Tuesday, July 01, 2008

VCU's prez under fire


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.


Anonymous said...

You're right on target with your sentiments on Trani. He has done so much to further VCU's reputation and enhance downtown. VCU would probably still be floundering in higher education backwater and downtown would be a ghost town.

I agree, he couldn't have known about this shady deal - he can't have his fingerprints on every degree. Someone thought that they would win over an impressive friend in the police chief and his powerful friends - unfortunately the "gift" they offered was something beyond anything mere money could buy - it was the blood, sweat, and tears that are required of EVERY OTHER of 15,000 grads of VCU, but not this special one. In my opinion Trani's not the bad guy here - it's the person who directly supervised this bogus degree.

Anonymous said...

I work at VCU and I can confirm that his faculty advisor is probably the one whom should be held accountable. The faculty advisor would have approved transfer credits, approved VCU classes, and signed off on his application for a degree. There's the smoking gun. I also know that Monroe went on to take graduate classes at VCU with some of the faculty members I know in his field of study - so he certainly had the time to complete the coursework necessary for his BA. This isn't Trani's fault - but he does need to come out with a stronger apology and explanation. And he needs to offer up the faculty member behind this for real justice. LDP

Anonymous said...

I disagree. I think Trani should retire.

He's done a lot of bad things for Richmond too.

F.T. Rea said...

anonymous 2:52 a.m.,

Trani is set to retire in 2010.

Anonymous said...

And before he retires VCU will unveil a life-sized bronze statue of him. Seriously!

F.T. Rea said...

I've heard something about that sculpture. Have you seen it? Do you know if it is actually bronze?

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen it. It is not marble. I was told it's bronze. I wonder if they will put it in front of the Trani Building? Or maybe on Monument Avenue!!

Katey said...

Anonymous 2:52 a.m,

What "bad things" has Tranni done for Richmond? From where I sit, Tranni's tenure has led VCU in a direction that's been really good for Richmond neighborhoods north of Broad St. That doesn't even get into the revitalization of Broad St., west of Belvedere, which has been profound.

Additionally, why should Tranni resign unless he's done some damage to VCU? VCU has grown and flourished under his leadership. I understand that there are Richmonders who might disagree with some of his decisions, but what's that got to do with his relationship with the university? As long as he serves VCU well then I imagine he'll be welcome as their president, and sorely missed once he retires.

Anonymous said...

One negative - Trani has been so consumed with increasing the size of the student body, some might argue that quality has been thrown out the window. Not that Monroe isn't a quality guy, but look at the quality (lack of) credits he was allowed to transfer in. Unfortunately the Wilder School - which has its hands all over this mess but won't own up to it - has really been dumbing down the quality all in the name of increasing enrollment to make the case for more funding - the school's namesake should say enough is enough before it all goes in the toilet.

Anonymous said...

Your wish is my command!!


Change is on the way - hopefully in the form of someone who will do some major reforms in that school!!! 'bout time.

Anonymous said...

Since VCU has "taken action" in the Monroe matter does this mean that the Director of the Wilder School was the one who was responsible?? Any word? LDP

F.T. Rea said...

anonymous (LDP),

See my post at the Fan District Hub -- http://fdhub.net/vcu-takes-action-on-monroe-degree-matter/

Anonymous said...

Actually, regarding Trani changing the Ackell march to the river through Oregon Hill: the State review process disallowed this poor planning option, not Trani- although Trani did state in a 1990's TD article that there would be no more VCU facilities built south of Cary. Please note that his pants might be on fire as the huge building site at Cherry and Cary for the new VCU rec center is gobbling up Oregon Hill at an alarming rate. VCU doesnt have to adhere to any authority now and it scares me.

Anonymous said...

Faculty for many years have felt that Trani, despite his many genuine accomplishments, surrounds himself too frequently with mediocrities who never tell him anything is a bad idea. Regular faculty are afraid to criticize; nobody will go on the record with anything but a frozen smiley. (Tenure lines have decreased over all.) What we do know is that no tenured teaching faculty member signed off on the bogus degree--which was, as Trani himself admitted, done out of a misguided desire to please him. Trani's "ideas" have come down to a single imperative: GROW! This has meant a destruction of quality undergraduate education. Plans are afoot for classes in the 400-600 seat range.

Anonymous said...

You're right - bigger doesn't mean better and VCU is growing too fast too soon. The quality of the students is lower than ever in my opinion. I am been very disappointed at the quality of some non-tenured teaching faculty (and the large number of them) and particularly at the lack of quality and maturity among the graduate school ranks. There are PHD students whom one might call dimwits and twits in the Wilder School. PHD programs at W&M and UVA require GREs, foreign language proficiency, and an expectation for true scholarship and community leadership after graduation - VCU requires none of this and consequently this crowd of kids can't measure up to other Virginia grad programs and won't at this rate. VCU graduate programs seem to have become a great place for parents to "park" their underachieving offspring until they grow up and figure out what they want to do (or find a husband among their classmates or the adjunct faculty! - which can be easily accomplished at the frequent happy hours instead of academically oriented offerings!). I expect at any moment one of them to say "Oh, professor so and so, you're just so totally coooooollllll. I hope you're coming to the graduate school keg party." So VCU is into "babysitting" instead of turning out scholars. Too bad. But not all together surprising. Just try to turn that MA or PHD into a real job - good luck with that McDonald's application. Oh, and BTW, I'm one of those grad school grads who thank God has an undergrad degree from one of those other respected VA schools.

Anonymous said...

It is troubling, very troubling that up until now VCU hasn't released something more about who is responsible. If they can't release everything, they should release the position and the sanction. or just the sanctions. Their silence tells me that little if anything of substance was done. I'm disappointed that faculty members who are certainly in the know won't leak the info just so the story will do away.

F.T. Rea said...

Dear anonymous commenters,

Thank you for your contributions.

Still, it's too bad you can't put your names behind what you are saying. I have to assume you have good reasons for that.

But when attacks are aimed at specific people, without the attackers being willing to reveal who they are, it has to make readers wonder about motives and credibility.

Anonymous said...

F.T.: When you have an organization in which nobody dares criticize on the record, it has to make one wonder too. Maybe you should ask former biology teacher Jim Sparks about his experience? Trani has been VCU's greatest leader since the canny Hibbs, but one can't help but feel the Monroe and PM flaps are warnings that something has gone awry in the central administration.