VCU Inauguration 2011

VCU’s people lead its quest for distinctionBy Tom Silvestri
Richmond Times-Dispatch
Oct. 16, 2011

Watch VCU.

It is intent on being distinct. And not just in Richmond.

Some parts of Virginia Commonwealth University, including its School of Medicine and its medical center, already achieve national accolades.

But VCU President Michael Rao and his team want more.

When that happens, the broad-scale results will be good for all of us who live in Virginia's capital region. In many ways, as VCU goes, so goes Richmond.

Now that Rao finally has been inaugurated — the ceremony was Friday morning — the focus of VCU can firmly turn to achieving the goals of its 2011-17 strategic plan, labeled the "Quest for Distinction." There's that word again.

Encourage VCU.

We all know the storyline on VCU as Rao arrived in July 2009. Years of building and expansion validated the university as an economic catalyst that advanced the revitalization of downtown. Imagine what shape downtown Richmond would be in without VCU's determination to show the viability — and importance — of an urban campus.

All of those bricks and buildings proved VCU was on the rise. Richmond now had a partner that could get things done.

The next chapter is all about what happens inside those buildings. Sure, more structures will go up — with the most spectacular being the new hospital on the medical campus and the art exhibition building on the academic campus. But the emphasis will be on people. And what they accomplish.

Notice VCU.

Rao is taking the inspiring theme that soared during the men's basketball team's surprising journey to the NCAA Final Four and he's running with “Our Time. Right Now.”

VCU will be a public research university. That's going to mean recruiting talented students and ensuring they graduate with an education that puts them in the best position to capture opportunities.

It also means strengthening — and adding — faculty, who may be Rao's secret weapon to advance VCU. A beefed-up lineup of professors and researchers with a charge to excel will pay dividends by making our enterprising region an even smarter place to live, work and play.

The upshot: Being the largest university in the commonwealth will be replaced by metrics that show VCU graduates quality students who are ready for high-paying jobs. In return, local companies who employ them will rise in value. The surrounding community is nourished as well.

Reconsider VCU.

The university's strategic plan has four main themes.

Theme 1: Become a leader among national research universities in providing all students with high-quality learning/living experiences focused on inquiry, discovery and innovation in a global environment. The goals address recruiting and retaining students and faculty, delivering "rigorous and innovative academic programs," and providing experiences that expand learning, “promote civil discourse and engage students in self-reflection and creative expression.”

Theme 2: Attain prominence as an urban, public research university by making contributions in research, scholarship, creative expression and clinical practice to advance knowledge and enhance the quality of life. The goals are all about increasing the volume and quality of research across the entire university. And there's a link to the community as well: “Increase the commercialization of intellectual property and university-based technologies to advance innovation and community development.”

Theme 3: Achieve national recognition as a fully integrated research university with a commitment to human health. Here, the goals push VCU to deliver more to improve public health. Make no mistake, VCU is bothered by the country's disappointing achievement in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — and will focus on more careers there. The strategy on research: “Achieve national recognition for significant advances in clinical and translational research focused on important issues across the health care spectrum.”

Theme 4: Become a national model for community engagement and regional impact. Don't dismiss this one. VCU's sheer size combined with this coordinated outreach could build on Richmond's positive changes. VCU intends to show up off-campus in schools (especially middle schools), at key local events and as a collaborator in economic development and actions to improve access to health care. Part of the service discipline will involve leadership in the green and sustainability movements.

Cheer VCU.

When it is successful.

Embedded in the Quest for Distinction are the values that will further guide what has been, at times, an understandably gangly organization — accountability, achievement, collaboration, freedom, innovation, service, diversity and integrity.

The bigger point is that VCU, now more than ever, packs the potential to be the urban game-changer for the next generation.

VCU embodies the emerging Richmond where everyone's story can be told and all constituencies who want to work together are engaged to deliver improvements for the overall community.

Most of the fuel will come in its strategic shift from focusing on quantity as the measure of success to a focus on quality in its people.

The new blueprint articulates students' successes and discovery-oriented research, both advanced by a revved-up faculty and an enthused Richmond region eager to be a partner over and over again.

Plenty of valuable lessons and best practices will pop up along the way to be examined and shared.

Skeptics will conclude that VCU can never be the University of Virginia or the College of William and Mary.

They will be right.

VCU just needs to be the new VCU.