Virginia Commonwealth University is getting another development-minded president, it turns out. The VCU Board of Visitors announced Friday the hiring of Michael Rao, 42, to replace outgoing president Eugene P. Trani.
Rao, who is leaving Central Michigan University after eight years at the helm, oversaw an impressive clip of development at the university, including the construction of a new $50 million library, academic buildings, five student dormitories and the construction of the Center for Applied Research and Technology, which anchors a 300-acre development in Mount Pleasant, Mich.
Much like the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park that outgoing VCU president Eugene Trani initiated in the 1990s, the CMU center is part wet lab and part business incubator intended to link academic researchers with biotechnology and other high-technology business startups.
Last year, Central Michigan University approved a hotel development on the property, which includes up to five additional office buildings. When a nearby hotelier raised some concerns about the long-term implications of the project, Rao said the hotel was necessary to attract hospitality management students.
“There are so many (hospitality) applicants to CMU who bypass us for other universities that have their own hotel,” he told The Saginaw News in July 2008. “We can't afford our own hotel. The next best opportunity I have is to have a tight agreement with a partner willing to build one.”
His biggest accomplishment, however, came last year, when Rao convinced the CMU Board of Trustees to approve a $30 million to $50 million medical school.
Rao takes over a university still reeling from a year of controversy, including former Richmond Police Chief Rodney Monroe's degree scandal, unusually restrictive research agreements with Philip Morris USA and VCU Police Chief Willie Fuller's arrest late last month on charges of soliciting sex with a minor.
Some faculty at VCU had expressed hope that the next university president would focus more on the school's academic reputation than its physical development.
In the wake of the degree and Philip Morris scandals last summer, Deirdre Condit, an associate professor of public polity at VCU and president of the College of Humanities and Sciences faculty council, told Style that the school's academics had taken a back seat during Trani's term.
“It's a perfect metaphor for the university he's built,” Condit said of Trani's health problems. “After 18 years, we have this body that looks like it is healthy, but nobody's attended to its heart.”