Leebron details progress on initiatives

Town hall discussion includes research plans, new programs 

The pillars upon which Rice University stands are strong, but must continually be strengthened in the highly competitive higher education environment, according to President David Leebron, who addressed a crowd of about 600 employees in a semiannual town hall meeting Nov. 2.

With finances and campus construction projects “in good shape,” Leebron used the bulk of his talk at Rice’s Grand Hall to provide an update on the university’s priorities and initiatives.

He noted the current initiatives spring from the Vision for the Second Century that has guided the university for nearly a decade. The Priorities for the New Century include strategic academic priorities, investments in the schools’ strategic priorities, campus infrastructure and refinements to administrative effectiveness to answer what he called “the increasing demands for the quality and quantity of service.”

To support both universitywide and school priorities, he noted the Board of Trustees’ recent approval of $150 million to bolster research competitiveness, data science and molecular nanotechnology. All are strengths that Rice can build on, Leebron said.

“We want to make sure we continue to be a place that is known for excellence in nanoscience and technology,” he said. “As I travel around the world, that’s certainly one of the first things people ask about in their engagement with Rice.”

President David Leebron discussed the university's priorities and initiatives at the fall Town Hall. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

President David Leebron discussed the university's priorities and initiatives at the fall Town Hall. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

He said the data science initiative is universitywide and will incorporate the Shepherd School of Music, architecture, social sciences, humanities and the Jones School of Business as well as engineering and natural sciences. Calling it a “big data” initiative isn’t entirely appropriate, he said. “Sometimes the problem is not that you have huge amounts of data. … How do you get more information out of limited amounts of data?”

Leebron said the foundation of the Rice Academy of Fellows that was just announced is an effort spearheaded by Provost Marie Lynn Miranda “to bring postdocs across the entire university, with a different interdisciplinary focus each year or several years, to help build research capacity and excellence in that broad area.”

He said the university will also launch a new fund for faculty initiatives that reach across disciplines and have the potential to draw outside funding or otherwise achieve greater impact. “Those make every aspect of the research we do at the university more impactful and more competitive,” he said.

“Whenever anyone talks about the challenges of Rice, somewhere the word ‘size’ comes into that,” he said. “The most common formulation I use is that we are the smallest wide-spectrum, elite research university. We have to figure out how to be better than almost anyone else if we’re going to continue to have the esteem and presence in the world that we do in this very competitive environment.”

Part of Rice’s success, Leebron said, is its ability to reach out to collaborators around the nation and the world. “We’re too small to be arrogant,” he said.

Leebron talked about how closely his chart detailing the value proposition of a college education matched one that was produced by students themselves and was based on actual survey data – and he expressed appreciation of the 99 percent response rate to the students’ survey.

“Their chart almost precisely and uncannily matched my predicted 2025 chart,” he said. “There was only one problem: I had suggested this was the future, and they had said it was now.”

Both charts showed the students’ desire for more mentoring, leadership, entrepreneurial and research opportunities, as well as outlets for community and international engagement.

President David Leebron at Town Hall

"We are the smallest wide-spectrum, elite research university. We have to figure out how to be better than almost anyone else if we're going to continue to have the same presence in the world that we do in this very competitive environment." Photo by Jeff Fitlow

“They also made it clear to us that the classroom experience remains very important to them. … But they were saying all of these other things are very important,” he said. “If you think teaching is something that occurs just in the classroom, then you’re not really getting it.”

Leebron said the Center for Teaching Excellence continues to support teachers in achieving greater classroom effectiveness. He also praised the Rice Emerging Scholars Program, which helps support students who come from less privileged educational environments. He said Rice must help every student achieve her or his goals.

He mentioned that great strides have been made in the last 15 years to make Rice one of the most ethnically diverse campuses in the nation and that the university also recognizes the need for more diversity among the faculty.

He said various rankings that show Rice’s strength not only in research and teaching but also in enhancing the student experience are due to the commitment of Rice employees. “Every part of what we do matters to our students and matters to their parents,” he said, noting the contributions by all those who keep the campus running efficiently. Showing a slide of staff in a great variety of roles at the university, he noted that “all of these people make the university what it is in terms of our student experience.”

He said the university needs to work harder to improve the culture of care at Rice in the wake of a survey of students on unwanted sexual experiences. “We have to take the results from that survey, understand them more deeply, consult with people across the campus and see what we can do better,” he said.

A question raised during the Q&A asked about better enforcement of rules on campus concerning dogs, smoking and bicycle safety – and how those relate to the forthcoming decision about handguns on campus. Leebron acknowledged that all bear further attention. He said the firearms decision, by law, requires input from the university community before a decision is made on whether Rice, as a private institution, will opt out of the recent Texas legislation, and he is in the process of gathering information from faculty, staff and students.

Marie Wehrung, Rice’s director of learning and professional development, who introduced Leebron, said the Town Hall Committee is seeking feedback about the meeting. Take the online survey at http://staff.rice.edu/post_event_TownHall_survey_fall2015.asp.








About Mike Williams

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