused on people, you are also boosting VCU’s national profile. We are now a top 100 institution in terms of NSF funding. We are a top 200 worldwide research university. Several of our programs are ranked in U.S. News, including No. 1 programs in sculpture and nurse anesthesia. We are a top 50 in several important categories.

Without a doubt, you are changing the game at VCU. More and more, people are saying that this is not the same institution it was a few years ago. We know that we’ve continued to build on the foundation that was laid by many of the retired faculty who are here today, and we are grateful to them.

Why is it important that we become such a power engine of innovation? Well, for one, Virginia’s 8 million people need us to. The commonwealth needs three major research universities. The CEO of a very large nationally renowned company based here in Richmond told me the other day, “As someone who loves Virginia and Richmond, I’m telling you that we need you to succeed, and succeed big. What you do, we need you to do it well.”

Being on the national stage helps us recruit and retain the best students and faculty to be our colleagues. It brings in more resources, then even more resources — because, whether we like it or not, or whether it’s fair or not, we know that it takes resources to get resources.

That really is key, because we know that if we don’t get more resources, we will hit a ceiling with regard to Quest. We will reach our limit in our ability to recruit and keep students and faculty who match VCU’s caliber. We will reach our limit in what we can achieve, what we can learn, what we can discover and what we can create.

I pledge to leverage the presidency to get the resources that will help us realize the potential that rests in the talent I see in all of you.

There are two ways we can do this. First, of course, is by building more, with an external focus on fundraising and friend-raising. We also need to do a better job of leveraging those resources that we already have as investments to bring more resources back.

In the coming year and beyond, my focus will be on resource-building. And I ask for your help. Help us engage alumni, remembering that you are our closest connection to them. Join me in plugging them back into the development system, and keep in mind that it’s not just VCU that needs more resources, but you do too. And when alumni give, they typically give back to a particular program or faculty member.

Help us by engaging students now. We are bringing in tremendous talent. Bring out the best in them by engaging them and inspiring them to lead and discover.

I ask that you think about having more engagement across disciplines. We naturally work so well with our students and faculty colleagues from all backgrounds. You embrace one another, and I’m grateful. Take advantage of talent that exists among our other colleagues. I was talking to someone the other day who said, “I really like that you’re emphasizing research, but I haven’t been active and haven’t published anything in a few years.” I asked him, “Have you thought about taking what you already know and sharing it with someone who’s been really active, and who’s moving really quickly, and who could benefit from what you know, to increase momentum for your own work?” I know I can count on you to take next steps to leverage each other.

I ask you to think about how you can move your research, what you discover, to the market and to people more quickly. Help human beings faster. We are part of a community that is committed to students, alumni, patients, the community and to each other. We are committed to being leaders in every one of our fields to accrue benefit to Richmond, Va., and people who need us everywhere.

I am proud that, more than ever, we have become one university with one vision that is focused on people. We are becoming a major national research university that is changing society quickly. I am most proud of you.

Thank you for your many contributions to VCU. I look forward to another excellent year working alongside you.