Rice Centennial goes global in Istanbul

About 120 Rice alumni, officials and students from Houston and all over the world gathered in Istanbul, Turkey, June 8-10 for the major international event of the university’s Centennial Celebration. Istanbul is one of 10 cities that are part of the centennial “world tour.”

“When Rice was founded 100 years ago, our founding president, Edgar Odell Lovett, came to Istanbul as part of his global tour to learn from the best universities around the world,” Rice President David Leebron said. “We decided very consciously to come here, rather than more traditional locations, to celebrate our centennial because, as we like to say about Rice, we wanted to think unconventionally. Istanbul is a place of enormous history that is reasserting itself today in the world, a symbolic place where we can look back to our past and ahead to our future.”

Alumni came from all over the United States, China, South Korea, Switzerland, Great Britain, Germany and Cyprus, as well as a large contingent from Turkey, for the meeting, which was hosted by Ali Koç ’90.

Ali Koç '90 hosted the major international event of Rice University's Centennial Celebration in Istanbul.

“I entered Rice in 1985 and it was a shock for me – a heat shock, culture shock, people shock,” Koç said. “I loved the people, but they didn’t even know that Istanbul is in Turkey. So I’m especially proud to welcome you to Istanbul because having this centennial event here says Rice is truly becoming an international university. Rice has come a long way.”

The event began June 8 with a reception and welcome from Rice trustee Bobby Tudor ’82 and Scott Kilner, consul general of the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul. History Professor John Boles ’65 provided an account of Lovett’s world tour, which helped shape the vision that guides the university to this day.

Ambassador Edward Djerejian, founding director of Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, opened Rice’s first international Alumni College event the next day with an account of the democratic revolutions over the past year called the “Arab awakening” or “Arab spring” and the role of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

“Most of the problems we’re dealing with today stem from the carving up of the Arab region by the colonial powers between 1916 and 1922,” he said. The region became characterized by frequent military coups d’état, led by military men who became “presidents for life, oligarchs,” Djerejian said. “Over time people became servants of the state instead of the state serving the people.”

“When a Tunisian fruit vendor self-immolated in December of 2010, it lit a grassfire throughout the region,” he said. “This was not by a political party, not the Muslim Brotherhood, not a religious organization: It was from youth and it was grassroots. It was symbolized by a placard that said, ‘Enough’ – enough corruption, enough unemployment, enough not being able to feed our families.”

“The awakening is a tectonic shift of the political landscape in the whole Middle East, with huge implications,” he said. For the United States, this requires a subtle approach to competing U.S. foreign policy interests – one that promotes democracy in other parts of the world, one that seeks to protect the country’s own interests, he said.

On other subjects, Djerejian said that Turkey is at a crossroads politically, economically and culturally, and is positioned to join the Group of 20 major economies around the world.

He called for the U.S. to “get its act together: If the U.S. isn’t strong economically at home, we can’t play a productive role in the world.” The only way out of the current political impasse in the country is leadership, he said.

University Representatve Y. Ping Sun and President David Leebron display the Rice owl sign in Istanbul.

Next up were Leebron and Lisa Anderson, president of the American University in Cairo (AUC), to talk about higher education in the global age.

Leebron described the challenges facing higher education in the U.S.: economic pressures, growing regulatory burdens, the role of technology internally in changing teaching practices and externally in the audiences reached, and internalization.

Anderson assumed the AUC presidency in January 2011 just as pro-democracy protests were breaking out in Egypt. As protests occurred on the university’s two campuses, she created a committee to develop a campus “expression policy” aimed at defining both the rights and responsibilities of free expression and, just as important, the need to tolerate other points of view.  That, she said, was a sea change after a “century of authoritarianism.”

Both agreed that the higher education model held mostly unchanged for centuries, but that fundamental changes in the next 10 to 15 years will be hard to predict.

Leebron said the cloister model of higher education, in which scholars recused themselves from society to conduct their studies and reflection, is gone and universities are now “very involved, very influential” in their communities in addition to having global impact.

Anderson noted that “lifelong learning is now a feature of modern life,” which means that “alumni now mean something different to their university than they have in the past.”

In addition, she said universities are no longer just about teaching facts, which are now easily accessible on a smartphone. As an example, she said, there are 85 million Egyptians, but 95 million mobile phones in the country, and even the one-third of the population that is illiterate has smartphones. This, she said, is the “great equalizer: You may have a Ph.D., but I can whip out my smartphone and we’re equal.” That in turn changes the role that universities will play in the future of learning, she said.

All these forces, Leebron said, raise the question of whether the traditional, brick-and-mortar four-year university will survive. The goal, he said, must be “to produce creative, analytical people,” something that an experience in a research university can realize.

The day culminated with a cruise on the Bosphorus and a visit to the Rahmi M. Koç Museum, which houses an array of vintage cars, airplanes, buses, trolleys and even a submarine. As people toured the museum, the frequent refrain was “I learned to drive in a car like that.” The tour was followed by a dinner hosted by Koç at Halat restaurant.

Participants had the opportunity to join daylong tours of the city before and after the weekend event.

The centennial world tour began March 8 in Austin, Texas, and has continued with events in Dallas, Boston, San Francisco and Sao Paulo. Still to come are events in New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Taipei, Taiwan. So far, some 800 people have participated.

Gloria Tarpley ’81, president of the Association of Rice Alumni, said the success of the Istanbul event has created an appetite for similar Alumni College meetings in international sites in the future. “As our student body has become more internationalized, so has our alumni population, and it’s great for all of us to experience our Rice kinship in other parts of the world,” she said.

About Linda Thrane