Leebron highlights themes for Rice in its second century

Suggests seven ways forward as successful Centennial year nears end

Rice President David Leebron put seven themes on the table for discussion at his spring town hall meeting April 4.

Each reflects an area in which he believes Rice has potential as it wraps up a successful centennial, nears its $1 billion capital campaign goal and met or made major progress to achieving several objectives of the Vision for the Second Century: increased its student body, advanced its international initiatives, beefed up its research, added capacity and art to the campus and increased its partnership with the city and the Texas Medical Center.

“Some of the themes have emerged out of the process that in some ways began with the State of the University address last fall, amplified by the Centennial address,” he said at the Shepherd School of Music’s Stude Concert Hall. “The Vision for the Second Century still serves as a good guide for the university, but it’s time to step back and say, ‘Where can we achieve more? How can we focus our energies?’”

He said the themes will be the subject of more conversation and consultation with the faculty to refine and focus them. They are:

1. Quality teaching and digital learning.

Rice’s successful entry into the realm of digital education puts the university in a good position to enhance both its academic outreach to the world and the ways subjects are taught on campus, Leebron said. He applauded Rice’s Coursera course on the Python programming language, which drew 80,000 participants and was the highest-rated course offered. He said more Rice professors have stepped up to teach new online courses through Coursera and edX than have done so in the entire University of Texas system.

“This isn’t just about putting videos online,” he said. “It’s about getting hold of the technology that adapts to the work of the students and makes learning more effective. It’s an opportunity for Rice, regardless of our small size, to enter this new world as an equal competitor.”

David Leebron

Rice President David Leebron detailed seven areas in which he expects the university to advance in the coming years. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

2. Texas Medical Center relations and the biosciences.

Leebron said the BioScience Research Collaborative, built as a way to connect more easily with the Texas Medical Center (TMC), “has come into its own” as a hub of interdisciplinary collaboration that now hosts about 80 percent of Rice’s bioscience research.

“But it’s only a part of what we imagined,” he said, noting that Rice “is too small to be arrogant.

“That means we build strength through collaboration. … We’re only using about 10 percent of the potential we have had to form relationships with the Texas Medical Center.” He said the administration is actively seeking ways to allow students to move more freely between facilities at Rice and other TMC institutions with a medical center equivalent of Rice’s Passport to Houston and to create more joint faculty positions.

3. Energy and water.

Leebron said energy and water are intrinsically linked in Houston and at Rice, giving the university an opportunity to advance progress on these planetary issues.

“The challenge here is for us to choose a set of priorities that will distinguish us and that we can be leaders in,” he said. “The whole conversation about fracking, for example, is largely a conversation about water, the contamination of water. It turns out the production of energy is about the consumption of water.”

Water shortages are expected to be a major issue over the next decade, “so working at this intersection of policy issues and science is something we think we can contribute to,” he said.

4. The entrepreneurial university.

Rice is full of entrepreneurs working for the right reasons, Leebron said.

“It’s not just about making money … or intellectual properties, or starting a business. It’s about any ideas we have to engage people around us, to lead, to get people to collaborate for common goals and make a difference in the world. … We see that in our students.”

He said his “walkabout” gave him a taste of the passion students feel for entrepreneurial activities, from the Rice Alliance, Rice Coffeehouse, Engineers Without Borders, Valhalla, STEMscopes and OWLspark. “Our task is to figure out those experiences with the best educational opportunities we can provide,” he said.

5. Enhancing research.

Leebron noted Rice labs now draw more than $100 million in annual research funding. “When you cross that threshold, different things start happening,” he said. “We need to make sure we make this as easy as we can for our faculty in this increasingly competitive world.”

A Faculty Senate working group and administrators are discussing ways to improve the university’s physical research structure – “which is actually in pretty good shape,” Leebron said – as well as the administrative processes that support research at Rice.

6. International engagement.

Leebron likened the university’s Office of International Students and Scholars to “air traffic control” for the level of activity there. “We have this incredibly vibrant international student body,” he said. “We want our students to go overseas, but even if you don’t go overseas, you’re going to have an international experience right here at Rice. That’s part of the goal we set.

“We need to expand our relationship with institutions abroad and that’s the goal we’re aiming for.”

7. The arts initiative.

Leebron said the growing collection of public art at Rice will take a quantum leap forward with the construction of the Moody Center for the Arts. He said the center would finally bring to campus a gallery designed for visiting exhibitions.

“It will enable us to build deeper collaborations” with Houston museums, he said, noting “the opportunities we will have to enrich our students and everybody else on campus.”

“The Vision for the Second Century still serves as a good guide for the university, but it’s time to step back and say, ‘Where can we achieve more?'” — David Leebron

Leebron began the meeting with a roundup of his ongoing “walkabout,” which has brought him to research labs and administrative offices and put him behind the Rice Coffeehouse counter, into the steam tunnels beneath campus and behind the microphone as a KTRU DJ. “The purpose of this was to understand at a deeper level what goes on at a university every single day,” he said.

He addressed a smattering of other issues before taking questions. He said he had expected a bit of post-building-boom quiet time on campus. “I was wrong,” he said, listing the projects he anticipated would start to fill out the west end of the Rice campus over the next four years. Among them are the new George R. Brown Tennis Facility, the Robert A. Klein Hall for Social Sciences, the D. Kent and Linda C. Anderson and Robert L. and Jean T. Clarke Center for the Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies and nascent plans for an opera house and enhancements to the football stadium.

“Entrance 8 is already the most used,” he said, referring to the western-most gateway to Rice. “But now it’s really going to become the entry point to campus with the bulk of activities that people come on campus for. It’s going to change the configuration of our campus.”

He noted parking would present new challenges as more buildings go up, and that more buildings mean more maintenance. IT infrastructure, green space, playing fields and drainage are all issues to be addressed.

He applauded the work by the Office of Resource Development as it nears its ambitious $1 billion Centennial Campaign goal. The meter stands at $992 million, with nearly three months to go. “We will complete our campaign,” he said. “It really is a great achievement,” especially considering the economic challenges of the past five years.

Leebron said Rice’s endowment has recovered to pre-recession levels and other revenues continue to slowly grow, but budgets will remain tight over the next two years.

He noted the Rice Board of Trustees is one of the best he has ever worked with, and he commended Jim Crownover ’65, who will step down as chair June 30, and Crownover’s successor, Bobby Tudor ’82.

“People think of the board of trustees as kind of mysterious,” Leebron said, “but actually, they’re just a group of people who really care about Rice. … They’re very forward in their thinking about the university, want to make sure they preserve the resources of the university, and also they’re prepared to do bold new things.”

During a Q-and-A session, Leebron noted Rice’s massive open online courses might become a source of revenue in the years ahead. He also said that the university is looking for ways to improve efficiency across campus.

Recognition was given to some of Rice’s outstanding students, faculty and staff, including Resource Development’s Wayne Robinson, director of development administration, who received the 2013 Elizabeth Gillis Award for Exemplary Service. (Read the story here.)

The Town Hall Committee of Carlyn Chatfield, Jane Puthaaroon, B.J. Smith, Carlos Solis and Chair Marie Wehrung welcomes feedback on the event at http://staff.rice.edu/post_event_TownHall_survey.asp.





About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.