Trani Gets Some Payback

A word to the Wise: be wary when you mess with a street-wise Italian guy from Philly.
That’s Eugene P. Trani, the outgoing president of Virginia Commonwealth University, to be precise.
Trani’s 19-year tenure at VCU has been marked by huge successes and some serious questions about abusing his power. On the plus side, Trani has taken VCU, basically a third tier commuter school, and taken it clearly into second-tier status. He’s raised the level of student and expanded the programs the school offers, including a number of overseas outlets such as one in Qatar.
Richmond’s renaissance around Monroe Park and Broad Street is also an achievement that only a very rare man or woman can claim credit for.
On the negative side, Trani has been criticized for big-footing neighborhoods such as Oregon Hill as he’s rebuilt and expanded. He is a bit of a megalomaniac, renaming the venerable Medical College of Virginia as VCU med school, to the chagrin of legions of MCV grads. Trani did so because a USA Today reporter got MCV mixed up with UVA — not exactly a serious reason. Trani was also under heavy criticism for the scandal in which Richmond’s former police chief won a bachelor’s degree without meeting requirements.

My issue with Trani was that he got so involved with the Richmond power structure that he threw his weight around with no checks or balances. He has been criticized for spending so much time on bricks and mortar projects that he squandered opportunities to enhance VCU’s rep as a research center.

It badly needed it since on Trani’s watch, in 1999, the National Institutes of Health banned VCU (and MCV) from doing any research work on human bodies after failing to keep federal privacy rules in line. In recovery, Trani hired a well-regarded scientists to do a makeover of VCU research. The woman, a South African by background, did just that, but later quit in a controversy involving Trani’s backing of highly questionable, strictly confidential research contracts with Philip Moris USA.

Many first rate schools decline to take tobacco money. Others that do, such as the University of Virginia and Duke, accept money only if they control the research. In VCU’s case, Trani gladly took the money and called the contracts “research service agreements” which supposedly meant they weren’t really research. In the original deal, anyone who questioned the contracts was to be immediately reported to Philip Morris. Groups such as the Association of American University Professors said that Trani’s view that the contracts were not research was nonsense.

Trani wanted to protect Philip Morris because the tobacco giant bailed out his faltering Virginia Biotechnology Research park. So when the New York Times called a year or so ago when it was breaking the story about the secretive research pacts, Trani wouldn’t talk to them.

I smelled something funny, especially since the local newspaper, which pushes Trani and VCU hard, had its “investigative” reporter take a look. He concluded that nothing was amiss because the University of Louisville, another low-ranked school in another tobacco town, had similar pacts.

So, I did some of my own investigating which was published a year ago on richmond.com. My story, which somehow is no longer available on Richmond.com’s server after Media General bought the Website, outlined the research issues and noted that some faculty and administrators were fearful of Trani’s reaction if they questioned thet tobacco research. Later, as national attention stirred, a faculty panel put in place by Trani recommended against such future pacts. I also blogged on this site about the controversy.

Well, this month, Richmond magazine has a cover on Trani. To wit:

“On hearing the comments of a local blogger, describing his administrative atmosphere as “Neo-Stalinist,” Trani tilts his head as if playing Name That Tune and names the writer instead. “Is that Galuszka,” he guesses correctly, naming a contributor to the Bacon’s Rebellion blog, Peter Galuszka.

“He doesn’t even now what neo-Stanlinist is!” Trani replies with a touch of amusement “I do! That’s my field!” (He is, in fact, an expert in Russian history).

My, but Trani does have a long memory. He’s wrong, however, about me not knowing what neo-Stalinist is. I first visited the Soviet Union as a college student in 1971 and spent years studying the language. I later spent a total of six years in the 1980s and 1990s there as an American news correspondent, some of which involved me being followed around or phone tapped by KGB officials. I probably have more time on the ground in Russia than Trani does. As for him being a Russian history expert, perhaps, but as part of my job I spent lots of time talking with academics, economists and Russian officials, including Boris Yeltsin. I never heard Trani’s name but look forward to reading some of his books.

Anyway, Trani’s getting some payback. His legacy is important but highly mixed.

Peter Galuszka

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Comments

21 responses to “Trani Gets Some Payback”

  1. John Doe Avatar
    John Doe

    Long story that went nowhere, and was not worth the time it took to get there.

  2. Gooze Views Avatar
    Gooze Views

    John Doe,
    How profound.
    Peter Galuskza

  3. Spank That Donkey Avatar
    Spank That Donkey

    Trani's bricks and mortar will be paid for by generations of students/parents/VA Tax Payers…

    Case in point the Segal Centre… he put up like $1M… the students $15M plus the interest payments on the building…

    Quality educations aren't dependent on buildings…

  4. Groveton Avatar
    Groveton

    The whole question of public higher education in Virginia needs considerable review. I believe that all of Virginia's public colleges and universities are too independent of our elected government. Most work to improve their own "brand" and image but few work for the overall betterment of the Commonwealth. In my opinion, UVA is the worst offender. They are an archaic, ineffective organization hiding behind the ruffled sleeves of Thomas Jefferson's memory. If Mr. Jefferson were alive today I believe one of his first actions would be to fire the entire leadership team at UVA. Mr. Jefferson never told anybody to remain frozen in time. In fact, quite the opposite. He was an experimenter and a futurist. Too many people dwell on his nearly encyclopedic understanding of history and antiquity to incorrectly assume he would argue for maintaining a dusty status quo vs. progress.

    My specific plans:

    1. The Commonwealth of Virginia operates many well regarded public universities. However, the top 3 (in order of reputation) are University of Virginia, William & Mary and Virginia Tech. None of these are located in a population / economic center. None operate an effective multi-campus program. These three universities should be confronted with a stark choice – either open a full multi-campus capability with at least one university in each of Virginia's three economic / population centers – NoVa, Richmond, Tidewater – or face severe spending cuts. If the universities fail to agree then the money saved in spending on the "Ineffective 3" should be diverted into incrimental spending on Christopher Newport, VCU and George Mason.

    2. The top tier universities are failing to increase emrollment at the same pace as Virginia's population is growing (at least, I shoud say, I know that's true for UVA). The 3 universities should be compelled to grow at the same pace as the state's population or they should be sold to their own boards of rectors whereupon they would be private. Many on this blog favor government privatization efforts. Perhaps it's time to privatize UVA and use the proceeds to fund public universities that are willing to operate in the state's interest.

    3. Compensation for the universities' management teams should be highly dependent on the relative ranking of that university among all american universities. I have seen the University of Virginia steadily slip in the third party rankings. This has happened despite increasing enrollment at about 1/2 the pace of population growth. If our largely ineffective state legislature can't summon the courage to remove ineffective administrators they can at least make that ineffectiveness less profitable.

    4. Compensation for the universities' management teams should be highly dependent on achieving a "fair share" of research grants. Once again, the measurement should be a broad based comparison between Virginia universities and all American universities. Too often, our state's universities hide behind "weasel words" that narrow comparisons in order to artifically enhance results. For example, Virginia Tech needs to be compared to all other American universities not "medium-large, public universities located in predominantly rural areas of the south".

    5. The top 3 universities should be compelled to take the top students regardless of their hometown. There are plenty of public universities and community colleges in Virginia. The top 3 should strive for academic excellence not geographic diversity. If Henrico County has the most effective education system in the state then I'd expect to see their graduates over-represented at the state's top 3 universities.

    6. Every university in Virginia should be compelled to implement an effective IP licensing program (a la Stanford) with the proceeds going to defray the state's contribution to higher education.

  5. Groveton Avatar
    Groveton

    Off topic but excellent – See this blog post by State Sen. Chap Petersen on transportation in Virginia. I have met a lot of Virginia state politicians over the years. In my opinion, Sen. Petersen is so far ahead of the pack that the remaining politicos have to squint to see him. In fairnes, I sure haven't met them all. But he's head and shoulders above those I have met.

    http://oxroadsouth.com/2009/06/04/trains-planes-and-automobiles.aspx

  6. Larry G Avatar
    Larry G

    Chap P said in his blog:

    " To me, the failure of the state to fund local road construction is most worrisome. As a local official, you count on the state to fulfill its legal duty to maintain roads, especially those which they own. We absolutely must reverse this decline in Richmond — or turn over the maintenance responsibility and permit localities to enact their own fuel taxes. "

    The Governor of Virginia and his Transportation Cabinet head said:

    " House Bill 3202 raises new, dedicated statewide sources of revenue for transportation. Through a mix of bonds, new taxes and fees, and other revenue sources, more than $500 million in additional funds"

    and…

    …" several measures intended to improve the coordination between transportation and land-use planning as well as land use reform measures.
    …..
    The Commonwealth Transportation Board must develop new transportation and land-use performance measures as part of the Statewide Transportation Plan"

    Larry Gross said that people who say this:

    " the failure of the state to fund local road construction"

    need to explain why they are advocating state-wide tax increases to fund the needs of localities who make land-use decisions that have transporttion infrastructure consequences".

    Virginia is one of 4-states that allow localities to make land use decisions without have to be responsible and accountable for the consequences of decisions that result in the need for very expensive transportation infrastructure.

    You don't need to look any further than the Tysons project where the developers want others to pay for the transportation infrastructure that will be needed serve that project.

    So.. instead of facing the issue … the county has surrogates who go out and say that "the state has failed to fund transportation for local roads.

    I think because BR has essentially abandoned most of it's blogging on some of the more important issues in Va.. that we end up with a pent up demand in discussing them in threads that are totally unrelated…

    sorry about that.

  7. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    Groveton:

    A Hit and a Miss

    The Hit: You have given some good thought to the higher education issue and make a lot of excellent suggestions.

    However, the top of the system is only the tip of the iceberg, although important for the cutting edge research you would like to sponsor.

    Citizens have to start at the pre-school level and work up, Cluster day care / pre school, Neighborhood 2 thru 6 schools, Village Jr high / high-schools and Votec.

    At the ‘college’ level the first thing to do is to break up the ‘state’ community college system.

    Every Community should have a Community College (along with a Community Hospital, a Community Laboratory, a Community Orchestra, etc.) Those Communities that want to carry their Community College beyond advanced Votec and two years of PreBac are free to do so. Competition, competition, competition.

    You are right on that each of the New Urban Regions should have a strong, real University.

    Selling the existing schools to the Board of Rectors is a great idea. Let them put their money where their mouth is.

    Now the Miss:

    If the item you cited is the best Chap can do and if Chap is the best you have met then the Commonwealth is in deep KimShee. You may be right but EMR hopes not.

    You have to start with a functional distribution of human activity and then design a Mobility and Access system to serve that settlement pattern.

    All the things Sec PH says about heading for the cliff are right. The problem is spending more on what got citizens to the brink will only get them over the edge faster.

    EMR

  8. Anonymous Avatar
    Anonymous

    I just read the article; what a waste of time.

    1)It's pretty undeniable that Trani left VCU in a way way way way better shape than it was when he got here.

    2)After reading the article, your credibily on anything about Trani or VCU is shot. I appears you hate Trani and VCU and want everyone else to feel the same way.

  9. Larry G Avatar
    Larry G

    I think Community Colleges are the way to go and the "branded" higher ed universities are a creature of our own making judging from all the University decals and license plates on even old geezers cars.

    There are hundreds of high quality colleges and universities around that are much less expensive .. and much friendlier places for the average person to get their academic credentials.

    Big Universities are BIG Business and there are "2nd and 3rd tier" wannabies…

    Want to put a major dent in the big sloths?

    offer a FREE all-expense paid education to any student who can qualify if they spend their first 2 years at a Community College and then transfer – then goes "halvsies" with them as long as they maintain a 3.0 or better.

    Every kid will quickly understand that they've got a guaranteed college education if they stay in school and get good grades….

    and the big U's will have to compete for more first year students.

  10. Gooze Views Avatar
    Gooze Views

    Anonymous 7:18 p.m.

    Let me try to sort this out. You read an "article" (which one you don't say) and conclude I have no credibibility about Trani or VCU.

    (1) The NY Times, the nation's top newspaper, prints a front page story about VCU and Philip Morris research which the local media completely misses. Trani refuses to be interviewed by the Times.

    (2) After dozens of interviews, I write an article questioning VCU's approach to secret tobacco research.

    (3) Trani sets up a faculty study committee and they recommend AGAINST doing such research.

    (4) I post a blog item noting Trani's "huge" successes plus his controversies regarding research, the police chief degree and muscling over neighborhoods to build VCU.

    (5) I have no credibility because I dare question and powerful and controversial figure.

    Sometimes I wonder about this place. Anywhere else I have lived and worked, someone like Trani would have been under a constant spotlight. But not in Richmond or Virginia. Unless one goes along with the Grand Laud of the powerful, they have no "crediblity." And, the critic doesn't bother to idetify himself or herself and hides behind an anonymous" moniker.

    Peter Galuszka

  11. Groveton Avatar
    Groveton

    LarryG:

    The state sets the gas tax and it hasn't been raised (on a cents per gallon basis) in over 20 years. Meanwhile, the costs of everything to do with road construction and maintenance have escalated. Sorry bud but that's just plain and simple incompetence. Now we don't have sufficient money in the transportation budget. Who could ever have guessed that would happen? Meanwhile, maintenance money is allocated by linear mile with no regard to usage. Not exactly the "user pays" philosophy I've heard you espouse again and again. Of course, that argument is only made when it represents another way to soak NoVa.

    As for localities doing whatever they want with land use – wasn't the General Assembly voting on whether localities could charge significant proffers to developers? That doesn't sound like the localities doing whatever they want.

    EMR – in the long run I am sure you are right. Of course, in the long run we are all dead. In the meantime, we need to fix some things. Transportation is one of them. Kaine tried but was stymied by the GA Republicans. As usual, the party of no had no ideas of their own.

  12. Groveton Avatar
    Groveton

    From the keyboards of liberals oft – times come gems:

    Sometimes I wonder about this place. Anywhere else I have lived and worked, someone like Trani would have been under a constant spotlight. But not in Richmond or Virginia. Unless one goes along with the Grand Laud of the powerful, they have no "crediblity."

    Here's few more that go against the grain:

    1. Mark Warner's time as governor was one big con job.
    2. George Allen was born with a golden foot in his mouth.
    3. Kaine has accomplished nothing.

    I am stunned that many of the politicians currently running for office in Virginia think that comparing themselves to the triplets of tragedy will convince people to vote for them.

    As for Chap Petersen – please send me the link to one other state senator who puts his or her positions on a public blog because he or she has the courage to take a stand on the issues. It should be noted that Chap will not stand for re-election until 2011 (assuming he decides to run again). So, this is no election year stunt. It is an honest politician being honest with his constituents. Unlike many of the "cockroaches in the dark kitchen of Richmond" Chap's views are online. If you don't like them – go to his blog and post a response. He's almost always posts a reply so I know he's reading the comments. An elected official who is actually listening to the voters! What a concept.

  13. Larry G Avatar
    Larry G

    re: " As for Chap Petersen – please send me the link to one other state senator who puts his or her positions on a public blog because he or she has the courage to take a stand on the issues. "

    You are correct.

    We ought to be congratulating his efforts and advocate that having a blog where citizens can interact with elected officials become the accepted standard.

    but go back and read the blog:

    " … or turn over the maintenance responsibility and permit localities to enact their own fuel taxes. "

    Every city in Va and two counties Henrico and Arlington have accepted responsibility for their own roads and as a consequence received a higher funding rate for their roads.

    Groveton – you're the one who says that NoVa gets soaked when state level taxes are raised because NoVa gets back less than what they put in.

    Why would you advocate doing it more especially if you and your neighbors will pay "more" and get "less" ?

    Mr. Peterson DID have it right when he said – let the localities tax gasoline.

    JLARC and VDOT says that VDOT's primary job ought to be maintaining the State roads and not maintaining local roads.

    I'm frankly surprised that you, as a constant critic of the overbearing nature of Richmond would advocate more of it.

    sorry – you can't have it both ways.

    do you want NoVa to become more independent AND ..more responsible for it's own affairs or not?

    What Chap was doing – he was advocating a tax increase.

    But like many who do.. they couch it this way – "the state is not living up to it's responsibilities".

    Aren't you the one that says that the higher level governments siphon money into black holes often never to return to where it was taxed?

    Mr. Peterson apparently wants a better deal that all the cities in Va get – the higher reimbursement rate because he is ALSO asking for the ability for a local gas tax.

    Fair enough.

    but why can't NoVa just increase the property tax to pay for local roads …

    JUST LIKE the OTHER 46 States in the Union already do instead of asking for a NEW Tax?

    be that as it may – I'd be fine with local option gas taxes.

    Those who are in the corridor for VRE already do – to the tune of 2%.

    So we'd be asking for what – another 2%?

    It won't be much though because 2% only brings in ten's of millions per year and a single interchange can cost 40-100 million…

    but I digress…

    do you REALLY want the State to raise taxes on NoVa and send it to Richmond for "processing" before it ..in theory..will return to NoVa?

    and how much of a deficit hawk are you in the first place if your criteria of tax increases is that we have not done them in a while?

    are you not making a case for a bigger Richmond and an even more subservient NoVa?

  14. Larry G Avatar
    Larry G

    Groveton made an important point that deserves to be repeated.

    Chap Peterson has by his actions of putting on a blog has provided every constituent two exceptionally important capabilities:

    1. – 24/7 access to Mr. Peterson at THEIR convenience

    2. – the ability of EVERY Constituent to see the questions of all other constituents – and the provided answer.

    We need to make sure that Mr. Peterson gets major KUDOS and that other legislators see this.

    I'd even go so far as to advocate a law that requires each elected official to operate a blog.

    thoughts?

  15. Groveton Avatar
    Groveton

    I want the state to memorialize the rights and responsibilities of all counties as part of the Virginia constitution. One of those rights is the control of all local roads including the taxes required to pay for them. The state will only keep a portion of the gas tax – the portion required to fund the building and maintenance of major intra-state roadways. The remainder of the gas tax will be returned to the locality where the gas was sold. All federal funds will be first used to defray the intra-state roadway costs. In the unlikely event that there is money left over – we will distribute that money based on proportionate gas tax receipts.

  16. Larry G Avatar
    Larry G

    Groveton – of the candidates for Gov.. which of them are promising to have the state itself deal with the problem?

    We know that no candidate is going to win by telling the counties that they'll be given the right to tax gasoline for local roads – right?

    Kaine and Homer Pierce and JLARC say they we need reform…

    which candidate is running on a reform plank?

  17. Groveton Avatar
    Groveton

    McAuliffe

    He has publicly said that not all good ideas come from Richmond.

    He has publicly said that he supports limiting Dillon's Rule in Virginia.

  18. Anonymous Avatar
    Anonymous

    okay, my comment @ 6/4/09 7:18 PM was a bit unfair. But from the article, I kind of got the impression you hate Trani and VCU; there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, it was just my perception.

    From my point of view, your articles on VCU and Trani are the equivalent of articles on democrats from the drudge report. nothing wrong with the drudge report, but i take what they say with a grain on salt.

    I post under "Anonymous" because I don't want my employer finding out about my "political views". I work for a richmond based multinational as a bean counter/analyst. I don't want any political views I have that are not in with the corporation's views to call into question some estimates/projections I make.

  19. Gooze Views Avatar
    Gooze Views

    Anonymous 4:53 p.m.
    Why would I hate VCU? That's insane. I have many friends who went there. My own wife earned her master's there last year. She got a good education at a very afforable price. I don't hate Trani either, but I am amazed how the power folk around Richmond treat him as if he is God.
    Remember anonymous, I didn't grow up in Richmond, which is a hotbed of political rest. I went to college up North during the Vietnam years with riot cops and bombings. Not that I wish them on anyone, just that it is a different perspective.

    Peter Galuszka

  20. Larry G Avatar
    Larry G

    We had a guy down our way named Frawley at UMW.

    you may have heard about him.

    it was a pretty amazing spectacle

    but it gave a rare insight to how some in lofty positions think…..

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