Michael Rao, Ph.D.
New president engages donors in shared vision for VCU
For new Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao, Ph.D., running one of the state’s largest universities is a family affair.
His wife, Monica, and sons Miguel, 10, and Aiden, 1, each play an important role in helping him execute his presidential duties.
Frequently, the Raos host guests for dinner in their home or the children will accompany them to official events, such as the recent kickoff of the VCU Year of the Environment at the VCU Rice Center.
“Our family is important in our lives, and we have found that involving the family is very helpful in our work. In fundraising, for instance, we know that families give to families. There have been many occasions in which I can certify that people gave generously to the university because of a particular fondness for Monica or Miguel,” Dr. Rao said.
He extends that focus on family and personal priorities when getting to know donors, an experience he and Mrs. Rao especially enjoy. He values the relationships he builds with donors and recognizes that they want to feel involved and give to areas that hold personal importance to them.
“We are very grateful for the generosity of our donors and enjoy engaging in discussions with them about a shared vision for VCU. We look forward to them being an integral part of the vision,” he said.
That vision is, first and foremost, focused on strengthening the student experience while also raising the university’s profile as an urban research institution.
“Everything we do must be done in the context of strengthening the living and learning environment for our students to ensure their success,” he said.
Another important lesson President Rao learned in his years of working in public higher education involves the challenges of delivering world-class learning opportunities in troubled economic times. Sometimes, he said, a lack of resources makes “our challenges clearer” and inspires creative thinking and decisiveness.
“It is in these economic downturns that we find opportunities to position ourselves for the upswing that inevitably follows,” Dr. Rao said. “Sometimes the economic cycles are trying to tell us to rethink what we know today.”
In addition to focusing on the university’s mission to foster student success, his priorities include focusing on cancer research, treatment, prevention and control; strengthening the university’s national academic profile; and increasing sponsored research. Dr. Rao recognizes that these goals are resource-intensive. To that end, he proposes resource diversification, explaining that VCU cannot be too dependent on any one revenue source, including public funding.
“The funding equation is shifting,” he said. “State support, without question, is diminishing and other parts of the equation are now increasing. Universities throughout the country are facing similar situations.”
He suggests that as a public university, VCU must ensure that it has sufficient resources such as scholarships to recruit qualified and motivated students who will benefit from being at VCU. He is also very focused on increasing the size of the faculty.
“Aggressive scholarship fundraising campaigns with our alumni and friends — many of whom struggled financially when they were students and therefore understand the needs of our students — as well as looking at other ways to increase all of our revenues could help to minimize the nonscholarship portion of financial aid,” Dr. Rao said.
The president will look to VCU alumni and donors to take an active role in the VCU community, and he and Mrs. Rao will make a concerted effort in the coming year to travel around the state and the country to meet with these constituents.
“I have learned over the years that there is no university stronger than one that is engaged with active alumni, and we will be exploring ways to engage all alumni and friends as partners in shaping the future of this great institution,” he said.
The next step in the evolution of the university is to challenge its students to raise their expectations.
“It’s not pushing people beyond their limit. It’s basically saying, ‘This is where we want to be because we know we can get there.’ With students in particular, they will all rise to a higher level if you challenge them,” Dr. Rao said. “Even if they don’t all reach that highest level, they will all feel better for stretching themselves and that will set the tone for the rest of their lives. It will change the way they look at themselves as leaders in our communities. It will change the way they look at their degree and what it meant to them, their overall experience at VCU.”