Eyes On Richmond - Michael Rao
On Friday, VCU President Michael Rao delivered a speech highlighting the school’s successes and challenges as part of the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Eye’s on Richmond Speaker series. Craig Carper reports.
Michael Rao, who took over as President of VCU last year after the retirement of Eugene Trani, says his predecessor left him a wonderful institution. He discussed VCU’s substantial expansion of its footprint over the last 20 years, including winning one of only nine prestigious 20-million dollar clinical and translational science awards from the National Institutes of Health, as well as being named the most efficient school in America by the conservative think tank, the Goldwater Institute.
Rao says that while he believes VCU is efficient, he also says they are very stressed.
Rao: So much of what’s going on now in higher education is happening at a time of tremendous uncertainty. Higher education faces a lot of public skepticism these days. For half a century or more, the post-second world war era, government support for higher education, both federal and state, steadily increased and true to human nature, we became used to that arrangement. Increases were taken for granted; it got built into the working assumptions. But, I believe that all of that is now out of the window.
Rao states that while enrollment at state universities has increased 32 percent since 1998, between 2008 and 2011, VCU will have lost a third of its state funding, a decrease of more than 65 million dollars.
Rao: At VCU we’ve consolidated, we’ve streamlined, we’ve downsized operational units, we’ve automated processes and we've reduced administrative positions. In short, we’ve cut costs, classes have gotten larger, the number of tenured faculty members has grown fewer and last May, we raised substantially tuition to just about the average of public tuition at universities in Virginia; frankly, that's helped us get by, but we are far from out of the woods.
Rao stressed collaboration with the surrounding Richmond community to meet the challenges of tomorrow throughout his speech. One project he says he strongly supports is a comprehensive effort to revitalize Monroe Park.
Rao: We want it to be a place where everyone is comfortable, I mean, it’s important for us to restore that and frankly, go beyond restoring it and bringing it to a new level of beauty. There’s an opportunity with Monroe Park, in my opinion. It’s earth that obviously connects with the sun and the rain and all kinds of other resources. How could we capture all of that, all of those resources and energy and make this a model for sustainability?
Rao proudly spoke of the new 158-million-dollar VCU Medical School facility, which he says should be completed by 2013. Paraphrasing Jerry Straus, the Dean of the School of Medicine, Rao says that when completed. the education facility will influence medicine throughout the country for the next hundred years.
Rao said the school is also in the early stages of planning a new arts facility at the southwest corner of Broad and Belvidere.
Rao: That could be an ideal location for a gateway of sorts for the campus. We need a gallery space, we need a contemporary art commitment in our community. If you proceed down Broad eastward, there are lots of art galleries and it may just sort of become the linchpin in turning that into an art district of sorts and if we could take some of those retail opportunities and put national brands in there and look above those at all of those apartments that are above and turn those into graduate and professional student housing opportunities. Imagine what that would do to transform Broad; you've got to think about what you are going to do with that section from Belvidere all the way down to 4th on Broad. There are opportunities there for us to deal with a lot of poverty; there are opportunities for us to make that a green zone in our community.
Rao became VCU’s fifth president on July 1st, 2009, prior to which he served for nine years as the president of the University of Michigan.
Craig Carper, WCVE News, Richmond