Town hall: Rice is in ‘good shape’

Rice University is faring well in a “very dramatic time” for higher education, President David Leebron told about 350 staff and faculty members at the Nov. 27 town hall meeting at Rice Memorial Center’s Grand Hall.

As Rice’s 2012 centennial year wanes, he reflected on the changing landscape of Rice over the past 50 years and looked ahead to the next decade.

Leebron said Rice underwent dramatic growth between 1960 and 2012. The faculty increased from 160 to 526; staff increased from 150 (in 1965) to nearly 2,500; the undergraduate student population grew from 1,619 to 3,810; and graduate students now number 2,543, versus 320 in 1960.

The market value of Rice’s endowment has increased from $102 million to $4.4 billion, and tuition that was free in 1960 is now $36,610 (but still the lowest in Rice’s peer group of private universities). The physical plant has undergone dramatic changes as well, from 32 buildings to 84, and the academic enterprise expanded as the number of schools went from four to eight. Rice’s federal research grants have grown from $1.1 million in fiscal year 1962 to $107.3 million in fiscal year 2012. The last decade of Rice’s first century has also been a period of substantial growth and change. For example, operating expenses have increased from $287.8 million to $547.5 million.

“We have become a major research university with a very special dedication to teaching and to undergraduate education,” Leebron said. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve become a much larger, more complicated enterprise.”

Rice has also become “one of the most diverse elite private universities in the country,” Leebron said, noting that the undergraduate student body no longer has a majority ethnicity. International students account for 11 percent of the student body, versus 3 percent in 2002. The number of Pell grant recipients in this year’s freshman class is 19 percent, compared with 11 percent of the entire student body in 2002. And at the same time, Rice has grown more selective as applications grew from about 7,000 in 2002 to more than 15,000 in 2012.

A Princeton Review survey of students ranked Rice as having the happiest students in the country, and Rice’s No. 3 ranking among national universities in the Alumni Factor survey published this year indicates that Rice’s alumni also consider their education to be “an incredibly valuable experience,” Leebron said. He noted that Rice’s No. 8 ranking by the Houston Business Journal as one of the best places to work in Houston also indicates the satisfaction of the university’s employees.

The centennial provided an opportunity for Rice to celebrate its growth and accomplishments, and Leebron thanked everyone who contributed to making what some alumni described as “the experience of a lifetime.” Leebron said the celebration “exceeded my very best expectations” and “made our community truly, truly look extraordinary.”

Looking ahead to the next five to 10 years, Leebron said, “Online education is going to become an important part of who we are, I believe. But it’s also going to be very important that we use that to enhance our strengths in the things that are important for our students in our small, residential community. That means focusing on the quality of what goes on in our classrooms and on the interactions between professors and students and also staff and students.”

Among other challenges for the next decade are enhancing research capabilities; fostering more collaboration with the Texas Medical Center, museums and industry; building deeper international partnerships; and investing in infrastructure and maintenance.

Leebron announced that as he nears his ninth anniversary next year as president of Rice, he plans to set aside five days at the beginning of the spring semester to do a “walkabout” in the Rice community and engage in 100 activities with faculty, staff and students. “I want to take a break after the centennial to learn more about the different parts of our enterprise,” he said. His office will be sending out instructions for how to suggest activities for the walkabout.

Leebron then sat down for a “fireside chat without the fire” with Mary Cronin, associate vice president for human resources, and also responded to questions from the audience. Below is a sampling from the Q-and-A.

Regarding the state of Rice’s finances, Leebron said Rice is in “good shape” and does not expect more budget cuts. But he noted that every major source of funding is under pressure at a time when state and federal budgets are under pressure and public support for higher education is declining. The return on Rice’s endowment is likely to be lower than in past years, tuition increases will probably be less than in recent years and federal research funding will be limited.

“The good news is in opportunities for other sources of revenue,” Leebron said, such as K-12 digital teaching materials and professional master’s programs in science and engineering. Asked what he would like the president and Congress to know about higher education, Leebron emphasized the importance of fundamental research. While researchers in Europe get five-year grants, some researchers at Rice don’t know if they’ll be funded next semester, he said, adding, “How do you build a research program in an environment like that?” Leebron said he would also like legislators to better understand the economics of higher education. Rice’s tuition is about half the actual cost of providing the education, and after taking scholarships into account, Rice collects only one-fourth the cost of the education. Nonetheless, Rice remains committed to need-blind admissions and to making education “affordable and accessible” Leebron said.

In response to a question about Rice’s involvement in online education, Leebron said this endeavor has “the capacity to change and improve what we do for our students” because it helps faculty think about making the students’ experience in the classroom as interactive as possible. Online courses also have the potential to expand Rice’s reach and to help the university develop technologies for this growing field. Leebron said enrollment for Rice’s first five courses offered through Coursera exceeds 90,000. “That’s more students than have attended Rice in its entire history,” Leebron said.

Leebron was asked about his role in inviting Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr. to speak at the Centennial Lecture Series. Leebron explained that when he became president of the Harvard Law Review, he named Roberts as managing editor. “I gave the chief justice his first appointed position in life,” Leebron joked. He praised Roberts for his integrity and loyalty and noted that even though October is a particularly busy time for the Supreme Court, the chief justice stayed at Rice for a reception and dinner after his lecture and taught a class here the following day. “He was remarkably generous with his time,” Leebron said.

Another question focused on Rice’s plans to make use of films that were shown during a weekend of multicultural events in honor of the centennial for the Association of Rice University Black Alumni (ARUBA) and the Society of Latino Alumni of Rice (SOLAR). These films feature moving alumni stories about their education at Rice. The ARUBA video is scheduled to be shown in February on the local PBS station, and the SOLAR video is available on YouTube at Leebron also encouraged everyone to view a wonderful video produced for the Hispanic student association, HACER, that is available on YouTube at

The Town Hall Committee of Carlyn Chatfield, Jane Puthaaroon, B.J. Smith, Carlos Solis and Chair Marie Wehrung welcomes feedback on the event at

About B.J. Almond

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