Mariachis and margaritas: Celebrating 5 years as provost

“Farewells can get incredibly maudlin,” Provost George McLendon told faculty, staff and students at an April 30 reception at Cohen House honoring his five years as Rice’s chief academic officer. To keep the mood festive, he requested mariachis and margaritas for his reception, and he invited the crowd to sing along as Mariachi Luna Llena performed “Cielito Lindo.”

“Singing makes the heart laugh,” McLendon said, referring to a line from the popular Mexican song that translates “Sing and don’t cry.”

The people who spoke at the reception didn’t cry, but they sang the provost’s praises.

Provost George McLendon holds a miniature replica of Lovett Hall given to him by President David Leebron.

Provost George McLendon received a miniature replica of Lovett Hall from President David Leebron.

“Having the opportunity to work for George has been literally both a privilege and a pleasure,” Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson said. Hutchinson noted a “flurry of activity” that has taken place while McLendon was provost, including serving as the “driving force” for improving the quality of programs for students and helping establish the Center for Teaching Excellence, the Rice Emerging Scholars Program, OwlSpark and Rice’s pursuit of digital education. “The crown jewel has been the creation of the Program in Writing and Communication, especially the First-Year Writing-Intensive Seminar,” Hutchinson said.

Up next was José Onuchic, Rice’s Harry C. and Olga K. Wiess Chair of Physics and professor of physics and astronomy. “I’m here because of George,” said Onuchic, one of the three leading researchers in physics and chemistry recruited by McLendon to Rice from the University of California, San Diego, along with Herbert Levine and Peter Wolynes. Noting that the university now has seven more faculty who are members of one of the National Academies, Onuchic said Rice has become “a powerhouse” during the McLendon years. “I think the faculty are grateful,” he said. The Center for Theoretical Biological Physics that was moved from California to Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative “is in a much better situation,” Onuchic said. “George really worked with us on every problem. We are extremely appreciative of that.”

Martel College senior Ravi Sheth said he decided to run for president of the Student Association because of McLendon’s advice. As a result of his discussions with the provost, Sheth saw “a vision for what the university should be and not just keeping it the way it’s always been run,” he said. Sheth co-founded a company with McLendon that makes 3-D printing curriculum available in K-12 classrooms. “I saw his passion for educating students, not just students at universities, but students even before they come to college, students of all different backgrounds,” Sheth said. “He’s taken the time to mentor and develop young individuals. It’s just been a really great honor to be working with someone of such stature.”

President David Leebron said McLendon “is really an inspiring teacher” and noted that a number of students have told him the provost has changed the way they look at the possibilities in their lives. Leebron said McLendon often operates “below the radar” but still has “a daily effect on our operations.” “Having George in the room always helped us make a decision better,” Leebron said.

McLendon has cared very deeply about Rice and worked hard, but he also has known how to keep the job fun and enjoyable, Leebron said, calling attention to some of McLendon’s Halloween costumes that were displayed during a slideshow. Leebron credited McLendon with not just raising Rice’s aspirations to a high level, but giving faculty, staff and trustees the confidence that they can achieve those higher aspirations. “We owe George a great debt of gratitude for that increased sense of aspiration and possibility that’s going to carry us into the future,” Leebron said. “George, on behalf of all us, for making a great university even greater, thank you very much.” He presented McLendon with a miniature replica of Lovett Hall.

Wearing his custom-made cowboy boots that have the Rice Owl logo on them, McLendon responded by saying, “The only valid role that I can possibly have here is to thank people.” During his exit interviews with the deans, McLendon said, “I was able to tell each of them with sincere affection that it had been an extraordinary privilege to work with every one of them. That’s equally true for all the vice provosts.”

McLendon thanked his executive assistant, Gloria Carrera, and executive director, Colleen Morimoto. “It’s obvious I wouldn’t be able to get anything done, including getting into my office, without them,” he said, referring to forgotten keys.

“The provost at the end of the day really is the voice of the faculty,” McLendon said. “As I look out on all my faculty colleagues, I am extraordinarily grateful to you for making this a great place to be – a great place to be a faculty member, a great place to be a colleague, a great place to be a chief academic officer. There’s no point in being a chief academic officer if the academics aren’t truly outstanding. And that doesn’t happen without a really great faculty.”

McLendon, who will be succeeded by Marie Lynn Miranda as provost July 1, said he is looking forward to “what I think is a well-earned sabbatical” and “will be available to be helpful to this university in any way I can in the years to come.”

“Thank you for five amazing years,” he said.” I’m really very, very grateful.”


About B.J. Almond

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