Chris Smith photos
Eugene P. Trani is running about 10 minutes late when he comes through a side door of Virginia Commonwealth University's Siegel Center. The president ducks into a stairwell and heads up to the second floor, where he's due to speak to employees who are completing a leadership-training program.
Making his way to the engagement, Trani keeps moving as he meets me. Winding down a hallway, he quips, "So, you drew the short straw. Or maybe the long straw."
At 5-foot-7, Trani walks with an arm-swinging shuffle, not the hard-driving stride one might expect of the man a former colleague describes as a "dynamo."
After he's introduced at the training session, Trani launches into a slide presentation that seems to encapsulate VCU's accomplishments since 1990 and convey the force of nature Trani has been on its behalf, shaping a city within a city.
He comes to a bar chart detailing the number of degrees VCU has handed out, and he can't resist the opportunity for a little joke.
"We awarded 3,500 degrees in 1990. We awarded 6,000 in 2008," he says, adding in a textbook Bob Newhart dead-pan: "All but one had the right amount of credit hours."
The staffers had already begun to laugh as he explains he is kidding, but, ever a stickler for detail, Trani makes sure to clarify. "And that one did have the right amount of credit hours. They just weren't earned at Virginia Commonwealth University. But that's another story."
That other story — the one about a police chief who received a bachelor's degree that he didn't properly earn — is one Trani would rather forget.
The story he likes to tell is about a university that was divided and came together.
In simple terms, Trani's imprint has been about three things: buildings, people and money. All three have sprouted wildly at VCU under his direction, elevating the university to a singular brand that is locally monolithic and nationally recognizable.
"Whenever someone asked where I went to college, and I would say VCU, either they thought I had said ‘ECU' or they had no idea where it was," says 1983 graduate and bestselling novelist David Baldacci, who recently completed a six-year term on the school's board of visitors. "But these days that doesn't happen very often."
During Trani's tenure, VCU has invested more than $1.2 billion in construction projects in the city, and the VCU Real Estate Foundation, a mechanism created after Trani's arrival, has acquired more than 36 properties in and around the city.
"We've built and built and built because this place was so underfacilitied in 1990," Trani tells the leadership-training group.
The son of a civil engineer, Trani notes that he was walking construction sites when he was 4 years old, about the age he was when his family moved from his birthplace, Brooklyn, N.Y., to Philadelphia, where he grew up. He says this may explain some of his fascination with the process of bringing buildings to fruition.
It's that construction boom, however, that serves as a fulcrum of opinion for many when it comes to Trani's role in the region.
Some voices in the surrounding neighborhoods — the Fan, Oregon Hill, Carver and Randolph — have sometimes found occasion to rail against the university for the collateral issues that have come with its expansion: influxes of people and cars drawn to the school's campuses, the demolition of some architecturally significant structures and the encroachment on historic properties.
"Those are legitimate issues," Baldacci says, "and people should raise concerns. And I'm sure Gene would be the first one to say that not everything he's done has made everybody happy."
"He could have been more responsive to the community and allowed for greater participation in planning and development," says Jennie Dotts, former executive director of the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods. "Dr. Trani's building spree was the result of a unilateral decision-making process that altered the character of our historic city with a collection of monuments to architectural mediocrity."
Since the mid-'90s, Trani says, VCU has spent $9.64 million to improve historic properties. When asked about his biggest regret, he says he wishes he had been able to forge stronger relationships with the neighborhoods around VCU. While he points to the "partnership" the school has with the Carver district that abuts Belvidere Street and surrounds the Siegel Center, he admits that relations with Oregon Hill have remained rocky despite VCU's commitment of health care and other services to the neighborhood's residents.
Others see Trani as the savior of downtown Richmond, the shadow mayor who brought stability and economic viability back to the city core.
One afternoon in late April, Trani was walking back from a meeting when Westover Hills resident Parker Hale, who was on campus for business, stopped the president on the sidewalk to shake his hand and gush praise.
Out of Trani's earshot, Hale says, "He takes a lot of grief, but that's a part of the job, right? Well, he deserves credit, too."
When Trani came to Richmond, VCU also had a total of 21,764 students on the medical and academic campuses; today it's 32,284, the largest enrollment in the state. And alongside the students are 18,200 employees.
In 2000, after VCU suffered a halt in its federal research funding because of record-keeping issues in studies involving human subjects, I spoke with an administrator who expressed concern that the controversy was partly the result of the university's emphasis on building, leaving some areas of the institution understaffed.
It's a criticism that echoes at the university today.
Trani himself concedes that the university's mix of faculty needs to include more tenure-track professors; he suggests that goal may provide a focal point for the university's incoming president, Dr. Michael Rao.
Terry Oggel, the chair of VCU's English department and a former president of the faculty senate, says Trani's ability to raise academic standards takes some of the sting out of the criticism about VCU's need for more faculty.
"VCU is understaffed — there are too few faculty for the size of the place. That's true." But Oggel recalls a decade ago when Trani deftly negotiated with state legislators to fight a national backlash against the tenure system. Oggel credits the president with behind-the-scenes finesse that protected the position of faculty at VCU and elsewhere in Virginia. He also gives Trani kudos for trying to bolster the college's academic mission by raising admission standards.
In 1990, the average grade-point average at VCU was 2.83, while SAT scores were 1032. This year's admitted students posted averages of a 3.5 GPA and SATs of 1111 (excluding the writing score). "Those are all faculty issues, too," Oggel says. "They have to do with the academic quality of the university, not just buildings."
It was Wednesday, July 9, 2008, when Trani returned to VCU in the middle of a summer sabbatical at Harvard University for some routine medical tests.
A day later, the VCU president found himself needing more medical attention than he had anticipated.
"I'm sitting here at the desk, and I just feel this pressure on my chest, and I knew it was not indigestion," he recalls. He asked an assistant to call the university's director of cardiology, Dr. George Vetrovec.
"He said, ‘You've got to get down here right away.' So — I'm not much for fanfare — [my assistant] just drove me down. No ambulance," he says with a gentle laugh. "Over the course of the next 24 hours, I ended up with a stress test, catheterization and then on Saturday morning, quintuple-bypass surgery."
He likes to point out that, contrary to some media reports, he did not suffer a heart attack. "I had some plumbing problems, and they fixed the plumbing problems."
Very soon afterward, Trani says, it became clear to him and his wife, Lois, that the time had come to turn the page on his career as president of the university he had built into the largest in Virginia.
One month after his surgery, on Aug. 14, 2008, Trani announced that he would cut short his plans to remain president into 2010. On July 1, he'll retire from the position one year earlier than originally planned and take on the titles of president emeritus and distinguished professor.
"You just have a sense of vulnerability, there's no question about it," he says, "and that was the big decision that I faced last July and August. It was a pretty serious health condition, and I was supposed to be [on board] another two years. I just said, ‘Nope.' "
Trani's health scare and subsequent announcement to retire came amid a maelstrom of public scrutiny over two sticky issues at VCU: questions of rule-bending to grant a bachelor's degree to former Police Chief Rodney Monroe, and pressure to change the university's contract policies regarding paid research for companies such as Philip Morris USA, especially since the university has a medical school and nationally acclaimed cancer center.
The 69-year-old president, who's been known to routinely put in 19-hour days, says the stress and pressure surrounding these issues were not a factor in his health problems.
Instead, Trani says, "I was a genetic disaster waiting to happen. It turns out that my grandfather died of an enlarged heart, and his three sons — including my father — had multiple heart attacks. And I should have paid more attention to that."
During a series of meetings and interviews in late April and early May of this year, Trani often joked, "You don't want to lose weight the way I did." A short-timer in the world of business-suit wearers, his weight loss is apparent in outfits that were obviously measured for a thicker man.
He won't be rushing to a tailor anytime soon. After a yearlong sabbatical, Trani may be sporting a more dressed-down professorial look when he returns to teach in the school's Honors Colleges. Possible courses, he says, may cover presidential history and foreign relations.
By July 1, Trani's office will be packed up and moved to new digs on Laurel Street, across Monroe Park from his home in the Prestwould Condominiums building.
He talks with relish about a cruise he and his wife plan to take in the fall from Barcelona to Ireland, where he hopes to play five notable golf courses with his brother-in-law.
But will it be easy for a man who has thrived in a relentlessly fast-paced and high-powered position to hang up the business suit and move on?
"I'm ready for a change. There's no question about that," Trani says, adding, "I really do think so, that it will be easy to let go."
My first face-to-face meeting with Trani came in 1993 as a VCU journalism undergraduate. For the student newspaper, I had been assigned a story on the development of the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park. Naturally, Dr. Trani was atop my list of sources.
I scheduled the interview with his office and, as fate would have it, promptly forgot it.
Days later, I was working at the paper when the newsroom phone rang. One of my cohorts picked up the call and shouted out, "Who's supposed to be interviewing Dr. Trani?"
I felt a dagger in my gut and blurted several words not fit for print. Grabbing the nearest notepad and pen, I sprinted from our building on Main Street to his office, about 800 yards away on Franklin Street.
When I arrived, I was ushered into Trani's spacious office. It was a moment of shame. I was late, unprepared and out of breath. And not helping matters was the piercing, ill-humored gaze of a man who was eyeing me like I had shot his dog.
Strike ONE , he seemed to be saying, without actually saying it.
Fast-forward 16 years: On a morning in late April, I am again in Dr. Trani's stately, wood-paneled office. Only moments after some friendly chat about basketball, the mood changes abruptly.
Again, I see the gaze. Not as sharp, but still unmistakable.
"I don't want to spend the time talking about Rodney Monroe," he says. "I've done that."
Though the man is an active scholar and author, a shamelessly gloating grandfather, and an administrator regarded in Virginia and beyond as a visionary for his transformation of VCU, it's this direct and unflinching aspect of his persona that sometimes gets the most ink in Richmond.
It's a perception of which Trani is well aware and, when asked about it, he shrugs off the idea, noting, "I'm an easy target."
At the same time, he is acutely aware of those taking aim. Trani seems to have perfect recall for any mention or coverage of VCU in the local media.
On hearing the comments of a local blogger describing his administrative atmosphere as "neo-Stalinist," Trani tilts his head as if playing Name That Tune and names the writer instead. "Is that Galuszka?" he guesses correctly, naming a contributor to the Bacon's Rebellion blog, Peter Galuszka.
"He doesn't even know what neo-Stalinist is!" Trani replies with a touch of amusement. "I do! That's my field!" (He is, in fact, an expert in Russian history.)
Quoted another writer's description of him as "aloof and imperious," he again names the byline — the Richmond Times-Dispatch's Michael Paul Williams.
But it is the media frenzy surrounding Monroe's bachelor's degree, awarded in May 2007, about a year before he took a new job in Charlotte, N.C., that Trani finds truly irksome.
Monroe was six credit hours — or two classes — shy of a college diploma when he enrolled in classes at VCU. Though university policy required at least 30 credit hours to be completed at VCU before a student becomes degree-eligible, Monroe donned the mortarboard and tassel in 2007 and scored PR points for the university, the city and himself. Moreover, the degree ultimately helped him meet the hiring requirements for his new job.
An anonymous source within VCU questioned the legitimacy of the degree and alleged that Trani, among others, exerted pressure in the situation. The charges set off a cascade of news reports, internal turmoil at VCU and three separate investigations — all of which cleared Trani of any involvement.
The first time he knew of the degree issue, Trani says, was soon after allegations were made to the school's board of visitors and an investigation had begun.
"It's not easy to see those kinds of newspaper headlines," he says. "The Rodney Monroe situation should never have happened. There's no question about that. I've said that since day one."
The episode resulted in several resignations, and the board of visitors changed the school's degree-granting policies to avoid a repeat.
But it also stirred public perceptions of an authoritarian culture within VCU.
Trani refutes the notion that anyone in his administration or on campus fears him and says several presidents of the faculty senate "were never afraid to share their thoughts with me."
Recalling the lessons of his administrative career, the president says one axiom rings true: "There are no secrets. If you don't want to read about it or see it on TV, then don't do it."
Don Gehring, VCU's vice president for government relations and health policy, has worked with Trani since 1990. He says some may misinterpret his boss's hard-driving work ethic.
"He's very intense but very focused," Gehring says. "He's more caring than a lot of people would think."
He praises Trani as a practiced listener who carefully considers the advice of those around him and yields to their judgment if he can't defend his own position. "There's no argument, there's no ego. He just changes," Gehring says.
Paul Timmreck was working as the state secretary of finance in 1996, under Gov. George Allen, when Trani asked him to become the senior vice president of finance and administration at VCU.
Timmreck accepted and worked 10 years at the university before retiring. He said he was drawn to Trani because of his professionalism and ability to assemble a team of other highly motivated administrators.
"He's a dynamo," Timmreck says. "He thinks about and works for the university from sunup to sundown. He's a tireless worker. He has a reputation of being a micromanager — I think he's anything but."
Timmreck says a surprising quality most don't get to see through Trani's public persona is his ability to laugh at himself.
In the late '90s, Timmreck recounts, the university's administrators gathered for a meeting to review an outside assessment of VCU by the Urban Institute. "There was a reference to Gene as being a ‘benign dictator,' and someone around the table said, ‘What's this about benign?' And we all laughed," Timmreck recalls, "and no one laughed harder than he did."
One of the seminal moments of the university's growth, Timmreck says, was in the late 1990s, when an urban-planning consultant delivered a report to VCU administrators. "The guy said, ‘Trani, if you had any guts, you'd throw a hand grenade on Broad Street and blow it up'," meaning that he thought the main thoroughfare needed a facelift to spur economic viability and to offer a better gateway for out-of-town students and their families.
After listening to all sides of a debate within his senior staff, Timmreck says, Trani made the call to "go to Broad Street."
When Trani arrived at VCU as its fourth president (following Ed Ackell, who had served 12 years in the role), he had amassed a résumé that was tailor-made for Richmond and its urban university.
Beginning in 1976, Trani held a succession of positions at the University of Nebraska, the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He honed expertise in dealing with university boards; legislatures; urban communities; research centers; medical centers; patents and licensing; community partnerships; and university governance.
"I decided when I was at UM-KC, I did want to be a president," he recalls. "But I had the theory that you can't do two moves at the same time. You can increase your level of responsibility or increase the prestige, the quality of the university, but you can't do both at the same time."
Finally, in 1990, VCU came calling. Truth be told, he says, "I didn't know much about Virginia Commonwealth University when they first started to recruit."
But if everything lined up, Trani and his wife were ready for another move.
Paul Fain, a senior writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education, says Trani is in select company among the nation's university presidents.
"He's definitely among the longest-serving for a public university," he says, adding, "And in higher education, he's considered a legend for what he's done at VCU."
Two years ago, when Ed Ayers became president of University of Richmond, he began having monthly breakfast meetings with Trani. New to the role of president after coming from the University of Virginia, he sought Trani's advice.
Ayers says Trani has offered a couple of lessons: "Have a sense of humor, which is easy to forget, and have a sense of proportion and what will endure."
On the last Monday of April, Trani leaves his office on Franklin Street and takes a walk, as he does once a month, to the student commons building where the university council convenes. The council allows students, faculty and administrators to participate in university governance. On this particular day, the final council meeting of Trani's career, he's told he will be presented with a resolution from the student body recognizing his service to the university.
Down the hall, in a room with 50 students or more sitting at desks, an adviser calms the crowd and then asks that Trani be welcomed for some brief remarks.
Enter the president.
For all of the career administrator's reputation for being distant or sometimes downright intimidating, here was an antithetical moment.
"I just wanted to say that, first of all, I do exist," he begins, with a lift of the eyebrows and a smile. The room ripples with laughter.
He went on, "Although there's 30 pounds less of me now than there used to be, the way I lost weight was not the way you should lose weight, because I had a quintuple-bypass surgery last summer. So you need to work out and watch what you eat."
It seemed the room had gone still. He turned just a touch somber: "I know something about your income levels and the families that you come from. I see all of you around campus working, full- or part-time. And at the same time you're doing very, very well in school, so I just wanted to say thank you very much for your commitment to Virginia Commonwealth University. … Good luck to all of you and thank you very much."
With that, the president received a standing ovation. After a few moments taking in the applause, he turned and began a walk back to Franklin Street.
One is reluctant to think of Trani as much of a hands-on molder of young minds, though teaching was clearly a part of his past and will be a part of his future. He made full professor in history within 10 years of beginning his career.
Trani the Teacher, however, is an image that's hard to reconcile with Trani the Suit. Though the president makes attempts to shake hands around campus and systematically quiz students on where they're from and what they're studying, he is to many an unknown quantity.
While on other campuses the college president may be regarded as a celebrity, Trani concedes it's just never been his role.
"First of all, this is a very complex big business. I spend half my time on medical-center activities, so students from the Monroe Park campus have no idea of that and don't see me for that portion of the job. I am out and about, but I am not ‘Uncle Gene,'" he says, adding, "That's not the nature of my personality. People may find this hard to believe, but I'm shy."
The warmth and intimacy most find elusive in Trani is no doubt reserved for his five grandchildren, whom he famously treats to Saturday breakfasts at the Dairy Bar restaurant in Scott's Addition.
Like his other favorite topic — basketball — Trani visibly transforms when he speaks of his grandkids. This year, Trani says proudly, his oldest granddaughter, Tegan Chapman, will start as a freshman at her grandfather's alma mater, Notre Dame.
The man who stalwartly opposed bringing football to VCU ("It's too expensive," he explains) has made a tradition of taking in a homecoming pigskin game at Notre Dame, sometimes including a grandchild on the trip.
"It was her decision," Trani notes of the 18-year-old's college choice, "but I have to say I'm extremely pleased." Now, of course, his visits back to South Bend, Ind., will have a dual draw.
Trani's daughter, Anne N. Chapman, says her father is a nonstop cheerleader for VCU. She doesn't think that will end, nor does she think that, just because he's no longer driving the big Ram bus, Trani will rest on his laurels.
Trani says with no hesitation that he is comfortable backing away entirely from the role of president, with no desire to influence the new president's decisions or authority. If Rao wants advice, Trani says, he'll be happy to speak in private.
But besides teaching and scholarly work, Trani expects that his only public role will be to vocally support high-speed rail between Washington, D.C., and Richmond. "That's the future of this corridor," he says.
And another pet cause — helping to support the rebound of Catholic schools — will get some of his energy as well.
"I don't think he's going to slow down," says his daughter, "but I think it is going to be a different to-do list every day."