State of the University Address: “A More Relevant University”

Jan. 28, 2016
University Student Commons

Provost Hackett, thank you for your kind words and generous introduction. Your first year as our provost has been a demonstration of your wisdom, vision and inexorable will to get things done. You and Marsha Rappley lead with distinction a really wonderful faculty that is impressive, inspiring and innovative — one that frankly reminds us that what we do every day is relevant far beyond our campus.

That’s because the history of higher education is the history of human progress.

Universities are unequalled in our commitments to inquiry, innovation and invention. We have educated those who shaped the past and those who will conceive the future as well. We have launched stunning industries and prosperous societies — and the conviction that all of us have a voice in leading them.

Universities have improved lives, saved lives, changed lives and given life meaning.

The story of universities is inspiring…but times are changing. We know that because, as catalysts of innovation, we’ve been changing things for years. In part because of the technology and ideas that have come from our laboratories, clinics and studios, we now live in a time of instant connection and access, prosperous longevity and more opportunity for everyone.

The world has changed, there’s no question about that, but universities haven’t changed as quickly. And, thus, I must say we’ve fallen behind. We’re not always relevant in the ways we once were.

To many, universities are now seen as institutions rather than opportunities. Consider a recent Pew survey that found that fewer than half of Americans — just 42 percent — now say that graduating from college is the best way to succeed. Fifty-seven percent believe that “getting along well with people” is a better ticket to the top. And nearly two-thirds say that simply “working hard” is your best bet. Most Americans believe that a college education is no longer a great value, as they’ve watched student loans triple in the last decade and now eclipse credit card debt.

While these views are simplistic and perhaps naïve, we do have to recognize what they tell us. One, that we need to think critically and urgently about just what our mission is, and whether we really have the courage to meet it. And two, we need to re-examine the strategies we’ve used to achieve our mission and ensure that they address the challenges that will confront humankind over the next decade. We must ensure, for example, that the curricula and teaching methods we use to educate our students, the health care we provide, the research we do and the ways that we engage our community will transform lives in relevant ways.

The 21st century is a new era, where we learn in new ways, create new things and depend on each other for new partnerships. What matters now is the sustainability of our legacy, not our fleeting ovations.

And so it is, that the 21st-century university must become something new. We must become more relevant to the people who depend on us.

That commitment begins right here at VCU.

Why VCU?

Because we focus neither on status nor status quo. Because we inspire the next wave of pioneers and discoverers. Because what we do here — what we conceive, what we create and what we cure — is inseparable from the communities we serve. Our teaching, research, health care and engagement with our communities — the cornerstones upon which we’ve built what we now know to be a truly remarkable university — serve not to propel us in the rankings, although they’ve certainly done that in many areas. Rather, we do these things because they make human life a better thing.

It is our highest and best calling as a public research university to drive innovation, progress and compassion for those who learn here, who teach here, who create here, who heal here — and for the countless lives they will someday touch. The impact of what we do, the ripples we make in the pond, are profound and unbounded.

As we have taken our place among the nation’s elite public research universities, we have also positioned ourselves at the intersection of access and excellence in ways that very few others have.

We see this among our student body: For three years in a row, our freshman class has been both the most diverse and the most academically accomplished in our university’s long history, proving that the highest standards really arise only from the highest principles.

Our medical center is both the commonwealth’s top-ranked hospital and the safety net that serves all of its people, proving that the best care comes when you treat your neighbors, not just their diseases.

We also show that a more relevant university is both industrious and inspiring: Our research record of our faculty matches any university in Virginia, and we are the only one to close the gap in graduation rates for underrepresented minority students, proving that transformational teaching is still the soul of a great research university.

And we have done all of this in ways that no one else has: with fewer means than our peers but ample talent and ample grit. That is, first and foremost, because of our people. You are visionary, and you are inspiring. You are changing what a university can be. You are why I am confident that VCU is a more relevant university for the 21st century.

Our success — thanks to you — has been swift and undeniable.

It’s also a threshold. There is still progress to make if we are to be a more relevant university for a more modern time.

At this occasion last year, you might remember, we talked about our distinctiveness. So now what? What comes beyond being distinctive? Well, now it’s time to be the university that we’ve worked so hard to become, and that this new world needs us to become. And to do that, we have to be more relevant to this changed world.

What do I mean? Well, a university that’s relevant for the 21st century has to be more relevant in three ways: First, to our students, who thrive in a new kind of educational environment. They’ve learned things in different ways. Second, to our community, which needs us to be a force of good that drives the region forward. And third, to the world, which is depending on us to solve the confounding problems of our time.

Let me explain how VCU can do exactly these things.

First, our students.

VCU students are exceptional. I have never seen a student body that is as focused and serious-minded in thinking about how they might someday change the world.

Like Bara Elshaer or Jamala Williams, who you just saw in the video. Or Melissa Davis, whose work at the VCU Rice Rivers Center and around the world is combating rising sea levels that threaten our coasts. Or Ashvin Sood, who began an organization to provide medical relief to the most desperate people in Ghana.

Our students come here to earn a degree that opens new doors. They look for an experience that opens new horizons.

Recently, we asked current and prospective students what they hope to gain by attending VCU. What’s most important to them about their university? Taken together, 80 percent said it’s a curriculum that includes a practical experience. (Less than a quarter of them, by the way, said they hope their education simply helps them land a job.)

That’s because our students don’t grow up thinking about what job they want to have. They grow up thinking about what problems they want to solve. And they are relentless in their quest to solve them.

And so, as a more relevant university for our students, VCU will help them do just that. We will be at the intersection of education and opportunity, a home for scholars and practitioners. It will be here where you find your place and your potential, where “Make it real” means you’re not dreaming about big things, it means you’re doing them.

Our students don’t want to be in the virtual world. They want to be in the real world — and not just in it, but transforming it. Our brand is unapologetically gritty and passionate, and favors practice over pretense. That’s a relevant university for our time. And that’s the promise of VCU.

While many research universities choose not to involve undergraduates as part of their research enterprise, we make it a priority. Why would a research university — one whose innovations fuel human progress — disengage its largest population from its greatest mission? It shouldn’t. And at VCU, we never will. I want to ensure that both your degree and your experience at VCU are relevant. I want to make “Make it real” mean something very real.

That’s why I’m pleased to announce that — beginning with this fall’s entering class — all students will have a real-world experience as part of their VCU education. Now, this already occurs in pockets, like in our Dental Hygiene Program, for example, where students tackle community issues related to oral health on the way to their degree. But I want to expand it to every place at VCU. These experiences will become part of VCU’s overall curriculum, meaning that every student who earns a degree here will be well-regarded for their thoughtfulness and deep thinking, and because they have used their education to make a mark on humanity, even before they hit the job market.

This experience will help our students develop as scholars who are going to contribute to their field and as servants who contribute to their world. Its relevancy will be its impact: It gives our students consent to soar, to test themselves, to find themselves beyond themselves.

This will change the educational experience at VCU by making it indistinguishable from social issues. And that makes it more relevant.

We also become more relevant to our students when we think about the physical environment in which we learn.

In about a month, we will cut the ribbon on the Children’s Pavilion at Broad at Broad and 11th streets. It has been designed with an eye toward the future of patient care and learning: learning to provide the best care that patients need to live long lives of wellness.

For our students and their faculty mentors and our staff, it will provide an interprofessional environment that fosters the best of collaboration. For our 350,000 patients, it is the first step in a monumental $2.5 billion makeover of one of the world’s premier medical centers right here at VCU.

VCU is incredible, and we should have world-class spaces that match our world-class talent.

And, as with the Children’s Pavilion, these spaces must be built for the future of education. On the Monroe Park Campus, the Academic Learning Commons and the new Cabell Library are great reflections of this commitment: that the way students prefer to learn is changing, and so the space in which they’re learning has to change too. Our physical environment should be based on models of the future that we will lead and innovate. It must move from being distinctive to being relevant.

And that will make VCU a more relevant university.

The new student experience at VCU — including the “Make it real” real-world experience that will bring our students into their communities — will be part of a larger focus on engaging with people around us.

And that’s the second way VCU will be a more relevant university for the 21st century. We have to be relevant to our communities.

We offer immense intellectual and institutional resources. We sit at the fulcrum of innovation, creativity, development and health care for our region. We are the largest employer in Central Virginia and, I contend, also its best citizen.

We have the chance to make a difference in the lives of people in ways that other institutions cannot or perhaps will not. The gravest human diseases will be cured through university research, including that which is occurring at our own Massey Cancer Center and Pauley Heart Center and beyond at this institution. The breakthroughs in science, engineering and medicine that will send humans to new frontiers will be launched at universities, including VCU by psychologists Deborah DiazGranados and Michael Curtis, who are partnering with NASA to study astronauts’ mental well-being for a desolate 70 million mile mission to Mars. The best prospects for peace, for racial harmony, for eradicating hunger, for religious tolerance, these will come from the work being done today at VCU, and elsewhere.

If we can’t tackle these problems at research universities — where innovation is our North Star — then they won’t happen anywhere.

At a more relevant university, knowledge has purpose and scholarship has impact. It’s real because we make it real!

Like the hope that Ken Kendler is giving 350 million people by understanding the genetics of depression and working to find its cure. Or Frank Gupton’s remarkable work — funded by the Gates Foundation and DARPA — to make AIDS drugs much more affordable and more accessible. Or our Center for the City initiative, which brings together resources of our university and community to solve the difficult problems we share, especially those related to education and health care.

Let me give you one more profound example.

A few years ago, physicians in our trauma department noticed they were treating the same patients again and again, often young people growing up in environments plagued by high rates of violence and crime. They could treat the wounds — they’re among the best in the world at doing that. But they realized that what they really needed to treat were the root causes of the trauma, the things that were landing the young people here in the first place.

For example, young people in Richmond are six times more likely to die from gun violence than the average American aged 10-24. The re-injury rate for victims of intentional injury treated in our health system over the last five years has ranged from 10 percent to 50 percent.

So our trauma team launched a program called Bridging the Gap aimed at preventing violence in the community through case management and alignment with community partners to educate and promote anti-violence advocacy.

Results show that young people enrolled in this program are far less likely to wind up in the ED again with similar injuries. On top of that, they’re much more likely to take advantage of helpful community services and are far less inclined to use drugs or use alcohol.

Bridging the Gap has expanded its community-based prevention strategies for middle- and high school-aged youth by working with partners such as the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Richmond City Police Department and Art180.

This is happening because our trauma teams realized the best way they can be relevant to those they care for is by not needing to care for them at all. In trauma, as everywhere at VCU, we help people achieve — whether they’re achieving through the power of an education, the hope of a cure, the progress of an innovation or a renewed faith for their future.

VCU is a university that improves the lives of people around us. And that makes VCU a more relevant university.

Finally, we must ensure that we are relevant to the vast world beyond our city. Richmond is our home, but we must remember that we are a global university.

My vision for VCU is that the world beyond our campus will benefit from everything we do. Whether or not you ever work, study or set foot on the VCU campus, your life will be better because we’re here.

That begins with making sure that we look like the world we lead.

We have seen in national headlines — and indeed on our own campus — the critical importance of diversity and inclusion as central to everything we do. For far too long, “diversity” has been a buzzword in higher education, often more important to marketing than to mission.

It is unacceptable that someone might not succeed simply because of what he looks like, who she loves, how she thinks, or where he was born. It’s unacceptable that any of us might miss the chance to learn from someone because their voice was hushed. It’s unacceptable in the 21st century, when we are connected like never before. And it’s certainly unacceptable at VCU, where we are collaborating like never before.

That’s why I was so moved when our community came together in the weeks before the winter break, in what I consider to be remarkable unity. And the truth is that it’s a tragedy for our industry that what has happened here is remarkable. Rather than following our clarion call to eradicate social injustices, universities too often have been bound by them.

To be a more relevant university to our beautifully diverse world, VCU is resolved that any person from any background can succeed here. We recognize that what makes our people unique is what makes our university great. We do more than seek out diversity; we seek nothing less.

In everything we do at VCU — from cutting-edge research to classroom debate to clinical care, to purchasing and partnering — we include different voices, ideas and disciplines. I remind my senior leadership team of this all of the time, and I hold them accountable, just as the Board of Visitors and our community hold me accountable.

But this is not simply about being accountable. It’s about doing what we know is right. It’s also about doing what’s best for our educational experience and for the world that looks to us for the kind of leadership that only VCU can provide.

I have reminded you recently of our progress related to diversity and inclusion. In many ways, we are a national model, and Education Trust and others have called us such. And our progress is relevant for our nation’s standing in the world. Experts believe that about 60 percent of Americans should hold a college degree if we are to be competitive in this 21st-century economy. We’re at less than 40 percent right now.

The wealthy and privileged have graduated from college for generations, so to close the gap, we have to ensure that all people who choose to attend college can graduate, and that must include from a premier research university like VCU.

We educate — and graduate with distinction — students who are often overlooked by our peers, including more Pell recipients than any research university in the commonwealth. Actually, more than Virginia’s other research universities combined. And incidentally, our Pell recipients do really well: They graduate at a slightly higher rate than the university average.

A woman named Kate Neron, who lives in Northern Virginia and sent two sons to VCU, recently wrote me about our commitment to diversity and inclusion. She told me: “These two white, privileged young men have set their eyes on a future world view, and are bound and determined to be agents of change for all people. And VCU is the best place for them to acquire the skills, make the connections, and strengthen their resolve to live lives of passion and integrity.”

That their path to leading in a diverse world began at VCU tells me a lot and it should tell you a lot too. I am proud of them. But I also recognize that we still have work to do to help Kate’s sons and all of our people reach their dreams.

I have already announced several immediate and long-term initiatives to improve diversity and inclusion at VCU. This includes diversity and inclusion training for my senior leadership team, which began last week. We’ve done a lot in a short time, and I will continue to update you on our progress.

Now, I should mention that when I talk about diversity, I don’t just mean race alone, or some other demographic. For our university to be more relevant in the changed world, we must be certain that we also reflect the intellectual diversity of our world.

When colleagues with different perspectives sit at the same table, the arc of progress gets wider and wider. We see this at VCU, where the health sciences work hand-in-hand with the arts, bringing together sculptors and surgeons, stage actors and patient counselors, singers and ENT specialists. By being more intellectually diverse, we’re becoming more relevant for more people. And, by the way, we’re also introducing a 21st-century model of human health care. That’s very important.

We have the chance to do this everywhere at VCU and let the world benefit from all of our people and all of their great perspectives.

And that makes VCU a more relevant university.

The 21st century is a time like we’ve never seen. It demands that we think and act differently or become increasingly irrelevant. As Albert Einstein said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

As the world changes, we have to change too, becoming more relevant for our students, for our community and for our world. None of this is easy to do. But let us boldly embrace our potential. Let us be proud of the great progress we’re making at this institution. Let us dedicate ourselves to rising and becoming a more relevant university.

Thank you.