5. Michael Rao 

President of Virginia Commonwealth University

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
Last year’s lingering concern over Rao’s longevity seems to have evaporated. The academic profile of the school continues to rise. So does its footprint in Richmond, making VCU — already the biggest employer within city limits — the city’s best immediate prospect for inner-city economic development. Rao unveiled plans this year for a $20 million Institute of Contemporary Art at Broad and Belvidere streets. The design is modern, flashy and will transform a once-blighted corner. At the same time, he and the university refused to bend on the local debate to build a freestanding children’s hospital. The way things stand, VCU’s hospital system seems to have beaten off the threat of competition spurred by billionaire Bill Goodwin. And on the sports side, the continued success of head basketball coach Shaka Smart continues to provide Rao with cover from any remaining critics — along with a tangible sense of accomplishment.

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