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VCU plans to ban tobacco campus-wide but keep Altria partnership

Virginia Commonwealth University plans to implement a systemwide ban on cigarettes and other nicotine products — but the school will continue its partnership with Altria, one of the world’s biggest tobacco producers.

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By Adrian Teran-Tapia

Virginia Commonwealth University plans to implement a systemwide ban on cigarettes and other nicotine products — but the school will continue its partnership with Altria, one of the world’s biggest tobacco producers.

On Friday, VCU officials finished taking public comments on the proposal to prohibit smoking, vaping and any other use of tobacco products on property or vehicles owned by the university. Under the plan, VCU would allow smoking only in designated outdoor areas.

The proposal now goes to the University Council and then to the VCU President’s Cabinet for review. If approved, it would take effect July 1.

Although a ban on tobacco products has been in place at VCU Medical Center since 2010, outdoor smoking has been allowed on the Monroe Park Campus, where most of the school’s 31,000 students attend classes.

The proposal to prohibit nicotine products on all VCU property has been in the works since last fall, said university spokesperson Carolyn Conlon.

“As health providers, the proposed policy is written to align with our values and is about creating an environment that is free of all known health hazards,” Conlon said.

Under the policy, VCU would provide education and smoking cessation programs for students, faculty andstaff.

Altria, headquartered in Henrico County, has a net worth of more than $100 billion, according to the company’s annual report. It is the parent company of Philip Morris USA, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co. and John Middleton Inc., which makes cigars and pipe tobacco. Altria also owns 35 percent of the e-cigarette maker Juul.

For years, the tobacco giant has been the biggest corporate entity in Richmond and the biggest corporate donor to VCU. According to VCU donor relations spokesperson Samantha Marrs, VCU has accepted over $2.5 million in donations from Altria since 2016. The contributions include:

VCU will continue its relationship with Altria, which has been “very beneficial to a number of areas in the university,” Marrs said. Not only has Altria made substantial financial contributions to the university, but the conglomerate is also one of the top recruiters at VCU, employing hundreds of alumni, according to Marrs.

Marrs does not believe the policy banning smoking at VCU will have any effect on the partnership between the corporation and university. She said Altria will continue to provide scholarships and other support for VCU students.

“I think Altria is absolutely committed to being a socially responsible corporate partner in Richmond,” Marrs said. “And they’re a very valuable partner to the School of Education, Engineering, Business and Department of Chemistry. They’ve made things happen by funding students to finish college.”

In explaining the policy, VCU officials pointed to the health risks of tobacco use and the dangers of secondhand smoke.

“In addition, cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world and cost the university money to clean up,”they said. “Smoke and tobacco-free campus policies also significantly reduce campus fires.”

The ban would not apply to government-approved smoking cessation products such as nicotine patches or nicotine gum.

The American Cancer Society and CVS Health Foundation awarded VCU $20,000 in grants last month to promote tobacco-free campus initiatives.

VCU also will host the Virginia Tobacco-Free Higher Education Summit on April 23. The daylong meeting, sponsored by the VCU Massey Cancer Center and the University of Virginia Cancer Center, “seeks to bring together university champions to end tobacco use among college and university students, staff and faculty in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

Education

VCU proposes downsizing department faculty call crucial to student learning

Virginia Commonwealth University has a number of challenges to navigate as it works through its budget process for the upcoming year.

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By Zahra Ndirangu

A 3% tuition increase. Fees increase. Shrinking enrollment. A projected $25 million budget deficit. Reduced faculty positions. State mandated 7% merit increases. Temporary elimination of three-year contracts. Faculty protests. An unresolved statewide budget.

Virginia Commonwealth University has a number of challenges to navigate as it works through its budget process for the upcoming year.

VCU has approximately a $1.5 billion annual budget, according to Karol Kain Gray, the university’s senior vice president and CFO of finance and budget. But it does not have enough incoming money that can be spent on general education funds.

“There is a misconception unfortunately among our academic community that we have [500] million dollars of money sitting in the bank that we can use in support of these budget cuts and faculty salaries,” Gray said. “And we don’t.”

VCU actually has a bigger reserve of almost $650 million, from gifts, federal money and investments. But “well over half” of the funds have specific designations and use limits, according to Gray.

“We don’t have enough state support,” Gray said. “We don’t have enough income coming in from our investments and we don’t have enough funds coming in from our philanthropic area.”

The budget pressure has led to a proposed elimination of 10-12 faculty positions in the Department of Focused Inquiry that could start as soon as the fall, and would apply to future contracts that would not be renewed.

In addition, VCU will defer the issuance of any new three-year contracts for any university term faculty, until there is less budget uncertainty, according to William Nelson, senior vice provost for academic administration and operations. Term faculty do not have tenure, and longer contracts can provide a sense of more job security.

Current three-year contracts will be honored. Nelson also said that many focused inquiry faculty will have “at least a year’s notice, some of them more” if their contract is not renewed.

“We will resume offering three-year contracts where it makes sense to do so,” Nelson said. “We’re not abandoning three-year contracts.”

Gray has to present a budget to the VCU Board of Visitors in June.

“And the only way I can balance the budget is by putting cuts on every unit and holding them responsible for meeting their budget,” Gray said. “Every unit at VCU has received about a 5% cut.”

Some departments are able to hit the 5% cuts by keeping positions vacant, or because teachers are retiring.

The Department of Focused Inquiry currently has 64 faculty and staff, according to its website.

Focused inquiry classes are required for all students on campus and are typically taken in a student’s freshman year. There are 1-3 sequential courses, with at least the first one required for most students. The fundamental premise behind the starter courses is to introduce and develop student reasoning, communication, literacy and communication skills.

The department will need to adapt to the upcoming budget cuts, Nelson said. There are options on the table such as shifting to a two-course model and dropping the third option, which could keep more classes open, he said.

“I think there’s several options on the table that we can consider to make sure that we stay committed to focused inquiry and to our students,” Nelson said.

 He noted that the department has made significant contributions to the university.

“But the contributions of the past don’t make you immune to evolving and budget pressures of today,” Nelson said.

Assistant professor Emily Williams has been at VCU over a decade and she currently teaches focused inquiry.

The courses have aided in retention rates among students of color and first-generation students, Williams said.

“The sequence has always been crafted in order to have a whole structure of support for students and we have made a difference in student retention rates, particularly with underrepresented minority students,” Williams said.

The focused inquiry department completes much of the work and student support that VCU prides itself on, according to Williams.

“They hire people in those administrative categories, framing that as a form of support for students while trying to fire the people who are more directly connected to students and supporting them face to face,” Williams said.

Class capacity for the focused inquiry courses is around 21 students, according to Williams. The number of students per course section will increase if the department loses faculty.

VCU promotes the “small, seminar style” classes as an important part of ensuring first-year success. Larger class sizes will limit important feedback and support for freshmen, Williams said.

“Those kinds of things can really shift and give students the sense that they are less individually supported,” she said.

VCU has offered over 100 of the classes, listed under UNIV, each semester since at least 2013, according to a review of the VCU Bulletin — used by students to register for classes. Almost all of the classes were full in the most recent spring semester, and many had waitlists.

Psychology major and rising sophomore Kennedy Ogden was enrolled in focused inquiry courses both semesters of her first year and found them helpful.

“I got to be more of an individual than when it comes to other class assignments because previously everything else has a very strict rubric, but this one it’s like you’re graded based on your performance and how you’re going to interpret the instructions,” Ogden said.

The course helped Ogden find community and adjust socially as a first-generation college student, she said.

The Faculty Senate, a body of university-wide elected representatives, recently voted 95% in favor of a resolution that supports keeping focused inquiry faculty. The resolution asked VCU not to reduce the number of full-time faculty. It was sent to President Michael Rao, Provost Fotis Sotiropoulos and the Board of Visitors, according to a review of the resolution provided by Williams.

VCU Workers is the university chapter of the labor union United Campus Workers of Virginia. In reaction to the budget cuts, the group has held protests, social media information campaigns and a recent meeting.

The chapter hosted a town hall on May 3. They maintain that the university does not have a financial crisis. A UCW lead researcher pointed to at least $500 million in reserves. It is the money Gray said is designated for specific purposes and not general education.

The union said that VCU could have better anticipated the dip in funding. UCW called on the university to resolve the budget gap through reserve funds, credit use and cuts to planned construction.

The VCU UCW Instagram is a platform for faculty to voice their concerns, and to help to connect students and faculty, Williams said. The UCW Virginia union launched a petition to keep the focused inquiry positions. It has over 1,400 signatures.

“We believe in a unified vision of what VCU should be and that we’re working towards that,” Williams said.

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PHOTOS: STEM studies find cutting edge home with opening of new VCU building

VCU students, faculty and employees recently toured the new, 168,000 square-foot STEM building that has risen from the former Franklin Street Gymnasium.

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By Jackson Rebraca

A Virginia Commonwealth University forensic science major had to set up a murder scene, fake body included, for a class assignment.

Her team met to prepare the scene on a Saturday morning. What they did not anticipate was their homework running into the Richmond marathon race, which draws thousands to city streets.

“We had a fake body on the ground and people were running by giving us all kinds of looks,” said Jaelyn Jenifer. “But it’s good to work in the elements, it prepares you for the real world.”

Now Jenifer and the approximately 400 other forensic science majors at VCU will have a state of the art crime scene lab space with movable walls to create crime scene variations.

VCU students, faculty and employees recently toured the new, 168,000 square-foot STEM building that has risen from the former Franklin Street Gymnasium. A crowd of curious onlookers came out for the April 26 ribbon-cutting of the new home for science, technology, engineering and math studies.

It stands as a beacon in the middle of the Monroe Park campus; a gleaming white, six-floor building to be primarily used by the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Nearly 60% of VCU undergraduate students are enrolled in the college’s 17 departments, as well as the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture and School of World Studies. Approximately 10,000 students will take more than 70 STEM courses in the building each semester, in addition to other courses, according to a VCU press release.

The new building officially opens for classes in the fall semester. There are two, 250-seat classrooms, 32 teaching labs, computer labs, wet and dry labs and an overall design emphasis on fluidity and collaboration. The larger classroom design moves away from lecture seating toward an interactive style format. There are also small-capacity flexible classrooms.

The VCU Math Exchange facility will move into the building, while some other departments will commute between buildings. The sixth floor will also fully house the college’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences, which currently enrolls 1,200 students, according to Sally Hunnicutt, the associate dean for faculty and academic affairs.

In a building tour, Hunnicutt highlighted a “lab” — not the kind with Bunsen burners — but the kind with an indoor running track, stationary bikes and other exercise equipment. The experiential lab will give kinesiology students more hands-on professional experience that better prepares them for careers in the field, Hunnicutt said.

“Integrating lecture and lab is innovative and something we know is very effective,” Hunnicutt said.

VCU President Michael Rao is excited about the opportunities provided by the new building, he said.

 “This is a six-story version of how we will meet the needs and put the needs of students first,” Rao said.

The facility is designed with the idea to encourage students and teachers to collaborate across disciplines, according to Rao.

“I’m so so grateful for the opportunities for professors and students to interact and really get into what they’re doing and start solving problems,” Rao said. “This is critical for the next generation of the world’s greatest thinkers.”

Cara Cario is an assistant professor of biology. The plant science facilities have received a major upgrade, Cario said. She has taught at VCU since 2004. Plant science students used to move between labs, and now those courses will be centralized in the official “plant growth room” on the third floor.

“It’s a whole new game,” Cario said.

Akhila Kunuthuru is a graduate level biology student. She, and other students, had to grow plants in their dorm rooms for freshman year biology labs, Kunuthuru said. Now, there will be no more concerns over adequate apartment lighting — they can grow in the new building.

Mass communication student Jackson Amirshahi said that student organizations also look forward to gathering in the new and improved facilities. Amirshahi is part of the student-run Ad Club, and president of the Taylor Swift Society at VCU.

“I know there’s so many spaces that are large enough that we can gather and have different events that we offer in person,” Amirshahi said. “I’m excited to see what different VCU student organizations use this space and have events here as well.”

The former gym was demolished in 2020 and construction started later that same year. The state General Assembly approved complete project funding in 2019.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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Free childcare scholarships for moms: United Way accepting applications for WomenRise program

On Monday, May 1, United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg will begin the application period for its third annual WomenRise scholarship program, which empowers single mothers to work toward a post-secondary degree or credential without the burden of childcare expenses.

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On Monday, May 1, United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg will begin the application period for its third annual WomenRise scholarship program, which empowers single mothers to work toward a post-secondary degree or credential without the burden of childcare expenses.

The scholarships help cover the cost of childcare while mothers pursue a range of degrees and certifications, including elementary education, nursing, and accounting.

Last year, 23 local single mothers received a total of $185,000 in WomenRise childcare scholarships, an approximate increase of 280% from year one, thanks to fundraising efforts.

Virginia is ranked 10th in the nation for the most expensive childcare, with Child Care Aware of Virginia reporting an average cost of $14,577 per year. This equates to 47% of the state median income of a single parent.

“WomenRise exists to help overcome some of the obstacles, such as the cost of childcare, that prevent single mothers from reaching their educational and career goals,” said Sammie McCabe, Director of Major Gifts at United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg. “We look forward to meeting the 2023 class and seeing all they accomplish for themselves and their families.”

WomenRise scholarships are available on an annual basis to local single mothers, with an application process every spring. The scholarships cover the cost of direct care services per child during the time the mother is enrolled in classes or a training program. Scholarships are paid directly to the childcare provider.

The program has helped mothers like Jasmine Phanelson, a 2022 WomenRise recipient and recent graduate. “I was able to accomplish my LPN (Licensed Practical Nurse) goal this past year because of my WomenRise scholarship,” said Jasmine “This award has allowed me to focus on my goals and cut back on the hours I was working.” Jasmine is continuing her studies to become a Registered Nurse that works with underserved communities.

This volunteer-led program is managed by members of United Way’s local Women United giving community. Women United members lead this program by fundraising, awarding scholarships, planning events, and providing encouragement and support to WomenRise scholarship recipients.

To apply, applicants must:

  • Be a single female head of household with custody of at least one child
  • Be enrolled or have plans to enroll in an education or career training program that is at least 40 hours and that results in a degree or credential
  • Have an annual income of $60,000 or less
  • Reside in the United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg region (Charles City, Chesterfield, Colonial Heights, Dinwiddie, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, New Kent, Petersburg, Powhatan, Richmond)
  • Use a licensed or voluntary registered childcare provider

The application period runs through May 31. United Way will announce scholarship decisions this summer.

To learn more about the WomenRise program and to apply, visit www.yourunitedway.org/program/womenrise/.

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We need your help. RVAHub is a small, independent publication, and we depend on our readers to help us provide a vital community service. If you enjoy our content, would you consider a donation as small as $5? We would be immensely grateful! Interested in advertising your business, organization, or event? Get the details here.

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