The view from VCU

Rao expects university to expand its reach as it continues to build

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Rao reflects on VCU men's basketball team's trip to the Final Four and the upcoming Institute for Contemporary Art.

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Virginia Business Video Virginia Business Video
Rao reflects on VCU men's basketball team's trip to the Final Four and the upcoming Institute for Contemporary Art.

Watch the video

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Michael Rao Photos by Mark Rhodes

If you think Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond is big now, stay tuned.

VCU President Michael Rao says the university, which already sprawls across Broad Street, has more growing to do in terms of physical space. “…If you look at us and compare us with many of the major research universities, we are considerably behind in that regard,” he says.

The university is not resting on its laurels. Currently under construction is a $35 million Institute for Contemporary Art, a 43,000-square-foot, non-collecting museum that will be at the intersection of Broad and Belvidere streets. On its medical campus, VCU is building The Children’s Pavilion, a $168 million project, which it says will be the most advanced outpatient facility dedicated to children in the region. VCU also is in talks about the creation of an independent, free-standing children’s hospital in Richmond.

With big growth comes big challenges.  “The university has become very big because it was in such high demand. So it’s an institution that has been of tremendous value. And, of course, people from all over the state see that. And people more and more from outside of the state see that, so they come here. And when the resources don’t grow as rapidly as the demand does, obviously you’re stuck with a challenge that you have to overcome.”

Rao, 47, has been leading VCU for five years now. Before coming to Richmond, he served as president of Central Michigan University and also has been chancellor of Montana State University-Northern. For a time, he was the youngest college president in the U.S. as head of Mission College in Santa Clara, Calif.

Today, Rao is one of the best-paid public university presidents in the country, ranking No. 21 on a list compiled by The Chronicle of Higher Education. That report doesn’t include a 3 percent salary increase Rao received last December that boosted his total pay to $878,655.

The VCU board of visitors recently hired a firm to perform a routine evaluation that would determine in part whether Rao’s compensation was comparable to other college presidents at peer institutions. “The evaluation process was wonderful. It was excellent. I got a lot of great feedback that was very, very helpful,” Rao says. “It will help continue to strengthen the things that people seem to think that I’m doing well. I’ll place greater emphasis on those. And you know we are all human, of course, and there are opportunities for every one of us to strengthen and become even better at what we do. And, of course, I’ve gotten some of that feedback.”

Virginia Business interviewed Rao in his office on VCU’s Monroe Park campus. 

Virginia Business: What do you see as VCU’s role in terms of economic development?

Michael Rao I think it’s a very significant role.  It’s really leveraging a major research university in the middle of the state to basically produce a large number of graduates, but it’s also to produce a lot of research that has the ability to fundamentally be commercialized and to turn into entrepreneurial efforts that will ultimately create more jobs.

So one of the ways in which you keep the graduates that you produce is through jobs that will pay at that level and will frankly be exciting.  More and more what we’re finding with graduates, it’s not the pay that matters, it’s: ‘What kind of lifestyle will I have?  And how excited will I be every day to go to this job or to do what I do?’

… It’s really also about the partnership, too.  It’s about really connecting the university with the community, with businesses, with organizations, even with individuals in communities that have an interest in elevating and going to the next level.  And so, with the university being here, it creates an awful lot of economic development as well.

… The other thing that I think creates a lot of economic development in and of itself is we’re a university that has frankly a lot of building to do.  We have a lot of growing to do in terms of physical space.  And so if you look at us and compare us with many of the major research universities, we are considerably behind in that regard … That creates a level of economic development and stimulus that can frankly be leveraged in various other sectors and segments.


VB:  What do you see as VCU’s biggest strengths and weaknesses?

Rao:  … One of its great strengths is it really is connected with the community.  It’s very proud to be in Richmond. It’s very tied to Richmond.  Richmond is its home.  That has been a real strength.  I think it has been an important part of the renaissance that we’ve all seen in Richmond, and I think it will continue to be.

We have some challenges here and there just like any other institution, and a lot of those challenges really are resource-related. The university has become very big because it was in such high demand.  So it’s an institution that has been of tremendous value.  And, of course, people from all over the state see that.  And people more and more from outside of the state see that, so they come here.  And when the resources don’t grow as rapidly as the demand does, obviously you’re stuck with a challenge that you have to overcome.

And so we’ve tried to find ways of doing that by adding faculty significantly to the university, by really trying to do more with respect to looking at alternative ways in which to be certain that students are truly learning and that they’re offered an opportunity to be in a context in which what they learn becomes really useful to them.


VB:  What’s going to be VCU’s next big push in terms of academics and research?

Rao:  … A lot of it will continue to be interdisciplinary work, so it’s very rare that you have any real gains from studying solely in one single discipline …  And there’s really no better place than VCU to do that.  That will be a big part of it.

Online learning will be a significant effort for us.  We are really doing a push upward … We’re not rushing to frankly make all of the mistakes that other institutions can and will make that we can learn from, but we are moving fast.  And the number of online courses continues to literally multiply by the day.  And the number of students engaged in online learning and digital learning continues to increase.  Of course, as you know, that’s one of the ways in which students learn more and more now.  It’s one of the ways in which they connect and communicate and really validate how they feel and how they engage in a learning experience.
The others will be continuing education.  We will continue to look for ways to leverage the VCU brand, which has become so popular and so strong in a continuing-education environment.  We really want to be committed to learning at all levels not just at the baccalaureate, the MD, the DDS, the Ph.D. or master’s level.

…The other things that we’ll do are we’ll take a look at general education as well.  We really want that core to be valuable to all students.  We really want it to be about communicating and being able to use the world’s quantitative data to make good decisions.  There’s so much information and data out there.


VB:  VCU broke ground on the Institute for Contemporary Art [recently] … What do you hope the project is going to do for VCU?

Rao:  The ICA … is really a lynchpin project in many ways.  It was a way of really recognizing that we have a number one School of the Arts here in the commonwealth at VCU.  It was also a way of really recognizing that it’s important for us to be a significant part of our hometown, Richmond.  We’re very proud of it.  And so we see it as just the beginning of the continued renaissance down Broad Street.  So this has the capacity to really bring a level of vibrancy down Broad Street that Broad Street and Richmond deserve and certainly VCU deserves.  …

The other thing that the ICA does is it helps make VCU and Richmond a destination for the arts community.  We’ve been long known for being a destination to the historical community for those who are interested in history.  But the arts community is one that is worldwide as well, and we want them to be a part of VCU and Richmond, to take interest in Richmond.

The other final thing I’ll mention to you that I think it does is it really helps VCU connect itself with the community with people of all ages.  So if you think about it, it’s really important for a university to have a positive impact on the youngest people in the community as well as people at other ages in their lives.  And this will do just that.  I think you’ll find that schools will be visiting the ICA.

I think that you’ll find that the ICA will really become an icon, something that goes down as a major visible image in the history of the university, in the history of Richmond.


VB: [VCU Health System and Community Memorial Healthcenter in Southern Virginia plan to join operations June 30.] Is that a sign of things to come? Do you plan to [partner] with other hospitals outside of Richmond?

Rao: I certainly hope so because the more that we can do to increase the commitment that we make in terms of complex care that we provide to Virginians the better.  But the other end of that that’s really important are the experiences that our students have.  We have students in medical school.  We have health sciences students in a wide range of other programs like nursing and pharmacy.  We want those students to be able to make contributions and, of course, to learn in urban environments [and] rural environments that are terribly underserved, so the community wins, and we win as well.

It’s also really important for us to continue to look at other communities in Virginia where there are needs.  And, frankly, education is going to continue to be a key leader in terms of addressing a lot of these needs, not just in terms of producing workforce, but in the process of educating people, you’re also able to serve, right, because part of how students learn in health care is in the practice.  And so in that practice, there’s a way for students to learn.

There’s another aspect of this that I think is very valuable, and that is remember that we do a lot of research.  And so in that research that we do, we involve people who frankly have very serious chronic and sometimes complex diseases that can only really be addressed through clinical trials, and so research universities like VCU can engage patients in those clinical trials.…


VB: VCU initially said it was considering building a children’s hospital affiliated with the Health System, but now is open to the idea of an independent children’s hospital in Richmond … What led the university to the latest position?

Rao: … Our original proposal about a year ago was to get the process of getting people to think about a children’s hospital being in Richmond … by VCU proposing that it would build a hospital.  We said that we were open to alternative ideas, and of course, you have lots of communities and constituencies involved in this.

You have parents who have children who have complex diseases, very serious, oftentimes genetic issues that have not yet been tackled or are not fully understood, and meanwhile the care has to continue.  And then you have pediatricians throughout the community, many of whom are our graduates.  We are very proud of them.  And we wanted to listen to them.  We wanted to listen to our own faculty.  I spent quite a bit of time myself with our faculty who are in the pediatrics area.  And, of course, we have pediatrics medical education and research faculty, but we also have pediatrics health sciences, meaning nursing and various other disciplines.  And so we really wanted to find ways in which to look at what would be best for Richmond and VCU in the long run.

My goal is truly to enhance medical and health sciences education, research and care.  And as we listened to the proposals that came to us from various sources, we realized that one of the best opportunities we had to leverage some significant philanthropy and, frankly, a commitment that I can count on to make this the best that it could be, given our size, which is relatively small compared to many other communities with a children’s hospital, I believed that it was important for the board to consider an independent children’s hospital.  And I certainly listened to our own faculty in that, and they of course want to continue to have good relationships with community pediatricians who refer to them as subspecialists in particular.  So we’re giving this our commitment.

And of course, the commitment we expect in return is that this would truly enhance pediatrics medical education, health sciences education, research and care, particularly the care of those who have complex needs.


VB: What stage in the process are you in now?

Rao: We’re in the process now of exploring an academic affiliation agreement and what we would need to have in that.  We’re also talking considerably with Katherine Busser, who has been appointed CEO of this independent, new children’s hospital effort, and so in that process basically looking at making lists of all the things that are critical to ensure that we remain an accredited medical school, an accredited nursing program, and so on and so forth.  But we are also looking at how we can and will enhance research, because ultimately it’s universities like VCU that the people who suffer the most from illness require to be most engaged.  So we want to step up our research game in this.  And this is an opportunity to do just that.

We also want to step up the ability that we have today to take care of the people who need us the most.  And most of the care will be provided by subspecialists, and most of those subspecialists are at VCU.  And so again, listening to them, listening to pediatricians, listening to parents, and listening to the community, particularly the philanthropic community, we realized that this was a really good and important leadership move for us to make.


VB:  How has the success of the basketball team helped VCU’s visibility, and how important are college sports to VCU’s visibility?

Rao: I think college sports continue to be, factually speaking,  a very important window into appreciating the academic enterprise.  We are still a nation of Americans that … it’s fewer than a third of us who have baccalaureate degrees or higher.  And we want the support of all Americans for higher education because it really has such a deep impact on shaping society, and shaping our economy and competitiveness globally.  And so frankly, if I can find a way to pique the interest of any American who then looks through the academic window and says, ‘Oh, this is more of an understanding for me of what colleges do and what they mean,’ that really is a very valuable thing. 


VB:  Do you ever find time to relax?  What do you do on your down time?

Rao: I do ... I’m enjoying working in my yard.  That’s a really fun thing to do.  I continue to enjoy working on things at my home.  I’m finding all of these really cool ways that people have thought of to replace and repair worn out or not as functional kinds of items.  Most of my time is spent with my family ...  That’s what I should have said first.  My family is, without question, the most important thing to me in the world.  I have a saint for a wife.  I have children who are awesome.  They are great kids.  I love them.  They all love me.  And I couldn’t be happier.  And so I want to continue to enjoy that happiness.  It’s a really important part of my life.

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