State of the University 2018: Our public university will serve the public good

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As is tradition, we gather in the new year to reflect on the state of our university. This is a year brimming with history and hope.

First…our history.

This institution began 180 years ago with a deep commitment to the social good. And when we came together under the “VCU” name 50 years ago, in 1968, our charter asked us “to confront on an intellectual and practical level the social environment which surrounds [us]. To relate [ourselves] to the community … and participate in the solution of existing problems.”

This mission remains unchanged. In fact, today more than ever, we embody that commitment as a positive force for progress.

We are the consummate catalyst for our Commonwealth:  VCU has the greatest economic impact of any university in Virginia at 6 billion dollars. We conduct more than 275 million dollars in sponsored research and creative activity—a record for the ninth time in the last 10 years.

Our students started 22 companies in 2016 and contributed 1.3 million hours of volunteer service. And more students than ever graduate—about 8,000 last year—coming to us from countless backgrounds and setting off into limitless futures.

Our academic health center—the oldest in Virginia—treated 250,000 patients last year. Just think about the entire population of Madison, Wisconsin, or Buffalo, New York, coming through the doors of our hospitals and clinics every year.

Our patients include 50,000 children. We also care for 100,000 people in our emergency department—more than any hospital in Virginia—and cover more than 200,000 lives across the Commonwealth through our Virginia Premier Health Plan.

Across the enterprise, your dedicated efforts have honored the words of our former President Warren Brandt, who said at the university’s first convocation 50 years ago, “VCU will become a name that will mean a great deal in years to come.”

Well, that time has come.

We have grown exponentially. But we will never outgrow our mission. It is still as it’s always been, simple in phrase but enormous in prospect:  To improve lives…to save lives…and to give life meaning.

That’s our history.

Now, our hope.

In a few months, we will launch our new strategic plan, called “Quest 2025: Together We Transform.” It will build on our current plan, “Quest for Distinction,” which has been an extraordinary guide as we’ve seized our place among the nation’s premier urban public research universities.

I am proud of so many things we’ve done together under Quest.

For example, we confer about 50 percent more degrees than we did when Quest began. That’s a staggering number, and we don’t talk about it enough: fifty percent more!

Because we are a premier research university, we also award 25 percent more doctoral degrees than when Quest began, and we’re top 50 nationally in number of postdocs. Our invention disclosures have jumped by nearly 50 percent.

Most astounding is this:  we graduate more students than ever, and the diversity of our graduates is unparalleled almost anywhere. Black and Latinx students at VCU—especially women—graduate at higher rates than our university average. We have achieved equal graduation rates for students across racial groups! That’s huge!

In fact, 60 percent of our academic programs rank in the top 100 nationally for graduating underrepresented students—more than 135 different programs in all. Think about that for a minute…

We’ve done all of this while raising admission and academic standards, ensuring that VCU is truly a rare place of both access and excellence. Very few universities can tell the story of increasing graduation rate, diversity, and academic standards—all at the same time.

It’s an amazing story. And it’s VCU’s story.

With Quest 2025, we will build on these successes.

We will realize our local purpose and our national prominence. We will remain unapologetically focused on the positive impact we make. We will make the most of what makes us stand out, confidently and unequivocally stating that Virginia Commonwealth University is a public university committed to the public good.

You know, public universities like VCU have always had a public purpose.

As the American Academy of Arts and Sciences wrote in a 2016 white paper, “public universities are dedicated to the public. That … is the value that animates all of their activities.”

VCU and our public peers have long catalyzed the nation’s technological innovations, democratic vitality, and the promise of opportunity for each new generation.

Our legacy is America’s Dream.

But, too many people now view public education as a private benefit, a pathway only to personal gain. The belief that public universities serve the public good is disappearing.

It’s no wonder that some people now question if public universities are still worth the investment. Nearly every state has cut funding for their public universities—by about 26 percent in the last decade, on average. In turn, the cost of tuition and fees nationally has outpaced inflation by 3 to 1 since 2006.

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that a recent Consumer Reports survey found almost half of college graduates say their education was not worth the expense.

Given our history and hope, VCU will lead in reversing this trend. We can change better and faster than any place I’ve ever seen.

And that means few public universities can do what we do.

It’s true.

A recent Brookings Institution study showed that only 20 percent of public universities in the nation provide both “high social mobility” for students and conduct a “high volume of research” with a social benefit.

VCU is among that 20 percent.

In other words, our educational experience helps students graduate with more opportunities than they had when they got here. And the research and creative activity we pursue helps society by solving its most vexing problems.

When you combine these with our safety-net healthcare mission, our public university serves as a public good in three primary ways:

As a social ladder.

A social lab.

And a social lever.

Let’s talk about that.

First, our educational experience is a social ladder for students.

Eduardo Rodriguez is the son of Cuban exiles. He was a hard worker, but as he says, quote, “I didn’t necessarily have the best pedigree.”

Well, his education from VCU’s School of Medicine has helped him become one of the world’s premier transplant surgeons. He recently performed the most complex facial transplantation ever attempted, giving a badly burned firefighter a new life.

Eduardo said, quote, “I’ve always had an interest in finding solutions to difficult problems. … And I certainly received the best medical education at VCU.”

 Gai Nyok spent his childhood in Kenyan refugee camps. He had little formal education when he enrolled at VCU, where he worked nights as a security guard right here in Cabell Library.

Still, Gay thrived at VCU, graduating with degrees in economics and international relations and earning a Pickering Fellowship to work at the United Nations Office in Geneva. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry even told Gay’s story in a 2013 speech.

Today, Gay is an economics officer for the State Department. “But VCU is my home,” he said.

Amazingly, VCU has transformed the lives of countless people like Eduardo and Gay. Every day, I meet students who will rise from humble beginnings to reach incredible places.

That’s because VCU educates students unlike those found at most other research universities. We are more diverse—the most-diverse university in Virginia actually. And it’s not even close!

Many of our students come from fewer family resources than their peers across the state. VCU educates—and graduates—more low-income students than William & Mary, UVA, and Virginia Tech combined.

And our Pell-eligible students graduate at identical rates to their VCU classmates who come from more advantage.

Students are drawn to VCU like no place else—because we help them reach their dreams like no place else.

They come to us to enter meaningful careers, start businesses, invent new technologies—the list goes on. They dream and hope about what life can be like for them, their families, and the world around them. And they know VCU will give them the skills they need to reach those dreams, no matter where they begin.

The Brookings study I mentioned earlier also told us something about how our graduates fare economically, relative to their peers.

About 17 percent of VCU 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.

A student born into the bottom 1/5 of incomes has a 27 percent chance of reaching the top 1/5 after graduating from VCU. That’s outstanding!

And it’s because we believe in our charge as a social ladder. It’s also because our students work really hard—and our faculty and staff commit to their students’ success.

More and more, our students want to use their prodigious talents to make the world better. They see their VCU education as a ladder to do exactly that.

We have an obligation to ensure they receive the kind of education that will help them become a new generation of leaders, creators, and problem solvers in a world that changes faster every day. We have the obligation to change as our students change.

Fulfilling our mission as a premier public research university requires we focus and concentrate resources into the areas most aligned to student success and graduation.

So we’ll work together over the next several years to move forward the undergraduate experience at VCU—one with the most innovative curriculum in the nation….one that emphasizes deeper engagement, creativity, collaboration, and adaptability. There will be greater emphasis on learning across disciplines—so students will learn not what to think, but rather how to think as 21st century citizens.

Let me be clear:  This won’t happen overnight. Transforming a curriculum takes time. It’s difficult. But VCU has repeatedly committed itself to doing what’s difficult.

Favorably, some work has already been done, including our new School of Medicine curriculum and integration of our health sciences disciplines, the creation of the daVinci Center, which continues to amaze, a revised freshman-year experience involving Focused Inquiry, a makeover of general education, and VCU’s substantial investments in student innovation and entrepreneurship.

And thanks to the work of Provost Hackett and her team, our students have clearer pathways to success, including more advisors and counselors guiding them, more seamless transfer agreements, and more resources to speed time to graduation.

This lays a great foundation. There is much building to do.

Students at the nation’s premier urban public research university should not adapt to the world. They should change the world.

We’re going to help them do that.

The educational experience at VCU will also be defined by diversity and inclusion. We lead in a society that’s increasingly ethnically diverse and pluralistic. Historically underrepresented students are not underrepresented at VCU. We are a microcosm of the world we’re all moving toward: one that creates opportunity for everyone.

Our curriculum must foster inclusive excellence. Students from every background will be able to succeed here, find mentors here, and graduate into a world that desperately needs their leadership.

That means our educational experience must bring together people who have different ideas and disciplines to learn from one another and to tackle society’s thorniest problems from new perspectives.

My commitment is that VCU’s educational experience will continue to be a social ladder—a public good for the world our students will someday lead.

Next—our public university is a public good because the research and creative activity in which we engage positively impacts society.

We are a social lab.

The purpose of our research is to advance society, to help people live longer, better lives. It’s research with a social conscience.

The Gates Foundation just awarded VCU 25 million dollars—the second-largest research grant in our history—to expand our Medicines for All Initiative, which makes life-saving prescriptions more affordable. This amazing work is being done by Frank Gupton in our School of Engineering, joined by colleagues in the schools of Pharmacy and Medicine.

We’re also tackling the pandemic of opioid addiction, which afflicts more than 2 million Americans. Opioid overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S.

VCU is No. 3 among universities for funded research in opioid addiction, covering more the 30 projects across our campuses.

These are two examples of our research as a public good. They’re also two examples of our commitment to bringing together colleagues from across disciplines to solve public crises from all angles.

This kind of convergent research does two things. First, it helps our record-setting research activity grow even more.

Secondly—and more importantly—it builds on our commitment to the public good as we strengthen the areas where our expertise meets public need.

Consider the enormous impact we make in the neurosciences, for example, which is represented in nearly every college and school at VCU.

VCU ranks 28th in NIH funding for neuroscience research. No one else in Virginia is even in the top 80. Nearly 40 percent of our NIH portfolio is for neuroscience research, approaching 35 million dollars.

Seven of our highest-performing research institutes and centers focus on neuroscience.

Our nationally rising academic health system and medical school—combined with our strong relationship with the Veterans Administration—give us unprecedented opportunity to expand this research in ways that will make a real difference for people struggling with neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, brain damage resulting from stroke or traumatic injury, disorders like autism, or the brain disease of addiction.

Thus, the research we do at VCU—as a public good—will profoundly affect the human experience.

We’re going to take an even greater role in neuroscience research. I envision constructing a neuroscience research center in the next few years. And given the breadth of VCU’s talents, I want us to bolster participation of the arts, humanities, and social sciences in this neuroscience initiative.

In the coming years, as we expand our commitment to convergent transdisciplinary research, we will invest more in areas of strength across both campuses—like neuroscience, cancer, and others—in ways that will continue to advance VCU on the national stage and serve the public good.

To do this, we must be certain that we have infrastructure and policies that make real our commitment to this brand of research—including promotion and tenure guidelines that reward collaboration…and engaging students in research to motivate them and boost their educational experience.

It also means ensuring that our faculty earn salaries in line with their national peers. This is one of my highest priorities with the General Assembly this year.

In this way, we will ensure that VCU remains a social lab…a public university that’s a public good.

 Finally — our public university is a public good because we commit to the health and wellbeing of people everywhere.

We are a social lever for human health.

We are where you want to go when you need care…because we’re home to the very best care anywhere. Our aggressive and ambitious facilities plan—paired with our health system’s Vision by Design strategic plan, led by Vice President Marsha Rappley and her team—is creating world-class service and space to match our world-class talent and meet the needs of the patients we serve.

Without question, this will go a long way in helping us fulfill our mission as a public good.

We’re also the region’s leader in health equity, providing care to all patients…and working with community partners to address the socioeconomic conditions that contribute to health disparities.

And we’re extending our public impact even more. We will soon open a health and wellness center in Richmond’s East End, where many residents live in poverty and poor health.

This center will bring together 16 academic and clinical units from across VCU and VCU Health, to work with civic leaders and community partners, coordinated by our Center for Urban Communities. It also reflects our enduring commitment to addressing the social determinants of health, improving overall health and wellness, and advancing scholarship and clinical care.

This spring, the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs will bring a new focus to the university’s efforts to address the unprecedented and unresolved inequalities of health care, housing, and safety in Richmond, a social tragedy built on generations of deliberate segregation.

As you saw in the news recently, 54 families in Creighton Court—a neighborhood near our campus—have been forced to live without heat during one of coldest Januarys on record. That’s unacceptable.

No matter how great our intentions or our impact, this university cannot undo the effects of historical and systemic racism in Richmond.

But what we can do—and what we will do—is use our vast intellectual resources to move society forward together. Our obligation as a public research university and as an anchor institution in our city is to work with our community partners to dive deep into these issues and help find solutions.

The Wilder School’s initiative will build on the great work already underway across VCU—including by Sheryl Garland, Steve Woolf, and others—to make one of the greatest impacts on Richmond and Virginia.

We need to mobilize every resource possible, to make as big a difference as possible, for as many people as possible. That may mean pushing other things aside.

This is going to be difficult, but I’m not going to push us any less just because it’s hard. We have the chance to do things no other university has ever done. We have the chance to change lives. And we will.

That’s a pretty phenomenal way that our public university can serve the public good.

It’s been my privilege to be with you today and to lead a university that’s remarkable in the commitments we make together.

We are remarkable in the ways we help prepare students and faculty to lead the knowledge revolution and change the world around us.

We are remarkable in the ways we connect student learning, discovery, and healthcare innovations to build a better society for all people.

And 180 years from now—in a new era of history and hope—we will be a remarkable example of how a public university served the public good.

Thank for joining me in this commitment. It continues to be a privilege to serve with all of you:  People committed to the success and wellness of others—people committed to being a public good.

Thank you.