Leebron highlights diversity at spring town hall

Rice’s student mariachi band, Mariachi Luna Llena, and the Rice Salseros dancers warmed up an audience of about 600 Rice employees at the May 5 town hall with festive Latin sounds and movement. As people across the United States celebrated Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates the Mexican army’s unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, Rice President David Leebron highlighted the university’s commitment to diversity.

Rice President David Leebron discussed the university’s commitment to diversity at the spring town hall for employees in Rice Memorial Center's Grand Hall.

Rice President David Leebron discussed the university’s commitment to diversity at the spring town hall for employees in Rice Memorial Center’s Grand Hall.

“I have to say … Mariachi Luna Llena to me is one of most joyful new things that have happened at Rice perhaps in the last decade,” Leebron said in opening his remarks to a packed audience at Rice Memorial Center’s Grand Hall. “It is really a remarkable student group. As one of the founders of Mariachi Luna Llena recently noted, the mariachi band itself is extraordinarily diverse, which I think really represents the joy that all of us can take in the diversity of our community.”

In a 40-minute presentation, Leebron reiterated Rice’s mission, strengths, values and core commitments, and he described some of the recent developments and successes that Rice has experienced in addressing its priorities for the new century. He also discussed key issues dominating national discussions about higher education, including diversity, inclusion and campus climate; affordability; the value of a college degree; scrutiny of endowment spending; and leadership challenges and failures.

Leebron noted the recent congressional inquiry to private universities about their endowments and said that the Rice Board of Trustees places guidelines on the percentage of the endowment that can be spent each year.  This, he said, ensures that the endowment will be there to support the university hundreds of years into the future.

Despite the challenges to higher education, Rice has had a successful year, Leebron said. He highlighted the launch of new programs supported by fundraising, most notably the Doerr Institute for New Leaders and the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Rice students were awarded some of the world’s most prestigious scholarships and fellowships. “Over the last year, we have won what I call the ‘pentafecta’ … that is, if you look at sort of the most renowned fellowships in the country — the Rhodes, the Marshall, the Luce, the Soros and now the Schwarzman — Rice won one of each of those. There are very few universities of any size in the country that can claim that level of accomplishment.”

The high-quality research and teaching of the faculty has also been recognized nationally, Leebron noted.

He said Rice must continue to be accessible and affordable, provide a distinct undergraduate experience, excel in research and graduate education and make an impact on the world.

“What really distinguishes the university … is our ability to invest in things where the benefits may be far into the future,” Leebron said. “Increasingly, folks want to see, ‘What is this going to do for us next year?’ We invest in things that take maybe 50 or 100 years before we really see the benefits of the work that’s done at the university. And I think that has to be fundamentally a part of who we are.”

Leebron discussed Rice’s progress in improving diversity and inclusion on campus – from undergraduate enrollment by race and ethnicity to diversity among full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty as well as staff.

“We’re a remarkably diverse community, and this is one of most important issues being talked about in higher education today. It’s one of the most important issues for our society. By some measures, Houston is the most diverse city in the country, and we have the fortune to be a very diverse campus, which is not to say that there’s not more that we can do.”

Leebron said the university will focus on enhancing recruitment efforts to increase faculty diversity, expanding admissions’ outreach in attracting minority students and providing space and funding to further support student vibrancy and sense of community.

He highlighted the importance of dialogue in advancing diversity and inclusion. “It’s incumbent on all of us to try to understand the perspectives of others,” Leebron said. “That’s fundamentally what a university should be about. If we can do that and engage respectfully with one another, we can build a stronger university community.”

Each spring town hall includes staff recognition. The Elizabeth Gillis Award for Exemplary Service was presented to Carlos Garcia, senior associate general counsel. (Read more about that here.) He also recognized 344 employees for service milestones of five years or more. Of these, 52 were recognized for service of 25 years or more, an indicator, Leebron said, that Rice is a place where employees want to spend their careers.

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_spring2016.asp. You may also view the full town hall slide presentation here.


About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.