Michael Rao
News & Media

Michael Rao

President, Virginia Commonwealth University

Describe your university in three words. Innovative. Energetic. Diverse.

What is your proudest accomplishment as leader of your university? It has not been my accomplishment alone, but the rapid rise of our student success metrics has been the story of VCU over the last decade. Since 2008, we have raised our six-year graduation rate by 37 percent. We award about 50 percent more degrees and certificates than we did a decade ago. We closed the gaps in graduation rate among historically underrepresented students, including Pell recipients. At the same time, we have seen 71 percent more students engaging in service learning, the high school GPA of our first-year class has increased, and we enroll eight percent more underrepresented students. I’m proud of this because it tells a unique story of student access combined with student success that really defines VCU’s mission.

Similarly, working together, our medical team has improved our patient satisfaction rate by 17 percent in just five years. I’m proud of this because it places us among the top hospitals in the country in terms of patient experience, which is important modeling for students who will become health professionals providing life-changing and life-saving care to people.

How do you stay engaged with students on campus? I love engaging with our students; it is, without question, my favorite thing to do. They inspire me and remind me why I love being positioned to advance higher education to the next level.

Beginning with our Move-In Day, which is the first VCU experience for many of our students, I am visible and supportive. Many of our students are first-generation university students, so I work to welcome them and their families into the VCU family. I meet several times a year with the many different groups that represent our 32,000 students. I invite students to lunch several times a semester to listen to their concerns and needs so I can help make their experience at VCU the best it can be. I also regularly lecture students in our College of Health Professions, where I am a professor, and I invite student interaction through social media.

I also take every opportunity I can—both scheduled and unscheduled—simply to walk across campus, visit with students, and remind them that my door is always open to them. They are the soul of our university.

What’s your favorite university tradition? Commencement. It is why we do what we do. It is the most inspiring day in the life of any university and its president.

What is your favorite way to spend your free time? With my wife and my sons, who center and recharge me, especially during hectic times. Richmond is a wonderful place to raise a family because it’s filled with history, art, culture, nature, kind and diverse people, and sensational food with roots across the globe. Our family enjoys spending time together in the community we love.

If you could have dinner with three celebrities, who would they be and why? I’m not sure that you would call them celebrities, but three people from history I admire are Mahatma Gandhi and Richmond and American icons John Marshall and Maggie Walker. They were remarkably courageous and passionate individuals, and any leader would benefit from studying their examples.

What makes your university great? The relentless drive of our diverse people to shape the human experience. Our faculty, staff, students, and alumni are creative, innovative, entrepreneurial, and wholly committed to using their resources and talents to solve complex problems that humanity faces. They are also collaborative, cooperative, and dedicated to the success of each other. There is a great sense of pride for what we do together for the benefit of many, but there is little ego about it.

What experience best prepared you to lead a public research university? My own college experience. I grew up in a very small community then attended a large public research university similar to VCU. It was singularly life changing. From my first day on campus, I felt the energy and passion of a public research university and knew immediately that I wanted to spend my career in this kind of environment, where important things happen—things that were often thought to be impossible before—to the benefit of humanity everywhere.

I was fortunate to become a college president at age 28, so I have spent literally half my life in leadership in public education. There is nothing I would rather do.

If you could travel to one place you’ve never visited, where would it be and why? I have had the great pleasure of traveling all over the world representing VCU. I think I might like to rest!

What is a favorite book you’ve read? I always read the books written by my VCU faculty colleagues, on topics ranging from art to social justice to medicine. I keep them on a shelf in my office. My faculty colleagues are brilliant scholars, and I marvel at the ways they push the boundaries of human knowledge.