VCU’s State of the University emphasizes improved graduation rates, health care goals

VCU and VCU Health Systems President Michael Rao hosted the State of the University — which highlighted the year's successes and plans for the future — on Thursday in Cabell Library. CT File Photo.

Hannah Eason, News Editor

VCU and VCU Health System President Michael Rao stressed the importance of student, faculty and patient experiences at this year’s State of the University. Rao highlighted research accomplishments, innovations in student experiences and medical advancements made at the university last year.

University officials, staff and students gathered at Cabell Library on Thursday to observe some of the university’s recent accomplishments and goals for the future. Board of Visitors member and Vice Rector Ben Dendy and Richmond City Councilwoman Kim Gray attended the event, which Rao hosted.

“The State of the University address is an annual tradition that lets us reflect on our many successes,” said Gail Hackett, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, “and think about our goals and aspirations for the year ahead.”

Research expenditures for VCU increased to $310 million dollars in 2019, a 14% jump from 2018. These studies covered many things, such as the decline of human life expectancy, overcoming traumatic brain injury and factors that cause Parkinson’s disease.

“We’re all together. This presidency is dedicated to that,” Rao said. “And as we do this, we’re going to redefine the extraordinary impact that any 21st century university can have on its communities and on its people.”

Student experience

Rao said VCU has reached its goal for the “Make it Real” campaign one year early. The program, which is the largest fundraising campaign in VCU’s history, expands the university by funding scholarships, interdisciplinary partnerships, facilities and research. The program ends June 20.

Rao, who has been with the university since 2009, said graduation rates at VCU have risen 40% in the last 10 years and current rates are 10% higher than the national average.

“We’ve done this at a time when across the United States, fewer than half of college students are actually graduating on time,” Rao said. “And it’s fewer than 15% of students from the lowest socioeconomic bracket, those who can of course benefit the most from a college degree.”

Rao said about one-third of VCU students are first generation college students, and initiatives like “You First at VCU” can help those students thrive. 

“You First at VCU” was formed by Yessica Flores in 2018 and helps first generation students navigate the college scene. Flores and 25 other students were featured in an exhibit in Cabell Library, with bright colored backgrounds and inspirational quotes.

“Remember to always embrace your narrative,” Flores’ quote read. “No matter how hard it gets, keep your eyes on the prize because you are the beginning of a legacy.” 

1 in 5 VCU students grew up in a house that didn’t speak English, and the university is in the top 1% nationally in degrees given to minority students. Rao said online courses and degree programs — extending to the bachelor and master’s level — would make it easier for people to access VCU and would continue to be a priority. 

“It’s what people want,” Rao said. “It’s the access we need to give people to VCU. Not everybody’s going to be able to drop their lives and come here.”

VCU’s future

Rao outlined a plan to improve access to healthcare. He said currently, U.S. healthcare is behind in affordability, quality and efficiency, and said it was critical to take it “very seriously.”

Goals for VCU Health:

  • VCU will be No. 1 in safety
  • VCU will be in the top decile in terms of patient satisfaction through quality and service
  • VCU will lead in its commitment to discovery, including through its Healthcare Innovation Consortium, which supports health care innovators with guidance and funding
  • VCU will expand its commitment to health equity through clinical services, education and research

There are also new programs on the way, like the first PhD program for pharmaceutical engineering opening in the fall, the construction of a pediatric inpatient and adult outpatient hospitals and an engineering research building at Cary and Belvidere Streets. Soon, a new STEM building will replace the Franklin Street Gym, Rao said.

VCU Health

One of the patients treated by VCU Health last year was Carnealius Dandridge, also known as Mr. D, a school custodian at Pole Green Elementary School in Mechanicsville.

When Dandridge learned that his kidneys were failing, and later found he also had heart problems, he received a heart and kidney transplant at the same time. The surgery — done by surgeons Keyur Shah and Gaurav Gupta at VCU Health — was extremely rare, but saved Dandridge’s life.

“For about 182 years, VCU Health has worked to give longer, better, healthier lives, to everybody whose life we can touch,” Rao said, “like Mr. D, and about 261,000 other patients last year.”

Rao said that efforts with the opioid crisis, kidney transplants, Parkinson’s disease and life expectancy were all priorities for VCU Health.

“We’re looking at new ways to support patients, especially those who have high readmission rates, keep coming back to the hospital,” Rao said. “We’ve got to do this by tackling issues that we know are affecting people like food insecurity, housing instability and transportation needs.”

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