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State of the University Address: “The Fascination of What’s Difficult”

Jan. 26, 2017
Cabell Library

It’s a privilege to be with you to reaffirm in this new year our enduring commitment: that we are a premier research university focused on the positive progress of humanity through discovery and innovation.

To be sure, this is difficult work. But it is ours to do. And I’m glad it is.

Because with this university’s unmatched talent and unwavering resolve, we are uniquely equipped to do what’s difficult.

When I think about what we do here every day — what’s difficult and what matters — I think about William Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet who the world lost 78 years ago this week. Among his most poignant verses was one called “The Fascination of What’s Difficult,” in which he wrestles with how to escape what is so that he can create what may be.

I love how Yeats describes the idea of striving for progress despite great challenges: “The fascination of what’s difficult.” And I want us to think about that today. How can we at VCU — and we in higher education broadly — commit our time, talent and resources to achieve what’s difficult so that we can move the human experience beyond what it is now to what it may someday become?

For us, this is the “fascination of what’s difficult.” And this is our fundamental mission.

I began reflecting on this recently when a reporter asked about my vision for VCU. My answer may not have been what he wanted, but here’s what I told him. Universities in general need to change a lot, and quickly — specifically with how we connect our work to the vital needs of the community.

Collectively, we have to make sure that what we do matters beyond our own campus, that we focus our limited resources toward solving urgent and vital problems that people face, and that we make the biggest possibilities of life more accessible to more people.

We have to be a part of our communities, not apart from them.

This is where higher education has to go in the 21st century. And VCU is ahead of the curve because our brand is a brand of positive impact. That’s thanks to all of you, because you continue to strive for the progress of humanity through research, teaching, health care and service, despite any obstacle you face.

You continue to be fascinated by what’s difficult.

Barbara Boyan does. She’s dean of our School of Engineering and was recently inducted into the National Academy of Inventors on the strength of 22 patents to correct musculoskeletal defects.

So does Sombo Chunda, a graduate student in the Wilder School. Her work to bring labor peace to Zambia earned her that nation’s top prize for civil service.

And so do the interdisciplinary researchers, clinicians and teachers at VCU Massey Cancer Center who cure cancer and save lives. And we recently learned that the National Cancer Institute review panel has recommended renewal of Massey’s NCI designation for the full five years, and Massey was given the best overall evaluation rating in its 43-year history. This is a testament to the strong leadership of Gordon Ginder.


They, along with many of you, model this grand idea: that the work we do here should solve society’s pressing problems, that we will be the ones to do what’s difficult.

Why? Why is this our mission? Well, there are many reasons. But I’m going to talk about the three that I think are most important.

Number one — because it’s in our DNA. Universities were born of their communities to solve the challenges of their communities.

Number two — because society needs us. Research universities like ours are engines of innovation, but innovation only matters if it’s paired with access.

Number three — because we can’t wait around for others to do it. While we will always seek out partners from every sector, no one else shares our focus on people over profit, empowerment over power and opportunity over ordinary.

Let me tell you what I mean.

First, it’s what we were born to do.

The purpose of higher education is, indeed, higher: to move humanity toward a better, fuller version of itself. To do this, we can never lose our fascination with what’s difficult.

Fifty years ago, a group of civic and educational leaders submitted a recommendation to Virginia’s State Council on Higher Education. Led by Edward Wayne, who was president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond at that time, this commission outlined the importance of creating a public university in Richmond that would “confront on an intellectual and practical level, the social environment which surrounds it.”

The Wayne Commission’s report, which is VCU’s constitution, said this: “This university has an obligation to participate in the solution of urban problems…to relate itself to the community without becoming overwhelmed by it and to participate in the solution of existing problems without being absorbed by them.”

In other words, VCU’s founding mission was to take head-on society’s most vexing problems through education, research, health care and service. To do what’s difficult. And we have always committed ourselves to serving the people and the commonwealth that depend on us — from Norfolk to NOVA to neighborhoods across Greater Richmond and throughout rural Virginia.

A few weeks ago, we released a report that highlights some of the ways we do this.

It showed that we have a $6 billion impact on the commonwealth, that our economic activity in Virginia returns about $3.20 for every dollar spent and that we account for about 63,000 jobs.

More than economics, this report shows that we shape Richmond’s culture; that we build partnerships that move Richmond forward; that VCU Health helps people live longer, better, fuller lives; and that we model diversity for a region and a state that has historically struggled with this issue.

The report revealed much about what VCU has been, and what we should become. We will focus on the people behind the numbers — the people of Virginia — and how we can continue to use our expertise, talents and resources to help solve some of the most challenging problems they face — including K-12 education, health disparities and poverty. Many of you already work on these complex issues, and this is a call to action to forge ahead.

In the coming year, we will intensify our work on two issues deeply connected to poverty — K-12 education and health disparities — as we formally launch the Center for Urban Communities.

This center will focus and target VCU’s assets with partners across Greater Richmond. This will include outreach, education, research, advocacy, policy analysis and hands-on service that will help support a more equitable and inclusive community. It will redefine research as practical and palpable and expand the understanding of a public university as a public good.

Now, let me be clear: We did not select these issues at random, nor are we brushing any others aside. Over the past year, we held focus groups with community leaders who identified K-12 education and health as being among the most serious problems facing Richmond and those which VCU might play the biggest role in addressing.

They said this because we have expertise and talent in these areas. Because we have the determination to work on critical issues in our community. Because we have the willingness to commit with our partners to address what’s difficult — and to be sure, these are incredibly difficult matters.

Our work through this center — and across VCU — will help make Richmond a stronger, more just, more accessible community. And it will support our faculty, staff and students in continuing to integrate their work into communities where we can learn and discover together what works and what’s effective in addressing the difficult challenges facing urban neighborhoods.

We’re in the final stages of a national search for the center’s leadership, a person who will be a partner for good, who will work to strengthen our university’s link with the community.

The Center for Urban Communities will bring together and build upon the remarkable work that’s already underway across VCU in these areas, work that will continue our historic charge “to participate in the solution of urban problems.”

Work that will continue our fascination with what’s difficult.

Next, we focus on what’s difficult because society needs us to. Research universities supply the cultural, intellectual, economic and political leadership of our nation. We are also America’s innovation and entrepreneurial engines. And I am proud of VCU’s astounding contributions, including a record $271 million in sponsored research last year, and top 100 placements nationally in both federal and total research expenditures.

This is significant. But what’s remarkable is that our brand of research advances the community as much as the academy.

For example, in the School of Social Work, Kia Bentley is internationally known for her scholarship on mental health. More than that, she moves her incredible research into the community to ensure that inmates get mental health care that’s more effective and more compassionate.

Diya Abraham, a graduate student in our School of Business, is an emerging leader in decision analytics research. She also works right now to improve equity of access to technology and education.

Our collaborative research in the neurosciences topped $27 million last year, ranking 32nd out of nearly 800 institutions nationally for NIH funding, far ahead of any other university in Virginia. And we treated about 25,000 patients with neurological disorders, helping them find breakthroughs to have a better life.

This is the VCU story: innovation that challenges the literature and changes lives. Even when — perhaps especially when — it’s difficult to do so.

Our innovations drive society. It’s time, then, that we innovate ourselves to ensure that we always do what’s difficult but profoundly important. And the truth is that this may be the most difficult assignment of all, because there’s comfort in doing what we’ve always done.

Here’s the good news: Innovation is our specialty. Change is what we’re all about. So how do we use our proclivity for innovation to ensure that we meet our grandest purpose?

By ensuring that our resources align with our mission.

That’s why our $750 million Make it Real campaign — the largest comprehensive fundraising campaign we’ve ever undertaken — focuses on giving the faculty, staff and students who advance our mission the resources they need to succeed in the biggest ways. So far, 78,000 donors have contributed more than $460 million to the campaign and have endowed nearly 300 scholarships for our students. This is part of our commitment to do everything we can to help our students build a future where they can create and lead, not be bound by the burdens of debt.

And it’s why, over the next several years, we’ll move faster to build the infrastructure that supports us.

This means a new budget process, the modernization of our human resources structure and a strategic master plan that redefines VCU’s physical footprint. This includes the Institute for Contemporary Art and the School of Allied Health Professions building that are currently taking shape, and our forthcoming adult ambulatory tower and parking facility. These join the new Development and Alumni Relations offices and VCU Police headquarters that bridge our campuses.

Our new HR structure begins a year from now, in January 2018. We’ll also roll out some components of our new budget process in the next fiscal year, with full implementation the year after.

And we continue our great efforts to ensure that we model both diversity and inclusion, through recruiting, hiring, promotion, service and creating an environment that supports all of our people.

These initiatives will do more than build a stronger VCU. They will build a VCU that serves all of us — and our mission — better.

And we will continue to look for ways to make VCU even stronger.

For example, our priority in the new General Assembly session is addressing permanent and much-needed salary increases. As a short-term solution, we recently announced that we will award one-time, merit-based bonuses this March, but we remain committed to doing everything possible to fund real pay raises.

This intense focus on our infrastructure is not glamorous. But it strengthens us, it fuels our fire and it’s urgently needed. For years, we have been a university of incredible growth — both in size and reputation. It’s time that our infrastructure catches up to where we are as a modern university, and as one university.

It also requires that we’re honest about our resources. We must be sensitive to tuition increases while recognizing that we can’t rely on public appropriations. Taken together, this means our resources will continue to be constrained.

But it doesn’t mean that we can’t achieve what’s difficult. It means we have to focus our resources toward that end, on investing in our leadership in a new world. And it means we have to make the hard decisions that will move us forward as a focused and decisive university, rather than a place that’s desperate to be all things to all people.

All of this requires change in many ways, including culturally. And culture often changes slowly, and sometimes uncomfortably. But we do what’s difficult, and we are all responsible and accountable for working together to move forward.

And we will move forward under a new strategic plan. We’re in the closing phases of a plan that has served us well. We’re a stronger university than we were when Quest began, and that’s thanks to all of you. Many of you have already attended planning sessions aimed at building the next strategic plan — which begins in fall 2018 — and I am grateful that you’ll continue to lend your perspectives and expertise in the months ahead.

We cannot lead in shaping the future if we resist reshaping ourselves.

So we also have to look closely at how we reward the work we do, ensuring that promotion and advancement guidelines, student grading policies and annual reviews encourage us to remember our public mission. And the way we teach our students should remind them that education is about empowerment — theirs and the community’s.

That’s why, at this occasion last year, I announced that VCU will add experiential learning to the undergraduate curriculum beginning this fall. More than ever, students want to know that they’re learning what will help them succeed as scholars in the classroom and as problem solvers in a changing world.

Our students, and all of you who inspire them, need support in every way to make real our fascination with what’s difficult.

Finally, we are fascinated by what’s difficult because we can’t wait for others to do it. The National Research Council showed this recently while examining the role of higher education in America.

Their report said, and I quote: “As America pursues economic growth and other national goals, its research universities have emerged as a major national asset, perhaps even its most potent one. Talented graduates of these institutions have created and populated many new businesses that go on to employ millions of Americans. And tens of thousands of advances originated on campuses that have transformed the world.”

America has always been driven by innovation, by creating what’s new, what’s faster, what’s stronger, what’s safer. At the center of the American spirit have been research universities like ours.

No one can match our talent: American research universities have won 60 percent of all Nobel prizes, and 40 of the world’s top 50 universities are American. No other sector of society has a capacity for both innovation and for educating innovative people.

No one can match our diversity: Enrollment of underrepresented minority students has jumped 12 percent in the last decade, and more international students come to U.S. research universities than anywhere else.

You see this diversity every day at VCU, more than any other university in Virginia. Our commitment to diversity and inclusion — to helping every person who comes to VCU feel respected and emboldened to succeed — is unbreakable. We will always be a place of the highest integrity, accountability and a relentless focus on advancing the human experience for all people.

That’s why we recently reaffirmed our support of students who are protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals act, why we have continued to bolster our efforts related to Title IX and why I continue to remind everyone that VCU will embrace all people regardless of how they look, who they love or whether or how they choose to pray. We want people to be who they are. Because who we support as a university says the most about who we are as a university.

And no one can match our mission: While industries close their corporate labs, universities preserve the presence and the persistence to find answers wherever they’re hiding.

Our basic operating manual is four powerful words: I have an idea.

The kind of idea that exists no place else, because no one else matches our commitment to innovate, even if it’s difficult to imagine; to educate, even if it’s difficult to embrace; to heal, even if it’s difficult to hope; and to empower, even if it’s difficult to endure.

That’s why the fascination of what’s difficult falls to us.

And while we always lead in focusing on what’s difficult, we never do it alone.

The NRC report I just mentioned goes on to say that “the United States can best leverage research universities for the breakthroughs it needs by ensuring they are properly resourced; increasingly productive, agile and innovative; and working creatively in partnership with business.”

And that’s true.

The support we receive — from government, from corporate and civic partners, from philanthropists, from students and their families, and from each other — is foundational to our work.

The Richmond Police Department joins the VCU Trauma Center and the MCV Foundation to reduce youth violence, a project the Robins Foundation recently awarded $250,000. This project is also supported by donations from our own faculty and staff.

Through the Richmond Teacher Residency Program, the city’s school system and our School of Education bring the best teachers into our local classrooms, a national model for teacher recruitment and retention in urban districts.

For more than 20 years, the Carver-VCU Partnership has made life better for our neighbors and made learning better for our students.

We lead in critical areas for our communities, but we do none of these things alone. And we will continue to build bridges across Richmond, and wherever we can, to ensure that what we do here is always as essential as it is effective — because our fascination with what’s difficult must be joined with a commitment to what’s vital.

VCU has had a remarkable year. Which is to say that you have achieved remarkable things. You continue to inspire by achieving what seems impossible. With your commitment to focus, you continue to build a stronger university that is distinctive, that is relevant and that is fascinated by what’s difficult.

And in the process, you are building a better world.

Thank you very much.