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State of the University Address

Jan. 23, 2014
W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts

Thank you, June. I appreciate that wonderful introduction and your strong leadership and partnership. And thank you all for joining us for this important conversation about the state of our university.

I could not be more proud of all that we have accomplished together. In a very short time, Virginia Commonwealth University has emerged as one of America’s premier urban, public research universities. And this is thanks to your dedication to the success of our students, creativity and discovery, community engagement, and your incomparable commitment to human health.

Your efforts led VCU to a wonderful recognition recently, when U.S. News named us one of the nation’s “up and coming” universities. We were joined on this short list by Boston University, Tulane and Carnegie Mellon — with whom we also share a campus in Doha, Qatar.

This honor represents the hard work, relentless determination and fearless vision of women and men in every part of our university. Like biology professor John Ryan, who earned three NIH grants last year to study asthma and allergies, including an Emerging Healthcare Leadership grant. Or Deborah Van Buren, who won the Dorris Douglas Budd Award last year. Deborah’s colleagues in Communication Arts call her “a self-starter who initiates ideas and who is absolutely committed to VCU.” Or David Jessee, who was an M3 in our School of Medicine when he noticed an inconsistency on a patient’s record and worked with the attending physician to revise that patient’s care — and possibly save her life.

So many people have done so much to advance VCU.

That list certainly includes Provost Bev Warren, who will be a great president for Kent State University. Dr. Warren had hoped to be here today but is out of town at a funeral. Provost Warren will continue to be my partner in advancing Quest and the success of our people through the end of this academic year. In the meantime, Research Vice President Frank Macrina will chair a representative search committee — which also includes June — that will engage in a national search. Our new provost will join me in focusing on Quest, supporting our wonderfully diverse students and dedicated faculty, and advancing VCU as a nationally premier urban, public research university.


Soon after I came to VCU, I attended a speech given by a person who was, at that time, a very senior official in our state government. The speaker began describing what he called “The Big 3” research universities in the commonwealth, and all that they contribute to Virginia and its economy. As the new president of VCU, I was excited that he was going to talk about this institution in such glowing terms, and in front of a distinguished and influential audience.

I listened as he began talking about U.Va., then Virginia Tech, and then another Virginia institution that was not VCU. His “Big 3” research universities did not include VCU.

There were two reasons for that. One, his misconceptions about VCU were based on commonly held, but really outdated information. The other was that we, as an institution, were not doing a very good job promoting our successes. We do much better today, I am proud to say. Our “Make it real” branding campaign has shown everyone that VCU is a unified and focused national research university. The continued success and national recognition of our faculty have forever changed our culture and our expectations as an institution. The engagement of alumni, partners and friends, not only as fans of VCU but investors in VCU, has helped us earn a truly national reputation for excellence. Just last week, I met with a group of alumni leadership on the West Coast who made this very clear.

Not only is VCU now universally recognized as one of the “Big 3” in Virginia, we have also emerged as one of the premier urban, public research universities in America.

VCU is not the same institution it was a decade ago. Permit me to offer you a few examples. In 2004, our entering freshman GPA was 3.2. Today, it is 3.6. In 2004, we were not ranked among the Top 50 public universities in any significant categories. Today we are ranked in three, with the strong likelihood that it could soon be four or five. In 2004, four faculty members at VCU held prestigious national awards. Today, that number is 18, including six members of the National Academies. In 2004, VCU Health System had a very slim operating margin. Today, it is one of the most financially healthy anywhere. This allows our health system to invest $70 million per year in the academic mission of VCU Medical Center.

Last year, we reached record levels of private investment in VCU, whether you measure number of gifts, number of new donors or number of VCU Alumni members.

Despite sequestration, our research enterprise remains healthy, reaching almost $250 million last year, and we received two of the three largest research grants in our institution’s history. This is extraordinary, and it is because we have extraordinary faculty. What makes me most proud of our research is this: The greatest measure of success for you is not simply how many articles you publish, or how many patents you earn, but how many lives you improve through your discoveries — particularly those of students who you involve in your work.

Like Thomas Farmer and Kevin Sutherland, my faculty colleagues in the School of Education, whose research on bullying is shaping the national conversation and giving classroom teachers the tools they need to protect children. And like Miriam George, my faculty colleague in the School of Social Work, whose research on migrant populations is helping reduce the cost of public health care and improving the quality of life for refugees around the world. Earlier this month, by the way, Miriam won a significant international award in her field for this work.

We are doing remarkable things at VCU. And there are many more on the horizon.

In this new year, we have a familiar focus: continue to elevate VCU as a premier urban, public research university in our nation, not only compared to our peers but relative to our greatest potential.

In working with you to do this, there are four areas to which I am committed, and have asked the Board of Visitors to support us.

First is fundraising.

I fear that we will soon hit a ceiling, in terms of what we can accomplish, if our resources do not match our talents and ambitions. Nowhere is this more plainly true than in our ability to invest in the success of our people.

We know, for example, that salaries for some at VCU are just not competitive. A recent report of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission illustrated this very clearly, showing that the average salary for an assistant professor at VCU is below Carnegie peers in 70% of our academic units. An across-the-board $10,000 raise would still put many of our faculty members at only the 60th percentile nationally. Improving salaries remains a priority in the current General Assembly session, and we continue to push our lawmakers on this issue.

Last year, I augmented the state’s increase to salaries with institutional funds. And I pledge to continue to do as much as I can, which is why I am focused on leveraging the presidency to increase institutional resources.

It’s more than salaries. We also need renewed investment in learning spaces and startup packages for our newest colleagues, and a more robust endowment to help ensure that your success is tied to your ambition, not the economic climate of the commonwealth.

That we have achieved so much, despite these needs, is significant. But we realize that we cannot expect to continue to recruit and retain a nationally competitive faculty if we cannot compensate a nationally competitive faculty.

And so, I have charged our fundraising team — led by Development Vice President Marti Heil — to pair up donors with faculty members whose innovation and expertise will continue to transform our university and our nation. Marti and I also join others in continuing to look for ways in which we can leverage all of our successes and existing resources to bring in more revenue.

Another area on which I am focused is the success of our students at every level, from first semester to first professional.

Led by Vice Provost Luke Schultheis, we have been profoundly successful at identifying and enrolling diverse students whose academic accomplishments are raising VCU’s profile, despite our inability to offer them competitive financial aid.

We are increasing the academic profile of our students and the value of their learning experience. More than ever, our students are taking a full course load and on track to graduate on time, thanks to the “Do the math” campaign and to the wisdom and determination of these young scholars.

As we continue to emphasize excellence among our students — who are the future leaders of their industries and our commonwealth, who will advance diversity in all its forms, and who will invest in our university’s success for the next generation — we must ensure that they are fully supported and prepared to succeed at VCU.

This is going to include more-competitive financial aid packages and graduate-student stipends that are commensurate with our standing as a national research university; resources for advising, scheduling, counseling and student support that help eliminate obstacles to graduating on time; living and learning spaces that foster collaboration, allow our students to focus on academic priorities and build institutional pride; and ensuring that our students have access to the courses — including online — that they need to graduate on time.

I have asked our development team to make student success a priority in fundraising. And I will be there with them. I am working to ensure that VCU has the resources it needs to be fully successful in advancing Quest. That means that, like most university presidents, I am off campus more frequently, telling your story and asking friends and partners to support your work. Investment in VCU from all sources is more important than ever, because there is more competition than ever before for state-appropriated dollars.

The state’s current budget proposal includes $183 million for higher education, a total to be divided among all public institutions in Virginia. That includes $31 million for student financial aid at Virginia’s public universities, including 10% to attract the highest-caliber students. And it includes initiatives specific to VCU, which will also help our state, including for VCU Massey Cancer, Parkinson’s research at our university and a pharmacy compounding lab.

But we must temper expectations. We can no longer expect that the state will fund two-thirds of a student’s education, as it did a generation ago. Now, it’s less than one-third.

That is why it is still imperative that we focus our precious resources where they will help us most; that is, where they will move the needle quickly with regard to Quest.

My third area of focus is continuing to strengthen our physical learning environment.

In the last session, we were approved to make functional two of our core facilities that desperately need attention: the Raleigh Building and Sanger Hall. While the General Assembly has green-lighted these projects, we do not yet know if funds will be available this year.

VCU still has the fewest square feet, per student, among Virginia’s research universities. We need more space to teach, research, discover and to help strengthen Virginia.

As with everything else, it is a question of resources. I am committed, along with Finance Vice President Bill Decatur and his tremendous team, to finding creative and impactful ways to address this issue.

We are working with partners like the city and our foundations to construct, renovate or repurpose the space that you need to continue helping VCU advance as a nationally premier urban, public research university.

We have made some notable progress. Last year, we opened two of the most remarkable spaces in VCU’s history — the McGlothlin Medical Education Center and the Academic Learning Commons, which is right behind us. These are not only modern learning facilities, they are on the leading edge. We also dedicated the Grace Street North Residence Hall, the second facility in our Living-Learning Corridor. This is a beautiful home for our students, but more than that, it is a space that instills pride, collaboration and community among those who live there.

While these three buildings are unrivaled anywhere, we do not have enough spaces that look like what you would find at other national research universities. We have to expand the physical footprint to meet the needs of our growing institution.

Specifically, fundraising for the Institute for Contemporary Art is nearly complete, and we expect to break ground this year. Construction and renovation at Cabell Library will begin in the coming months, the first significant enhancements to this bustling facility since the 1970s. Work continues on our Children’s Pavilion, and it remains on pace to open next year. We are planning our next experiential themed residence halls, which will focus on leadership and entrepreneurship. These will be built along Grace Street near Ryland beginning next year. We are working with the city, and other partners, to develop the area between our campuses — especially along Broad and Grace streets — to include retail, housing and office space. These projects will be designed to advance economic development and impact safety in Richmond.

This is an incomplete list, to be sure. I hear your calls for more space. These projects take time, but I am pleased that they are also beginning to take shape.

The fourth area on which I am focusing is continuing to strengthen VCU Health System.

This begins, of course, with our work with the General Assembly on Medicaid in the commonwealth. This is critically important for both the health system and the university.

We are the state’s largest safety net hospital and also a No.1-ranked hospital in the commonwealth. This is an unusual distinction nationally — one of which I am quite proud. And it’s because of the excellent leadership, faculty, staff and students who are so committed to the care of others. But, if we are to continue providing leading medical care for Virginians — especially those with the most complex pathologies — addressing significant resources is absolutely imperative.

Without Medicaid expansion, or an alternative to provide funding for our safety net mission, our health system could lose up to $300 million in federal funds over a five-year period, beginning in 2017. This would decimate our hospitals and severely limit our ability to help the people who need us the most. It could also erode the more than $70 million contribution that the health system makes to the university’s School of Medicine every year. These funds are critical to our academic missions of teaching and research. Without this support, we cannot educate the next generation of health professionals or conduct life-saving research.

We are working urgently, then, with our partners in the halls of the Capitol. Meanwhile, our mission in the halls of the hospitals remains the same: the best care for our people.

We are strengthening VCU as a national leader in educating future health care leaders, thanks to the most significant evolution of the School of Medicine’s curriculum in 30 years. We now prepare future physicians using team-based, clinically driven problem solving, including advanced simulation.

We are also positioning VCU as a leader in clinical trials, advancing medicine that saves lives. That includes, certainly, at VCU Massey Cancer Center, which with our hard work will become the commonwealth’s first NCI comprehensive cancer center in 2017.

And we remain fully committed that the VCU Health System will be well-regarded for treating complex illnesses and providing care for all people, with dignity, respect, professionalism and the highest-rated patient experiences at all times. I am proud of the leaps forward we have taken in this area, thanks to so many forward-thinking faculty members, staff and students. I look forward to continuing this important work. How we treat people — including each other — is paramount across VCU. The Great Place Initiative and STAR Service continue to shape our institution as one that’s focused on the unique needs of the diverse human beings who live, work and learn here every day.

Thank you all for your extraordinary work. You inspire me every day.

As a great university, we are called to shape the future of society. So your efforts must be combined with a strong foundation of investment in faculty and student success, research distinction, the physical learning environment, and our unique commitment to human health.

I know I can count on you to remember the admonition of Winston Churchill. “Success,” he said, “is never final.” Our work is never final. Our successes are never final.

Given the pace of our progress, we don’t pause often enough to celebrate what we accomplish together. Thank you for taking a few minutes to join me in doing that today.

I congratulate you, and look forward to continuing to work alongside you.

Thank you.