Wendy Kliewer


Wendy Kliewer, Ph.D., reflects on the Department of Psychology's trajectory and the university mission

On July 1, 2018, after eight years as chair of the Department of Psychology, I hand over the reins of leadership and return to the ranks of the faculty. This transition coincides with the 50th anniversary of VCU – when the Medical College of Virginia was united with Richmond Professional Institute to form a new, urban institution. As I reflect on my tenure as chair, I thought it fitting to consider the reasons for VCU’s founding, and the principles, values and ideals expressed in the Wayne Commission Report, which provided the justification for establishing VCU. Even as VCU’s Board of Visitors recently approved a new strategic plan to guide the university for the next six years – Quest 2025: Together We Transform – it is my hope that I am judged to have led the Department of Psychology ably in reflecting the principles, values and ideals of the Wayne Commission Report.

The authors of the Wayne Commission Report noted that the formation of VCU afforded real opportunities to meet the educational needs of the metropolitan community. The report also noted that, “a new focus in higher education is needed....” and that the “conditions prevailing in urban centers embody many of our most critical national, state, and local problems.” The authors of the report went on to argue that the opportunities facing this newly created university were both timely and exceptional. “Rarely has so challenging an opportunity to combine the free pursuit of knowledge in its own right with the ready availability of that knowledge for the enlightenment and enrichment of the larger community of which it is a part been presented to an institution of higher education.” Critically, the report argued that “an urban-oriented university is unique in that its basic philosophy concentrates on meeting the needs of an urban population living and working in an urban environment .... the urban university has an obligation to participate in the solution of urban problems.” I posit that these sentiments are just as true today as they were 50 years ago, and that VCU’s strengths lie in its distinctiveness as an urban, research university that is highly engaged with the community and activity working on solving some of the most critical national, state and local problems. The Department of Psychology clearly appreciates these values. Our faculty, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and visiting scholars are engaged in research that is making a real difference in people’s lives; changing schools, communities and clinics; and affecting national policy. We are working on problems of addiction, community violence, eating disorders, child asthma, attention deficit disorder, unhealthy sleep patterns, HIV prevention, discrimination and tobacco product regulation. Many of these issues are more prevalent or have more consequences in our urban communities than in suburban or rural parts of the country.

For example, during my time as chair, faculty in the department secured $18.1 million in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for a five-year grant – the second largest in VCU’s history at the time – to establish the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products; $5.8 million in NIH funding for a six-year cooperative agreement to study RVA Breathes – an intervention to reduce asthma disparities in children; $5.9 million in funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a five-year community-based cooperative agreement to reduce violence and enhance positive youth development in two east end communities; three Institute of Education Sciences grants totaling more than $6.8 million to improve the care of individuals with ADHD – either students in college or individuals being served in community-based pediatric clinics; $2.5 million in NIH funding to intervene with families to promote healthy eating and exercise; and $1.5 million from SAMHSA to work on HIV and substance abuse prevention among African American college students. Our involvement as a department with two transdisciplinary cores – Culture, Race and Health and Oral Health in Childhood and Adolescence as part of the iCubed (Inclusion. Inquiry. Innovation) initiative – also affirms our commitment to addressing needs of the urban community in partnership with the urban community. Collectively these projects are not merely addressing the needs of our urban community, they are helping our department to rise in national prominence, one focus of the new strategic plan Quest 2025. I am proud to note that during these eight years, the Department of Psychology moved into the top 25% of Departments of Psychology in the country.

Another key point made in the Wayne Commission Report concerned faculty selection. The report noted, “In the selection of faculty and staff for all programs, special attention should be given to their interests and qualifications in relation to the urban orientation of the University.” During these eight years, I have witnessed increasing recognition of the importance of hiring faculty who are suited to address the mission of our urban institution. Effective August 2018, the Department of Psychology will have 48 full-time state-funded (E & G funded) teaching and research faculty – a 25% increase from the number of faculty we had in 2010 when I assumed the role of chair. Over the past eight years I have overseen the hiring of 24 of these 48 faculty – half of our department. Further, effective August 2018, 28% of the tenure-stream faculty in the department – more than one in four faculty – will be from underrepresented minorities – either Latino/a or African American. This also represents a significant change from 2010. Increasingly, the demographic make-up of our faculty mirrors that of our student body, and that has a huge impact on student success. Perhaps more critically, these faculty are committed to addressing the needs of our urban community and educating the students who find themselves here at VCU. I witnessed first-hand how a critical core of faculty with whom students could identify made a difference in where students applied to graduate school, the types of programs to which they applied and the preparation they received prior to interviews. The achievements of our faculty have not gone unnoticed. During my time as chair, Everett Worthington, Ph.D., was promoted to Commonwealth Professor and received a State Council of Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) outstanding faculty award; Albert Farrell, Ph.D., received the University Award of Excellence, was promoted to Commonwealth Professor and also received a SCHEV outstanding faculty award; Faye Belgrave, Ph.D., was promoted to University Professor, received a Presidential Award for Multicultural Enrichment, and the center she founded, the Center for Cultural Experiences in Prevention, received a Council for Community Engagement Outstanding University-Community Partnership Currents of Change award. She also received the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest – the highest honor APA has bestowed on any of our faculty. This year, the American Psychological Association is awarding Dr. Belgrave the 2018 Psychology and AIDS Distinguished Leadership Award. Other major honors and awards faculty have received include the University Scholarship Award to Thomas Eissenberg, Ph.D.; Presidential Awards for Multicultural Enrichment to Rosalie Corona, Ph.D., and Dorothy Fillmore; and Council for Community Engagement outstanding University-Community Partnership Currents of Change awards to the Clark-Hill Institute for Positive Youth Development and the Safety Net Primary Care Psychology Collaborative. These are merely the major awards faculty have garnered in the past eight years – and I haven’t even mentioned our students!

I am proud to note that during these eight years, the Department of Psychology moved into the top 25% of Departments of Psychology in the country.

In addition to stressing the importance of meeting the needs of the urban environment in which it is situated, and hiring faculty who would advance this aim, the Wayne Commission Report strongly emphasized the importance of the liberal arts and sciences. The Commission recommended that the University give priority to “the development of quality undergraduate programs in the liberal arts and sciences and substantial graduate offerings in the physical and behavioral sciences, professional education, and urban studies.” The report went on to note, “Any comprehensive university must have as its core strong offerings in the liberal arts and sciences, since other programs depend on and derive strength from these basic academic disciplines.” During my chairship, I have seen increasing acknowledgment of the importance of a liberal arts education for undergraduates. Employers appreciate graduates who have critical thinking skills, computational skills, and good reading, writing, and analytic skills. Over the past eight years, somewhat to my surprise, psychology as an undergraduate major has increased in popularity and remains one of the top three most popular majors in the Commonwealth. Despite fiscal challenges, our department has continued to offer quality experiences to our majors, including several small enrollment courses for majors only. This past year, we added a concentration in addiction studies to our undergraduate degree as a way to help meet state workforce challenges, and we continue to place several hundred students per year into community internships, research internships with faculty or service-learning courses.

The Wayne Commission Report also noted the need for “substantial graduate offerings in the physical and behavioral sciences, professional education, and urban studies.” Our department currently has four doctoral programs – all of which lead to a Ph.D. – and the largest number of doctoral students in a department in the university. Students in our clinical and counseling doctoral programs, in addition to their research, provide important mental health services to the underserved and underinsured in primary care settings and clinics through training grants our faculty have obtained. Our newest PhD program – health psychology – is an experimentally-oriented program focused on health disparities. Through these curricular advancements, the department has expanded the number of graduate students providing mental health services in primary care clinics and we have graduated our first cohort (and several subsequent cohorts) of health psychology doctoral students. Our graduate programs remain among the most diverse and the most competitive in the university.

During my time as chair, we also acquired the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program, a Fulbright exchange activity, which brings accomplished professionals from selected developing countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Europe and Eurasia to the United States at a mid-point in their careers for a year of study and related practical professional experiences. Fellowships are granted competitively to professional candidates with a commitment to public service in both the public and the private sectors in a wide range of fields. The Fellowship program at VCU focuses on a broad range of health problems with an emphasis on understanding the behavioral, psychological, social and cultural factors that affect people’s health, and the use of behavior change interventions to promote positive health outcomes. The program emphasizes the use of culturally appropriate, science-based prevention, treatment and policy interventions.

In summary, 50 years after the founding of VCU, I believe that the Department of Psychology remains true to the mission outlined in the Wayne Commission Report: We are actively participating in the solution of urban problems; we are hiring diverse faculty who are committed to addressing the needs of our urban community and educating the students who find themselves here at VCU; we are hosting a prestigious, internationally recognized fellowship program for mid-career professionals; and we are offering quality undergraduate and doctoral programs. Further consistent with VCU’s contemporary goals, our department has risen both in national prominence and in the diversity of its students and faculty. It has been my honor to have nurtured and witnessed these advances as I led and served the department these past eight years.