Ram Roads 

While Virginia Commonwealth University experienced two decades of go-go growth, its academic reputation sagged. Can President Michael Rao turn things around?

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NEAR THE GRAND stairwell at the Scott House on Franklin Street, in the heart of the Monroe Campus of Virginia Commonwealth University, Monica Rao signals to her young son, who has been busy with homework, to come to her.

Wearing sandals, the boy breezes past scores of alumni in business attire, sipping wine and cocktails in the American renaissance mansion. His father, Michael Rao, who has been VCU president since July 2009, gets ready for his pep talk to the alumni association.

The thin man in a dark suit speaks confidently about the anemic economic climate and drastic state budget cuts as he lays out his vision for the university. “We need to be much more competitive and we will be,” he assures the crowd while touting ambitious plans for improving academic performance, expanding research, establishing a broader alumni support network, increasing professors' pay and demanding a “culture of excellence.”

Although he pays homage to several of VCU's new buildings, the bricks-and-mortar mindset that has defined the university's growth during the last two decades is curiously gone. So, too, is Eugene P. Trani, the empire builder who was president for 19 years before Rao took over after a national search.

The two men couldn't be more different. Trani is a fireball of a man who bulldozed his way into Richmond's neighborhoods on two downtown campuses, erecting gleaming buildings — new engineering and business schools, dormitories and other institutional amenities. While the university's presence in the city grew, so too did Trani's influence in city and state politics, as the diminutive academic pushed his way into the upper echelon of Richmond power brokers.

A historian by training, Trani kept a tight lid on faculty dissent. Sixteen months into his tenure, Rao has earned a reputation as far more inclusive and a better listener.

 

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VCU President Michael Rao is focusing on academics, pushing the university beyond its bricks-and-mortar mindset. Photo by Ash Daniel.

“He's a breath of fresh air after Trani,” says one faculty member who asks not to be identified, noting that an era of de-Tranization has begun.

Yet Rao draws criticism of his own. Some people see him as painstakingly slow-moving, even though he's been president of two other schools and should know how to lead. There's talk that he's taking too long to hire his own staff and that he's had to rely heavily on his new rector, Anne G. “Panny” Rhodes, to take him under her wing and help him master the intricacies of university and General Assembly politics.

“No, that's not true,” says Rhodes, who's been on the Board of Visitors since 2003 and is a former Republican state delegate. “He's had a very fast start. I have lived in Richmond for 40 years and he's new to Virginia.”

Others say a more fair comparison would be to examine how Trani performed during his first years as president. Trani also moved slowly, having come to the university shortly after VCU announced plans to expand into Oregon Hill, a move that was met with fierce community resistance. (Trani later shifted those expansion plans north, across West Broad Street.)

Rao took charge amid the worst recession since the 1930s and had to deal head-on with a severe financial crunch. He's also had to navigate a flotsam of Trani's old battles. There were fights with preservationists over the medical campus expansion; and with black politicians and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People after the university began using what historians say is a former slave burial ground in Shockoe Bottom as a parking lot. Trani's ambitions to build up a biotechnology park led to questionable and secretive contracts with Philip Morris USA and brought the school unfavorable national publicity.

The building explosion came while academic standards seemed to get less attention. In 1999, the National Institutes of Health prohibited the Medical College of Virginia from performing research on human beings after a privacy controversy. MCV's international reputation as a cutting-edge center for cardiac surgery and heart transplants suffered. And VCU got a black eye for granting Richmond's former police chief Rodney Monroe a bachelor's degree after taking just two classes at the university.

Comparisons with Trani's hard-charging style are difficult to avoid. “Gene is in a different place and was focusing on a lot of external things,” says Thomas G. Rosenthal, the rector before Rhodes, who led the search for Trani's successor and worked with Rao for his first several months in office. “I thought he did a pretty damned good job,” Rosenthal says of Rao. “Mike is a pretty good manager and Gene certainly was.”


 

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During the last 20 years VCU, now with 32,000 students, has become the state's largest university. It's also become a major force in the city, politically and economically. Photo by Ash Daniel.

RAO WAS THE winner among 40 applicants for Trani's job. It was clear from the start that Rao was a good fit, Rosenthal says. After Trani's massive plant expansion “the university needed to work on the academic side,” Rosenthal says. “The board spent a tremendous amount of time on this. Our classes have grown larger. If you are in a class with 200 others, it's just not the same experience.”

Rao made a favorable impression when he interviewed for the job. He was young — only 42 — and had been president at two universities, Mission College in Santa Clara, Calif., and Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant. CMU had some similarities with VCU. Both are large state universities with vast populations — CMU has 20,000 students to VCU's 32,000 — and seek to shed reputations as academic lightweights.

Rao is credited with starting a new medical school designed to help improve health standards in rural Michigan, improving diversity, and boosting academic standards and research funding. Through selective coach hires, he also revived CMU's sagging football team, an achievement that might give heart to sports fans at VCU, which hasn't had a football team since the 1960s. Rao, however, has said the university can't afford football in today's tough economic times.
Unlike Trani, Rao is seen as having a quieter, more introspective temperament honed by personal tragedy. His father, an Indian-born physician and radiology resident at Boston University, died when Rao was 4 years old. He had to assume responsibilities beyond his age, according to some accounts.

Leaving cosmopolitan Boston, his family moved to Pasco County, Fla., a rural area in the coastal saw grass country about an hour north of Tampa. Rao lived a Mayberry existence by spending leisurely hours talking with neighbors. Raised Catholic, he attended a school run by nuns.

Short of funds, he won a scholarship to the University of South Florida in Tampa. Talented in mathematics, he found his calling in chemistry, specializing in the research of hyper-branched polymers which are used to help deliver drugs in human bodies, and in phenothiazine drugs, which are used to treat psychosis.

At South Florida, he also found he had a knack for fundraising — working phone banks and contacting alumni for donations. He later earned a doctorate in higher education administration at the University of Florida, which launched his career as a college administrator at Montana State University-Northern, where he became chancellor, and then Mission College and Central Michigan.

He was only 34 when he took CMU's top job in 2000. Perhaps foreshadowing his VCU experience, Rao is regarded as having started slowly at CMU and “towards the end he was viewed in a more positive light,” says Jackie Smith, a CMU junior who is editor in chief of Central Michigan Life, the student newspaper and website.

 

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Some worry that Michael Rao is moving too slowly. Others say he's just what the university needed after 19 years of bull rushing under Eugene Trani. Photo by Ash Daniel.

He took his time building relationships as he took on reforms such as beefing up interdisciplinary academic programs, expanding faculty and fundraising, and pushing economic development by helping commercialize university research. “People spoke of him very well,” Smith says. “He remembered who you were and what you did. I wouldn't say he was quiet; he was very, very outgoing.”

So gregarious was Rao, Smith says, that when he traveled he would look up CMU alumni living near his destination and contact them. “He was very good at reaching out to people,” she says.

A crowning achievement was Rao's shepherding CMU's new College of Medicine, the fourth medical school in the state. It broke ground for its first building earlier this year and expects to have its first class in 2012.

Rao also is noted for not continuing the so-called CMU “promise,” which held that students would never have to face tuition hikes. Some say he was merely facing financial realities while others criticized him for ending what had been a popular draw for the school.

Rao accepted the VCU offer even though he'd just renewed his contract in Michigan. He wanted a bigger challenge. Plus, the money was better — a lot better. In his last year at CMU he was paid $302,357. His new salary in Richmond is $488,500, not including $66,500 in deferred compensation and a $60,000 stipend for housing. In addition, he received a $275,000 signing bonus, although $200,000 must be paid back if he leaves within five years.


WITH A STARTING package totaling a whopping $890,000, Rao is under strong pressure to perform, especially because his pay is outsized compared with that of his famous predecessor. When he retired in July 2009 after 19 years as president, Trani was receiving $549,846 in total compensation. Rao's total starting pay even exceeds the salary of John T. Casteen, who left his 20-year presidency at the University of Virginia this summer with a final salary of $797,048.

Despite the big bucks, some sources say that Rao has been sluggish building up his inner circle of administrators to help him implement changes. “He's trying to get his bearings and is still trying to figure out the people part,” according to one knowledgeable source.

One of Rao's first hires was Wayne M. Turnage, former chief of staff to former Gov. Tim Kaine who left office early this year. Turnage manages Rao's office and is responsible for overseeing the university's strategic goals. Other administrative positions remain unfilled, however, including a new vice president for development.

 

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Many hope Rao will restore the national reputation of VCU Health System, formerly the Medical College of Virginia, which was once known as one  of the top medical colleges in the country. Photo by Scott Elmquist.

One of Turnage's missions is to help oversee a reform road map detailed in a 12-page report released in August called “VCU 2020, A Recalibration of a Vision for Excellence.” The goals are lofty, calling for developing a “rigorous academic program” and providing a “world-class learning experience that fosters discovery and innovation in a global environment.” Another aim is to enhance the university's “pre-eminence as a public research university” and to “significantly increase and diversify the university's sponsored research.” The document also outlines a goal to “become a national model for community engagement and regional impact.”

Besides apparently being slow in hiring staff, Rao seems to have been hampered by turnover on the Board of Visitors. This summer, five new members — some of them big political contributors to Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell — were appointed to replace others who left after their term limits expired. “We just got a new class of board members and Rao will have to figure them out,” a source says. (Maurice Jones, president and publisher of Style Weekly's parent company, serves on the Board of Visitors.)

Another factor affecting Rao's first year was that he took over the university presidency during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. VCU's operating budget, totaling more than $892 million for the 2010-'11 school year, was under pressure as the state, short of tax revenue, cut funding for higher education.

For most of the past decade, the state paid about half of the university's needs, former rector Rosenthal notes. Now the state funds about 35 percent of the school's teaching with student tuition and fees making up 54 percent, according to VCU spokeswoman Pamela DiSalvo Lepley. The remaining 11 percent comes from grants, contracts, sales and services. “VCU will have lost nearly one-third of state funding targeted for instruction between 2008 and 2011,” she says.

In April the Board of Visitors increased student tuition to $8,817 for in-state students and $21,949 for out-of-state students. Even though that's still a bargain compared to what other, better-regarded state schools such as the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary charge, the 24-percent increase was one of the largest ever for the school.

The tuition increases, however, will help the school close its $35 million budget gap and allow the university to hire 94 faculty members to help ease the growing burden of classroom size and open up an additional 300 new classes. “It's very difficult to have cuts since 90 percent of our students are Virginia students,” Lepley says. “We don't rely on out-of-state students who pay more.”

Yet if Rao is going to look beyond current, post-recession budget pressures, he'll be under the gun to hire more big-name faculty members and find research dollars that could help restore the university's medical school and hospital to their former international status.

The university declined to make Rao available for an interview. But the president notes in written responses to questions submitted from Style Weekly that VCU received a total of $255 million in sponsored research awards this past fiscal year, including funding from the National Institutes of Health that exceeds $100 million for fiscal year 2010. This summer it won a $20 million grant, its largest ever, from NIH to join a consortium to turn laboratory discoveries into treatments for patients. Other universities involved are Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Stanford, he says, and VCU is the only school in Virginia to win the Clinical and Translational Science Award, a four-year-old initiative to push medical research from the lab to the hospital bed.

 

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Former VCU President Eugene Trani announced his retirement in August 2008, on the heels of the degree scandal involving former Police Chief Rodney Monroe, and news of secretive research contracts with Philip Morris USA.  Photo by Scott Elmquist.

The university, however, has a long way to go to become a true research and development powerhouse. Overall it ranks 108th in the nation in research funding, according to the National Science Foundation. The ranking reveals both VCU's base and how far it has to go. For example, VCU and the Richmond area lag considerably behind research dynamos such as the Raleigh-Durham area in North Carolina, which features Duke University (No. 7 in research in the country), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University. Corporations sometimes shun Richmond because they find better schools and a stronger research and development bases in places such as the Carolina Piedmont.

Duke recently announced that it's won a total of $200 million in research grants in the past year, some of it from President Barack Obama's economic stimulus program. The nearby Research Triangle, including Duke and other schools, won another $287 million in research grants in the past year. Duke's total research runs upward of $800 million a year — which is quite a long yardstick for Rao.

The new president, meanwhile, shows little affinity for corporate Richmond. He has no presence on any corporate boards, while Trani was a director of two, including global tobacco dealer Universal Corp.

While Rao has made no indication of planning to join corporate boards, he says he's very much concerned about staying connected to the community: “The most important thing I can do as president is to be involved in the right places at the right times and to encourage members of our team to do the same so that personally and collectively we bring the greatest overall good to Richmond and to the entire state.”

It could be that Rao's biggest challenge is one of timing. Not facing the same financial problems, Trani took VCU several steps up the ladder from urban commuter school to one that boasts of having one of the best art and nurse anesthesiology programs of any public university in the country.

Rao's goals are to take VCU to the next level, but to do that he needs money. He's busy learning the lobbying maze of the General Assembly — something Trani excelled at — and has a number of new fundraising initiatives. Rao may be off to a slow start, and with his outsized salary and signing bonus the heat is on for him to produce.

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