State of the University address focuses on Rice’s future

The 2016 State of the University address by President David Leebron centered around the theme “charting Rice’s future.” In his presentation Oct. 26 in Duncan Hall’s McMurtry Auditorium, Leebron emphasized the need to engage in an inclusive process of strategic planning to assess “for the coming five to 10 years what our strategy and priorities should be.”

President David Leebron presents the 2016 State of the University address.

President David Leebron presents the 2016 State of the University address. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Introduced by Faculty Senate speaker Jeffrey Fleisher, Leebron first noted that the current state of the university is “strong,” and he presented a number of examples to show that Rice’s progress over the last decade has positioned it well to take the next steps as a leading research university and, once the university’s priorities are identified, to pursue a new fundraising campaign.

“Applications are up substantially, and that’s good news,” he said. The applicant pool grew from 8,776 applications in 2006 to 18,236 in 2016, and it became more geographically diverse as well. The undergraduate student body has grown by 30 percent and has become more diverse as part of the Vision for the Second Century (V2C). Leebron noted that Rice is “generally recognized as one of the most diverse institutions of private higher education in the United States.”

Faculty recruitment and retention are also strong. Leebron noted that within the last 10 years, 40 percent of the tenure track faculty and 54 percent of the overall faculty are new to Rice. “We’ve hired great faculty, and that’s been part of the changing reputation of Rice,” he said.

Higher rankings in many polls and surveys and increased national and international visibility in the media have helped strengthen Rice’s reputation too, he said. Leebron emphasized the central importance of the faculty in achieving greater visibility and success and noted that “the single thing most likely to get international (media) coverage at Rice is faculty research.”

“We have an expanded, well-recognized research profile,” Leebron said, noting that sponsored research revenues have grown from $67.1 million in fiscal year 2004 to $140.2 million in fiscal year 2016. “We are the smallest, wide-spectrum elite research university,” he said. “That’s a great position to be in, but … it’s also a challenging position to be in.” Grants from foundations, industry and the state have grown more than 100 percent since fiscal year 2004, and success in bioengineering and the biosciences has played a role in “a very strong increase” in funding from the National Institutes of Health, he said. A 72 percent increase in the number of doctoral degrees awarded between academic years 2005 and 2016 has also boosted Rice’s research profile.

Capital investments in new and renovated facilities and solid finances, including a balanced budget and Rice’s AAA credit rating, are additional factors that contribute to Rice’s current strength as an institution. The endowment, now valued at $5.3 billion, had a “great recovery” from the losses in 2008 and 2009, when the value dropped from $4.6 billion to $3.6 billion, he said.

Despite this positive picture, higher education faces many challenges, Leebron said. Among them: “We live in an increasingly competitive environment,” he said. When he meets someone from outside higher education, Leebron said, “I’m willing to wager that my industry is absolutely more competitive than theirs.”

Flattening revenue from virtually all sources — endowment earnings, research funding from federal agencies and net tuition — is also a challenge.

Another challenge that is a source of stress is the shift in undergraduate students’ expectations and interests, both in the subjects they study and the expansion of co-curricular programs. This is especially the case in engineering, where the number of credit hours sought by undergraduates grew from 14 percent of the student total in fall 2004 to 23 percent in fall 2016, which, when the expansion of the student body is factored in, resulted in an absolute increase in the number of engineering credit hours of more than 100 percent. “Rice is not at all peculiar in this shift. It’s a national trend, and that’s one of the changes we have to address,” Leebron said.

“Our students are now looking for different things from their education,” he said. “They still value their classroom experience,” but over the past few years Rice has invested more in mentoring, research activities, leadership experiences and civic engagement to accommodate students’ expectations and needs, he said.

These were some of the examples Leebron cited as ways in which Rice has changed since the V2C was adopted. Such changes need to be taken into consideration as Rice plans for its future. He said Rice leaders have indicated that the V2C could remain a strong framework for the strategic planning process, but adjusted to accommodate the changes that have occurred and the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Leebron emphasized that Rice needs to take into account both changes at the university over the last decade and changes in the higher education environment as Rice engages in a new round of strategic planning.

Among the key questions Leebron cited as Rice plans for the next five to 10 years:

* What must we do to advance our research achievement and reputation?

* What should shape our priorities in faculty recruitment?

* Are there particular global problems we might want to focus on? Major new endeavors we should begin?

* What changes might we want to see in undergraduate and graduate education?

Leebron said that regular strategic planning is “the most critical part” of an institutional life cycle. At this point, only very preliminary conversations have occurred. He emphasized the central role of faculty in that planning and outlined various ways the faculty might participate, which include the central role of the Faculty Senate both in developing the process and reviewing documents that result from it. Other constituencies will also be consulted, including students, staff, alumni and trustees. Ultimately, university and school priorities will be integrated into the campaign vision, which must be approved by the Rice Board of Trustees.

Leebron expressed enthusiasm for Rice’s possibilities in the years ahead. “We have an incredible opportunity, but we have to choose very carefully,” Leebron said, noting that the goal is to raise Rice’s aspirations to the next level and to identify where the university should be headed. The amount of the next capital campaign will be determined as part of the planning process. “We know it will be substantially larger than the last campaign, which was $1 billion — and we raised $1.1 billion,” Leebron said. “We want to succeed in whatever we identify, but we want to be ambitious.”

The timeline, which is flexible, calls for an interim draft of the campaign proposal to be submitted to the board of trustees for discussion in May 2017. Final approval would be sought during the fall semester so that the silent phase of the campaign can begin in 2017.

Quoting Edgar Odell Lovett, the first president of Rice, Leebron said, “We want to envision our university as having no upper limit. At the end of the campaign in 2025, what is it that we want to say we’ve achieved and what is it that we want to be as Rice University?”

In an interview after the State of the University address, Leebron noted that the university has developed a clearer identity, ambition and confidence over the past decade in its ability to compete in a hyper-competitive environment for the very best faculty and students and the resources to support them.

“Many outstanding scholars have come here with the belief that Rice provides an environment where they are supported in doing their very best work,” he said. “It is critical that we provide systematic ways to engage the faculty and other constituencies in shaping our ambitions and environment, and that must be done at regular intervals or we will fall behind quickly. Hence it’s time for another broad-based planning process that gives voice to the faculty and students who have joined Rice over the past decade, as well as for those people who contributed so much last time to enable the university to exceed the high expectations of the V2C.”

The slides from the State of the University address will be posted on the president’s website.

About B.J. Almond

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