VCU administration and Wilder School dispute over Commonwealth Poll

The Massey Cancer Center, part of the VCU Health system, in downtown Richmond. VCU canceled a project for a new VCU Health facility on Clay Street last year. Photo by Kyle Duncan.

Jack Glagola, News Editor

“This attack directly implies a conflict of interest,” according to The Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at VCU, which published a statement on Jan. 24 in response to VCU’s challenge against its annual Commonwealth Poll and refusal to release it until two days after publication.

VCU originally challenged the poll in a statement on Jan. 22, which claimed the poll’s results were “skewed” and called the sample size — which for the relevant questions was 99, according to the poll — “questionable.”

“The questions, for some reason, lack full context about the issue, unfortunately preventing respondents from making informed choices,” VCU’s release stated.

The poll and the statement from VCU are both dated Jan. 22 on the VCU News website, despite the Wilder School’s claims that VCU delayed the poll’s release.

VCU did not provide additional comment on the dispute.

The dispute focuses on a particular statistic in the poll which said 92% of respondents agreed “the VCU Health Systems Board should be responsible for explaining more details” about the uncompleted deal to build a new facility on Clay Street downtown. VCU had to pay over $80 million to back out of the deal, according to the Wilder School statement.

The poll contains a qualifying question asking respondents if they were familiar with the uncompleted deal, according to David Slipher, the director of communications and external  relations for the Wilder School.

“The sample size is reflective of the number of individuals who were aware of the situation, as they would not have a follow-up perspective if not,” Slipher said.

VCU’s statement called the failed deal an “anomaly” and compared it to other projects VCU Health and VCU undertook, such as the Adult Outpatient Pavilion, the Children’s Tower and the Engineering and STEM buildings on the Monroe Park campus.

Backing out of the deal helped avoid “far greater financial problems in the future,” according to the statement, which touted VCU Health’s bond credit ratings from Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s.

The Wilder School statement said VCU has never before refuted the poll’s methodology or challenged its content.

“It is further discouraging that VCU News delayed the release of the Commonwealth Poll by two days in order to craft a formal response from the VCU administration,” the statement said.

The language used in VCU’s response is damaging to the school’s credibility and the VCU community and brand, the Wilder School statement said.

“This attack directly implies a conflict of interest. At no point has VCU President Michael Rao personally addressed the failed real estate deal, nor explained how a third-party law firm reported a lack of due diligence on the tanked deal,” it said.

The Wilder School statement said that “we all deserve the right to know the perceptions of Virginians,” even if they run contrary to official narratives.

“We should not be stifled or discredited to divert attention from the compounding mistakes of the VCU administration, led by Michael Rao and carried out by Michael Porter, VCU associate vice president for public relations,” it said.

The failed deal is currently under investigation from the General Assembly Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission. Both VCU administration and the Wilder School stated they anticipate the commission’s report in their respective statements.

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