2015-16 University Annual Report


What would Virginia Commonwealth University be without “yes”?

What would Virginia Commonwealth University be without Yes?

A small but profound word, “yes” makes all the difference in the work we do. It empowers us. Ignites our imaginations. And strengthens our partnerships. Together, let’s celebrate some of the “yes” moments that led to so many outstanding achievements in FY 2016.

Michael Rao's signature Michael Rao, Ph.D.
President, VCU and VCU Health

When there’s a “yes,” voices are heard.

At VCU, we put our grit to work to achieve real results for some of the most pressing issues facing our nation. From speaking out against injustice to improving care for the region’s children and aging populations to changing the way homeless are helped, we aren’t afraid to challenge the norm.

November 2015: After VCU students held protests advocating for social justice, President Rao hosted a forum on diversity and inclusion with more than 400 faculty, staff and students in person and another 100 participating online. Together, we launched a universitywide conversation that continued throughout the year, helping to shape the university’s multi-year Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan.

Can everyone play? Yes.

“You Can Play” campaign

There’s a national movement underway. LGBTQIA+ athletes are teaming up with straight allies for respect. At VCU, faculty and staff leaders launched a survey to understand the current climate of diversity, equality and inclusiveness within our athletics teams. The findings showed a small percentage of athletes perceived a negative environment, but more than half had heard negative comments. They saw an opportunity for awareness among players and coaches. “You Can Play” launched. And VCU Athletics, with the help of the university’s leadership team, took the message a step further: to promote and support VCU’s mission of diversity and inclusion everywhere. That message was sent loud and clear at VCU’s sporting events, including annual PRIDE games where the athletes warm up in PRIDE shirts and staff provide LGBTQIA+ resources and support information. And our teams embraced it, participating in Safe Zone training where they learn how they can help make our campus a safer and freer environment for all members of our community.

More than 200 student-athletes, faculty and staff from the Athletics Department participated in Safe Zone training to understand and support the unique needs of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Can we change the way we serve homeless people? Yes.


Kevin Amir Ghaffari, Class of 2015 and currently pursuing a master’s in biology, decided Richmond needed an organization that helps homeless people in a more holistic fashion. The strategy was to help a small number of candidates at a time, but focus on meeting all of that candidate’s needs (e.g., temporary and permanent housing, job search assistance, substance abuse and mental health counseling, transportation and just about anything else). Within months, he started I RISE, obtained 501©(3) nonprofit status, recruited 20 other VCU students to help and began to line up grants, including a community grant from the Walmart Foundation. Now I RISE includes more than 100 active members and has helped three candidates.

I RISE includes more than 100 active members, including VCU students, and continues to recruit candidates.

Can dance overcome ageism? Yes.


Music booming. Hearts pounding. Twenty VCU students and 10 senior adults — ranging in age from 20 to 88 — mirror one another’s motions as they dance to the beat. They are part of PALETTE in Motion, the dance component of an intergenerational arts program that partners VCU students with senior adults in the community to collaborate on creative projects. It provides a forum for future health care professionals and older adults to build meaningful relationships outside of the usual medical model. As they learn together about artistic expression, they transcend the generational divide that often leads to ageism and gerontophobia. And older adults learn about aging gracefully.

PALETTE integrates five VCU schools: Allied Health Professions, Arts, Dentistry, Pharmacy and Social Work.

Can children be at the center of care? Yes.

The children’s pavilion

At 640,000 square feet, the new Children’s Pavilion was no small feat. And children are at the center of it all. With the opening of the Richmond region’s largest, most advanced outpatient facility dedicated to children, families can say goodbye to the days of hopping from clinic to clinic to see various specialists in different buildings. The new pavilion brings the various clinics, lab testing, dialysis, infusions, same-day surgery and family-friendly amenities under one roof. It was a vision informed by a changing health care landscape, which indicated that the demand for outpatient children’s health services will outpace the need for inpatient care. And it was a vision inspired by our unrelenting commitment to make the patient and family experience second to none.

The Children’s Pavilion includes 83 exam rooms arranged in clinic pods to optimize a multidisciplinary model of care.

When there’s a “yes,” imaginations flourish.

At VCU, we thrive on believing anything is possible and nothing is impossible. From dissolving barriers through digital literacy and designing medical breakthroughs to launching student start-ups and capturing the sound of a culture, we know no limit.

The $50.8 million James Branch Cabell Library expansion and renovation project transformed a place of stacks into a place of discovery, including the media studio that features a variety of maker tools and technology, such as 3-D printers and scanners, laser cutters and robotics.

Can our idea generate a business? Yes.

Urban Choice Mushroom Farm

A VCU student duo’s venture, Urban Choice Mushroom Farm, has blossomed into Richmond’s only urban gourmet mushroom farm, thanks in part to VCU’s Pre-Accelerator Program. Jake Greenbaum, VCU business Class of 2015, and Lindsay Hawk, a junior majoring in sculpture, are satisfying a growing demand for fresh, local mushrooms. How? Most mushrooms consumed on the East Coast come from a single county in Pennsylvania. Urban Choice cuts that distribution time by growing them indoors right here in the city.

Through Venture Creation University, 24 teams formed companies — 75 percent were women or minority led — that together have created 29 full- or part-time jobs and have generated more than $1 million in total revenue, grants and investments.

Can we prevent Lyme disease? Yes.

New vaccine approved for dogs

Ticks. They are a pest to our furry friends. They also play a big role in the cause of Lyme disease. One in every 16 dogs tested will receive a positive diagnosis of Lyme disease because of the bacteria transmitted by ticks. If not diagnosed and treated early, Lyme disease can potentially be a lethal infection. According to Richard T. Marconi, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and immunology, the best approach to minimizing disease in canines as well as in humans is to block infection in the first place. And he co-developed a way to do just that: in January 2016 VANGUARD® crLyme, licensed to Zoetis, became available to the public through veterinarians. What’s next? Marconi and his team are now working to develop a human Lyme disease vaccine and new diagnostic tests for Lyme disease.

VCU’s research activity increased from $227 million in sponsored research in 2007 to $271 million in FY 2016 — a 19 percent increase in 10 years.

Can we bring Internet-based learning to impoverished nations? Yes.

Digital literacy to students in Haiti

No textbooks. No training materials. None. Nabeel Janjua, an economics and information systems major, teamed up with associate professor Manoj Thomas, Ph.D., in the School of Business to bring internet-style learning to Haiti and to help increase digital literacy in the impoverished nation. But how? Janjua sought solutions and helped adapt Internet-in-a-Box, an open-source alternative internet for those who don’t have online access; a computer on a stick, a self-contained USB bootable Linux operating system that can be plugged into any laptop; and software tutorials to teach basic technology skills to students. Five days, more than 300+ students and teachers, five different schools. Janjua gave tutorials and opened the world to these students and teachers. What’s next? Proposing the data to Google’s Project Loon, a network of balloons designed to connect people in remote locations to the internet.

Nabeel Janjua taught software tutorials to 300 students and teachers at five Haitian schools in five days as part of his undergraduate research project.

Can a lost sound be saved? Yes.


The traditional stringed rubab, its technique, sounds and importance in Afghan culture was about to be lost for future Afghan generations. But no more. Sulaiman Popal (B.F.A. ’15), a music alumnus who, along with Matthew Hill (B.S. ’14), a computer science alumnus, developed RealRaag. The two teamed up two years ago to develop their idea with a research grant from the School of the Arts. By spring 2015, the app launched and became available in the Apple Store. Now, Popal is in Kabul where he’s working with rubab masters to add tutorials and educational materials to RealRaag, relaying the information to Hill, who’s now in Los Angeles working as a music studio engineer.

RealRaag is the first simulation app for the rubab, a lute-like musical instrument originating from central Afghanistan.

When there’s a “yes,” partnerships strengthen.

Better together is an understatement to what has happened when we partner with the communities we serve. People are healthier. Education soars. And eyes open to the future.

VCU is integrated into the fabric of Richmond, and this relationship very much shapes the VCU experience. Our students consistently contribute more than 1 million hours of service each year. In the 2014-15 academic year, they performed a record 1,462,854 hours.

Can we reduce obesity? Yes.

Wellness Engagement

Health outcomes were looking bleak in Petersburg, Virginia. The locality ranked 131 out of 133 in the state. Its adult obesity rate was 36 percent, higher than the national and state rates. An intervention was needed. The community wanted it and wanted something sustainable. Associate professor Maghboeba Mosavel, Ph.D., agreed. She with members of the Petersburg community, several nonprofits, community partners, Pathways, the Petersburg YMCA, Crater Health District, several VCU schools and the Virginia State University Cooperative Extension launched WE, the Petersburg Wellness Engagement Project. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, WE conducted an extensive needs assessment. It wasn’t the typical research project with a set finish. It was a start. Results included walking groups, partnerships, wellness ambassadors, capacity building, grassroot efforts and academic reports. But the real result? The formation of the Petersburg Wellness Consortium, an independent, volunteer-run coalition of more than 30 community partners working to nourish a culture of health and continue work well into the future.

The Petersburg Wellness Engagement program trained more than 20 community members to be researcher, developed community partnerships, created GIS asset maps and initiated 10 walking groups that logged 750,000 miles.

Can we provide free mental health services to those without? Yes.

Safety net collaborative

Three of Richmond’s safety net primary care clinics found they could not meet the mental health needs of their patients — the city’s most vulnerable and medically underserved populations. They needed a solution. But what? And how at little or no cost? Psychology professor Bruce Rybarczyk, Ph.D. had an answer: embedding his doctoral trainees in primary care clinics where patients could easily access services. Now one of the largest programs of its kind in the U.S., the VCU Primary Care Psychology Training Network has trained more than 85 doctoral students in recent years. These trainees have delivered more than 10,000 pro bono sessions. And the patients are getting the access to the care they need.

A $1 million U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant will more than double the capacity of the VCU Primary Care Psychology Training Network to provide more than 15,000 sessions of pro bono services during the next three years.

Can we solve our future environmental challenges? Yes.

Team Warbler

Connecting to the outdoors is the idea area middle school teacher Anne Moore and a VCU consortium — led by faculty Cathy Viverette, Ph.D., and Lesley Bullock, Ph.D. — had to help students understand the science behind nature. They are Team Warbler. They study the prothonotary warbler, a migratory bird that breeds along rivers that feed into the Chesapeake Bay and spends winters in Panama. Studying these birds gives the students insight into population genetics, disease, migration ecology, and climate change. Moore’s students have been hands on, from collecting data on nest predation rates to designing and building nest boxes used at VCU’s long-term study sites along the James River. And President Barack Obama noticed, naming Moore one of 15 environmental educators nationwide to receive the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators.

More than 600 nesting boxes have been installed in tidal freshwater regions of the James River.

Can we better support our students and faculty? Yes.

Make It Real Campaign for VCU

Growing up in Jamaica, Shadae Anderson, witnessed a severe lack of dental care in her own community. She made it her mission to fill that need. The scholarship she received has allowed her to pursue her dental degree and will help her one day start a practice back home. Making an impact is what we do and we know we can’t do it alone. In fall 2016, we launched the Make It Real Campaign for VCU, our most ambitious fundraising initiative … ever. Together with our alumni, faculty, staff, neighbors and community partners, we aim to raise $750 million dollars to support people, like Anderson, fund innovations and enhance environments.

VCU launched its largest fundraising campaign, Make It Real Campaign for VCU, in September 2016 with a goal of $750 million.

When there’s a “yes,” possibilities are infinite.

“Yes” allows us to reimagine a premier, research university. To redefine the university of the 21st century. To look ahead.

The new 12-story, 360,000-square-foot Gladding Residence Center will increase VCU’s housing capacity by 600 beds. The project will also include a 40,000-square-foot landscaped courtyard and will incorporate the historic Branch Bathhouse.

Facilities on the horizon

Gladding Residence Center

Ground broke on the $96 million project that will demolish and replace the current Gladding Residence Center I and II with a 12-story, 360,000-square-foot residence hall for 1,524 students, an increase of 600 beds. The center, expected to open fall 2018, will consist of traditional housing and semi-suites.

Allied Health Professions

The $87.3 million, 154,100-square-foot facility will unite — through curriculum and design — the school’s academic units, the dean’s office and the Virginia Center on Aging, which have occupied 13 buildings in the past 45 years and are now scattered among five buildings on two campuses. (Pictured.)

VCU Health Strategic Master Site Plan

VCU Health System Board of Directors approved the next phase of the comprehensive strategic facility and capital funding plan to realize our vision of VCU Health as the premier academic health center on the East Coast — reinventing our physical landscape to provide the best patient experience and environment for clinical care, education and research.

Q&A: Meredith Weiss, Ph.D.

Vice president for administration

VCU has set out to design a new HR plan that will help make VCU an even greater place — a place of opportunity, where the success of our employees is supported and their careers thrive. Meredith Weiss, Ph.D., gives her take on this great place initiative.

Q: What does a great place mean to you?
A: Taking great care of our employees and creating an atmosphere where everyone can be successful, enjoys working and is appreciated and celebrated for who they are and their unique contributions to VCU is what a great place means to me. Creating this environment is tremendously important — it forms the basis for all the exciting and important things we will do together.

Q: How will the HR Redesign transform the VCU experience?
A: The redesign will help us attract, develop and retain exceptional employees by creating a positive, kind, psychologically safe work environment in which people from all backgrounds, abilities, perspectives and experiences contribute, are valued, are engaged and enjoy working. We’ll be investing more in training and development to support each professional’s growth; recognizing, valuing and celebrating contributions from individuals and teams; aligning individual and university goals; growing leaders throughout the organization and so much more.

Q: Why is now the right time to make these changes?
A: The current state classified system was developed more than 100 years ago and is not the type of HR program that today’s — and tomorrow’s — higher education workforce is expecting and deserves. It’s time to modernize our HR practices.

Q&A: Karol Gray

Vice president for budget and finance

The planning and budgeting process in higher education takes strategy, collaboration and transparency. Karol Gray gives her perspective on what a transparent and inclusive budget process looks like with an eye toward the future.

Q: What does this change mean for VCU?
A: The new budget model will facilitate an academic entrepreneurial spirit, create a multiyear plan and provide more engagement aligned with our strategic goals.

Q: What does it mean to have a transparent and inclusive process?
A: We are striving for a transparent and inclusive process both in developing the new budget model and making strategic decisions. The new budget model is being developed at the working group level reporting upward to senior administration instead of a traditional top-down approach.

Q: Why is now the right time to make this change?
A: The current model no longer fits our needs. VCU is joining a wide array of higher education institutions that are moving from the more traditional, incremental budget to one that is more strategic and inclusive. We need a model that will provide more detailed information for deans and vice presidents to better understand revenue streams and expenditures so that they can make the best strategic decisions to advance our mission.

Meet Jonel Jones

Class of 2020

I was from a small school in a small town. When I first saw Richmond, I knew I wanted to come to VCU. The city is extremely artistic. It is very creative. And there is so much energy. It felt right then. Now that I am here, I know it is right.

It’s about connections.

I’m in TRiO, a program for first-generation and low-income students. That program led me to a work-study job at a theater. And that work led me to my first audition.

There’s so much opportunity here.

I identify as gay. So in a small town, I never had much experience in the LGBTQIA+ community. And then I came here. Two friends told me about the Lavender Empowerment Summit. I applied and got in. That empowerment summit makes me feel like I am becoming a leader — helping me to step up my leadership skills.

I don’t have time to be shy. Life is going by. So I need to walk tall and walk toward life confidently. That is what I am learning, and that is how I am going to become who I want to be.

2015-16 University Annual Report
2015-16 University Annual Report
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