In Virginia Commonwealth University’s 2022 State of the University Address, VCU and VCU Health President Michael Rao, Ph.D., said Tuesday that nearly two years into the pandemic, the university is emerging as a stronger institution — one that is transforming education and health care.
In a powerful illustration of his point, Rao announced a $104 million donation from R. Todd Stravitz, MD, and his family’s Barbara Brunckhorst Foundation to support the new Stravitz-Sanyal Institute for Liver Disease and Metabolic Health at VCU to radically expand treatment options for liver disease and invest in research to stop, prevent, and reverse liver disease, a major factor in declining life expectancy in the United States. Arun J. Sanyal, MD, a professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the VCU School of Medicine and a researcher and liver disease specialist at VCU Health, will serve as the director of the institute.
The donation is the largest in VCU history, the second-largest publicly shared donation to a University of Virginia, and the largest publicly shared donation for liver research in U.S. history. The gift also funds two endowed chairs, Endowed Professor of Medicine Arun J. Sanyal and Endowed Professor of Medicine and Microbiology Phillip B. Hylemon.
“The donation is a catapult and a catalyst on what is already a 50-year legacy of excellence in liver care and research at VCU,” Rao said. “We are one of the few institutions with the vision, capacity and ambition to focus on patient needs and care with this much-needed research. [It is among the] the most transformative innovations we will see in our lifetimes at VCU.
A transformational gift of $104 million from R. Todd Stravitz, MD, and his family’s Barbara Brunckhorst Foundation will advance the new Stravitz-Sanyal Institute for Liver Disease and Metabolic Health at VCU.
While the giveaway was the most prominent example of VCU’s recent innovative initiatives, Rao highlighted many others in his speech, including Shift Retail Lab at VCU, a new space for student entrepreneurs to test their ideas through sales and customer feedback; the Health Equity Initiative, which has integrated health equity principles into VCU and the mission of VCU Health through patient care, education and training, and research; and VCUs Student Financial Services Centerin which financial advisors work with students on a one-to-one basis and provide them with accurate and timely information about their finances.
“Our students, faculty, and community are not looking for the “normal” prior college and healthcare experiences. They want better experiences and more timely results based on their needs. We will continue to make things happen,” Rao said. “Our teaching, discovery, community service, and healing are the foundations of our transformative innovations in education and health care at VCU.”
Diversity at the service of excellence
Driving VCU’s success, Rao said, is the institution’s commitment to creating a more diverse, inclusive and equitable VCU and world. He noted how, for the past three consecutive years, INSIGHT into Diversity magazine has awarded VCU the Excellence in Higher Education in Diversity Award, with special recognition as a Diversity Champion. VCU is one of 14 institutions in the country so designated.
“At VCU, we know that inclusion is the spark that ignites the flame of our journey of excellence,” he said.
VCU continues to strive to serve and reflect the community, Rao said. “It means being determined about how our actions, our inactions, our words and our perspectives contribute to creating an equitable, inclusive and diverse institution,” he said.
As an example, Rao pointed to the dedication last fall of the Murry N. DePillars Building, honoring the pioneering dean of the School of the Arts from 1976 to 1995. Today, the School of the Arts is the fourth graduate program for the arts in the United States, according to US News & World Report.
“Dean DePillars brought together diverse communities to learn, create and engage in needed conversations,” Rao said. “He was an exemplary performer and educator who raised the profile of the school nationally and globally.”
Rao also described how Robert WinMD, director of VCU Massey Cancer Center, acknowledged that religious leaders have a crucial role to play as trusted sources of accurate information amid the pandemic. He convened an open dialogue discussion with them, called Friday of facts and faith, which hosted first lady Jill Biden, Ed.D.; Francis Collins, MD, Ph.D., director of the National Institutes of Health; Xavier Becerra, Secretary of the Ministry of Health and Social Services; US senators; Governor Glenn Youngkin; and former Governor Ralph Northam.
Rao recognized the work of VCU Health for the December launch of Epic, a fully integrated healthcare data system that will enable better and more coordinated care decisions, and positions VCU as a healthcare leader in real-time and data-driven.
He also celebrated the recent opening of the Adult ambulatory pavilion on the MCV campus, a 17-story complex that expands access to care and puts patients first.
“This space promotes learning, collaboration and healing to ensure the best and safest possible experience for patients,” he said.
Last week, VCU joined the University Innovation Alliance, a consortium of national public universities dedicated to increasing the number and diversity of college graduates in the United States. As the 12th and newest member institution of the consortium, Rao said VCU will work to lead and inspire higher education to improve graduate students across the socio-economic spectrum, especially low-income students, first generation students and students of color.
“We do this because it improves the human condition and is imperative for individual social mobility and the global competitiveness of the United States,” he said. “Joining the alliance is recognition of VCU’s commitment to enrolling and graduating all students. I am truly proud that our work, which puts the needs of students first, is now being showcased on a national stage.
VCU is also emerging as a national research leader, Rao said, with the National Science Foundation ranking VCU 58th among public universities in federally funded research spending, putting the university in sight of its goal. to rank among the top 50.
In the past year, he said, VCU set an institutional record for sponsored research funding, with a total of $363 million in grants, contracts and more. Over the past three years, VCU’s sponsored funding has grown by more than 25%.
“Research and research funding are important because they allow VCU to lead in areas that improve the quality of the human condition – the things that are essential to our existence and our quality of life,” Rao said.
Designing a better future
Rao said he was especially proud of VCU’s improved student outcomes, particularly in retention and graduation rates. VCU’s freshman retention and six-year graduation rates are both above national averages and reflect a more than decade-long upward trend for the university.
VCU also continues to close the gap between graduation rates for underrepresented and Pell Fellowship-eligible students, he said.
Looking ahead, Rao said the university is working to recalibrate its Quest 2025 strategic plan to update VCU’s strategic priorities. The university gathered feedback from faculty, staff, students, alumni, and communities throughout the process, and findings and recommendations will be shared over the coming weeks. The recalibrated plan is expected to be presented to the Board of Visitors in May.
“As I look to our future, it is clear that the needs of our students come first in everything we do at VCU. By focusing on experiences, we will help them and VCU reach their full potential,” Rao said. “That will continue to be our guiding objective.”
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