Expansion and engagement: How VCU came to dominate Richmond 50 years after it opened its doors

RPI students in the school’s library, 1965. Photo courtesy of VCU Libraries Special Collections and Archives.

The nation was in upheaval when VCU opened its doors in downtown Richmond in the summer of 1968.

The university’s journey as an institution began when the Medical College of Virginia opened its doors in 1838. MCV gained official status as a state institution in 1860 — it played a critical role in educating doctors and providing healthcare through the Civil War, World War I and World War II.

After MCV’s full establishment, a separate academic institution — Richmond School of Social Economy — opened in 1917. In 1939, the school changed its name to Richmond Professional Institute.  

In February of 1968, the House and Senate approved the RPI-MCV merger, passing the order as “emergency” legislation, effective immediately.

VCU now celebrates its anniversary on July 1, 1968 — the day RPI officially merged with MCV.

Ray Bonis, senior research associate at VCU and co-author of a book on VCU’s history, said VCU’s formation was necessary.

“Legislators and leaders in Virginia realized that new students needed more colleges and universities to attend to in Virginia,” Bonis said. “That’s one of the reasons VCU was created. They thought the Commonwealth of Virginia needed an urban school to handle the urban problems which were developing in the mid to late-60s.”

A year full of accomplishments and adversities, the RPI-MCV merger was not the only defining event of 1968. As a nation, the United States experienced some of the best and the worst moments in history – from the first orbital of the moon to the assassinations of key leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy to the ongoing Vietnam War.

50 years later, the United States stands at the crossroads of accomplishment and adversity yet again. The recent turmoil in Parkland, Florida and high instances of gun violence this year mirror gun violence in the United States back in 1968.

“With Donald Trump being president, we have entered an era of presidential turmoil,” Bonis said. “His brashness has inspired Americans to come out against him and his policies — kind of like the backlash we saw with the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s.”

While the fight for civil rights strongly defined 1968, the message of key leaders still resonates with students across the nation. John Kneebone, chair of VCU’s department of history, said 1968 looks like 2018 in certain aspects — especially activism.

“We’re seeing signs of student activism today,” Kneebone said. “The 60s was a unique period in the history of higher education because students and student protests really did have an influence. We see that resonating today, as students help to set the course for an urban university that’s diverse, pluralistic and open to everybody.”

Student activism isn’t the only sector VCU continues to excel in half a century later. Mirroring 1968, VCU remains a top public university in Virginia. MCV, now over 200 years old, is the top medical center in Virginia, according to U.S. News Health.

VCU stands as the second largest public university in Virginia after George Mason University, according to the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia. Originally opening with an enrollment of 10,000 students, VCU’s expansion has increased enrollment by over 300 percent in its 50 years standing as an institution.

Averaging more than 30,000 students enrolled every year, VCU has expanded immensely since the RPI-MCV merge. Bonis said VCU’s facilities and enrollment grew the most under its fourth and longest-serving president, Dr. Eugene Trani, who played a major role in VCU’s northbound growth.

Trani served as VCU president for a little under 20 years — from 1990 to 2009. A key leader in VCU’s expansion, Trani stopped the institution’s extension south, making sure not to encroach on areas like Oregon Hill. Under his presidency, VCU developed facilities north, taking over Franklin, Grace, Broad and Marshall streets.  

“When I arrived there were 21,000 students, and when I left there were 32,000 students,” Trani said. “That growth is really important. VCU became, at one point, the largest institution in the Commonwealth. It really solidified VCU as an anchor institution in the Richmond metropolitan area.”

Bonis said 50 years ago, no one really knew VCU as an institution; now, we’re an name known throughout the nation.

“(The impact VCU has had) is dramatic and it’s obvious. If it wasn’t for VCU, there wouldn’t be much going on in the city of Richmond,” Bonis said. “It’s been VCU that’s revitalized and helped to give energy and growth to the city.”


Saffeya Ahmed, Contributing Writer

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