Michael Rao is de facto head of one of Richmond's largest families. 

With more than 21,700 employees and about 31,500 students, Virginia Commonwealth University and VCU Health System make up a blended family of sorts, with all the conflicts and opportunities that brings.

Rao, VCU's president since 2009, found himself at odds with powerful civic leaders this year in the ongoing disagreement over whether the metro area should build a freestanding, independent children's hospital.

He said his biggest challenge this year has been "to strategically position both the university and health system, in a changing and increasingly competitive environment, to be sustainable models of both excellence and access" and become "a diverse and world-class research university and academic medical center for the next decade and beyond."

Anyone who has heard Rao speak knows that translates to making VCU the "premier urban research university." 

The university had already transformed — some say rescued — downtown by the time Rao arrived from Central Michigan University. During his tenure here, VCU's expanding footprint is now bringing the academic and medical campuses closer together along Broad Street, while the Institute for Contemporary Art is emerging at Broad and Belvidere streets as the signature gateway to VCU.

Rao said that when he came to Richmond just over six years ago, he took a walk on Grace Street and "thought I could see what it would look like."  Today, the old town homes and apartment buildings have given way to high-rise residential halls known as "living-learning centers" for students on the academic campus.

He said he is working to recruit a faculty that reflects the diversity of VCU's students. "I want our students to see themselves when they see our faculty members," he said.

When he was in school, he succeeded with the help of mentors, even if "sometimes I had to take a crayon and imagine somebody looked a little bit different than maybe they did," said Rao, whose father was from India. "But I was able to do it, and we're going to make it easier for our students to do."

IN HIS WORDS

Role model

The most important role model I’ve had in my entire life is my dad, Suresh Rao. I have to do a lot of imagining because he died when I was very young, but what I remember and what I have heard from everyone who ever knew him is that he was first and foremost a good person. He worked hard. He was accomplished, but not for himself; he was accomplished because he really wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. He kept himself grounded even though he was a highly trained physician. He had great credentials, but he didn’t get wrapped up in himself. He had an ability to think about other people, and his commitment to other people was tremendous.

A moment in life with a big impact

When my dad died, I remember distinctly — and maybe rather dramatically — thinking that I had to grow up quickly. What it did, in many ways, was really motivate me to be focused on how the world works, how human beings learn and discover and create, and how we can use what we know to help one another and advance the human experience.

Something you'd really like to do

I’ve always loved music but never discovered or developed a skill in music. I would like to learn to play an instrument.

Favorite thing about Richmond region

I love the ways that Richmond has really become an innovation community. We are into innovation and into entrepreneurship in some new and exciting ways. The innovation ecosystem here has really been transformational. It’s amazing what this community has done for the School of Business and School of Engineering at VCU, for the University of Richmond, Virginia Union, with the VMFA, the Children’s Museum and so many other places. Our community has a clear commitment to and sincere respect for education and innovation. And when we discover something, we share information and innovation like no place I’ve ever seen, and that’s really allowed us to catch up quickly to what’s going on in some other larger cities.

Proudest accomplishment

Helping build a sense of institutional self-esteem at VCU. There used to be a quick acceptance that VCU was some other tier than what it actually was. But we’re at the top. I wanted the people who have moved us to the top — our faculty, staff, students and alumni — to know that they’ve impacted so many lives. I’ve tried to inspire an honest belief that VCU is as good and impactful as it is.

Something that might surprise others

I really like good food and different kinds of food. Richmond is a great restaurant town.

Favorite book/movie

I like to read books on science and stay in touch with what’s going on in science and human innovation. I watch a lot of movies, especially while traveling, but I don’t really have a favorite. I like comedies and movies that let me "check out" for a while.

Alternate profession or course of study

I grew up wanting to be in education in some form. My career path led me to administration, but I could also see myself in teaching or in research. There’s really nothing else I’d rather do.

MICHAEL RAO

Position: president, Virginia Commonwealth University and VCU Health System

Born/hometown: Aug. 10, 1966, in Boston (grew up in Dade City, Fla.)

College: University of South Florida (bachelor's in chemistry), University of Florida (doctorate in higher education)

Family: wife Monica, sons Miguel and Aiden

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