2023 State of the University

Good morning. Thank you all for being here. 

We come together today in a time of rapid change — which we see as our opportunity. The pandemic’s upheaval impacted everything from health care, to education, to how we work, to how we feel about many things in life.

We’re still feeling the ripple effects, financially and emotionally. Across our university and health system, we’ve seen our colleagues and students rise to meet the challenges of the past few years. It has been inspiring to see how people help each other. But it’s also a reality that these years have put strain and stress on people. We’re seeing the needs of our students–and our patients– change rapidly. 

I thank our VCU Health teams – particularly our nurses — for their compassion, action, and leadership. I thank all of our providers and faculty and staff. These have been stressful years, and we all must be mindful to take care of ourselves, and take care of each other. And we must also be mindful to NOT allow all of the stressful things going on around us to become us.  Stay connected to who YOU are.  

We’re in a time of transition – it’s a challenge and it’s an opportunity.

We’re not alone – universities and health systems across the country face the same challenges we face. Some may not make it.

VCU will not only survive – in fact, we will THRIVE.  We have a distinctive mission that really positions us well for the future. We believe that EVERY person can reach their full potential – NO MATTER where they start in life. Everyone admitted to VCU has the potential to succeed – and we’ll do everything we can to help make sure of it. As a pell grant student, that’s what drew me to VCU, and it’s why I continue on this mission with passion. 

On a recent visit to campus, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine described VCU well – as an excellence institution, with a high degree of research, combined with a high degree of access for all students.

Most are one or the other – VCU is both with high standards and high impact. 

This is what makes us uncommon. We are the model of what a truly public research university should be, and we define ourselves by who we include and whose lives we lift.

Word is getting out. In fact, next month, the Chronicle of Higher Education will kick off a national series of meetings on the future of higher education at VCU. They could have chosen anywhere in the United States. They chose YOU because of your impact!   

Our distinctive and fundamentally American mission positions us to leverage our creativity and innovation as we adapt to a world in transition, meeting the rapidly changing needs of our students, our patients and our communities. 

Albert Einstein said “creativity is seeing what others see and thinking what no one else ever thought.”

That’s what we do at VCU. We approach challenges differently. 

VCU creativity and innovation is all around us. From fashion design to sculpture, from our new branding to the breadth, depth and impact of our research, from our new Children’s tower to our DaVinci center, we’re approaching the problems that everyone sees, and thinking about them in novel ways. 

The world is calling on us to be even more creative, because it’s time to really revolutionize how we learn and teach.

Our students want and need contextualized experiences, knowledge, understanding, and skills that will help them to be successful in their lives.

And we need to make sure they graduate — on time. In the last ten years, we’ve increased our six-year graduation rates from 57 percent to 68 percent, which is tremendous. Now we'll re-energize our focus to achieve a 78 percent six-year graduation rate by 2028, as part of our strategic plan, Quest 2028. 

Why? Because VCU believes in the full potential of ALL of our students we bring to the university.

The success of our students is the driver of everything we do; but we know that there are barriers to that success. How do we help students stay in school and finish on time, knowing everyone has the potential to succeed?

We want students to lead innovative lives – and we are going to model the best of innovation ourselves to meet their changing needs. 

So how are we doing that now?

We’re way ahead in meeting our students where they are and giving them the support they need to succeed. 

That work has been ably led by VP Tomikia LeGrande who leaves next month to become president of Prairie View A&M University in Texas. Tomikia, thank you for your leadership in bringing more students to VCU and giving them the support they need to succeed. 

Tomikia’s team leads programs like You First at VCU, our first-generation student success program. Nearly a third of our undergraduate students will be the first in their families to graduate from college. The You First center supports research into the best ways to help first-gen students overcome barriers to graduation. 

Another example is our DaVinci Center, where we’re engaging students outside of traditional environments to think and work across disciplines to invent, to create, and to solve real problems in real organizations together in teams. Employers tell us that VCU students adapt to new challenges quickly. 

We’ve built corporate partnerships with Costar, Truist, Bank of America, Dominion Virginia Credit Union and Markel, to help students access the real work experience that they need so they can use what they’ve learned and to be ready to get to work as soon as they graduate.

The VCU Brandcenter is nationally recognized for providing prestigious internship opportunities with companies like Universal Studios, Wal-Mart, Capital One, Johnson and Johnson and more. And those internships lead directly to jobs.

Working together as a faculty, we’re focusing on digital literacy and entrepreneurship skills, with a goal of incorporating these literacies for all students by fall 2025. 

Our vision is that every student at VCU will have a work-life learning experience. 

But not everyone can afford to take an internship if it doesn’t pay.

So we started a paid internship program. We offer students a stipend so they can take internship opportunities that are unpaid or don’t pay enough. 

 Nejla Pasic took us up on this offer..

She’s a health sciences major with a focus on health promotion. Nejla’s major requires clinical experience. VCU’s paid internship program helped her cover expenses – and the internship has turned into a job. Let’s hear from Nejla.



Thank you to Nejla, who is in class right now and couldn’t join us. Thanks also to Willow, the toddler in the video, who is here with her parents. And our gratitude goes to Samara Reynolds, director of VCU career services, and the team who created and run our paid internship program.


Our mission to meet the changing needs of all of the people we serve is not limited to the classroom. 

Our communities and society rely on our research. 

We use our creativity to do exactly what Einstein said – we look at problems everyone sees, but we look at them in a different way. And we find novel solutions to vexing problems.  

VCU’s research enterprise reflects our commitment to pursuing impactful research that makes discoveries, tackles our greatest challenges, addresses opportunities for all people, reduces disparities and lifts and literally saves people’s lives. 

That’s why U.S. News and World Report has named VCU one of the top 30 most innovative public universities in the country, and ranks us among the top 22 percent of universities in the world.

We are growing our research and research funding. In 2022, we had $405 million in sponsored research – a 49 percent increase in just five years – with funding directed toward learning and discovery, and to making a positive impact. The most important growth in our research isn’t really measured in funding alone, it’s measured by the connectivity of our work with the people who benefit from the research, and we’re a national model.  

We rose into the top 50 of public research universities, as ranked by the National Science Foundation. 

While we’re doing groundbreaking medical and engineering research, our discoveries touch every aspect of the VCU enterprise – from engineering a bionic nose, to engaging children in learning about their watershed, to mapping the Barton Heights Cemetery, one of the oldest African-American cemeteries in Richmond and possibly Virginia. 

And this month the National Institutes of Health renewed for the second time our 27 million dollar clinical and translational award.   

We’re turning our discoveries into real benefits. You can see these impressive numbers from 2022 behind me on the screen. For example, we launched 10 startups – an all-time high for VCU. And it’s important to note the average for R1 universities is only four startups a year. 

Those startups become businesses that hire people in our communities and contribute to the local economy. Over the past decade, our innovation has led to 49 new products in the market, helping people benefit from our discoveries.

And we’re just getting started. Last month NSF director Panchanathan spent an entire day here at VCU, touring lab facilities and talking with our students and faculty about the work they’re doing. 

He called VCU one of the “institutions that matter for the future” because we are addressing “the missing millions” — people from backgrounds who have the potential to excel in STEM fields, but don’t have access to the pathways to reach those careers. 

That is exactly the kind of student VCU seeks and serves. It’s why we won the Excellence in Diversity award, from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine, for four years in a row. 

As a public university, VCU has not only an opportunity but an obligation to meet the most pressing needs of our people. We're committed to making every human successful in every way that they have the potential to succeed. 

That’s why combining access with student success is so important. 

We’re getting more students involved with research – a great way for them to get work based learning experiences in their fields, shaping the skills and critical thinking they need to solve problems and move our communities forward. 

Let’s talk about one such research project. 

In April 1994, human bones and artifacts from the 19th century were discovered in an abandoned well during construction on our VCU Health campus. 

These ancestral remains, believed to be of African descent, are now the focus of a research project in VCU’s Department of Forensic Science as we try to gain insight into how they lived, and even perhaps who they were – so we can potentially find descendants, and give them the dignity in death that they were denied in life. 

Sophomore student Ananya Udyaver and her faculty mentor, Dr. Baneshwar Singh, are part of this project, researching the dental biomes of remains from the well – which can tell us information about what kind of food people ate, what kind of environment they lived in, even what kind of work they did. Along the way, Ananya  is developing important skills that will help her become a doctor.

Let’s hear from Ananya and Dr. Singh, and from Family Representative Council head Rhonda Pleasants, about why research, and this project, are so important.




Ananya, Dr. Singh, and Mrs. Pleasants are all here with us today. Thank you. 

This will be a major step forward in seeing people to the end of their journey in a way that honors their lives and their legacies.

We are committed to acknowledging and thoughtfully examining the role of human enslavement and racism in predecessor institutions, as we have done with the East Marshall Street Well Project and the VCU Committee on Commemoration and Memorials. We continue that work with Project Gabriel. 

I’m grateful to Dr. Clifton Peay, a member of our VCU Board, and Sheryl Garland, Chief of Health Impact, for co-chairing this important effort. Project Gabriel, the President’s Special Commission on Slavery and Justice, provides an opportunity to continue to acknowledge the horrendous actions of our predecessor institutions, engage continuously with our communities in a dialogue regarding actionable recommendations, and make meaningful changes that reflect the inclusive public university and health system that we are today. 


Across our campuses and health system, VCU is adapting to emerging needs in academics and patient-based health care. 

Just yesterday, we cut the ribbon on the new Children’s Tower – bringing inpatient, emergency and trauma and outpatient care under one roof — a resource for Virginia’s families that we’ve worked on since my arrival. As Virginia Governor Youngkin said yesterday, the most important resource under this roof is our team of providers and caregivers.  

Children’s needs are different from adult needs, and we have to care for them differently. I knew this from rounding and seeing so many children’s hospitals around the nation. 

And personally, I learned it when one of our boys was airlifted for subspecialty care in the first weeks of his life. Watching a child who could not speak for himself, I realized how important pediatric care is, and how different pediatric subspecialty care is. Children are in a key human development stage of their lives.

I also wanted a soothing environment with as little stress as possible. Our children’s hospital will also foster important research into early, formative aspects of human development – because we are a university hospital. 

I offer special gratitude to my community partner and soulmate Coley Wortham, head of the Children’s Hospital Foundation, and our Children’s Hospital president Elias Neujahr for their work and commitment to making this happen. This could NOT have happened without them.  

We’re envisioning additional new spaces, like the STEM building opening this fall, and the new Athletics Village. Congratulations to VCU Men’s Basketball – champions of the Atlantic 10, and one of just a handful of teams to make it to the NCAA tournament. I’m so proud of this team.

We are using our creativity to look at pharmaceutical manufacturing differently through the Medicines 4 All initiative. As a result, our regional partnership, the Alliance for Building Better Medicine, received a $53 million federal grant. That will help us build labs and make more essential medicines here in the U.S. — and in the Richmond-Petersburg region. 

VCU has been supporting new biotech and biomedical innovation for decades – in the 1990s, we led the founding of Activation Capital and the Bio Tech Center. 

We’re setting records – our fundraising last year set a new record of $239 million. We’re aiming even higher this year. 

Last year I announced our largest gift ever – the $104 million gift to create the Stravitz Sanyal Institute for Liver Disease and Metabolic Health. I again thank my colleagues Todd Stravitz for his generosity and vision, and thank Arun Sanyal for all the work he’s doing to make the Institute a global reality.

We will soon make another groundbreaking announcement – this time, about big news at VCU Massey Cancer Center. 

It will be a few more weeks before we can say this officially, but soon, I will be “officially” announcing that VCU Massey will receive COMPREHENSIVE status — the institute's highest rank, from the National Cancer Institute. That’s an incredible step forward for us. Under director Rob Winn, Massey continues to establish itself as one of the preeminent cancer treatment and research centers in the country. Rob, thank you.

We’re doing groundbreaking work with immunotherapy – and when you combine that with our focus on the care of patients with liver disease, the children’s hospital, and the Pauley heart center, what we’re building here is a truly comprehensive public health institution.

I’ll give you another example of Massey’s incredible work to serve and reflect the community we’re part of. 

Members of the Chickahominy tribe noticed that an unusually large number of its members living in the same area were getting cancer. The leadership connected with VCU Massey to help figure out what’s going on. Let’s hear from the Massey team, Ms. Brown, and Chickahominy Chief Steve Adkins.



Ms. Brown, and my colleagues Dr. Tossas and Dr. Thomson are all with us today. Chief Adkins couldn’t make it, but Susann Brown is with us. Ms. Brown, I hope you’ll share this with Chief Adkins, thank you for trusting VCU Massey Cancer Center — soon to be Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center — to help you.

Our cancer team saw a problem, and took an engaging approach to solving it. That’s what we do at VCU. 

And that’s what we’ll keep doing. 

I started out talking about a time of transition. And that’s how I’m going to close. 

Change is here. We’re going to get ahead of change so that we don’t get changed.

The gap between higher education in general, and the people who need colleges and universities, is growing, and our response needs to be big, timely and innovative. We’ll be expected to focus on HOW we teach, learn, and transform education. 

We will revolutionize how we make the world a better place for all human beings through higher education. 

That’s a bold transformation. But it’s what I’m confident we will do.

I know we will do this, because we know how to do tough things. We’ve opened a Children’s Hospital that’s now a model for the nation, we’ve achieved comprehensive status for Massey Cancer Center, and so much more – we will dedicate ourselves and our resources to help the students admitted to VCU unleash their full potential, no matter where they start from.

 VCU can do it faster than others, to create a model for the nation’s research universities. We will imagine a new way of doing things, and to turn our imagination into tangible, innovative improvements for ALL of our students, so they can ALL be successful.

No place has a faculty and a staff – and university and health system boards – that collectively care more about students and our students’ success.  

Together, we will reimagine what student success looks like for a new generation. 

At VCU we haven’t been known to follow the status quo.

We’re here to transform students’ lives with the skills and tools they need to build the lives they want and need for themselves and the many others they’re concerned about. 

We’re here to imagine new discoveries – and then turn those discoveries into innovations that improve our lives. 

We’re here to treat every patient as they want to be treated – and find innovative treatments, causes and cures for the most complex, and chronic illnesses. 

We’re here to see what others see – BUT we think what no one else ever thought. That is our distinctive mission— a mission that is now more important than ever as we support the underlying values of our country that everyone can be successful.  

The world around us is changing in so many ways. 

It demands that we keep up. And we will.  

It demands that we stretch our creativity in uncommon ways. And we will.  

It demands that we truly put the needs of students and patients first – we will – and everything else will flow from that. 

It also demands that we will have to make choices, knowing that we cannot be all things to all people. This will be challenging for a large place, but we all have faith in each other to ultimately do what is in the best interest of students and patients as we continue to lead the evolution of a truly student centric and patient centric institution in America.

Thank you.