10 years, 10 questions

David Leebron

Rice President David Leebron was drawn to Rice by its breadth and complexity, but found a surprising passion for the institution when he arrived in 2004. Photo byTommy LaVergne

David Leebron looks back — and forward — after a decade leading Rice 

If you’re new to the Rice community, you’ll quickly get to know David Leebron, who marked his 10th anniversary as the university’s president this summer.

Leebron and his wife, Y. Ping Sun, are ever-present on campus, giving talks, attending events and meeting with students, faculty members, staff, alumni and other Rice constituents. And if you haven’t yet encountered him in person, the president is a steady presence on Twitter, where his gentle humor and love of Rice come through loud and clear.

He paused in the middle of O-Week to talk about the challenge of running a top-tier research university over the past decade and the years to come. Even in his Allen Center office, his commitment to Rice was evident: The large Leebron head featured in a recent Rice Gallery installation peered out from his fourth-floor window, leaving no doubt that the man was on the job.

He’s pleased the university took the Vision for the Second Century – 10 goals for Rice collaboratively developed during an extensive “Call to Conversation” early in his presidency – to heart. The results are easily seen through the expansion of Rice’s student body, the new buildings on campus, the blooming of public art, new academic programs and centers and the university’s increasing collaboration with the Houston community and partners in the Texas Medical Center and schools around the world.

Leebron is particularly enthused by Rice’s success at raising its international profile. His gracious wife, a native of China who graduated from Columbia Law School before he joined the faculty there, has been essential to that effort. “Ping has played a large role, especially in China,” he said. “I don’t think we’d have quite the success we have without the support she provides by welcoming people to campus and building relationships. I could have never, never done it on my own.”

He said his task is far from done, elaborating as he answered the questions below. “There’s more progress to be made,” Leebron said. “There are more ideas. This is not a boring time in higher education.”

David Leebron

Leebron set the tone for change at Rice through the Vision for the Second Century. "I think we've made a lot of progress," he said, "but the world doesn't stand still." Photo by Tommy LaVergne

1. What most surprised you about Rice when you came here 10 years ago?

The breadth and complexity of Rice attracted me, but once I was here, I was surprised by the passion people have for the institution, and that people have very strong views about what Rice is and should be.

They sometimes want to hang onto things the way they were, and may not be fully aware of what’s going on in the rapidly changing world of higher education and what we need to do to be competitive. So there’s a lot of engaging with people to convince them of things that will advance and not hurt the institution.

2. How long did it take you to get your message across?

I think, in most cases, it took a year. I had an experience with one person who was at odds with me on several issues. Yet we developed a good relationship and I ran into him at a party, probably two years after I got here, and he said, “Did you change those 10 points? Because I looked over them the other day and I agreed with almost all of them.”

I tell people one of the most important things about change is consistency. It’s important that once you have developed a plan or goals and enabled others to express their views, you stick with the goals that emerge from that process. You then need to find ways to express what you’re doing that enable people to understand what you are trying to achieve. People will be thoughtful and come around, as ultimately we all share a passion for Rice’s success.

3. How hard was it to sell the idea of making Rice bigger, but not big?

Some were afraid the university was going to become very big. Well, that was never the plan. As I put it to some folks, it was a question of where, between tiny and small, we were going to be.

The problem is not that people hear what they want to hear, but that they often hear what they don’t want to hear. So I had to take time and tell them, “No, we’re not doing that, actually. Yes, it is a significant expansion, but we’re going to remain a small university. And yes, we’re going to build new colleges, and yes, the new colleges are going to be larger than the old colleges, but not too large.” We had to assure people we’d be careful and thoughtful and preserve — and enhance — the university’s strengths and reputation. The conversations we had were in fact very helpful and changed some of the initial plans, including the size and location of the new colleges.

I think we were helped somewhat in recent years by the strong Princeton Review rankings on student happiness and quality of life, which had an impact both on Rice people and others considering Rice. I know that some people who were skeptical about some of the changes began to change their minds when they realized that our students remained very happy with their experience. The diversity of our student population is also a very important success story. We have more students from more places and from more different kinds of backgrounds. That benefit is related to the increase in size.

We believe a great college education is preparation for a full life. A profession is part of that, but not all of it.

4. How pleasing is it to you to run a campus ranked one of the happiest in America?

Most important, people want a good education for themselves and their children, but they know if students are happy, they’re going to have a better education. It’s the time in their lives when it’s not just about what they’re going to learn in the classroom. It’s about relationships and interests they’re forming, friendships that will last their whole lives and trying to grow up to be happy people.

We want to be the great start of that. We want to be the place that shows people they can work hard, they can be engaged in very intellectual things, they can spend a lot of time on extracurricular activities and it can all come together for them in a way that makes them happy and successful on their terms. That’s the life lesson they’re going to take away from this.

We believe a great college education is preparation for a full life. A profession is part of that, but not all of it.

5. What pressures do you face now that you didn’t 10 years ago?

This is a very different environment. Ten years ago, nobody was talking about MOOCs (massive open online courses). Ten years ago, universities as a group didn’t have fundamental financial problems. Ten years ago, most people weren’t saying, “Why should you go to college?”

In the last six years, all the pressures on universities have come together in a very intense mixture. Universities are under great financial pressure. They’re under pressure about technology and what they should be doing. They’re under pressure about the makeup of their population and who they’re serving. They’re under pressure about the behavior of students and issues like sexual assault. They’re under pressure about college athletics and what it’s really about.

This is a much more stressful environment for people leading universities than 10 years ago.

6. Speaking of pressure, how has being a member of the NCAA Division I board of directors changed your view of college athletics?

What’s really informed my view of athletics, like a lot of people, is meeting the athletes and hearing their stories, both while they’re here and afterward. I think Rice does this pretty much right.

What we’re seeing in the larger world is different. The best line I heard about conference realignment was that we now know it’s not about the money; it’s about how much money.  If a university is being considered to join a conference, the questions aren’t about traditional rivalries or values, or “Are you a school like us?” It’s “Are you going to increase the amount of money we get?” That’s an enterprise that has lost sight of what it’s about.

In the last six years, all the pressures on universities have come together in a very intense mixture.

I don’t think we’ve lost sight at Rice. Our athletes live, study and participate with other students. They can do the same course work as other students. That’s part of our values. Other universities have to create special environments for the students they take into some of the sports.

Although I’m proud of my work with the NCAA, I think some of the fundamental questions aren’t being addressed. The question now is whether college sports will get to the point where they deserve the protections necessary to preserve intercollegiate amateur athletics. The risk is that some schools are going to move further and further away from that.

7. What achievements at Rice are you most proud of?

A number of things have gone well. The 30 percent expansion of the student body went smoothly, with an increase in both academic quality and diversity, although we are dealing with some problems that resulted from an unexpected surge of interest in certain fields. We’re also a much more international university, from the student body to foreign relationships, and I think that’s a great thing. I am proud that our student body has become an even more talented, diverse group of people.

I think our engagement with the city has been extremely positive. We’re perceived as an important force in the success of the city. Bringing to Rice the generosity of people like the Kinders to support that engagement has been very important to us.

Art and artistic endeavors have a much greater impact and visibility on the campus now, and that should increase once we have completed the new Moody Center for the Arts.

And, you know, we have a lot of projects on which we have some success but aren’t finished. I think the relationship with the Texas Medical Center is an ongoing project and needs to be moved further along. But people all over the campus are figuring out how we take the resources we have and do something more impactful with those resources.

That’s the challenge we all face, particularly in this environment. You can go down the list of aspirations of the Vision for the Second Century and I think we’ve made a lot of progress. But the world doesn’t stand still, and we will need to work just as hard or harder in the years to come.

8. What other challenges are looming?

There’s a lot out there. On the issues in the news — sexual harassment and assault, and athletics — I think we’re doing the right things in both areas, but you have to think about them constantly to make sure you’re doing everything you can to get the right results.

If I step back and look at things, it is a privilege and a joy to be part of this university, and that’s pretty energizing.

With cuts in federal funding, I worry about our research profile and how we’re going to support the ambitions of our faculty researchers. The demands in terms of the quality of education are escalating. It’s not enough to just say we have great professors. We’re being called to task on how we assess actual student learning and impact.

Specifically at Rice, we have building projects on the drawing boards. There are certain kinds of centers we’d still like to establish. We’d like to increase scholarship aid for students and provide greater support for their entrepreneurial spirit. Our faculty is working hard to develop a strong online presence and to make greater use of technology for on-campus learning. I think the plate is still pretty full.

9. Are you able to turn Rice off at the end of the day?

Yes, I do take time to relax and spend some time away from the campus. I’ll watch a movie or go buy groceries or take a walk. Spend some time with my kids. Walk the dog with my wife. When there’s a crisis, whether it’s an actual hurricane or a media storm or something’s happened to a student that’s terrible, it can be really preoccupying. These are institutions and jobs of some passion, so you take these things to heart and they can be difficult. There are many controversial issues, and with 600 faculty, 6,500 students, 2,500 staff and 50,000 alumni, you’ll have people with a lot of strong opinions.

But at the end of the day, I’m like most people. I’ve got a family that’s very important to me. I’ve got a few hobbies. I spend a little time on eBay buying inexpensive antique books I don’t need, and that grabs my attention. I like to take a couple vacations a year that somehow combine the beach, culture and skiing. But if I step back and look at things, it is a privilege and a joy to be part of this university, and that’s pretty energizing. For me, one of the most relaxing and enjoyable parts of the job is spending time with faculty or students in small-group conversation.

10. How long did it take for Houston to feel like home?

It felt like home pretty quickly. Our kids were 4 and 7 when we moved. This was immediately their home. And we were too busy for it not to feel like home. Plus, I didn’t have any other place to go. Columbia, of course, took back my university apartment, and I didn’t have another home to go to. This was it.

We’ve really come to appreciate Houston. I think this is a very easy city to live in. It’s a convenient city, a comfortable city, a cosmopolitan city. I love going to shop for groceries at Central Market, I love going to the Menil and taking a walk in Hermann Park. I don’t think it really took too long.

I’m a little shocked that I’ve been here 10 years. People were a little suspicious when I came about my commitment. You know, I’ve now lived longer in the president’s house than any other place I have lived since I left home for college. And I have been in this job longer than I’ve been in any other job. So maybe I’m finally getting the hang of something.




About Mike Williams

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