Rice executive leadership, past and present, reflect on university’s progress

The three board chairs and the three presidents who were the leaders of Rice University in the past quarter century took to the stage Oct. 12 in Tudor Fieldhouse for a wide-ranging discussion about their service at the helm. As moderator and history professor Allen Matusow pointed out, their combined tenure marked a time when Rice “made the leap from being a very good regional university to being a university that is ranked among the top 20 in the United States.”

The panel discussion was one of the events for Rice’s Centennial Celebration.   

President David Leebron was joined on the panel by former Rice Presidents Malcolm Gillis and George Rupp, Rice Board of Trustees Chair Jim Crownover `65 and former board chairs William Barnett `55 and Charles Duncan `47.

“There are many reasons for the success of Rice, but I would say the most significant reason is leadership,” Matusow said in his opening statements. He asked panelists to share their key highlights and lessons.

Rupp served as Rice’s president from 1985 to 1993, before leaving to become president of Columbia University. He emphasized the past quarter century as a time when Rice defined its identity. “What was crucial is that (Rice) got better by becoming more itself rather than by imitating some other institution,” Rupp said.

Not being an imitator requires the leadership of a president with a vision. Duncan, who served as board chair from 1982 to 1996 and headed two presidential search committees, said selecting a university president is a delicate process that must be led by a carefully chosen committee consisting of students, faculty, staff and alumni. “Both committees worked exceptionally well together,” he said. “I can’t recall any problems or any discord. Everyone had respect for what everyone else said, and it was a very compatible group of people.”

Gillis, who was president from 1993 to 2004, stressed Rice’s leadership in three newer fields of study — nanoscale science and nanotechnology, computational sciences and biological sciences — as key to its progress. “The convergence of these three fields holds out immense promise for society,” Gillis said. “The achievements that have flowed from this convergence really typifies what Rice is all about.”

Barnett, who served as board chair from 1996 to 2005, said Rice’s growing international focus and its partnerships were a critical development during his tenure. “Rice developed great ambition, and it was to be a great international university,” Barnett said. He said that ambition was aptly summarized for him by one of Gillis’ first speeches to the Rice community. “(Gillis) said Rice would either become international or it would become irrelevant.”

Rice’s dedication to its undergraduate students and its relationship with the Houston community are key institutional strengths, said Leebron, who has been president since 2004. “Rice sits at two important intersections,” he said. “We have this incredible dedication to our undergraduates. We are a lot like a liberal arts college, and yet we’re a great research university. We can offer students a combination that they really can’t get anywhere else. The other intersection we sit at is that we are three miles from the center of this city, the fourth largest city in the country.”

Crownover, who has served as chair since 2005, talked about Rice executive leaders’ role as judicious stewards. “At a university like this, it’s very long-term proposition,” he said. “You have to worry about protecting what the people that have gone before have done, making sure their investment is secure and being sure you that leave something for the next people that will be advanced financially and strategically.”

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