Below: Rao meets with the vice chancellor of the University of West England. Below right: Rao speaks with Dr. Isaac Wood, senior associate dean for medical education and student affairs, during a tour of the VCU medical school. Casey Templeton photo
Despite running more than 30 minutes behind schedule, with his staffers and medical school faculty in tow, Michael Rao won't quit his task at hand — threading a pipe cleaner through five hooks while watching the action on a monitor, a laser-surgery drill required of Virginia Commonwealth University medical students.
Rao's hands begin to sweat. The 43-year-old president of the university and its health system jokes that he needs to take off his sports coat.
Rao, his eyes fixed on the monitor, talks his way through the task, straightening the crooked tip of the pipe cleaner with a laparoscopic grasper and guiding it, finally, through the fifth eyehook, long after most of us would have given up.
"OK," Rao asks, looking around at the scrubs-clad students in the human-simulation lab. "Does anybody have any deodorant?"
Instructor Christopher Morosky, an obstetrician and gynecologist, says Rao's just as adept at the laparoscopic test as his third-year medical students. The patient would live, Morosky observes, but "this one might need a few days in the ICU."
Rao never will perform surgery on a real patient, but he is charged with the care of what once was Eugene Trani's baby, the 32,436-student, 18,218-employee behemoth known as VCU. Often the youngest (or at least the youngest-looking) guy at the table, Rao is nonetheless entering his 16th year as the head of a higher-education institution, most recently Central Michigan University.
And he took on a tough task on July 1: keeping VCU's mission alive while bracing for 2012, when there will be no federal funding to offset more expected state cuts.
Federal stimulus money — $20.5 million to be spread over 2010-2011 — is softening the state-budget reductions for now, but it will run out in 2012. Meanwhile, every school within VCU reports full-time, tenure-track faculty shortages, to the point where accreditation could become a problem in some departments.
At a November Board of Visitors meeting, Rao noted that the cuts he may be forced to make will go beyond bone and marrow; it's "getting close to amputating," he told the board, unless other financial support can be found. Tuition increases in the 20-percent range and cutting less-popular programs are within the realm of possibility, although Rao says later that he will protect faculty positions.
But the dark-haired, slim Rao is hardly a grim doomsayer, spreading financial gloom wherever he goes. His smile, firm handshake and memory for personal details make him a fundraiser's ideal, meeting with alumni groups and inviting donors over to his family's Far West End home for dinner on a weekly basis.
"I'm teeing people up," he says. "We are going to make it natural [to donate]. We touch all these lives, but we can't be viewed just as a place to come and go."
He's also met with more than 60 state legislators in his first five months on the job, all while undertaking significant national and international travel, touring the campus and medical center and taking meetings.
Constantly shaking hands and disinfecting his own with Purell cleanser (to the extent that he jokes about being compulsive), Rao likes to ask questions of everyone he meets. A class of first-year medical students gathers in a classroom to discuss career planning, a slightly tense subject these days. "None of you have any anxiety, do you?" Rao quips before moving on to academic queries, noting that the medical school's curriculum is due for an update in 2012. He closes with a short pep talk: "You all are really the standard-setters, the cream of the crop." And a final thought, delivered as he's about to leave the classroom, "My mom would be very upset if I didn't mention this: Give adequate consideration to adolescent psychiatry," her specialty as a nurse.
Rao, a capable but not overly polished speaker, is like the famously driven Trani in one significant way; he understands that serving as a university president is a "bed to desk, desk to bed" job. He and his wife, Monica, who describes the pace as "24-7 VCU, VCU," incorporate their sons into their work at the university, even bringing 10-year-old Miguel to a cocktail hour with Richmond-area alumni. Aiden, 1, is also a regular visitor to the president's office.
"We like to bring them to our work," says Monica, a part-time international alumni-relations liaison at the university and also a professional watercolorist and graphic designer. "Otherwise, we'd never see them."
The Raos also bring work home; Monica is a fine cook, and she often fixes dinner for donors and other guests at their home, instead of the Scott House, which is available for presidential entertaining. She enjoys hosting parties, having grown up in a social family in India, but the family also enjoys downtime. "We like to feed people," Rao says.
They also consider themselves foodies, says Rao, who eats meat while his wife is a vegetarian. He loves Indian, Mediterranean and Asian cuisine, but having spent much of his childhood in Florida, what really perks his appetite is Cuban food, especially black beans and fish.
Rao has a "great sense of humor," his wife says, which is apparent at the university, but "at home, it's heightened." He also likes to bike around the neighborhood with Miguel, having mostly given up daily 4- to 5-mile runs after suffering a forefoot injury, which he treats with orthotic inserts.
They also like to read with the children and take walks, and in June, before moving to Richmond, the family went on vacation to Puerto Rico. "We really wanted to get away from our surroundings and be anonymous," Monica says, but they did run into two VCU alumni on a tour bus — who recognized the Raos from a picture in the newspaper. Game over.
A Little Grownup
Suresh Rao, Mike Rao's father and a native of Mumbai, India, died from cancer when Rao was only 4, plunging the boy into early maturity. "I grew up really fast," he says, and by age 7, he was helping his mother — a full-time nurse — pay bills and do laundry.
Rao and his mother first lived in Boston, her hometown. His father had just finished his residency in radiology at Boston University when he died. Rao spent plenty of time with his mom's parents and her aunt, who sometimes took care of him while his mother worked. Like a lot of only children, he felt more comfortable among adults than kids his own age, and he remembers a first-grade teacher confiding in him about her car problems.
When he was 8, his life took an abrupt turn south — Rao's mother decided to move to Florida, where a friend lived. He and his mother eventually landed in small, rural Pasco County. "I remember it being hot and uncomfortable," he says, living in a rented house and attending a public school run by nuns.
School was a turning point for Rao, who discovered he had a mind for math. "Finally something I'm OK at," he recalls thinking. "I didn't think much of myself."
He still maintained ties to his family up north, visiting his grandparents each summer. The move was a little difficult at first for both sides, but Rao says he "just accepted it. I couldn't control my dad's death; I didn't think about controlling our move to Florida."
His affinity for adult friendships expanded in Pasco County, where he spent hours on the front porches of neighbors "much, much older than me. This was the country — literally the country. We didn't even have a stoplight," he recalls, so much of the entertainment was self-made. He learned about World War II and the Great Depression through his neighbors' first-hand experiences.
"That really conditioned who I am," Rao says. "I listened a lot as a kid. I just hope people don't take too much in this country for granted. It took a lot of hard work."
He attended the University of South Florida, about an hour from his home, on scholarship. Rao says that he didn't feel like he had any other options for college, but while there, he "found something that fit": chemistry. His mentor was a physical chemist, and Rao worked on a project involving psychiatric drugs and their effect on red blood cells.
Chemistry can be a solitary profession, but Rao's enjoyment of other people prompted him to recruit other students to help with the drug study. He also was good at explaining complicated scientific ideas, a Romanian exchange student told him one day. Rao also turned out to have an affinity for fundraising, a skill he learned at South Florida's development office, where he volunteered for phone banks as a way to say "thanks" for the scholarship that allowed him to attend.
Rao moved on to receive his doctorate in higher-education administration from the University of Florida, where he worked in the development office and was mentored by Robert Lindgren, the vice president for development and alumni relations.
Lindgren, now president of Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, says Rao was his only intern in his 30 years in higher education and was, as recommended, "young and earnest and serious and ambitious."
Exposed to the inner workings of a big-time alumni operation, Rao was "like a sponge" and was especially attuned to politics, Lindgren says. "He was very analytical, very intuitive." In his final year at Florida, Rao worked in the president's office.
He was a bit more shy and reserved then, but he would step up and talk to people when he needed to, even deans and other important officials. Rao is not a "hale-fellow-well-met or a backslapper," Lindgren notes, but he does display "the kind of self-confidence that's not phony. I think he's got the strong ego that you need in that role."
But Rao doesn't let the power go to his head, Lindgren adds. And Rao, too, notes that in his new job, "it's really important for us to be a collaborative community," saying he would be "self-centered" to think he's the "most important player." In his actions, he's unfailingly polite, letting everyone else exit the elevator before he does and handing out Dove chocolates to visitors in his office.
A Meeting in Mumbai
After finishing his dissertation, Rao worked in the private sector for a planning firm and later for himself, creating master plans for the University of Washington system and the University of California in the early 1990s. In 1992, at age 26, Rao was hired as a dean at Mission College in Santa Clara, Calif., and was named president two years later — becoming the youngest college president in the country at that time.
One bonus of working for a university was the break for the winter holidays, which led to Rao's first trip to India, his father's homeland. In Mumbai, one of multiple stops, he met then-23-year-old Monica, the daughter of one of his father's close friends. It wasn't exactly Romeo and Juliet, she says.
"It was just like a meeting," she recalls. "His main goal to come to India was to explore his roots. He traveled across the whole country."
But something changed the following year, when Rao made a return visit. They began exchanging phone calls and e-mails, she says. "It started off as a friendship. It blossomed into much more than that."
They found considerable cultural differences — she, an artist in a family of musicians raised in the Hindu faith, and he a science-minded Roman Catholic reared in the American South. But Monica notes that her family was always "very open and accepting of all different religions," and her father had fond memories of Suresh, so the match had her parents' blessing.
In 1998, Monica moved to California, where she and Rao were married in a small, private ceremony. They returned to India for a traditional Hindu ceremony, but without some of the typical flash (such as the groom riding in on a horse), she laughs. "It was a nice celebration, but we kept it fairly small."
The couple soon moved to Montana State University-Northern, where Rao became chancellor; Miguel, now a fourth-grader at Collegiate School, was born there.
In 2000, he became president of Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Mich., a 20,000-student state institution with 60 satellite locations across the country, including one in Richmond.
Mark Ranzenberger, online editor of themorningsun.com, the newspaper Web site that covers the central Michigan region, says Rao was "very well-liked" by the university's board of trustees and many students, although he adds that some faculty felt Rao was removing resources from their departments to improve the university's football program and to start a new medical school, a project he launched just before leaving for VCU.
But Tim Brannan, a CMU educational-technology professor and president of the university's faculty union, says instructors respected Rao for increasing the number of tenure-track faculty and also supporting research and grant-writing. Brannan adds that he didn't feel the departments suffered from the launch of the medical school or the revitalization of the football team, since much of the money came from outside investors, notably some Saginaw businesses that donated to the medical school.
"He at least tried to listen to all sides before making a decision," Brannan says, adding that he thinks the university improved under Rao's watch. "Enrollment grew; the corporate support and donations grew."
Known for its programs in business, broadcast journalism, health professions and elementary education, CMU's student body is 90 percent white, and American Indians outnumber black students, as the campus lies near Chippewa land.
"Rao tried very hard to recruit faculty members and students of color," says Ranzenberger, who is also an adjunct journalism instructor. It was an uphill battle, though, because "the [minority] population has not reached a critical mass. It's very much a white atmosphere."
Rao and the board of trustees — Michigan's version of a board of visitors — had a common vision of boosting the university's profile. "Rao wanted good students at CMU," Ranzenberger notes. "He didn't want this to be a second-run university." SAT scores rose, as did the number of applicants, and the medical school, which is expected to open in 2012, will help medically underserved rural Michigan. Also, Rao brought the university back to its roots as a teachers' university, notes Brannan, improving the education program in the process.
And even though Rao himself is not a big sports fan, he realized the promotional benefits of having a good football team.
In 2004, CMU hired Brian Kelly, recently named as the new head football coach at Notre Dame, to coach the Chippewas, a Division I-A team with a persistently bad record in past years. Kelly built a successful team over his three seasons, bringing CMU to a championship win in 2006, the same year he left for the University of Cincinnati.
"I did put some energy into it," Rao says. "Football is one of those things — it's not academic, but it has become a prominent part of the university landscape." As for Richmonders' hopes for Rams football, don't hold your breath, unless you're willing to kick some money toward that goal, Rao says.
"I think it's only a matter of time until VCU has football," he told an eager crowd of alumni at a cocktail hour at Independence Golf Club, "but as chief fiduciary, [I say we] can't afford it now. When you decide to do football in a college environment, you need to do it very, very well. That does take resources." And those resources are better spent toward academic goals, he adds.
But, he tells the alumni, "I will never say never — especially when all of you will come together and pay for it."
In 2008, while still in Michigan, Monica Rao gave birth to Aiden, kicking off 12 months of change, which included finishing her master's degree and the family's move to Richmond.
Rao's departure for VCU, coming only months after signing a new contract with Central Michigan in December 2008, was a surprise to many in Mount Pleasant, but not a shock — he was always expected to go on to bigger things, Ranzenberger says. "He is darned good, and he is darned ambitious."
Collegial Yet Confident
Rao won out over 40 candidates for the president's job at VCU.
"This is a superb person with a lot of intellectual capacity, a good outlook, a sense of humor and a strong family," says Anne G. "Panny" Rhodes, former state delegate from Richmond and VCU's rector. She served on the university's presidential search committee and also, as a member of the Board of Visitors, helped make the final decision to hire Rao.
Rao stood out among the three finalists for several reasons, Rhodes says: "He was extremely forthright. He had a lot of energy. His previous record was outstanding."
Also, notes genetics professor Linda Corey, president of the faculty senate and a member of the search committee, "the feedback that we got was that he was great at fundraising."
Aside from that, Corey says that it was important to VCU faculty that the new president views them "as colleagues rather than employees," which she adds is true of Rao. "The faculty is very, very supportive."
"I was very curious to meet him," says Maureen Denlea Massey, former executive director of development and external relations for VCU's Massey Cancer Center, who has met with Rao twice since his hiring. "He's a development officer's dream. He's personable, he's excited about his job, and he's clearly very smart. I was ready to sign on and go to work for him."
Massey, who still maintains close ties to the university, says she senses that many people here have confidence in his ability to raise money from private donors, as the $50 million Opportunity VCU scholarship campaign kicked off in November, in addition to regular fundraising. It's a requirement for any college president to be able to raise money, even in tough times, she notes.
Working mere blocks from the Virginia State Capitol grounds, Rao — like his predecessors — is in a unique position to lobby for VCU and state-supported higher education in general, a responsibility he takes seriously. In the summer, few legislators are present in Richmond, but Rao found more than 60 and met with them personally. "They are the single biggest investors," he says. "They've all been great listeners."
State funding makes up 35 percent of VCU's 2009-10 budget, with 50 percent coming from tuition and other student fees — percentages not all that different from those in Michigan, except that Virginia has seen a steady decrease in state support over the past decade.
Although Michigan was one of the hardest-hit states in the recession, Rao did not have to make as severe budget cuts there as he expects to make at VCU, because CMU has always depended less on state funding; tuition increases at VCU are a guarantee come this fall. But Rao has other ideas on fundraising, including developing ideas that the university can patent and profit from commercially, particularly in the engineering school.
Next Year's Syllabus
Rao says he is not sure yet what cuts the university will make, other than 91 positions expected to be eliminated over the next two years — he is waiting to see what the schools recommend — but he does note that he is "very, very anxious about any proposal that would in any way erode faculty." He also notes that it's dangerous to try to be all things to all people, spreading resources too thin and "mediocritizing" the university.
Corey cites an alarming statistic: In 1999, VCU had 88.4 faculty members for 1,000 students; today, it's 68.5 faculty for 1,000 students. "That's all because the state doesn't feel the need to support higher education," she says. "We're just cut to the bone. I think Mike Rao is a great person to lead us through this."
If offered an unlimited budget, a specter that brings a dreamy smile to Rao's face, his top priority would be to attract "aspiring superstars" to the faculty, not only to bring more recognition to the university but also aim for broader humanitarian goals: "to address society's issues and inspire students to do the same." VCU already has some stars, but "they need company," Rao says, noting that the university is $116 million short of what it needs to be average in its per-student expenditures, compared with similar schools.
Rao also wants more diversity among faculty, a goal being guided by Njeri Jackson, director of the African American Studies Program in the Wilder School of Government. Corey says she's heard from other faculty that they support this idea. "There is so much potential here," Rao says. "We really can be a wonderful microcosm."
For the time being, though, Rao is spending a great deal of his time touring facilities — from academic buildings to the hospital — and meeting faculty, students and also his predecessor, Eugene Trani, who retired as president of VCU and the health system at the end of June. Trani continues to serve as a professor of history and published two books last year — one on U.S. relations with Russia and China, and another on universities and economic development.
Trani declined an interview request, but Rhodes says that "from all that he's said to me, he's very pleased" with Rao's hiring.
"I have nothing but fondness for him," Rao says of Trani. "To be frank, he did a lot of the heavy lifting," causing the university to aspire to greater things and, incidentally, making the job attractive to Rao, when he was approached by recruiters last January.
"Richmond receives VCU well," he says. "We are very, very lucky." But, he also notes, "I don't in any way mean to sound flip, but I know people don't understand the complexity or the impact a university has. It can be a challenge. I don't think very many people understand how many directions a president goes in any given day."
With that, Rao enters his next meeting, making small talk about orthopedic inserts with University of West England's vice chancellor, a podiatrist.