The Way I See It: From institute to university

The Way I See It
From institute to university

Special to Rice News

Next week, on July 1, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the name change of the Rice Institute to Rice University. Why did that change occur?


When William Marsh Rice and six of his close associates in May 1891 wrote out the charter of incorporation establishing the William Marsh Rice Institute for the Advancement of Literature, Science and Art, the word “institute” was apparently chosen for its generic meaning of an organization for the promotion of a cause, although the precise nature of the institute so formed was unclear. Perhaps in recognition of that lack of clarity, the charter provided that the trustees could retitle the institution and have it ”known by such name as [they] may in their judgment select.” The trustees apparently did not reconsider the name, and when, in 1908, Rice acquired its first president, Edgar Odell Lovett from Princeton, he emphatically affirmed that name because he had bold ambitions for the new institution.

The Rice charter is a vague document in many ways, and it was unclear to the trustees after the death of Mr. Rice in 1900 precisely what should be the shape of his institute, for it called for ”maintaining scientific collections; collections of chemical and philosophical apparatus … artistic models, drawings, pictures and statues”; the establishment of a library open to the public; and the ”establishment and maintenance of a polytechnic school,” presumably at the secondary level. Nowhere were the words “college” or “university” mentioned.

This sign displaying Rice’s original name is on Lovett Hall. “Literature” was changed to “Letters” so that it would fit on the Rice shield.

Once Lovett assumed the presidency, he infused purpose and vision into the charter, turning the purpose of the institute into becoming a major university complete with a distinguished faculty, a handsome campus, talented students and a program that combined a strong commitment to research and scholarship with a dedication to teaching. At this time most colleges and universities were primarily teaching institutions, with little attention on the part of either faculty or students to fundamental research. By then in academic circles the word “institute” had come to mean an organization devoted to research, which Lovett felt was the lifeblood of the emerging universities that he had observed on his round-the-world trip. In his address titled ”The Meaning of the New Institution,” delivered Oct. 12, 1912, at the conclusion of the formal opening ceremonies, Lovett was specific: ”The educational programme of liberal and technical learning now being developed may justify the designation ‘institute’ as representing the functions of a teaching university of learning, and, at least in some of its departments, those of the more recent research institutions founded in this country and abroad.” Here and elsewhere, as in the wording of the Rice diploma, Lovett often described Rice as a university, but the technical name institute telegraphed the importance of research.

As the Rice Institute matured, it added new departments, new majors and new programs, especially so after World War II, when two significant spurts of building and growth of the graduate programs broadened Rice’s academic purpose. This growth especially strengthened the humanities and social sciences, and graduate work began to spread beyond several departments in the natural sciences. By the 1950s the word “institute” was mostly associated with research programs in technical fields, and the word “university” had come to mean institutions of higher education with undergraduate and graduate training at the doctoral level in a wide variety of fields, selected professional schools and a strong commitment to research. In other words, as Rice had evolved since 1912 and the meaning of “university” had changed, it became evident to the trustees that “institute” was now a limiting term and not an accurate descriptor of the institution.

“Rice University” is displayed prominently at Entrance One on Main Street.

Meeting in special session in December 1959, the trustees identified a number of ways that the original name Rice Institute was no longer appropriate: for many people it suggested too narrow a focus, perhaps even one not having an academic purpose (was its purpose to promote the cultivation and consumption of an edible grain?), that could mislead prospective faculty, students and even foundations about the nature of Rice; it limited the ability to bring attention to new programs in the humanities particularly and to attract the best graduate students; it compromised fundraising because of its perceived limitations in offerings; it complicated the ability to develop within the institution new research initiatives that more properly deserved the title “institute” (a prescient foreseeing of the later development of many institutes within the university).

The trustees announced to the community in the pages of the alumni magazine Sallyport in January 1960 that for the reasons above they were considering a name change from the William M. Rice Institute to the William Marsh Rice University. The executive board of the Association of Rice Alumni had been informed of the discussions under way and approved the name change. The Sallyport sketched the history of the university and documented Lovett’s constant use of the term “university,” and it published endorsements by the president of the alumni association and by trustee H. Malcolm Lovett, who recalled how often he had heard his father refer to Rice as a university and how certain he was that the founding president, were he still alive, would approve of the change. The Rice Thresher supported the name change in a Jan. 16, 1960, editorial.

After gauging the overwhelmingly positive response of students, faculty and alumni, which confirmed its original judgment, the board of trustees decided in March to go forward, and on April 6, 1960, the trustees approved and filed with the secretary of state in Austin the proposed name change, to take effect July 1, 1960. The new name accurately described the university that Rice had become in the almost 50 years since its opening for classes, the real university that Edgar Odell Lovett had envisioned and described in his foundational address, ”The Meaning of the New Institution.”

— John Boles is the William P. Hobby Professor of History and author of “University Builder: Edgar Odell Lovett and the Founding of the Rice Institute” and “A University So Conceived: A Brief History of Rice.”

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