Leebron notes strategic academic priorities for next decade in State of the University address

President David Leebron gave an overview of the opportunities and challenges facing Rice University at his annual State of the University address to the Faculty Senate Sept. 25 in Duncan Hall’s McMurtry Auditorium.

He began by reminding the faculty about the university’s mission, which focuses on Rice’s “distinctive commitment to undergraduate education” and aspirations to “pathbreaking research, unsurpassed teaching and contributions to the betterment of our world.”

President David Leebron reminded faculty about the university's mission during his State of the University address.

Leebron said it’s hard to discuss the state of Rice University without referencing the environment of higher education in general. “Finances of higher education are under a lot of pressure and public attitudes toward higher education and government support are on the decline,” he said. “We operate in an extremely competitive environment. We are highly visible and scrutinized.”

Leebron presented an overview of this year’s entering students, which he described as “better than any class we’ve had.” Forty-seven percent of the 977 undergraduates in the entering class are from Texas and 14 percent are international students. “The entering class has no majority ethnicity,” Leebron said. “We have become one of the most diverse private universities.”

While there has in recent years been some increase in the percentage of freshmen who identified engineering or science as their intended major,  Leebron said that in terms of which areas of study students actually decide to pursue, “we remain a fairly balanced university.”

Undergraduate enrollment, at 3,893, accounts for 60 percent of the student body. Graduate enrollment, at 2,638, has increased more than undergraduate enrollment has, mostly in the doctoral programs. The U.S. and China are the largest sources of graduate students.

Research revenues of $114.1 million for fiscal year 2013 were up 6.4 percent from last year. “That’s a reflection of the success of the research activity on campus,” Leebron said, noting substantial increases in funding from the National Institutes of Health and from foundations. “As we look at the traditional sources of revenues that are now very constrained, one of the important things in our success is really going to be: Can we build on other sources of revenue?”

Leebron next discussed campus construction currently underway or planned.  That includes the Anderson-Clarke Center that will house the Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, the Moody Center for the Arts, Klein Hall for Social Sciences, the George R. Brown Tennis Complex, a proposed opera theater, a soccer and track pavilion and a new football facility and other improvements to Rice Stadium.

“We’re now developing the west end of campus in a very significant way,” he said, noting much of the university’s community outreach takes place in that area.

Rice has begun an integrated study to update the campus master plan. One key area of focus will be addressing parking needs. “There is some shortage of parking east of the stadium and in the center of campus,” Leebron said. The study will look at options for adding parking and other facilities.

Leebron said operating revenues for FY 2013 are $565.2 million – an increase of more than 74 percent in the past decade. Endowment distribution, net tuition, and grants and contracts account for about 84 percent of Rice’s revenues. (These are preliminary figures pending completion of the FY 2013 financial statements.)

Operating expenses for FY 2013 are $569.9 million (also a preliminary figure pending completion of the financial statements) – an increase of more than 81 percent since 2002. About 64 percent of those expenses support teaching and departmental and sponsored research.

“In a relatively short amount of time, we’ve become almost a $600 million-a-year enterprise,” Leebron said. Rice’s operating margins are “very tight,” he said. “We have to be very careful about managing our expenses as well as our revenues.”

Rice’s endowment is now valued at $4.82 billion — a preliminary estimate. (The final audited returns on the endowment are expected to be over 13 percent for FY 2013.) And in June, Rice’s AAA bond rating was reaffirmed.

Leebron shared additional positive news on the financial front: Rice exceeded the $1 billion goal of the Centennial Campaign despite the very substantial challenges of the economic environment. Alumni accounted for 42 percent of the gifts and pledges that put the campaign total at $1.1 billion.

Looking ahead at the next decade, Leebron said the Vision for the Second Century “still provides a good framework for how to think about our goals and priorities.”

He cited a number of strategic academic priorities: quality teaching and digital learning, enhancing research, entrepreneurial university, more international engagement, the arts initiative, energy and the environment, and Texas Medical Center relations and the biosciences.

Rice’s new Center for Teaching Excellence gives faculty a resource to make their teaching as effective as possible and to find new tools and new ways of engaging students, Leebron said. And changes taking place in the Texas Medical Center gives Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative an opportunity to become “a new player” in inter-institutional collaboration.

Leebron said investments in campus infrastructure are needed, including information technology. “And we need to use administrative resources more efficiently across the entire enterprise.”

He credited the strength and commitment of the faculty for helping distinguish the university and cited several rankings that convey that distinction, including the Leiden ranking of the world’s top universities, in which Rice is No. 1 in natural sciences and engineering and No. 6 for all sciences; the Max Planck Society ranking, in which Rice is No. 1 for materials science and chemistry and No. 2 for engineering; and U.S. News and World Report, in which Rice is No. 18 and has been in the top 20 since 1988.

Leebron ended his presentation with a reminder about the values that guide Rice’s mission, culture and behavior: Responsibility, Integrity, Community and Excellence.

During the following Q-and-A, discussion ranged across numerous issues, including general administrative costs, the need for more international students from countries outside Asia and the U.S. News rankings. After the discussion, Leebron invited the faculty to Wiess House for a reception.

The slides from the State of the University address can be viewed at http://www.professor.rice.edu/professor/Office_of_the_President.asp.

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About B.J. Almond

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