After nearly five years as VCU president, Michael Rao is still working to balance state budget cuts and the lofty goals he set for the university with his Quest for Distinction strategic plan.
“I fear that we will soon hit a ceiling, in terms of what we can accomplish, if our resources do not match our talents and ambitions,” Rao told a crowd of about 175 administrators, faculty, staff and students at the W.E. Singleton Center on Thursday afternoon. The speech was the first formal State of the University address of Rao’s tenure as president.
Rao named fundraising his top priority in 2014, with money needed to provide more financial aid for students, better student services, continue expanding the university’s infrastructure and fund the VCU Medical Center adequately.
Of the $183 million Virginia budgeted for higher education, only $31 million is allotted for financial aid, Rao said. State schools with larger endowments can provide financial aid packages to attract top-notch students, but VCU is struggling to do the same, he added.
“We can no longer expect that the state will fund two-thirds of a student’s education. That’s what happened a generation ago,” Rao said. “Now, it’s closer to one-third.”
The university raised nearly $78 million in donations and pledges in 2012-13, the most in its history. Rao told the audience he was committed to “leveraging his presidency” to grow the university’s endowment, which he called “not competitive.”
“I get the privilege of being in this position. How do I make the most of it for VCU?” Rao said after the address. “Is it sitting in my office? No.”
Aside from financial aid, Rao stressed the importance of providing better advising and enrollment tools for students to promote success. The continued expansion of the Monroe Park Campus will also be a priority in 2014, he said. Renovations to Cabell Library are scheduled, and the Institute for Contemporary Art is slated to begin construction.
Rao praised his colleagues for their contributions to VCU’s reputation as an urban research institution. The university received nearly $250 million in sponsored research in 2012-13, he said, including two of its three largest grants ever.
In his remarks about the VCU Medical Center, Rao expressed concern about the possibility of losing up to $300 million in federal funds in a five-year period if Medicaid is not expanded. The loss would jeopardize a $70 million contribution the VCU Health System makes to the School of Medicine each year, he said.