That Richmond's most powerful and successful developer during the past two decades is not a developer speaks volumes about the legacy of Virginia Commonwealth University's president, Eugene P. Trani.
The man who transformed the heart of downtown Richmond announced last week that his own heart troubles — and not an embarrassing series of scandals that have plagued him and his institution since the spring — led to his decision to call it quits.
Trani will step down officially in July. Some observers had expected the news for well over a month, even before the emergency heart surgery. Still, its delivery sent shockwaves through Richmond's power pool.
On the heels of Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's decision in June not to seek re-election, Trani's departure leaves Richmond with a sudden, gaping leadership void. Unlike the shakeup at City Hall, where Wilder's star lieutenants, former Police Chief Rodney Monroe and Chief Administrative Officer Sheila Hill-Christian, have already left, Trani was the city's most reliable constant. For years, his power has been absolute, largely unchallenged by even his harshest critics.
He was, in many respects, everything Wilder wanted to be: an unflinching autocrat who used his power and influence to rejuvenate a city that had lost its confidence. If he didn't pioneer the current renaissance of redevelopment in Richmond's long-neglected neighborhoods and the wave of new condos and people moving back to the city, he offered the blueprint with VCU.
When residents in Oregon Hill balked at VCU's plan to expand across the Downtown Expressway, Trani built the Siegel Center north of Broad Street and erected student housing in Carver. He hopped across Belvidere into a barren Monroe Ward and kick-started Jackson Ward with the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park on Leigh Street.
His development vision found followers and believers in the business community and in the political arena. Trani is not just any player; he's a critical link, a peg in the city's most powerful triumvirate of the last four years: the VCU president, Mayor Wilder and billionaire William H. Goodwin Jr.
Trani always got what he wanted, it seemed, whether it was a cool $75 million from Goodwin for a new business school or millions in state dollars from the General Assembly.
“When Gene decides he wants to express himself, he does it very effectively,” Goodwin once told Style. “Gene Trani is an excellent, excellent speaker and salesman for what he wants to get done.”
Trani is a doer, and in so doing often closed the door (slammed it shut, perhaps) on dissent and disagreement within the university ranks and surrounding communities.
While events unfolded on campus during the past few months — first, former Chief Monroe's ill-begotten, six-hour degree, then a firestorm of criticism about the university's cozy partnership with Philip Morris USA — the proverbial floodgates opened. Trani found himself reeling from an outpouring of internal angst at VCU, his critics emboldened with solid evidence of his one, debilitating flaw.
The academic health of the university, many people believe, had taken a back seat to Trani's vision for the university. The debtors had come to collect.
As for Trani's health, “It's a perfect metaphor for the university he's built,” says Deirdre Condit, a tenured professor who serves as the president of the College of Humanities and Sciences faculty council. “After 18 years, we have this body that looks like it is healthy, but nobody's attended to its heart.”
The previously impenetrable faAade that Trani built over 20 years is guarded by a closely knit team of lieutenants and a historically malleable board of visitors, which Trani has until recently commanded with deft and authority.
His path to power started early. Trani parlayed his lobbying skills in the General Assembly to tap into the upper echelon of state government. In the mid-1990s, VCU became an economic development tool when Trani's team dusted off a long-shelved plan to build an engineering school and resurrected it as a perk to lure Motorola Inc. to West Creek in Goochland County. Ditto for the biotech park behind the Richmond Coliseum, which became a powerful bridge to budding biotechnology firms and state agencies, giving VCU even more leverage on Capitol Square.
He hired ranking state cabinet heads, including former Secretary of Commerce Robert Skunda under Gov. George Allen to lead the biotech park, and former state Secretary of Finance Paul Timmreck under both Wilder and Allen as VCU's chief finance and administrative officer.
Trani's decision to retreat from a plan to expand into Oregon Hill shortly after becoming president in 1990 and push the university north of Broad Street into Carver is largely hailed as one of Richmond's defining moments. It led to a resurgence of sorts in a long-neglected part of town prone to drugs and poverty, so much so that it lured Kroger Co. to build a grocery store just off Lombardy Street.
It was a move that helped define Trani's importance to the city's business community.
“VCU through his leadership has probably been, if not the driving force, maybe one of two or three driving forces in the resurgence of the urban core,” says Robert Englander, president of the Cathford Group Inc., a local development firm. “There's no question that his movement and growth of the university into a first-class university has created substantial development opportunities for the private sector.”
Some of Trani's vision, Englander says, can be attributed to the right tools being handed to the right person at the right time. Trani took the helm of an urban university — theretofore a commuter school drawing primarily on the surrounding communities for students — and saw trends. He realized the nationwide push toward college-prep for high-school students, for example, was an opportunity to serve customers who would in turn build the local economy. Urban universities in other towns have seen similar growth, but few with the come-from-behind success of VCU.
“Those forward-thinking university presidents like Trani have served not only their universities well, but also their communities,” Englander says. He also notes that Trani's skills beyond “bricks and mortar” have made him successful at courting business interests and even far-ranging political interests to his cause: “He has forged relationships with foreign countries.”
It's a strength that's also a weakness, according to another prominent member of the Richmond business community, unwilling to be named because of his close association with community leaders who work with Trani. “The man has no heart and has no soul,” he says. “His office wall is full of pictures of senators and congressmen. If you're not one of those, you don't rate.”
Such bold visions don't come easy. And rarely do they morph into reality without sacrifice. For all of Trani's development prowess, there's been a long-festering belief among tenured professors and faculty that academics, in some respects, have taken a back seat to VCU, the community developer. The voices grew louder four years ago when Trani announced plans to tear down the historic West Hospital on East Broad Street, the majestic art-deco hospital where the Medical College of Virginia Hospitals became a national powerhouse.
While preservationists howled, the plan also became further proof to critics that Trani had no room for MCV's storied reputation, or in the larger sense, the hospital's well-regarded medical programs and research. Development was the top priority at VCU.
“One of the things I'm most proud of is our collaboration with the community,” Trani said last week at the press conference to announce his retirement, citing government officials and “the philanthropists in the community.”
But those collaborators rarely included his university faculty or the full input of surrounding communities, leading to a general resentment that seemed to boil over since mid-May when, within days, both the Monroe degree scandal and the Philip Morris funding controversy broke. Indeed, that Philip Morris prominently has been among those “philanthropists in the community” has stoked a fire of resentment on the school's medical campus.
Faculty there talked of circulating a petition critiquing the university's Philip Morris deal as well as a climate of fear on campus that many planned signers said had prevented them from speaking out before.
Leaks during the Monroe investigation — many from high-level university officials — displayed a general frustration with Trani's style of leadership. That style, they said, encouraged administrators below him to take his suggestion that Monroe receiving a degree would be a “great idea,” as meaning school policies should be bent to ensure Monroe could be branded by VCU.
Monroe left in June to become police chief in Charlotte, N.C., after overseeing a dramatic reduction in violent crime in Richmond. A statement released late that month at the conclusion of the university's degree investigation showed a certain hubris. Trani acknowledged that he was “now more aware than ever that an enthusiastic, energetic President with lots of ideas may, however inadvertently, impact the behavior of others.”
Trani prefaced his retirement announcement with a warning that he would not directly address questions related to either the Monroe or Philip Morris scandals. That didn't fully sit well with some, even those who largely see positives from what Trani accomplished.
“I don't know if it would have been out of place for him to have addressed those questions,” says William E.
Blake Jr., a retired professor of history who also served as the school's first faculty senate president in 1968, and on two prior presidential search committees. “With regards to the Philip Morris and Rodney Monroe issues, I think that future presidents have got to make absolutely certain … that the rules that apply to all of us also apply in the specific cases.
“Trani is often viewed as one who is in control — but this is one that got out of control.”
Trani's retirement announcement had an air of finality, but the issues dogging VCU are anything but. The VCU investigation did not rescind Monroe's degree, a move some observers say will come back to haunt the school later this year, when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools passes its judgment on the university's efforts to clean up the mess.
And during the Philip Morris matter, it was revealed that Trani himself takes tobacco money home as a well-compensated member of the board of Richmond-based Universal Corp. At town-hall meetings held to discuss the Philip Morris deal, one professor spoke at length about whether Trani had been held to the same requirements of disclosure of interests as other VCU faculty.
But why, for a university president so widely viewed as among the Richmond area's most valuable assets in terms of economic development and boosterism, did so many cracks appear so suddenly in the faAade?
Trani, during last week's remarks, addressed what he called rumors in the press, expressing that among his deepest regrets is the perception that “there is an air of fear and intimidation at VCU. That's not the VCU I know. That's not the VCU that exists.”
Not to Trani, but it is to many of the school's faculty, Condit says.
“There's been a climate that has not encouraged faculty input,” she says, explaining the sense about which she spoke publicly at one of VCU's town hall meetings about Philip Morris. “It does it in sort of a formalized, coordinated way — it gives the patina of real faculty input, but in fact, faculty have not been comfortable providing input. I think this comes from Trani's management style, a unified front to the public and no discord below that level.”
“It has made it difficult,” Condit says, calling VCU's cultural climate far different from what is typical at other universities, where communication and open dialogue is encouraged at all levels. And the tools administrators have to keep faculty in check are many, including a startlingly low pay scale for veteran, tenured professors, and an unregulated method of doling out resources within departments that allows for crass favoritism.
One tenured professor and researcher who recently left the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs School for a position at another university, and who took her federal research money with her, says bluntly: “The place was just really poorly run.” Even after her departure, as if to highlight the climate of fear Condit spoke of, she asked to remain anonymous because VCU still had some access to the federal funds she needed, and might hinder her research.
Several members of the faculty who spoke with Style expressed similar fears that Condit says are widespread: “They are afraid to speak out.”
Many, she says, would like to speak out, too, about the economic engine that became the university's key focus. Deals with Motorola that led directly to the creation of the school of engineering, the biotech park that functions not as a facility for faculty but as a for-lease space available to commercial interests, the ongoing research agreement with Philip Morris that's left such a smoky pall over the campus all add up to a president that some feel is far too interested in naming buildings than building a name.
Still, others caution that the recent turmoil shouldn't overshadow all that Trani's achieved at VCU. Dissent within university walls isn't exactly unusual; what's unusual, perhaps, is that it took two high-profile missteps to bring it out.
“There's always a disconnect between faculty and administration — they have different roles,” says Alan V. Briceland, a retired history professor and former representative of the faculty senate.
“I think the president's job at a modern university like VCU is to deal with the community and to have good people under him to manage the day-to-day operation of the university,” Briceland says. “I think Trani has done that better than any VCU president, and I've been there for all of them.”
Briceland, who has also recently criticized the handling of the Monroe degree scandal, says history will treat Trani well. Briceland dismisses the notion that Trani might be leaving in response to the recent problems.
“He wouldn't find those issues so daunting that he wouldn't face up to them,” Briceland says. “I think it will be a little different for the next year, but after that, what's going on this summer is going to be largely forgotten and he will be remembered for taking two small campuses and creating not only a physical plant but … bringing them together.”
A tenured history professor at the University of Wisconsin who studied U.S. relations with China and Russia as a graduate student, Trani took the helm as VCU president in March 1990. He replaced former president Edmund F. Ackell, who was seen by many as inaccessible, and was reeling from a plan to expand VCU into Oregon Hill.
Trani, who taught American history at Moscow State University in the early 1980s at the height of the Cold War, promised to take VCU in a new direction. “This is going to be the people's university,” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, promising to bring “strong participation in the decision-making process. A lot of people should have input into the process.”
At the press conference last week, Trani spoke of inheriting a university with split personalities — in 1990 there was considerable resentment on the MCV campus, then a nationally recognized medical college, over attempts to link it to the lesser known academic campus at VCU — and working to bridge them together.
“It was not a university when I arrived,” Trani said. “It was a university in name. Everything was divided. Now we have a very integrated university.”
The truth of Trani's claim is also much more straightforward in its meaning, says retired professor Blake.
“I think Dr. Trani was the one who had the force of management to demand that the two campuses [become] one,” Blake says — “I think we needed for the two campuses to be one.” He's admiring but not uncritical of Trani's leadership approach that did not always take into account the ideas of his faculty. “Faculty saw it at times to be a bit heavy-handed, but it did get some necessary things done.”
But those things have all been accomplished, Blake says, suggesting that the time has come for a VCU president who is the ebb to Trani's flow.
“As college president, he became one of the best-known public figures in town, and the university has benefited from that no doubt,” Blake says. “We're at a different point now.”
Briceland concurs. “Trani has a leadership style, and I think there are a number of folks who feel he didn't pay sufficient attention to their school or their problems,” he says. “I think the next president's job will not be to build the physical plant, but to build a sense of collegiality between faculty staff and administrators.”
There are no clear possible successors. That Gov. Timothy Kaine, who gained a reputation for prioritizing economic development as former Richmond mayor, has expressed interest in the job speaks to VCU's rising profile. Trani, after all, made sure to stress his success with “economic development” during his retirement speech.
There's little debate that Trani, for all his critics, built VCU physically — in addition to the university's now massive real estate portfolio, VCU, with 32,000 students, has become the largest public university in the state.
Meanwhile, many within the university hope the next president will shift VCU back to its overarching goal: academics.
“I think that public universities in general … have increasingly sold their souls out to interests that dramatically divert us away from the educational mission,” Condit says. “There has been this whole conversation about … the university being entrepreneurial. We're not about money. We're about educating people and increasing knowledge. Those two things are incredibly inefficient.”
The anonymous former Wilder school researcher says the for-sale sign in front of VCU is not just about the real estate. She points to the new VCU Public Safety Institute and to the graduate program in the Wilder school.
“They took an opportunity to do a public service, but then they made it easy to get through it,” she says, citing Trani's foresight in recognizing a civic need post-9/11 to train new public safety administrators, but eventually loosening academic standards to boost enrollment. “The goal of it was to try to generate more students who would go through the graduate school — the Wilder school.”
And then there's the director of the VCU Public Safety Institute, Robin Lacks, an untenured professor who allegedly was threatened by investigators looking into the Monroe degree, telling her tenure might not be granted if she didn't cooperate.
The scandal over Monroe's degree, and Lacks' directorship, illustrates the schism between Trani's vision and the university's academic reputation.
“It's one clear example of this idea that we have to be entrepreneurial,” Condit says of the Public Safety Institute and the Wilder school graduate program. “It's always about the numbers. I constantly feel like I'm in a Joseph Heller novel; they constantly want to up the number of missions. You can bring a whole lot of students in to any program, but the question is, ‘Are you really educating them?’” S
News Editor Scott Bass contributed to this report.