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2021 State of the University: Emerging Stronger Together

Feb. 11, 2021

I sure wish we could be together. But I’m grateful for the opportunity to be talking about VCU’s success this year … and … I’m really enthusiastic to be talking about where we’re going in the future. 

The year behind us has presented us challenges like we’d never seen. I’m deeply appreciative that together – as ONE VCU -- we’re emerging stronger than ever. That’s because of your enduring commitment to our mission. Unlike almost any other community I can think of, you showed how well a community can unite to take care of each other.  

Our mission is to serve students, patients and our communities in the best possible ways leading every person toward their success. So when I think about our mission, I ask myself two questions: How are we doing? How can we do better?

Thanks to the dedicated, passionate and … it’s not hyperbole to say this … heroic efforts of our faculty, health care team members, students, staff, alumni, donors and more, VCU and VCU Health are turning this crisis into a moment to remember.

Now, we need to transform this moment...into a movement! 

And our movement is among the most inspiring there is: creating transformational educational and health care opportunities for all people by improving access, affordability and timely outcomes. VCU and VCU Health have long been at the vanguard of this effort. And the future, though not without challenge, IS quite promising. 

And YOU ... every one of YOU … you’re the heart of our movement.

As you saw in the video, there are many people who make our mission and movement a reality. My mind is drawn powerfully to Audrey Roberson, who’s been a member of our team at VCU Health for 31 years and runs our medical respiratory ICU — which treats our sickest COVID patients.  I was inspired rounding with her just a week ago.  

In December, Audrey was the first person at VCU to receive the COVID vaccine. She said then: “We are here to support this community. And we will not let them down.” 

That’s VCU.  We will not let the people who need us down.

What we do will reinvent and redefine the human experience for all human beings for generations to come.

It’s who we are.

**

Our movement is based on foundations of success that are the envy of many around the country. 

Despite the COVID pandemic, our students graduated at the highest rate in our history. We expanded research, creativity, and innovation — setting an institutional record for research funding --  8% higher than last year’s record effort. 

Our VCU Health System continuously maintained access to the life-saving care we’re known for, and we were among the first in the state to reactivate services to give access to all patients.  Case in point – we performed a record 459 life-saving organ transplants.  

And we also made a big impact on COVID. Some of the record research this year -- led by faculty on both campuses -- focused on innovations in COVID treatment, inequities and impact on the elderly, K-12 education and much more. 

We successfully completed our largest fundraising initiative — more than the previous three efforts combined, thanks in part to Children’s Hospital Foundation, our partner in VCU’s pediatric care and research.  And one of our largest campaign contributors, Ken Wright, has now fully endowed the Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research at VCU with one of our largest gifts in VCU’s history.  

Translational research is at the heart of our work and it’s why the National Institutes of Health continues to fund the VCU Wright Center.  Translational research is focused on quickly getting treatments to patients through innovations that can come from the entire range of disciplines at a university with the breadth and depth of talent of VCU.  

It’s why we need to focus our research and bring as much of our talent from all of our disciplines to the four areas that more than 90 members of our faculty have helped identify as unifying strategic research priorities.  

Our implementation plan will enable us to focus our finite investments in interdisciplinary research in biomedical, engineering, humanities as well as social sciences and bring to reality four key initiates that represent our values and mission of improving the human condition and public health at large. These strategic research initiatives are:

Not a week goes by without VCU being recognized nationally for its research – research by faculty on BOTH campuses and across disciplines -- from medicine to arts, engineering to education, pharmacy to business. 

An inspiring example of research spanning disciplines is our Medicines 4 All Institute, where the College of Engineering, working with the School of Pharmacy and the Chemistry Department in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is solving the nation’s generic drug shortage problem.

**

We’ve worked together, as One VCU, for the safe, healthy and successful spring and fall semesters in 2020. Today, the infection rate on our campus remains consistently below those of Richmond and many other communities across the state. In many respects, our campuses have been among the safest places to live, learn and work.

In this difficult time, our faculty’s and our staff’s engagement with students, and our students’ fortitude and resilience, led to higher-than-expected enrollment numbers in the summer and fall of 2020. I’m very grateful for federal CARES Act funding and the Commonwealth’s critical funding support. 

Those funds, along with strategic cuts already in place for this fiscal year, have resulted in a stable financial situation. Unlike many colleges and universities, we’ll avoid furloughs and layoffs during the COVID pandemic through this fiscal year. 

Beyond our focus on COVID, though, we’ve continued to address issues that have always mattered to us. Never forget the value of higher education, especially its positive impact on social and economic equality.

At VCU, 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. Every student can succeed here and will graduate into a world that needs them to be whoever they are. When it comes to success, there’s room for everyone!  

Our pursuit of justice and equality, coupled with our location in the heart of Richmond, demands that we acknowledge the lasting and harmful impact of racism on educational and health disparities -- issues that particularly affect African-Americans; issues exacerbated and highlighted by the pandemic.  

I’m reminded of the tragic death of our own alum, Marcus David Peters, and my heart goes out to his family and friends. We have to work to prevent these devastating tragedies.  

Events of the summer connected to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and many others raised the social consciousness of our nation about the inequities and disparities that exist in America. This awareness has catalyzed critical discussions across our nation and within our university community. There’s still so much to do because there’s still so much that’s just inequitable and wrong.  

The past informs the future, which is why the Board of Visitors approved the de-commemoration of confederate plaques and statues. This was not done to erase history, because history cannot be erased. The university acted to create on-campus space for important stories to emerge that’ll contribute to broader and more representative realities of VCU.

Black History Month gives us time to recognize all who have led the never-ending fight for equality, which is fundamentally right … and at the core of our mission.  And, with the naming of the Fine Arts Building to honor former VCUarts dean Murry DePillars, we recognize the accomplishments of a man who was dedicated to unifying Richmond.

He brought diverse communities together to learn, to create and to engage in needed conversations through arts, culture, and music. We are all delighted that the fine arts building bears his name. And our work to commemorate the extraordinary achievements of African Americans continues well beyond this month.

**

In the last few minutes, I’ve recapped a bit of our journey the past year. Now let’s turn to the journey ahead and look beyond COVID-19.

We’re making headway – some of it jump-started by the pandemic – in accelerating our innovation in teaching modalities and in spotlighting disparities in our traditional teaching models.

We continue to make significant strides in graduating our students.  When I came to VCU, our six year graduation rate was 49%. This semester, it was higher than the national average at 69%. This is one of the greatest achievements at VCU, and it will only get better.  

Our first-year student retention rate needs to be 90% … 84% for second-year … and 80% for third-year. We have about 5% to 10% to go in each category to meet our goals. That’s doable … and we will do it.

To get there, we must think differently about what curriculum is and what it means to our students. 

This begins by addressing barriers to retention and graduation – things like high D-F-W rates in certain courses that disproportionately affect students of color. I am particularly concerned about men -- African American and Latino students, who graduate at lower rates compared to the university’s average graduation rate.

So, we’ve launched the Men of Color Initiative, which just started, and is aimed toward enhancing the educational and learning experiences for our male students of color and to foster a supportive environment. 

For all of our students, we have to provide engaging experiences to teach what needs to be taught so that students can contextualize what we teach – knowing why we teach what we teach. By addressing the needs of people who are the most vulnerable, we lift and empower the lives of all people.  

And we’ve taken that to a new level with REAL – Relevant, Experiential and Applied Learning – which, beginning Fall 2021, will be a graduation requirement for all undergraduate students. We’re achieving a vision, announced just a few short years ago during the State of the University, that every student will engage in at least one high-quality “real-world” learning experience. An experience that prepares them to be ahead so they can lead in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

To achieve better student experience and outcomes, we also need to better support our faculty who’ve shown tremendous efforts, especially during the pandemic, toward student engagement and improving pedagogy. 

We’ll look to improve and expand resources for faculty development in the near and long-term. Especially in areas of high demand and effectiveness, like the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence and Online at VCU.

We’ll address barriers to interdisciplinary courses and research. The faculty wants it. Students – both undergraduate and graduate -- want it.  Postdoctoral fellows want it. And the world needs it. We need to eliminate historical and unnecessary bureaucratic walls that prevent faculty from moving forward with innovative teaching and research.

**

I sincerely thank Provost Gail Hackett  for her strong leadership and support in all of these areas.  Gail is retiring at the end of the academic year, and we’re fortunate that she has invested the pinnacle of her career with us building a great team and institutional systems and services that will well-serve students and all of us for years to come.  A search for a new provost has already attracted national attention with strong candidates.

**

We’re working to improve the health care experience -- here and everywhere.

Take, for example, the Healthcare Innovation Consortium and DesignRX, part of the VCU DaVinci Center for Innovation – something I introduced at this occasion a year ago. The HIC, as it’s called, unites health care practitioners, entrepreneurs and investors to bring health care innovations to reality. In its inaugural year, they have 65 new projects. Sixty-five!

Likewise, efforts led by Innovation Gateway and VCU Ventures have resulted in the publication of more than 165 patents, 42 products launched to market and creation of 55-plus startups. 

We’ve made tremendous progress in the quality of care we provide our patients in our hospitals and in our clinics because of our teams. And we’ve done this with the added pressures and stress of the pandemic. 

We’ve just been told that our medical center placed in the top decile of our peer group, ranking second out of 36 large, mostly academic medical centers caring for complex/high acuity patients. This is according to a fiscal year ‘20 Anthem performance score for quality and safety. 

I welcome our new Senior VP and CEO, Art Kellermann, to our team and know he will lead us to new heights in patient care, patient experience, and student learning.  

And, we’re thoughtfully crafting new spaces that will further enhance our ability to provide the highest quality care, access to ALL patients, and learning environments for our students. 

We just cut the ribbon on our new engineering research building.  It’s stunning.  

VCU’s inpatient Children’s Hospital Wonder Tower is on schedule to open in spring 2023. And we expect to open the new Monroe Park campus STEM building about a year from now. 

Our Adult Outpatient Pavilion is on schedule to be completed at the end of this year. This new facility will provide easy access to VCU Massey Cancer Center's outpatient care, including clinics, medical infusion and radiation oncology, for patients and family members. 

It will also co-locate services to ensure efficiency and collaboration between specialties, making it easier for our teams and our patients to navigate.  This is a critical part of having the best patient experience.  

This will also help us be designated a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center, which is the NCI's top designation. This recognizes cancer centers with the highest level of inter-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary research collaborations and excellence in research translation and training.  Imagine how many more lives we can save, particularly those forgotten, when we enroll more dying patients in clinical trials.   

As we complete these spaces for our people, most importantly, we’re building a more holistic approach to focus on the overall health of each patient – more coordinated care and easier access for every patient. Another example -- we’re also recognizing the importance of dental health as part of primary care, and making it more accessible to our patients wherever they are. 

It’s really awe-inspiring to see what we -- all of you, together -- have achieved in fulfilling our mission under the most challenging of circumstances. We’ve said before that at VCU, we do what’s difficult. This past year has proved that.  

So, where do we go from here?

Where we go from here… 

As one of the nation’s premiere urban public research universities, we have to foster complex change to promote transformative growth and success through access, impact and responsibility. For so many of us, it’s still not right.  The playing field is not level for everyone.  

The pandemic has brought to light social inequities across society and its systems that CANNOT be ignored or explained away; inequities that we have to help address; inequities that are core to our mission to solve. We must direct our intellectual and creative prowess toward education, research and clinical care that more intently addresses education and health equity issues in communities. 

Take, for example, how COVID-19 has exposed the nation’s urgent need to rebuild its public health infrastructure. In today’s world, that involves more than health care workers. We understand that public health infrastructure also needs social workers, supply chain managers, crisis communicators, engineers, and many others.

VCU has core competencies in all of the public health disciplines, such as epidemiology, infectious disease, biostatistics, environmental and occupational health, health policy and more. We’ve also got much-needed expertise in addiction, emergency preparedness, health disparities and health communication – and yes, supply chain management.

Imagine the power of bringing together this faculty expertise from across our campuses and departments, the passion of our undergraduates through professional students, and our community partners to address major public health issues. To be able to prevent future pandemics; to eliminate racial and economic disparities in health; to prepare a future public health workforce that is diverse and ready to innovate for our collective health and safety. 

We’re preparing to do something big to lead in addressing our public health needs in a way that will help achieve greater equality among all people.  Stay tuned for more … a lot more … on this front in the near future. 

Conclusion

VCU does difficult well.  And we’ll be back together in the fall. We’ve started to vaccinate eligible faculty, staff and students under the state’s phased plan, and we anticipate that our community can be vaccinated by the start of the fall semester. 

Our community has proved that we’re responsible together in following safety and health measures – showing respect and care for each other. Our fall return may not be exactly the way it was pre-COVID, but it’ll be closer to what we’ve known.

And, in many ways, it’ll be better than the previous normal because what we’ve learned and experienced together provides greater insight, compassion for each other and hope for everyone’s future.

This is a unique moment in time. Clearly one filled with uncertainty and pain, but one that allows us to recognize inequalities and address them. To learn from mistakes and be better. And not just talk about a more equitable, healthy and prosperous future … but to lead a movement that makes that future a reality for all human beings. 

**

Let’s rededicate ourselves to this movement. Together, as ONE VCU, we’ll do all of these things. 

As Audrey Roberson said “We are here to support this community. And we will not let them down.” 

That’s VCU.  We will not let the people who need us down.  That’s our commitment to advancing equality -- to doing what’s right.  

Be proud of what you’ve done to make VCU what it is today.  Thank you for the innumerable ways that you have shaped this university and especially for the work you do for the people we have the honor of serving:  people who need us.

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