Public Affairs Luncheon

April 17, 2013
Commonwealth Club Ballroom

Thank you, C.T. I know you’re enjoying your retirement after 41 years at Sun Trust. You’ve been a great friend of everyone in Richmond, including me. And thank you, Fred Moore, for inviting me to be here today.

VCU has been proud to be in the heart of Richmond for 175 years. What began as a small medical school has now become a robust urban research university that conducts $260 million in research and has, conservatively, a $4 billion impact on the region. We are a small city within the city with 30,000 students and 20,000 employees. We’ve become one of the three research universities in Virginia, a top 100 nationally according to the NSF, and top 200 worldwide.

Well, why are these rankings important? Because they help measure the degree to which we are innovators at VCU, and we have an obligation to be innovators, and economic developers, and to produce graduates who are leaders and job creators — not just job takers.

That is what has always given America the best universities in the world with the greatest impact on society. America’s universities are the best in the world because of their proclivity to innovate. An ambition to excel has made research universities like VCU the engines of American prosperity and produced some of the most important fundamental and practical discoveries in the world — in science, engineering, social and behavioral sciences, humanities and art. I am talking about things like lasers, MRI machines, FM radio, the algorithm that powers Google, GPS technology, DNA mapping, bar codes, improved weather forecasting, ultrasound, mainframe computers. They all came from American research universities.

The faculty, staff and students at Stanford University — just one university — have founded more than 2,400 companies, including Cisco, Google and Hewlett-Packard, that account for about $255 billion economic impact annually. Another university, MIT, has created more than 4,000 companies that employ 1.1 million people and have about $232 billion in sales annually. If MIT were a nation, it would have the 40th largest economy in the world, just behind South Africa and Thailand.

We are committed to doing similar work at VCU. A few years ago, one of our students named Eric Edwards founded a company called Intelliject that accrued 70 patents and a $230 million licensing deal to market a life-saving drug delivery system. Mitch Anscher and Mike Chang, two faculty members who work at the VCU Massey Cancer Center, are developing and testing new medical devices that are making it easier to treat prostate cancer. The work they are doing will absolutely save lives. The McGlothlin Medical Education Center Building, which we will dedicate this weekend, will allow VCU to launch an innovative curriculum that will empower us to become one of nation’s largest medical schools. I have the expectation that we’ll also be one of the best.

This is critical because America is slipping in innovation. Nations like China and India are catching up. We not only need more people to go to work, we need more entrepreneurs and job creators.

Our society is desperate for innovation, and where does that come from? From our research universities. We need universities that are focused on sustainability, entrepreneurship and lifetime learning, and are committed to empowering everyone to contribute to society.

Supporting public higher education, then, should be a slam dunk. But it has not been. Why? Well, public higher education has been competing for funds against a range of special interests that, in many states, consume up to 80 percent of general funds — and there are no constitutional provisions protecting higher education. That doesn’t leave much for public higher education, or anyone else. Meanwhile, our appropriations from the state have seen a net loss of $52 million since 2008. In terms of funding higher education, Virginia now ranks 43rd out of 50 states; that’s down from 40th a couple of years ago.

But the fact is that state appropriations are still are largest single source of funding. The taxpayers of Virginia are, in a sense, our largest donors. So what should these taxpayers expect as a return on their investment, in terms of shaping society? We should ask ourselves this question in every segment, including public policy for higher education.

We have to focus on results.

Higher education has not been effective in touting or clearly demonstrating our economic and social impact. We have also not been effective in addressing structural issues, like faculty workloads. Criticisms of things like faculty workloads are based on assumptions from 1950s and ‘60s and not modern research universities and modern society.

We need to have a public policy discussion that engages a broad audience about why research universities are so important in a 21st-century innovation economy.

We need to think about clarifying our role in society and what our focus should be. At VCU, that’s more graduates who are prepared to lead, innovate, and take responsibility for next phase of human life. It’s about leveraging our intellect very broadly.

We need innovation but also entrepreneurship, to understand how you move innovative ideas into our economy quickly. We need to focus on results that matter, like jobs that pay well for people who are well-educated. Did you know that people who graduate from a research university earn 40 percent more in their lifetimes than people who graduate from someplace else? They are also more likely to earn an advanced degree. This is most particularly true for minority students, low-income students and first-generation college graduates.

We need to make investment in faculty. We want them honoring grants and advancing ideas because we — the public — are paying them to be major economic game-changers.

We need to shape humanity socially as well, and we will if you take care of all of these things together. It cannot be considered to a bonus if we engage students in arts and humanities because these make us who we are. They are critical investments. At VCU, we recognize that art and innovation are really inseparable, and that’s why the landmark Institute for Contemporary Art is a priority for No. 1-ranked School of the Arts.

All of this is why we have the agenda that we do. So, as universities and societies, we have to be better at promoting public policy that encourages research universities to focus on innovation. It’s why I declared with my colleagues early on that VCU is indeed a research university, so we need to focus on standards at all levels that are more of a match to research university. We cannot risk trying to be all things to all people and dilute our efforts in the process. If you dilute your efforts, you’re not going to produce economic value for anyone.

Last year, VCU graduated more students than ever, about 7,500. This is important, but “pumping out” graduates is not our mission and is never going to move the needle in society. We need graduates who will grow in a leadership environment. We need to have faculty who are economic game-changers. We need to solve problems that others cannot or will not; companies aren’t going to solve problems that have longer returns. And we need public policy that supports us in doing this.

We also have to engage our communities. We’re not just concerned with growing VCU’s impact, but our growing region as a whole. That’s why our students conducted 570, 000 hours of community service last year. Our goal is 1 million hours next year because we expect our students to serve while they learn. That’s why we contribute significantly to the environment and landscape of Richmond, through housing, culture like arts and athletics, and partnering to improve retail around campus, including revitalizing Broad Street and Grace Street. We target ourselves in strategic areas to be a magnet for revitalization.

Despite the economy — or perhaps, because of the economy — we’ve made very significant investments in economic development. Only about half of our peer institutions have an economic development office. Our priorities like Bridging Richmond will help our youngest citizens eventually become our most engaged citizens.

We do all of these things with so many partners across the Richmond region, and we will continue to leverage one another. Our continued success depends on critical choices we make together related to revenue and public policy, and I appreciate this discussion.

Thank you. I’ll take your questions.