Leebron details challenges to come

At town hall, president says community at heart of Rice’s strengths

On a dark and stormy Halloween morning, Rice President David Leebron told university employees that running an educational institution can be tricky, but the dedication of the Rice community to Rice’s mission continues to make it a treat.

Leebron updated an audience of several hundred who braved the rainy weather on the state of the university in his semiannual town hall meeting Oct. 31 at Rice Memorial Center’s Grand Hall. He discussed how Rice is finding its way through a bumpy landscape for higher education in America, where the institution stands after the successful centennial campaign and the university’s focus for the future as the Vision for the Second Century defines Rice’s priorities for the new century.

He said every member of the community has the chance to contribute to Rice’s success with every encounter, no matter how trivial it may seem at the time.

“One of our largest donors was not a graduate of the university, didn’t have a child at the university, but he lives in Houston,” Leebron said. “So we asked him, ‘Why Rice?’ And the answer to that question was, ‘Everybody was so helpful to me every time I came onto this campus.’”

“Out of that came $30 million,” he said. “So when you encounter people on campus, please, be nice to them!”

Parents and students notice such niceties, he said. Toward the end of his talk, Leebron mentioned retweeting a note from a freshman about her biggest surprise during O-Week: “Everyone seems to be competing to see who can be the kindest.”

David Leebron

Rice President David Leebron addresses university employees at his bi-annual town hall meeting on Oct. 31. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Move-in day at Rice, he said, is a special time. “When we talk to parents about the experience, regardless of where else they might have sent another child, I have yet to meet the parent who had a better experience.”

Leebron said Rice’s caring culture, as reflected in its annual United Way campaign,  is particularly important as social and financial forces challenge institutions across the country. “We are now in this very difficult environment for higher education,” he said. “A lot of the issues we face are not unique to Rice.”

Every source of revenue for higher education is under pressure, he said, including stresses on the endowment, political pressure against tuition increases and cutbacks in federal research funding.

He said Rice continues to benefit from the conservative approach taken to budgeting during the recession that began in 2008. But caution is warranted, he said, even as the university continues its rapid pace of expansion on the west end, where a new tennis stadium, enhancements to the football stadium and new arts, opera, social sciences and continuing education facilities are either underway or in the planning stages.

Leebron acknowledged the pressure that puts on parking and showed a campus map with possible locations for above or underground lots.

He said the administration is undertaking a comprehensive space utilization study. “Space … on this campus is now unbelievably tight. It is too tight. In addition to that, it’s not clear that the space we have is optimally allocated,”  he said.

“What tends to happen at Rice and other places … is once folks get space, they tend to keep the space whether or not it’s the optimal use,” he said. “Like other universities, we are going to have to get better at these kinds of things. … We’ll be reviewing space around the campus to see how it’s allocated – which units might need a little less space, which units might need a little more – because if we can get more efficient, we can save money.

“Building on this campus is unbelievably expensive,” he said. “Just figure, roughly, $600 per square foot. So every time you find 1,000 square feet you thought you didn’t have, that’s $600,000 you don’t have to spend.”

In the question and answer session, Leebron said he’s optimistic about salary increases in the future. He noted that the university subsidizes benefits like memberships to the Gibbs Recreation Center in order to make it available to all members of the Rice community.

In response to a suggestion about using massive open online courses (MOOCs) to help high school students experience what Rice courses will be like, he reflected on the impact of Rice’s MOOCs: “What was Amazon at the beginning? What was eBay at the beginning? What was Netflix? These were all completely different enterprises than they are now. And I think the space of digital education is going to have that same kind of evolution.”

Repeating Rice’s values — responsibility, integrity, community and excellence — Leebron expressed confidence that Rice will meet the challenges that lie ahead. He said one takeaway from his centennial walkabout was affirmation that a strong community of people stands behind every success story.

“Going to the labs, what really struck me most is how many people in different capacities that success is built on,” he said. “Undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, faculty, people working in the faculty offices, people who take care of the equipment, people who maintain our spaces. That research success is built on what all of us contribute. And that does amazing things.”

“I hope, whatever the frustrations may be, that for most of us it is a distinct privilege to work at a university, and especially our university, because of the mission we have to empower young people,” Leebron said. “Everyone works together to make possible the research at a university that really does – it’s not just a figure of speech – change the world and impact our future.”

The Town Hall Committee of 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.