Rao delivers his fourth State of the University

Graphic by Rachel Lee and Sarah King
Graphic by Rachel Lee and Sarah King

President Michael Rao urged the VCU community to continue striving for progress, despite challenging times and difficult circumstances during his fourth State of the University address last Thursday.

Rao reaffirmed his commitment to students protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, the measure implemented by the Obama administration allowing immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as minors to remain in the country. He also stressed the university’s continued dedication to bolster efforts related to Title IX.

“Who we support as a university says the most about who we are as a university,” Rao said to applause from the full room of faculty, staff and students. He also encouraged students to continue finding their voice through community service and volunteerism.

This year’s annual speech came shortly after a series of demonstrations on campus in response to the 2016 presidential election and inauguration. Only a day prior to Rao’s speech, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the construction of the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and federal funding cuts to sanctuary cities.

In response to Trump’s crackdown on sanctuary cities, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced Thursday that, although Richmond is not a sanctuary city, he will work to protect undocumented families living here. Similarly, Rao denounced the potential elimination of DACA.

In a memo to VCU students and faculty on Friday, Rao announced he has joined more than 600 other college presidents from across the country in signing a pledge to advocate for the rights of DACA students.

“All of our students contribute uniquely to the fabric of this community and deserve the opportunity to engage in educational pursuits that advance their careers, their families and our society,” Rao wrote.

During Thursday’s speech, Rao also reaffirmed the theme of last year’s address — which focused on making the university more relevant to students and the surrounding community.

He touted a recent report by the VCU Center for Urban and Regional Analysis detailing the school’s extensive cultural and economic impact on the Richmond metro region, including 47,000 jobs and a total economic impact of $4 billion.

“The report revealed so much about what VCU has been, but what excited me was that it really revealed so much about what we’ve got to become,” Rao said. “We will focus on the people behind the numbers.”

Central to that renewed focus, according to Rao, will be the new Center for Urban Communities, and the university is in the final stages of a national search for candidates to lead the center.

The Center will focus specifically on issues related to K-12 education and health disparities, and Rao said the center’s mission will be to support neighboring communities to better learn “what actually works in addressing the difficult challenges that face urban neighborhoods.”

Rao also announced VCU’s signature Make it Real fundraising campaign had secured $460 million so far from 78,000 donors, and had endowed nearly 300 scholarships to students.

“This is part of our commitment to do everything that we possibly can to help our students build a future where they can create and lead, and not be bound by the burdens of so much debt,” Rao said, adding that he was working to ensure his next strategic plan would ease financial pressure on students by seeking alternatives to state funding.

But above all, Rao stressed the need for “permanent and much-needed” salary increases for faculty and staff, despite the state grappling with a $1.5 million budget shortfall. In response, the university has announced the award of one-time, merit-based bonuses in March.

Rao said these goals would best ensure VCU’s continued growth as a premiere research institution.

“No place else matches our commitment to innovate even if it’s difficult to imagine, to educate even when it’s hard to embrace, to heal even if it’s hard to hope, to empower even if it’s difficult to endure.”

Jim Thomma, Staff Writer

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