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State of the University Address: “A Distinctive VCU”

Jan. 27, 2015
University Student Commons

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then that video is worth 10,000. So I’d better get started.

It is inspiring to see so many people in that video, in this room and in our community thinking about Virginia Commonwealth University in new ways. We are all fortunate to be part of a university that is truly distinctive anywhere in our nation.

We look like no place else. We act like no place else. And we achieve like no place else.

That is thanks to our people, who are like no other.

People like Paul Bukaveckas, at the VCU Rice Rivers Center, who is working on three continents to give people the clean water they need.

People like Marquita Aguilar, a beloved staff member in Humanities and Sciences, whose personal investments and commitments to philanthropy have supported dozens of students who needed a little help continuing their education.

And people like Anna Moore, a student in Music, who spent her summer break not on a pristine Atlantic beach but in a penurious African village, teaching music to a hundred children and building a community store that will fund their school.

These colleagues inspire us to believe that our world will be a better place because of their leadership and wisdom. And they remind us that VCU is a university that performs with the best in the world, and we have gotten there in a way that is distinctively VCU.

Our legacy of innovation, education, engagement and health care is not only translational, it’s transformational. This has been our work for generations, beginning as the region’s first medical school 177 years ago. But in recent years, since we launched Quest for Distinction together, VCU’s progress has been especially profound. We have become one of America’s premier research universities in a very short time.

Consider that my faculty colleagues achieved a record level of sponsored research and creative activity last year, more than $262 million. We now truly compete with major research universities across the commonwealth and the nation.

VCU faculty members started six companies last year while mentoring our students to begin eight more. This is remarkable but not surprising: More than one in seven VCU students will start a business before they graduate.

When Gail Hackett becomes VCU’s next provost on March 1, she will join and lead an excellent faculty.

I thank our faculty, staff and students — all of you — who continue to raise VCU’s academic profile, which helps attract renowned scholars like Provost Hackett and elevate Virginia Commonwealth University’s brand around the world.

I am grateful to Dave Sarrett and Susan Gooden, and the members of their search committee, for their work to bring Provost Hackett aboard. And I am enormously thankful to John Wiencek, whose service as interim provost and vice president for academic affairs these last few months has been truly exemplary.

When Dr. Wiencek assumed this role, I asked him to think and act not as an interim who would keep things steady, but as an investor and a catalyst in the progress of one of America’s great research universities.

He has done exactly that.

Would you please join me in recognizing and thanking John Wiencek?

Like our people, our programs make us distinctive.

Consider VCU Medical Center, which is both the region’s safety net hospital and highest-ranked hospital.

And let there be no uncertainty: We will continue to be No. 1 in every way, from finding causes and cures, to serving our diverse patient population with dignity, to treating each other with respect, to giving our students the best educational experience anywhere. We will be competitive, accessible and distinctive.

While walking through our medical center recently, I met a man from a small town in northwestern Virginia — or, as he called it “the other side of the mountains.” His wife was very sick, so he brought her to VCU, although doctors in his corner of Virginia had referred her someplace closer.

“But I knew she’d get better care here,” he told me.

And so has he, by the way. Physicians, nurses and health care providers at VCU Medical Center have helped him find the comfort of a home in Richmond while also giving his wife the comfort of their consummate care.

Across the medical center, my colleagues continue to advance our vision of a nationally premier health system that is second to none and distinctive from anyplace else. They are combining world-class care with first-class service, which the patients we serve — in Central Virginia, South Hill and on the other side of the mountain — continually note, and which helped us earn the American Hospital Association’s coveted McKesson Quest for Quality Prize.

We are proud to care for the most-vulnerable patients and their families, in specialties and subspecialties found nowhere else. For example, we are the region’s only pediatric Level 1 trauma center, and we serve more than 80 percent of Central Virginia’s children who need treatment for cancer, cardiac conditions, HIV, organ transplants, burns and mental health. We revived the region’s only pediatric nephrology program less than four years ago, and — under Tim Bunchman’s leadership — it’s already ranked among the nation’s top 30.

VCU remains unambiguously committed to providing unrivaled health care, medical education and medical research that will benefit all of Richmond and beyond.

I thank Sheldon Retchin, formerly our senior vice president for health sciences and CEO of VCU Health System, for his work to elevate VCU Health System for 12 years. And I congratulate Sheldon as he begins his new role at Ohio State University.

Sheldon hired an outstanding leadership team, including now-Interim Vice President for Health Sciences, CEO of the VCU Health System and School of Medicine Dean Jerry Strauss; and CEO of VCU Hospitals John Duval.

As my partners, Jerry and John will ensure that we will not miss a beat as our national search progresses and we find the leader who will continue to fulfill our vision of a distinctive and nationally premier medical center.

In the medical center, and everywhere else at VCU, we will continue our work to fulfill the ambitions of Quest. We’ve made great progress.

For example, our graduation rate is 9 percent higher than it was before Quest began, and we confer nearly 300 more degrees. That includes graduating more Virginians than anyplace else. Our graduation rates will continue to increase, by the way, as a record number of freshmen — 82 percent — are enrolled in a full course load. That number was about 62 percent before Quest began. Do the math: That’s a 32 percent increase!

These students will transform their fields and change our world, thanks to the remarkable educational experience they receive here alongside their faculty mentors.

What I’ve just described is a major research university in no uncertain terms.

Whether you consider U.S. News rankings, data from the benchmark Center for Measuring University Performance, inclusion in national associations, memberships in the National Academies or any other metric, VCU has become a premier American public research university.

We are truly premier, truly exceptional and truly distinctive.

Let me illustrate that point.

A few months ago, I joined a few colleagues — including McKenna Brown from Global Education and Hong Cheng from the Robertson School — in China to establish and strengthen strategic partnerships with the leading universities in that important nation.

As you may know, rankings and reputation are very important in China, especially as they relate to academics. So important, in fact, that China’s Ministry of Education actually sponsors its own ranking of research universities around the world — a list that I’m proud to say includes VCU among its top 200. Students in China also say that the most important factor in their choosing a school is how it ranks internationally.

A university’s reputation matters in China like nowhere else. And they won’t partner with you unless you perform and bring a real benefit.

That’s why I was delighted to hear our counterparts at the best Chinese universities tell me so much about VCU. They were eager to collaborate with us, impressed by the scholarship of our faculty and students, by the volume and breadth of our research and creative activity, and by the ways in which we are advancing human health.

In the most rankings-conscious place on the planet, VCU is seen as a premier research university.

So the time has come for us to move our conversation from aspiring to be the very best to talking about ways to ensure that we remain among the very best. Because we are there!

This got me thinking about an article I once read about Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder and famously innovative chairman. The writer asked Jobs why he thought Apple had been so successful in its crowded marketplace.

I expected that he would say something like “technical superiority” or “impeccable design.” Or both. But he didn’t. Instead, he said it was because they were “distinctive.”

He said it was because they were distinctive.

That took me by surprise, until I started thinking about it. And then I started thinking about how being distinctive is also a key to VCU’s success among research universities — and not just now, but long after we’ve all moved on and left our legacy here.

Let me explain.

Steve Jobs knew that he was in an incredibly competitive world, and for Apple to succeed, it needed to stand out. He understood that people often make choices based on perceptions — both subtle and obvious — often influenced by something’s distinctiveness.

For better or worse, it is what’s unique about things that really define them. It’s their distinctiveness that captures people’s attention, inspires their imagination and, importantly, rewards their decisions.

OK, so what makes VCU distinctive?

Well, I see four ways that inspire me — and, I’ll bet, most of you as well.

They are: our diversity, our vibrant urban environment, our accessibility and our commitment to making it real.

First, our diversity.

Our people are as distinctive as we are. We have the most diverse and inclusive student body of any university in Virginia. We also graduate more minority students than anyplace in the state, and we have closed the graduation gaps for minority students.

Our diversity has made us a national model, and now we strive to shape the national conscience. To do that, we’ve got to continue enhancing diversity at VCU in all its forms — and we will.

In partnership with our Faculty Senate and Black Educators Association, I have asked members of my cabinet to review and ensure effective strategies to recruit and retain premier underrepresented faculty members. And I have charged a task force led by Vice President for Inclusive Excellence Wanda Mitchell and President Emeritus Gene Trani, with recommending ways to further diversify our student body, and I look forward to their report in the coming weeks.

Those who say that a research university can’t promote both excellence and diversity will collide with the reality that we are already doing it.

Our new freshmen class is both the most academically accomplished and the most diverse in our history, and it’s the second year in a row that’s been true. One-third of these new freshmen are first-generation college students, and almost one-third come from low-income households — a number that far outpaces most of our research university peers.

A generation ago, many of these students likely would not have had the opportunity to graduate from a premier research university. Not because they didn’t have acumen, but because they didn’t have access.

Indeed, the student body at many research universities still doesn’t look like ours. But we will continue to ensure that the world’s best and brightest students can not only get into a research university like VCU, but that they can thrive here, graduate here and write whatever future they imagine.

Diversity is a big issue. And big steps are needed to ensure its viability.

That’s why I’m proud to announce that one of the ways we will continue diversifying our university will be by eliminating a required SAT score for admission to VCU for many students. Studies show that the SAT has racial and socio-economic biases, and that it does not accurately predict how a student will perform in college. And yet, it has been an obstacle for too many college-ready students for too long. So beginning this fall, your ability to succeed at VCU will no longer depend on your ability to pass a test that’s fundamentally flawed.

VCU remains committed that what you look like or where you come from will never determine how far you can go.

The second way we’re distinctive: Our vibrant urban environment.

VCU is indispensable to the commonwealth and communities we serve. We have the unique distinction of developing both our region and those who will lead it by creating an innovation ecosystem that will nurture great minds and promote great ideas.

From Broad Street to Bon Air, our region is vibrant and engaging — and becoming more so every day. It is our home. Though we are a national university, we will always be Richmond’s university. And we commit that we will do all we can to ensure that Greater Richmond is a place where innovation soars and creativity flourishes.

Many of the great ideas that will move Richmond forward will be born in laboratories, studios, clinics, classrooms and dorm rooms on our campus. It is in our nature as a research university to champion the ideas that will solve humanity’s biggest needs.

In doing so, we will never claim to have every answer. But we remember that the incomplete ideas of today become the inconceivable breakthroughs of tomorrow. And so we will always open our doors to those who will join us in innovating — whether they’re across town or across the world or across the lines of industry and fields of study.

Yet, we not only strive to shape Richmond, we value the many ways that Richmond shapes us.

There’s a young woman named Nazgol Norouzi, whose life was changed because she came to Richmond. Nazgol is from Iran. She wanted to study product innovation, so she began carefully researching the world’s best academic programs in this field.

By that, I mean she Googled it. And the first result Google brought back was VCU.

So Nazgol enrolled here, pursing a master’s degree in product innovation through the da Vinici Center, studying how products are packaged and working to find ways to do it better. Because her classrooms were just down the street from one of the world’s leaders in this area, MeadWestvaco, Nazgol went to work there.

She graduated with her master’s degree in December and will now help VCU launch our new living-learning program this fall that’s focused on innovation, while also pursuing her Ph.D. in nanoscience and technology at VCU.

With her passion and talent for innovation, Nazgol Norouzi will someday change the world. And it all started because of VCU’s distinctive connection with our urban environment.

The third way we’re distinctive: Our accessibility.

While we are changing humanity through world-class research, education, engagement and health care, we are still at our core what we have always been: A university that’s committed to student access and student success. We are still fundamentally focused on people and the creativity and concepts that will help them flourish.

Part of our distinctiveness among premier research universities is that we are committed without compromise to both access and excellence. And going forward, every decision we make must be viewed through this dual lens. We cannot sacrifice excellence for the sake of access. And we will never slam shut the doors of opportunity so that we can look like someplace else.

Access at VCU must mean that we will hire and retain diverse and internationally premier faculty, and we will work hard to give them every resource they need to succeed. In the year ahead, I will address the issue of resources, including competitive compensation. This is among my highest priorities, including in the new session of the General Assembly.

We have studied this issue. Now, it’s time to act.

In the coming weeks, I will announce a plan to reward those members of our faculty and staff whose contributions to the university and to the academy outpace their compensation. We cannot do everything we want to, and we were reminded of that when we were asked to return more than $10 million in general appropriation over the biennium to help offset the commonwealth’s budget deficit. But we must do something. Even if Rome wasn’t built in a day, part of it was. And so we’ll do what we can.

Access at VCU must also mean that students who enroll here can also graduate here, and so we all have to work to eliminate some of the obstacles that stand in their way.

That is why I have committed that VCU will increase its online and hybrid curricula, helping more students gain access to the courses they need, no matter where they live or how they learn.

It’s why we will continue to invest resources in student counseling and well-being, academic advising, undergraduate research, safety and in spaces like Cabell Library that will help our students succeed.

It’s why I have asked my team to strengthen our efforts in serving active-duty military, veterans and their families who want to pursue higher education; to help us double our international student population by the end of the decade, beginning in China; and to expand articulation agreements with all 23 community colleges in Virginia.

And it’s why we are leveraging and managing our resources in new ways that will foster access for high-achieving people to join VCU. Our comprehensive fundraising campaign, which moves into the public phase in the next 18 months, will focus on endowments and scholarships that will create opportunities for faculty members and increase access for students.

We will continue to develop a budget model and investment management system that will be distinctive to VCU and that will put our resources where they’re needed: to ensure that we are always advancing both access and excellence.

We will not compromise on access or on excellence. And these ideals will become our guideposts in determining how we dedicate and commit our precious resources. Taken together, these projects will help make certain that VCU is distinctive among research universities because of our essence, not inefficiencies.

These will be difficult — and at times, uncomfortable — but they are necessary next steps for the long-term sustainability of our university and its mission. I appreciate the support and feedback all of you will give during this important process.

The fourth way we’re distinctive: Our commitment to making it real.

Long before she enrolled at VCU, when Faith Ajayi was growing up in Nigeria, she was inspired to change the world for women like her aunt, who had a difficult pregnancy that almost took her life. Doctors in her remote region were, at that time, ill-equipped to help. A healthy baby was finally born, and a calling was born in Faith.

“I wanted to be an obstetrician before I really even knew what that was,” Faith recently said. “In some places in Nigeria, pregnancy procedures used to mean life or death. If you couldn’t deliver the baby naturally, it was likely that you and your baby wouldn’t survive.”

Holding her aunt’s miracle baby for the first time convinced Faith to help women and children around the world gain access to the care they need. She came to VCU to study biomedical engineering because, in her words, “when you come here, you do more than learn something new. You learn how to make it better.”

The trademark of the VCU experience — why we are distinctive — is that what we do here has a real impact on our world.

Like Faith did, our students will use quickly what they learn here to reinvigorate the human experience. Our faculty members will create and innovate in ways that redefine human ingenuity. And our medical researchers and clinical care providers will find causes and cures that reignite human hope.

What we do better than anyplace else I know is work together as one university to solve real problems.

Colleagues in art and medicine, for example, come together to change the way surgeons think about the body. Colleagues in social work, nursing and pharmacy opened a clinic that serves patients who have special needs but little access to health care — a clinic, by the way, that recently earned the Association for Public and Land-Grant Universities’ most prestigious award for community service. Colleagues in Engineering and Education are helping ensure that America will have enough STEM teachers to meet the demands of the 21st century.

The list goes on.

Because at VCU, what you study, teach, research and create doesn’t mark the boundaries of what you can contribute but rather the beginning of it.

That’s what making it real means. And that is distinctive.

As we start this new year together, we recognize that we are all part of a distinctive research university.

One that performs with the elite, but is not elitist.

One that measures progress in the number of lives we transform.

One that understands, as Steve Jobs did, that what makes us distinctive is what makes us great.

You are exemplary colleagues in every way. I appreciate your dedication and commitment to our premier and distinctive research university.

Thank you.