In “Fulfilling the Promise: Virginia Commonwealth University and the City of Richmond, 1968–2009,” VCU President Emeritus and University Distinguished Professor Eugene P. Trani, Ph.D., and Associate Professor of History Emeritus John T. Kneebone, Ph.D., tell the story of VCU from its founding in 1968 through the end of Trani’s tenure as president in 2009, and the university’s role in Richmond.
The book, published by the University of Virginia Press and released in September, shows how VCU — created from the merger of the Medical College of Virginia and Richmond Professional Institute to serve a city emerging from an era of desegregation, white flight, political conflict and economic decline — reflects a larger, national story of urban universities and the past and future of American higher education.
Sen. Tim Kaine wrote the foreword of the book, and dust jacket blurbs were provided by former UVA President John Casteen III; former VCU basketball coach Shaka Smart; Susan Gooden, Ph.D., dean of VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs; bestselling novelist and VCU alumnus David Baldacci; and Roger Gregory, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and former rector of the VCU Board of Visitors.
The authors’ royalties from sales of the book will go to the VCU Foundation to fund student scholarships.
Trani and Kneebone recently spoke with VCU News about “Fulfilling the Promise,” which they say shows how VCU has been, and continues to be, a force for positive change in Richmond and Virginia.
What inspired you to work together to tell the story of VCU?
Kneebone: We were coming up on the 40th anniversary and, at that time, people felt like we had something to celebrate. The city had come back and VCU of course was quite successful — it had a large enrollment, enrolling more Virginia students than any other city university.
In the summer of 2009, I got a call from the president’s office. Dr. Trani, who was just stepping down, proposed that he and I work together on a history of VCU. My first instinct was to think, well, maybe this isn’t for me. Let me propose to him that I’ll do oral history interviews and we can put together a biography of Dr. Trani, a transformative leader.
He immediately said, “No, that’s too narrow. VCU’s story is much bigger than just one person and more complicated.” He said, “You know, VCU’s last history was Virginius Dabney’s 1988 book on the 20th anniversary. And he gave more attention in that book to the history of the Medical College of Virginia and Richmond Professional Institute than to VCU itself. So VCU really needs a proper history.”
We talked a bit and I said I know a lot about Virginia and Richmond. I’m not sure about higher education. And he said, “Well, I know something about higher education, so we can collaborate.” We set out with me doing research on the earlier years and interviewing him, sort of preliminary interviews.
Of course I could come to him and say, here’s something that was going on in Virginia higher education back then, do you have any thoughts? And he’d go, “Yeah. You know, this is what I was seeing in Nebraska. This is what seemed to be happening in Missouri.” So we had a sense of that larger context as well. We talk about the process in the book’s introduction. I think our different strengths actually worked together.
What is it about VCU’s story that makes it serve as a good microcosm for higher education in the U.S.?
Trani: Sen. Tim Kaine, in the foreword to this book, states there have been three trends that have led to a “powerful transformation in Richmond.” They are the emergence of VCU, the desire of its citizens to change long patterns of discrimination, and a concerted effort to emphasize the city’s natural beauty, especially the James River. This book explains the first of the three, how two institutions — MCV and RPI — came together to create a university that has worked with its community and that by doing so, showed that a large public institution with a significant medical center can not only survive but thrive and play a role in what is known as the “eds and meds” phenomenon that is typically played in urban America by elite private institutions with large medical centers. In that way, VCU can be a role model for higher education in the U.S.
Kneebone: We say that VCU is sort of exemplary of the fall and rise of urban universities. And we tell the story. Urban universities, of course, have always existed but today’s universities in urban areas are more than half of the total number of institutions. City education has become the norm, and that wasn’t always the case. Higher education, the idea was that putting students out in the countryside in a bucolic location where they weren’t distracted gave them a chance to engage in the high jinks of fraternity and sorority life and college life in general.
Urban universities, which catered to working-class immigrant minority students, students who were occupation oriented rather than liberal arts types you might find at traditional schools, seemed to be lower status. The higher status was for more selective schools and schools engaged in research. Urban universities, coming from a low point where they were in the midst of cities that were falling apart, suffering from suburbanization and white flight and conflicts, and with a mission to help solve some of these city issues as well, ended up becoming sort of the exemplars of higher education.
Students today at just about every school are career oriented, are thinking ahead to what they’re going to do in the future, less connected and less worried about fraternities and sororities. And urban universities, particularly, I think, for students who grew up in the suburbs, are a place that is actually lively and exciting instead of scary and dangerous as it was 40, 50 years ago. So it’s a success story that we’re telling.
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