Leebron’s centennial address: ‘We must be bold’

“In the joy of high adventure, in the hope of high achievement, in the faith of high endeavor, for this fair day we have worked and prayed and waited. We have asked for strength, and with the strength a vision, and with the vision courage. … The Rice Institute, which was to be, in this its modest beginning, now has come to be.”

President David Leebron delivers his centennial address.

President David Leebron began his centennial address Oct. 12 the same way founding president Edgar Odell Lovett welcomed the first students and faculty in the fall of 1912. And Leebron spoke from a stage that was a replica of the one on which Lovett spoke, to an audience that included delegates of more than 100 universities from around the world, much like Lovett addressed scholarly leaders from around the world after a formal academic procession.

Such parallels provided the perfect scenario for Leebron’s historic speech, as he paid tribute to Lovett’s vision for the first institution of higher education in Houston. Built on swampland that is now a campus of beauty with 80 buildings, Rice has become “the architectural embodiment of growing intellectual ambition,” Leebron said. More than 65,000 students have graduated from Rice, which has become one of the country’s top-ranked research institutions.

“We join today to reflect on a century of adventure and achievement, to honor our founders and forbearers whose vision and hard work resulted in the extraordinary university we know today, and to speak of our vision and ambitions for the future,” Leebron said.

He acknowledged William Marsh Rice – “the quintessential businessman of his time,” whose endowment made possible the incorporation of the William Marsh Rice Institute for the Advancement of Literature, Science and Art in 1891.

Leebron also noted Capt. James A. Baker, the lawyer who served as the first chairman of the Rice Institute’s board and rescued Rice’s assets after Rice was murdered.

And Leebron lauded Lovett, whose vision set the direction for the Rice Institute with “no upper limit” to its endeavors. “We are very much the university that Lovett imagined and hoped for, and yet we are in many ways so much more. Today our university is counted among the very best in the United States,” Leebron said.

“Truly, this is a campus that reflects our commitment to learning, to discovery, to beauty, to the nurturing of human potential and to a university that was from its foundation envisioned as a gift to the people of Houston,” Leebron said.

He said Rice’s personality reflects not only its history but also its location. “Houston is an entrepreneurial city, and we are an entrepreneurial university,” he said.

Leebron credited Kenneth Pitzer, Rice’s fourth president, for undertaking a substantial expansion of the institute 50 years ago. Since then, Rice became a more balanced university that Lovett envisioned as new schools were added, including the Shepherd School of Music, the Jones Graduate School of Business, the Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, separate schools of Social Sciences and the Humanities and establishment of the Baker Institute for Public Policy.

The centennial address was preceded by an academic procession led by (from left) President David Leebron, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Associate Dean of Engineering Bart Sinclair '73 and Board of Trustees Chair Jim Crownover '65.

“Our ascendancy into the top ranks of American higher education was recognized in 1985 when Rice became one of the 60 elite research universities in the Association of American Universities,” Leebron said.

He referenced a number of milestones over the past few decades, including Rice’s hosting of the G-7 summit in 1990, the awarding of Nobel Prizes to Professors Robert Curl and Richard Smalley in 1996 for the discovery of the buckyball, which opened up new possibilities for materials and medicine, and the Rice Owls’ becoming national champions at the College Baseball World Series in 2003.

Leebron acknowledged the leadership of Board of Trustees Chairman Jim Crownover ’65, past chairmen Charles Duncan ’47 and Bill Barnett ’55 and former presidents George Rupp and Malcolm Gillis, all of whom were seated on the stage for the centennial address.

“When we look around at the Rice of today, it is very different of course from that of 100 years ago, or 50 years ago or even 10 years ago,” Leebron said. “We are larger; we are more diverse; we are more engaged with our city; we are more international; and we are more committed than ever to contributing to our world through research and service.”

He noted that even though the student body has been expanded by 30 percent as part of his Vision for the Second Century, “we have remained true to our commitment to make our education affordable and have attracted an extraordinary and diverse population along every dimension as our applications doubled.”

Leebron said Rice will not continue to expand its student body in the near future “because we choose to remain a distinctively small university. Our size fosters an intimate sense of community and the special relationships between faculty and students that have defined the experience for so many of our graduates.”

He said Rice’s 11 residential colleges create strong communities across the undergraduate classes, and the college system has become the envy of others who seek to emulate it. “The dedication of our staff to our faculty, students and the university, and our dedication to them, are defining attributes,” he added.

Looking ahead to the next century, Leebron cautioned about “disruptive times” for higher education. “Our most basic concept of the university, as a defined space that brings teachers and students into physical proximity, is in the process of being upended,” he said, adding that Rice has more students registered for its new online courses than graduates over the university’s entire century. “We must embark upon a reimagining of university education in ways that take advantage of new technologies of learning, while increasing our commitment here on our campus to the personal relationship between teacher and student,” he said.

“As higher education both becomes ever more competitive and faces ever more daunting challenges, we must now lead with confidence in our own values and our own identity, as they have evolved over a century. Our strength as a university lies in part in choosing a different path from others, a different configuration for the university not just of today, but of tomorrow.”

Leebron said Rice’s challenge in the next century is to find “new ways to build deeper and broader relationships with the remarkable institutions that surround us — the museums, the medical institutions, the Johnson Space Center and the great enterprises of Houston. We must also reach out across the world and build not merely bridges, but strong and deep bonds.”

Leebron said he believes that universities are built upon a faith in “the power of knowledge and discovery and creativity to improve the lives of people everywhere and build a better future.”

He observed that virtually every aspect of modern life has been greatly influenced and enhanced by the work done in universities, and he advocated that universities not be “bastions of cynicism but citadels of optimism.”

“Our commitment must be to advance the frontiers of knowledge, understanding and creativity and to produce graduates trained and inspired to make great contributions as if the world depended upon it, for it surely does,” he said.

“As we enter our second century and face the opportunities ahead, we must be bold; we must be entrepreneurial; we must be collaborative; we must be fast and slow; we must be international yet distinctively American; we must be the great research university that preserved its dedication to its students; we must be Rice.”

The full text of the centennial address is available at http://www.rice.edu/centennialaddress/.

The video of the complete address appears below.

About B.J. Almond

B.J. Almond is senior director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.