State of the University Address 2019: “A Nationally Prominent VCU”

Jan. 31, 2019
Cabell Library

Thank you, Provost Hackett. And thank you to those who gave us the privilege of telling your stories in our video. Please stand so we can recognize you in person.

Thank you.

This is a particularly exciting time at Virginia Commonwealth University because we’re celebrating significant milestones from our past as we chart strategic stepping stones for our future. When this institution began in 1838, no one could have imagined the enormous impact we’d make in 2019. The university has evolved in astonishing ways, thanks to all of you — faculty, staff, students, alumni, patients, partners and friends who personify the soul of our mission. You have made us one of America’s premier research universities.

You have built an institution that’s known for access to excellence — fundamental to economic and social mobility in America. And this year, we will expand our impact even more through a new strategic plan we’re calling Quest 2025 — a plan that focuses on our national prominence.

So let’s start this work by asking ourselves: What does a nationally prominent VCU look like?

Well, what has it always looked like? Let’s go back to the very beginning.

What became MCV opened in 1838 and gained national prominence very quickly. In its first few years, observers noted that, quote, “the advantages here afforded the student, in contrasting with those of similar schools, will not suffer by the comparison. A full course of lectures in this college will be received as equivalent to” the very best medical schools anywhere.

Medical students around the nation took notice, too. In 1859 alone, 244 students left their home institutions elsewhere to enroll here. Seventy percent of the Class of 1860 were transfers.

Fast forward to 2019, and national prominence and impact are still in our DNA. This past year alone — the final year of our transformative Quest for Distinction — you set institutional records for the graduation rate of our undergraduates, invention disclosures and fundraising. We are serving more patients. Our faculty is larger and stronger, and it’s more diverse. Since 2016, we’ve had the highest percent increase in hiring minority faculty members in our history — among them, Guggenheim Fellows, Fulbright recipients and NIH Career Award winners. This is thanks in part to our shared efforts in the Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation, and our enduring institutional commitment to be more representative everywhere.

Our first-year student class is also majority minority for the first time, and it’s our largest new class ever. Given our recent history, these students will succeed in record-setting ways. You have increased our six-year graduation rate by 37 percent since 2008! That’s a story we should all be telling, so I’m going to let that sink in for a moment. Thirty-seven percent! That’s amazing!

You’ve achieved this, in part, by closing the gaps in graduation rates for historically underrepresented students and for Pell Grant recipients. That’s unheard of at almost any other research university in America. And it’s a clear sign that VCU is doing our part to help Virginia realize its goal of leading the nation in educational attainment by 2030.

Our research enterprise has also grown by nearly a quarter in the last decade. You’ve set institutional records for research eight times in those 10 years. And we learned just this week that we are again ranked among the Top 25 public research universities in America, according to the benchmark Center for Measuring University Performance. Congratulations!

The need and demand for our clinical services and expertise is more than it has ever been, including in the commonwealth’s longest-standing Level 1 trauma center, and a health plan that serves a quarter-million Virginians.

VCU earned a $21.5 million Clinical and Translational Sciences Award last year — the largest NIH grant in our history — to promote and expand research that will find cures for cardiac, pulmonary and addiction diseases. Fewer than 1 percent of U.S. universities have a CTSA, and we’re the only one in Virginia. That’s because we have my colleague Gerry Moeller. Gerry, would you please stand?

VCU is also one of only 20 universities in America with both a CTSA and an NCI-designated cancer center, meaning we are on the front lines of the war on cancer like almost no place else.

I’m very proud that Alex Krist is the sixth member of our faculty at VCU elected to the National Academy of Medicine. And Wanchun Tang, also in medicine, became the third member of our faculty inducted into the National Academy of Inventors.

For the second time in three years, a company started by a VCU faculty member was named best university startup in the nation.

And our students completed 1.3 million hours of community service last year, 5 percent more than the year before and equivalent to about $30 million in value to our communities. VCU backed 55 student-led companies in the past five years, two-thirds of which were started by students from minority backgrounds. They are part of the reason our economic impact on the commonwealth exceeds $6 billion.

We now have 19 academic programs ranked in the Top 50 nationally, including six Top Five programs.

What a year! And this is only a snapshot of what you achieved. Congratulations, and thank you for continuing to make VCU synonymous with rampant excellence.

As I reflect on our national prominence as a public university committed to the public good, I think about the ways we advance the American dream. James Truslow Adams — a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, writer and grandson of a Virginia merchant — first gave phrase to this idea that in America, anyone could succeed. He wrote in 1931: “There has been the American dream in which each man and each woman shall attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

In other words, who you are doesn’t determine what you can be. You prosper by tenacity, not heredity. That was true for Adams. Is it still true today?

Well, some would tell you no. The American dream is obsolete, they’d say. It’s harder to get ahead. To them, the idea of bootstraps needs to be rebooted.

Listen to this: Only about a third of people say anyone can still achieve the American dream. And nearly half have abandoned the idea completely. Last month, a Washington Post columnist called the American dream “a myth.”

They’re not just being cynical.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that in terms of occupational mobility, the United States is roughly average among its 34 member free-market nations. And we’re dead last for economic mobility. By this study, Americans face more obstacles to economic progress, from one generation to the next, than do citizens of almost any other capitalist democracy in the world.

So the idea of this being the land of opportunity may be misplaced.

Or…maybe not.

Those who hold college degrees still prosper personally and contribute to our nation’s success collectively. Higher education catalyzes social participation, democratic vitality and economic success. A bachelor’s degree increases lifetime earnings by nearly 70 percent, in fact, and it’s exponentially more for advanced degrees.

Low-wealth students graduate into the exact same opportunities, including similar lifetime earnings, as wealthier classmates. That’s an upward mobility that exists for no other social demographic. As a group, first-generation college graduates surpass their parents’ median household income just six years after earning their degrees.

So while some bury the American dream, a recent report from the American Association of Colleges and Universities said most people still believe higher education strengthens society.

  • Three out of four people see higher education as an important social good — and that’s consistent across respondents’ age, ethnicity or political leanings.
  • Most people think universities like VCU “prepare people to be successful” and “contribute to a strong American workforce.”
  • People with a college degree are 24 percent more likely to be employed, and twice as likely to own a business.
  • And people are voting with their feet: Millennials are on track to be the most-educated generation in American history. And behind them, almost 90 percent of Gen Z believes it’s easier to succeed with a college degree.

No wonder the culturalist Larry Samuel says, “sending kids to college” is still “the heart and soul of the American Dream.”

The evidence is clear. Universities make our nation stronger by helping its people succeed. We’ve certainly seen this at VCU, where 17 percent of our students move up two or more income quartiles after they graduate, among the highest of any university in the Mid-Atlantic. Two percent jumped from the very bottom quartile all the way to the very top, the most in Virginia. And a student born into the bottom one-fifth of family incomes has a 27 percent chance of reaching the very top one-fifth after graduating from VCU.

VCU is the place where American dreams come true.

To remain so, let’s take our commitments to excellence and access to the next level. More specifically, the impact we make as a nationally prominent university should be accelerated in three ways: for our students, for our faculty and staff, and for our patients. Let’s explore those with the rest of our time this morning.

First, our students.

Megan Charity loves skateboards and video games. In those ways, she’s a typical college student. But Megan is also a National Science Foundation Research Education scholar and a Wright Scholar, and she’s tackling a big problem.

Even though she’s still working on her bachelor’s degree in computer science, Megan is already a pioneer in the field of virtual reality. While moving through new-age simulated worlds in her video games, she noticed she had an age-old problem: motion sickness. And she’s not alone. One in three people struggle with this, and it’s a pandemic for military and civilian pilots, who train in virtual reality aviation. That’s true, too, in CAD-reliant shipbuilding, which is a keystone industry for Virginia.

Technically, it’s called “cybersickness” — and Megan is going to cure it.

By solving thousands of equations and writing thousands of lines of code, Megan created a “virtual reality low-acceleration vehicle,” or as she calls it, “a virtual skateboard.” Her digital deck allows VR users to navigate their simulated worlds more smoothly, with better control, and with better ability to engage with their surroundings. Early testing shows a dramatic reduction in cybersickness, and that’s piqued the interest of entrepreneurs, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and others.

Megan, would you please stand so we can recognize you?

To help students like Megan succeed here — whether they’re designing virtual vehicles, creating poignant art or preparing to transform the lives of children in urban classrooms — let’s build on what we’ve already done to make VCU a more student-centered university.

For example, we’ve launched the REAL initiative under Erin Webster Garrett’s leadership, and it’s already beginning to transform the undergraduate experience. And our provost and her team, like Maggie Tolan in Academic Advising, have widened the road to success for first-year students by designing clearer major maps and curriculum pathways, connecting students to career counselors and making it easier to get a seat in required classes.

We’re engaging our staff, alumni mentors and students’ own parents and families, so our students have support beyond just the faculty. And we’ve built physical spaces that enable and inspire success. This includes five living-learning programs, environments that engage and challenge our students whether they’re in their classroom or their dorm room.

We’ve more than tripled institutional student aid since 2008, helping more students stay in school without amassing debt. And I’m so appreciative of the state’s ongoing and generous support to local aid, which actually makes that increase tenfold.

We’ve also joined a national consortium of urban-serving universities that share best practices to improve student access and close the achievement gap, and will award hundreds of thousands more degrees nationally by 2025.

All of this is inspiring. But it’s only the beginning of what we need to do together.

I envision that VCU will be a more student-centered university everywhere, and that takes all of us. I want every student who engages with anyone at VCU — every office, every group, every person — to be taken seriously, to have their questions answered, to know that we care about them in transformational ways, not transactional ways.

The Education Trust lists a few things student-centered universities do well. Not surprisingly, they make student success a campuswide priority throughout the university. They use good data to make great decisions. They remove obstacles to reaching graduation day. They require more from their students, too, things like eliminating optional participation in something that’s shown to work. And there’s this one, which particularly impels me: Student-centered universities are more innovative when it comes to general education.

The idea of base courses goes back 400 years in American universities — and even longer in Europe — and it’s changed very little since then. In some ways, earning a degree in 2019 isn’t all that different from earning one in 1719.

Our nation and our students are changing. We’re going to change, too, and deliver an education for the modern American dream.

Time and again, our students show us through their stunning creativity and selfless commitments that they have a relentless drive to find meaning in what they do. So let’s help them do it! By building on what we already do well in areas like focused inquiry, VCU will become the model for modern education by inviting our students to solve the greatest problems our society faces, giving their curriculum purpose and meaning.

Imagine, for example, students focused on vexing global health issues. How could they — even as undergraduates — consider why people in one zip code live years longer than their neighbors just one zip code away, something identified by VCU’s Center on Society and Health? So, then, what could our students do about it? Or think about how powerful and motivated they can be when they take on climate change. Or cancer. Or social equity.

Today, I’m asking us all as a faculty to reimagine the educational experience at VCU to make it more meaningful for our students and more connected to our society. I challenge us to consider what a VCU degree stands for. If someone earns a degree from VCU, in what ways have we prepared them to be thoughtful catalysts of the human experience?

In what ways will VCU students — and the degrees they earn — be shining examples of our national prominence?

Next, a nationally prominent VCU has a faculty that is fearlessly pursuing answers to save and improve lives. Like psychology professors Tom Eissenberg and Alison Breland do. A few months ago, they received $20 million from the NIH and the Food and Drug Administration — making it $40 million altogether since 2013 — to make sure the policies that regulate tobacco use are based on sound science and won’t lead to unintended consequences that could make a bad problem worse.

Tom and Alison consider a host of issues, including how products like electronic cigarettes are engineered, the psychology of smokers and the clinical effects of tobacco use. And that will help the FDA and the NIH better protect both smokers and nonsmokers. Tom and Alison are doing important work at a time when smoking kills half a million Americans every year and e-cigarette use is rising sharply, particularly among teenagers.

Tom and Alison, please stand so we can recognize you.

Of course, they’re not alone in their commitments to shaping the human experience. Everywhere, VCU has people committed to saving and improving lives, to solving social problems, to teaching and mentoring diverse students, recognizing that there’s a place here for everyone. This faculty cares more for students than at any place I’ve ever known. In doing this, we model what faculty-student engagement should look like at a modern research university. This is sorely needed.

One of my highest priorities in the coming year is to eliminate the challenges my faculty colleagues face in your ability to pursue national prominence through teaching, research and service.

First, despite recent significant gains, we need more faculty members. And we need to be more diverse, and more committed to inclusion. We cannot build a VCU that’s accessible to everyone if we don’t take our commitments to including everyone more seriously.

Next, we need more options to keep on board the outstanding faculty members we already have. This includes better compensation, which remains one of my highest priorities working with the General Assembly this spring. The Make It Real Campaign, which has created more than 50 new endowed chairs and professorships and nearly 80 endowed faculty support and research funds, has helped dramatically. We need to do more.

We can also retain our best faculty members through a promotion and tenure process that reflects our mission and our commitments as a modern research university.

We will also make it easier to move innovations from the lab to the marketplace. Steps to streamline this process have already been made through VCU Venture Lab, a pre-accelerator that launched this fall and pairs innovators with investors and potential product users. This will help faculty researchers commercialize their discoveries, and it’ll also help fill a void for Virginia. Across the state, the volume of research exceeds the capacity to commercialize it; that is, we are collectively more productive as innovators than as entrepreneurs. Our market potential also outpaces our resources, including access to proof-of-concept funding, a problem Venture Lab can help alleviate.

Let’s also make all of the resources of our enterprise work for all of us by collaborating more and competing less, erasing the imaginary lines we’ve drawn between ideas and ideologies. We are one VCU.

As a faculty, we perform at extraordinary levels. I want nothing to stand in our way as we exemplify our national prominence and its profound impact on the human experience.

Finally, a nationally prominent VCU means our health care mission — like our educational mission — is as accessible as it is excellent. Cameron Drake works as a biomedical technician, repairing dialysis machines kidney patients depend on. So it was a remarkable twist of fate when Cameron himself learned he needed a kidney transplant to save his life.

His mother Kimberly donated her left kidney to her son last October at VCU Medical Center. Just hours before their procedure, Cameron wrote on social media: “A mother’s love is unfathomable. She gave me life once, and she’s going to do it again today.”

Cameron and Kimberly are doing well. Their transplant was successful. It was also historic, the 162nd kidney transplant at our Hume-Lee Transplant Center in 2018, a record. And by year’s end, we’d performed 202, an average of nearly 4 per week.

Cameron couldn’t be here today, because he’s healthy enough to be back at work. But Kimberly’s here. Kimberly, would you please stand so we can recognize you?

We’re so glad you’re doing well.

There were other milestones at VCU Health this year:

  • Chandra Bhati in Medicine performed the first robotic-assisted kidney implantation anywhere on the East Coast, which means an easier recovery for both recipient and donor.
  • Our Massey Cancer Center became the first in Virginia to offer FDA-approved CAR T-cell therapies. This is a revolutionary immunotherapy that uses the patient’s own immune cells to attack and kill their cancer, and our own John McCarty is a pioneer in this field.
  • At Pauley Heart Center, we implanted our 114th total artificial heart. Only three hospitals in the world have ever done more.
  • We broke ground on the largest capital project in VCU history, a 16-story adult outpatient facility that will bring together services of Massey and several ambulatory clinics from across the campus. It’s a significant first step in a transformative master plan for our medical center.
  • We have the No. 1-ranked hospital in the Richmond region once again.
  • Our inpatient satisfaction scores are up 17 percent in the last five years, and we’re now in the top 20 percent of academic health centers nationally for inpatient satisfaction.

How can our national prominence ensure that all of our patients, no matter their background or pathology, have every chance at better, longer lives?

Well, for one, VCU will be ranked in the Top 20 by 2022 — three years from now — for children’s health. We’ll build on our successes since we opened the Children’s Pavilion three years ago. Our patient satisfaction in the pavilion is now among the top in the nation.

Next, we’ll make Massey the first NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center in the commonwealth. This includes a much larger commitment to clinical trials that will put us on the leading edge of medical science. By providing better care for more people, we will give boundless hope to more people.

We are also improving patients’ abilities to access the lifesaving services we provide by removing obstacles. This isn’t a VCU problem alone: Around the nation, some 24 million Americans end up in emergency rooms each year just because they can’t get in to see a primary care physician. They have no place else to turn. We are fixing that.

And finally, because we are a pre-eminent health system and an incredible research university together, VCU will help Richmond be the national hub for health care innovation.

That’s why I’m proud to announce a new initiative called the Health Innovation Consortium, a partnership of VCU Health, VCU and the Activation Capital that merges our commitments to research, human health and student success. This consortium will allow students and faculty who have an idea to innovate health care to move seamlessly from concept to commercial viability to mature startup.

This consortium will also attract the best and brightest health innovators to our region — showing that the real benefit of national prominence is the local impact it has.

The Health Innovation Consortium can only happen at VCU, because we are the only comprehensive public research university with a nationally prominent medical center, an institutionwide commitment to human health, a remarkably entrepreneurial student body and a history of innovation at every level. We also have the benefit of being in a capital city with a strong, collaborative innovation ecosystem.

The demand is there. Last fall alone, VCU students pitched more than 60 health care startups through the VCU da Vinci Center. The need is there, too, and this new initiative will help more people gain from the innovative spirit of VCU. For the patients we serve, this means more access to our nationally prominent health care.

It’s been an amazing 180 years — not to mention an amazing past year! I am so proud of what VCU has become; which is to say, I’m so proud of all of you. There is no better place to chase your American dream than right here at a nationally prominent VCU.

Please enjoy the rest of your day. Thank you for all you do at VCU and thank you for gathering here today.