Remarks to the Forum Club

Oct. 16, 2017
Commonwealth Club, Richmond, Virginia

Good evening. Thank you, John [Luke], for that introduction.

I’m so pleased to be with you tonight and to have the opportunity to speak with you during what’s a historic year for the Forum Club. As you all probably know, we’re approaching the 100th anniversary of this club’s founding in 1918. It was begun by Douglas Southall Freeman, who called it his “Current Events Class” and actually ran it for 35 years. I was talking about this with my son last night, who’s a senior at Douglas Southall Freeman High School.

In Douglas Southall Freeman’s time, this was a place for Richmond’s leaders from across industries “to discuss current issues at a national, state, and local level.” And a century later, it still is. Thank you for your continued interest, investment and leadership in the most important conversations for our region.

When Dr. Freeman died in 1953, he left behind “70 Rules for Good Writing.” I’m not going to tell you all 70 rules, but I will say that he put “brevity” just behind “accuracy” in that list of virtues. So in his honor tonight, I will give you both!

Around the same time that Douglas Freeman was founding the Forum Club, something else historic was happening here in Richmond, a few blocks down Franklin Street. Another group of Richmond leaders was opening the Richmond School of Social Economy, which would eventually become RPI, the Richmond Professional Institute, and then part of VCU.

It was created as the first school of social work in the South and included 30 students, all of them women, by the way. It was created to address existing and emerging social issues of that time, and the school worked with partners in the community to find solutions that would make Richmond a better place.

In the century since then, what’s now called VCU has continued to advance that mission. When RPI, a leader in social science, joined with MCV, a leader in medical science, to become VCU 50 years ago, in 1968, we had a very specific founding mission. That was, and is, to be “a public university that would confront on an intellectual and practical level the social environment which surrounds it. 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.”

That mission has always been our North Star. We’re very proudly a public university, and our public university was built to be a public good for Richmond and beyond.

How are we doing relative to our mission? What’s our scorecard say?

Well, for starters, we’re an economic good for the Richmond region. Last year, an economic impact study showed us that VCU has a $6 billion impact on the commonwealth of Virginia, which is larger than any other university in the commonwealth, by the way. If you look at just the Richmond region, our impact is $4 billion, and we return $3.70 to the region’s economy for every dollar invested in us. We are also responsible for about 47,000 jobs in the region, and our tax impact exceeds $165 million. We’ve also calculated that the 1.5 million hours of community service that our students do — and that doesn’t capture it all — is worth more than $32 million to our region. And it’s not just any place in the region that’s benefitting from their work, it’s the areas with the deepest needs.

We are also a catalyst of economic development. People ask me all the time about all the cranes around our campus. “Aren’t you building something all the time?” Yes, we are. And we’re not going to stop anytime soon because we still have less space per student than any of our research university peers. That’s despite adding about $2.1 billion in construction projects since 2009, totaling more than 5.5 million square feet of space.

So we’ve added a huge economic impact, and our construction projects create jobs and opportunities around the region. We’re certainly proud of that. But what matters most are the ways we benefit the public through what we do every day. It’s how our public university is a public good. And we work really hard to ensure that the public trust and public investment in VCU really does get results that benefit the public in the ways that are most valuable to society.

This includes ensuring public access to students and to patients who come to us for their health care needs. It’s really a public mission of lives saved and lives improved, and it’s impossible really to quantify. We don’t even try. How would you?

But a recent Brookings Institution study showed that just 20 percent of public universities in the nation achieved both “high social mobility” for students and conducted a “high volume of research” with a social benefit. VCU is among that 20 percent.

In other words, students graduate from VCU to more opportunities in society than when they enrolled. And our brand of research is focused on solving society’s problems and helping people quickly. When you combine this with our safety-net health care mission, our public university really serves as a public good in three primary ways.

I want to talk very briefly about those three areas with the rest of my time tonight.

First is the educational experience of our undergraduates, which makes VCU a social ladder. We have an obligation to ensure that our students receive the type of education that will help them become society’s next generation of contributors, leaders, creators — both as job creators and in the broader sense, and problem solvers in a knowledge-based economy that continues to change every day.

As a public research university, we have an obligation to change with people as they change, whether that’s generational or otherwise, so that we remain relevant to those we serve. So we have to change the educational experience for our students.

Consider that VCU educates students unlike those found at many other research universities. They are more diverse, the most diverse in Virginia actually. They come from fewer family resources. We have more low-income students than Tier III universities in Virginia combined. That’s William & Mary, UVA and Virginia Tech. We educate more low-income Virginians than all of them put together, and we’re proud of that. We also have a larger population of transfer students than most research universities.

Our students are unique, but they really see themselves as wanting to work really hard. In fact, they want to be innovators and entrepreneurs who solve social problems, including maybe some of the problems they’ve faced in their own lives or watched others struggle with. Fifty-one percent of our students tell us that they want to start a company someday, and 15 percent actually do it before they even graduate. Our students started 22 new companies last year!

More and more, our students want to use their enormous talents to make the world a better place. Part of it is cultural; it’s just who they are. And they see their VCU education as a way to do that, as a ladder to more opportunities in society.

Our students are different, so we have to educate them differently.

To do that, we are reimagining their undergraduate experience, beginning with general education. That’s actually already begun, with University College and with a Focused Inquiry program that’s been remarkably successful in helping students succeed and continue on.

We’re also introducing an experiential learning component that really isn’t a component at all. It’s the centerpiece of the undergraduate experience. Our student see themselves as professionals, not just students, and they want to learn by doing and by being together. And they want people to benefit directly from what they’re doing. There is a direct benefit to the community.

Our students also want to learn in an environment that’s defined by its diversity. Our new freshman class is majority minority; that’s the first time we can say that. We are a microcosm of the world that we’re all moving into: a world that’s diverse and that creates opportunity for everyone.

The diversity of VCU is not just how you look. It’s also about bringing together people who have different ideas and different perspectives to address the most vexing social challenges that we’re called to solve. This means working together across disciplines and learning from one another, looking at problems from new perspectives.

And this is the second way that our public university is a public good. Our convergent research makes VCU a social laboratory.

The research we do has a very simple focus: to save human lives and to improve human lives. That’s based on different disciplines converging around a set of societal problems that need to be solved.

Let me give you an example. We recently were awarded $25 million from the Gates Foundation to expand our Medicines for All Initiative, which makes prescription drugs more accessible and affordable. This is amazing work being done in our School of Engineering, focused on pharmaceutical engineering, but it also includes colleagues in the School of Pharmacy and the School of Medicine all working together.

This is part of our record research enterprise every year at VCU. We’re now up to $275 million in research activity. This is great, but I have to say that I expect us to do even more, both in terms of the amount and the breadth of research we’re doing.

I also think about our commitment to being a public good when I think about our commitment to health care for all people. Our high-quality health care makes VCU a social lever.

We provide patient-centered health care that is accessible and nationally competitive. We’re a destination for everybody who wants the very best care, and we’ve certainly invested in and developed remarkable care in rare subspecialties. And we’re also highly ranked, the hospital that you want to go to because it’s home to the very best care anywhere.

But, yes, I acknowledge that there’s work to be done. Like, it needs to be easier to get an appointment at VCU. We’re working on those things. And we are engaged in a strategic master facilities planning process that will make us more like what we are: the nationally premier academic health center, not just in Richmond, but on the East Coast. We’re developing world-class space that matches our world-class talent and is focused on the needs of the patients we serve. Space that is accessible, safe, comfortable, easy-to-navigate and competitive for the 250,000 clinical patients and 90,000 E.D. visits we see every year.

As an example, in the spring we will break ground on two new outpatient towers along Leigh Street between 10th and 11th, where the old VTCC is now. They will be 900,000 square feet total with 560,000 square feet of clinical space, mostly focused on women’s and children’s health. Without question, they will be game changers for us and for Richmond, and will go a long way in helping us fulfill our mission to be a public good.

For more than 100 years, it’s been our mission to advance the public good in Richmond and beyond. As we’ve grown into a nationally premier research university, we continue to serve the region we were founded to serve, and have done so deliberately and proudly in partnership with many of you. Thank you.

It’s been a pleasure to be with you tonight, and I’m now happy to take a few questions in the time we have left.