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2014 Faculty Convocation

Aug. 20, 2014
Siegel Center

I am proud to congratulate those of you who will win awards this morning, and I look forward to helping honor you in just a few minutes And my thanks to all of you for continuing to elevate Virginia Commonwealth University.

You know, this really is a great place. A student named Xavier reminds me of that.

Xavier grew up in rural Virginia, but he says he never found a place where he fit in. He is African-American and gay, and he felt isolated in a small town where he knew everyone except himself. Xavier was a good student, but he didn’t know what to do with his life, and he had few ambitions. He wouldn’t have considered even attending college had his talents not earned him a scholarship to VCU.

When he came to Richmond to start classes last fall, he was intimidated, scared and overwhelmed. But the VCU community quickly embraced Xavier, just as it has all of us. He began making friends. He found mentors among his professors. He joined student clubs, and found his place in our wonderful city.

Today, perhaps for the first time, Xavier loves the life he’s living. He credits VCU with his great personal and educational transformation, for helping him move from someone who’s unsettled to someone who never settles.

Thinking about Xavier’s story made me wonder: How do we ensure that more people like him have the chance to succeed, not only as students but as a new generation of intellectuals, leaders and keepers of the American Dream? How do we fulfill our mission as a public research university of advancing humanity by giving all of its members a chance to succeed?

Well, we do that by reinventing higher education in the 21st century. So today, I’m calling on us to do just that.

Why does higher education need to be thoughtfully reinvented? It’s not that we’re doing lots of things wrong. I want to be very clear about that.

There is no doubt that we can serve the public better, and that we can do better fulfilling our great mission of helping our students achieve their great promise.

But American universities — and particularly our public universities like VCU — are still the greatest path to success for all people, not just those who are privileged. We remain the pre-eminent source of innovation in history, the place where the most confounding problems of humanity will finally be solved. We continue to “replace an empty mind with an open one” — as Malcolm Forbes said — because people come to us not only for a degree and a job but for perspective and meaning.

The depths to which we can transform a life or a community are very difficult to measure. But we know it happens every day. We see it in ways big and small.

VCU is, in fact, the best example I know of what’s right with public higher education in America: that we help people from all places, no matter what circumstance they may be coming from, and give them every chance to succeed.

When you step onto our campus, whether you’re a first-semester undergraduate or a first-class researcher, you are empowered to succeed. We want your success to transform the human experience.

We are all part of a university that’s not only focused on the future, but is creating it — working together to achieve what has always been thought to have been impossible.

We chose to come to VCU, in part, because, as our tagline says, we “make it real.” We are not disconnected from the biggest issues of the world. We are, in fact, in the middle of solving them.

That is why we, at VCU, must also be at the center of reinventing higher education in America — not erasing what we’ve been doing all these years, but building on it, creating a culture that is singularly focused on our mission and fundamentally committed to achieving it.

I am asking for your help to reinvent higher education in three ways:

  • No. 1, to help all students from all backgrounds succeed at our university
  • No. 2, to form partnerships within our community and with each other that will accelerate our progress
  • And No. 3, to ensure that our resources are dedicated to the things that matter

Let’s talk first about helping all of our students succeed.

There are now more than 21 million people enrolled in American universities. That’s 30 percent more than a decade ago. That means there are 21 million people who subscribe to the idea that American universities are a place of promise and their ticket to a better future.

We owe it to every one of them — every single life — to give them a chance. And I commit to you that every single student who comes to VCU must have the chance to succeed in whatever way she or he desires.

Hardworking, highly motivated students from all backgrounds must always have access to our unique educational experience. Our mantra will always be: “If you can get in to VCU, you can succeed at VCU.”

We can’t make guarantees, of course. But we can make every effort to ensure that our culture supports, empowers and enables every student to thrive in our rigorous academic setting.

We are proudly the most diverse university in Virginia, in all of the ways people are diverse. About 40 percent of our students are the first person in their family to attend college. More than 30 percent come from low-income households. One hundred percent of these students have the bright minds to make it here and the greatest chance to make the biggest difference in our world.

But some may face unique challenges along the way that could hinder their ability to graduate on time, or at all. We must remember to focus on our students’ aspirations, and also on their needs.

I am deeply grateful that many of you are doing exactly that.

You are mentoring students in and out of the classroom. You are inviting them into your labs, studios and clinics and giving their curious minds a chance to blossom. You are doing more than helping them make the grade — you’re helping them make a difference.

That’s why we will continue to recruit and retain faculty colleagues who, like you, are unwavering in their commitment to the deep learning and discovery that happens every day at VCU.

I have asked members of our leadership team to finalize a strategic faculty hiring and retention plan that takes a close look at compensation and recognition and promotes diversity, and to give me this plan by the end of the academic year.

I have also asked members of our team to consider what our student body should look like moving forward, and to develop strategies for recruitment and retention at every level. That includes working to ensure that we are attracting the right students and offering the right academic programs to help them thrive.

In doing so, we will continue to reinvent what “student success” means in American higher education.

Now, let’s talk about reinventing higher education through partnerships.

A few weeks ago, a woman named Helen Jones walked downstairs from her apartment and into a VCU clinic that’s housed within her building. Her cheeks, tongue and lips were severely swollen. An allergic reaction, she thought, that could be treated quickly.

But an interdisciplinary team of VCU faculty and students quickly realized that Helen’s life was in danger. She was reacting to a newly prescribed medication.

She was rushed to the hospital. Our medical team followed her there, and worked with her primary care physician to ensure that she got the help she needed and that she was never given the offending medication again.

Helen Jones’ life was saved because of a unique partnership between VCU and Dominion Place, a senior-living high-rise near the Monroe Park Campus. The Richmond Health and Wellness Program, as we call it, is staffed by faculty and students from the schools of Nursing, Pharmacy, Medicine and Social Work. It helps the 250 people who live in Dominion Place — many of whom lack access to quality health care otherwise — better manage chronic health problems and receive coordinated care from interprofessional teams of care providers.

The clinic is a terrific example of how building innovative partnerships across VCU and across our community can make a difference.

We can — and we must — do this because our importance to the state and the region is unique.

We are the largest and best health care provider to hundreds of thousands across the region, including many of those with the most complex pathologies. We can play a significant role in innovation and economic development in Central Virginia by moving your discoveries to market quickly. With the top-ranked School of the Arts, the ICA and a nationally premier athletics program, we are a cornerstone of culture and passion on the Eastern Seaboard.

Quite simply, we are more than an “anchor institution” in Richmond, as some have called us. Anchors hold things in place. We are an “engine” that makes our region go.

And given our great place within the region, I am proud that we are also embracing our great responsibility to make a difference here. I love the many ways you are leveraging the wonderful diversity of our students, patients, community and one another.

Last year, you joined and led our students in more than a million hours of service learning in and around Richmond. Initiatives like ASPiRE, Focused Inquiry, the da Vinci Center and the Center for Health and Society connect our university to our community in profoundly important ways.

Research partnerships with Dominion Resources, MeadWestvaco, The Y, Richmond Public Schools and countless other collaborators across the region are elevating both our university and our community, and remind us that our research must be both translational and transformative.

Your commitment to discovery has made us the spark of a burgeoning innovation system across Central Virginia that also includes the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park. And increasingly, we are a home to entrepreneurs. In the last 12 months, a dozen of you turned a research question into a patented product, and three of you started a company.

Your influence is reaching your students, half of whom say they’d like to start a company someday, too, and 14 percent of whom have already done so — even before they graduate!

This is remarkable. This is VCU.

We are reinventing American higher education and the role of the public university as not a “city within a city” — but an essential resource within a city.

Finally, let’s talk about how we can help enable our continued success by dedicating our resources to things that matter most.

With tuition dollars, state appropriations, a growing number of donor investments and other sources of revenue, VCU has a $3.7 billion budget, with more than $1 billion to advance education and research.

We need to be crystal clear that all of our resources are advancing our mission. And we need systems and structures in place that ensure accountability.

The next phase of our leadership, then, is to be transparent about where our resources are coming from, and where they’re going. I want donors, students and legislators to know that when they invest in VCU, they’re investing in something that really works and delivers on its mission. That’s particularly true in light of Gov. McAuliffe’s comments last Friday about Virginia’s projected $2.4 billion budget gap.

In the coming year, we will begin to develop together a new budget model that aligns responsibility and authority for programs with finances, and more closely connects our resources with our mission. We will boost what’s most important by strategically investing new resources and reallocating from lower-priority areas to ensure that our faculty and students are best served.

We will develop and implement strategies, systems and structures that will effectively allocate and generate resources on a sustaining basis, including working with our foundations to grow our endowment. We will also begin the initial phases of a comprehensive fundraising campaign that will move us closer to our goals.

These are significant steps that will transform VCU and accelerate our success. They will also make us a university that is more transparent, more focused and more efficient.

I’m glad I can count on you to help us reinvent public education as efficient, transparent and laser-focused on our wonderful mission.

Thank you for inspiring me to believe that VCU is the model for a new research university in America. Although we may have gotten there in a different way — a way that is uniquely VCU — we are performing with the same high standards as the nation’s top universities, thanks to you.

And thank you for helping reinvent higher education in America by ensuring that VCU will be the model for a sustainable, premier urban public research university that’s committed to student success, partnerships and discovery that elevate our university and our region, and transparency that empowers our success.

I am enormously grateful for all of you. Thank you.