Eugene P. Trani, Ph.D., has been Virginia Commonwealth University’s president since 1990. He’s the fourth president in the burgeoning school’s 40 year history. The impact Dr. Trani has had on VCU has been dramatic. In his 18 years in the job, no one has had more impact on Virginia’s capital city, either.
Now, with VCU in the process of generating warm and fuzzy publicity in connection with its 40th anniversary -- by legislative decree today is VCU Day in the Commonwealth of Virginia -- the university’s high-profile president is under some fire. VCU has had a bad month for negative publicity, so the prez takes the heat?
The Richmond Times-Dispatch’s columnist Michael Paul Williams writes:
VCU has become as heedless and headstrong as its [ram] mascot -- a reflection of its peerless leader.
In his column today, Williams chides VCU for taking money from Philip Morris, then he writes about his own father's battle with cancer.
VCU, with its medical center and cancer-research facility, does not want to be "in bed" with a historically duplicitous industry that produces a public health hazard. I don't pretend to be impartial. Before his death in 1992, my father spent time at Medical College of Virginia Hospitals as a lung-cancer patient, blocks away from what would become the Philip Morris research and technology center in the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park.
Well, if the columnist’s implication is that Philip Morris money is dirty money, then what about the money from the Massey family (of A.T. Massey, now Massey Energy) that went to building VCU’s Massey Cancer Center?
Isn't the Massey Cancer Center -- named for William E. Massey, Sr. -- a good thing, no matter how much coal dust coated some of the money that built it?Ed. Note: While the donations from former A.T. Massey executives William E. Massey and E. Morgan Massey were instrumental in establishing the Massey Cancer Center, currently, there is no connection between Massey Energy and VCU's Massey Cancer Center.
Universities all over the country are in bed with corporations that have done all sorts of things that might seem questionable. The important thing to know about the Philip Morris money is to know what it bought.
Once the initial outrage died down on the VCU research for Philip Morris story, it seemed the biggest problem with it is was that the client got to look over the findings of the research for a month longer than some other clients, before the information went public -- 120 days instead of 90 days.
Is that really a big problem?
Williams also weighs in on the flap over Rodney Monroe’s degree. Is there a cover-up underway?
This story has yet to play all the way out. Although VCU has admitted the degree was unprecedented, in that Monroe apparently earned only six hours of credit, it has not revealed much about how Monroe got such special treatment.
Because Monroe, Richmond’s former police chief, was so closely associated with Mayor Doug Wilder, some observers think they smell political rats afoot. No doubt, there’s more to come with this brouhaha.
At this desk, its isn’t known why Monroe got to be the only person to get a degree from VCU with so little time in the classroom. But I’m interested in finding out more and I hope VCU will tell us more soon.
Still, coming down on Trani so hard at this time doesn’t make much sense to me. VCU is a big school. The largest in Virginia. Trani can’t personally supervise everything that goes on there. But what he can do is set a tone, and then hold the people who are connected to the university accountable for what they do.
If there was something wrong with Monroe degree, Trani should identify the problem and deal with it. But I don’t see why reasonable people would urge Trani to rush to judgment. This particular problem surfaced about a month ago. Why not give the school a little more time to figure out what it needs to do to put this matter right?
My own contact with Dr. Trani has had to do mostly with basketball. I see him in the Siegel Center's media room after Rams home games. Sometimes we exchange hoops small talk. Aside from that I’ve interviewed him a couple of times; he was utterly forthcoming and cooperative. Yes, this cat is as smart as they come, and he doesn’t hide it. But I find that trait in him to be a lack of falseness, rather than the presence of arrogance.
In contrast, I also interviewed Trani’s predecessor, Dr. Edmund Ackell, back in 1984, and I found him to a horse’s ass. Talk about arrogant! Don’t get me started.
Remember, it was Trani who put the kibosh on Ackell’s march to the river that had VCU poised to take over Oregon Hill. It wasn’t long after Trani arrived that the VCU master plan was revised. The school started building on West Broad Street, instead of mowing down Oregon Hill.
Hey, I know some in Oregon Hill strongly objected to the VCU project that’s now underway to expand the old City Auditorium. And, truth be told, I could see their side of it, easily. I think VCU should have played that one differently. Nonetheless, if it weren’t for Trani’s changing of the master plan 18 years ago, Oregon Hill would have little or none of the distinctive character left that it still enjoys today.
So, let’s look at the big picture before we jump on the bandwagon to paint VCU’s current president as a villain. Any entity as dynamic as VCU has been on Trani's watch is going to have some things go wrong ... growing pains. But overall, Trani’s version of VCU has been pretty good to Richmond.
So, for VCU Day, I say happy birthday to VCU and congratulations to Dr. Trani.
What I will say with confidence is that Trani now knows something about hiring top notch basketball coaches. He may not have when he got to his Fan District offices. Then he put up with Sonny Smith and Mack McCarthy long enough to learn what he surely didn’t want to do again. After going to school, he did the right thing. Both Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant were good hires.
So, I expect that before too much longer Dr. Trani will do what needs to be done to settle the Monroe questionable degree affair in a way that will satisfy most reasonable people who care about the university.
-- Words and photo by F.T. Rea
Note: This article was updated on 7/2/08 to be more accurate about the Massey connection.