Leebron reports very strong state of the university

President presents snapshot of Rice’s momentum at annual address to faculty

Rice President David Leebron discussed the state of the university with faculty Nov. 6, outlining how well it has met recent goals and detailing the next steps in alignment with the Vision for the Second Century, Second Decade (V2C2).

Leebron brought good news on enrollment, faculty research and publications, the university’s financial position and how The Rice Investment put the university in leading position on access for lower-income and middle-class students, resulting in greatly increased applications and media visibility over the last year. He emphasized as well the progress that each of Rice’s schools was making.

President David Leebron discusses the state of the university with Rice faculty. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

President David Leebron discusses the state of the university with Rice faculty. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Among notable trends, he said undergraduate applications had risen nearly 30%, and student enrollment was well-balanced for a research university, with the number of entering graduate students slightly exceeding the number of undergraduates this year. Rice now has about 7,000 degree-seeking students, the most ever, while the undergraduate admit rate has steadily fallen to 8.7% for Fall 2019.

The rise in applications is due in part to the introduction of The Rice Investment, which meets demonstrated needs for families across the financial spectrum without requiring them to take out loans. “I may be the only university president who will say I can explain our financial aid program in less than 45 seconds,” Leebron said.

He said Rice boasts one of the most diverse undergraduate classes among its national peers, with no race or ethnicity constituting a majority population. Nearly 34% of domestic undergraduates are underrepresented minorities, Pell Grant recipients or first-generation students, he said.

Rice’s growing research profile has also helped it increase the number of international undergraduate applications, with just under 4,000 this past year. Significantly, Leebron said applications from China have held steady for undergraduate enrollment and increased for graduate enrollment for the past four years, despite recent events that have unfortunately made many foreign students regard the United States “as a somewhat risky proposition.”

“Students from China … have been incredibly important and valuable to the university,” Leebron said. “There’s a lot of tension right now between the United States and China … and so a lot of these students are choosing to go to other places. They’re choosing to go to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore. The strength of our university and our country, in my view, has been built in large part on our openness to the world and having a country that is an attractive and welcoming place for people from around the world.” Leebron also emphasized the importance of attracting faculty members from all over the world, many of whom initially come for education in the United States.

He said Rice is working hard to match the shifting interests of students, both on campus and online. He noted computer science stands out as an example, having grown at Rice by as much as 50% since 2004, with appeal to students well beyond the engineering disciplines.

Leebron said there is room for improvement in several areas, most notably in bringing more women and diversity in general to the faculty and graduate student enrollment, further reducing campus sexual assaults and creating greater flexibility in Rice’s online education offerings, particularly for credentialing short of a degree. He noted that while the nominal number of students enrolled in any Rice online courses since 2015 has shrunk by more than two-thirds, revenue through last year has more than tripled. This represents an increasing emphasis on formal enrollment in programs and sequences of courses rather than just providing online educational materials, he said.

“There is a kind of deconstruction of higher ed going on, whether we like it or not,” he said. “We have to figure out how to make our education available in multiple, different ways.”

Leebron said he’s pleased that the V2C2 is gaining traction. The strategic plan details strategies to further invest in student success, expand facilities and research, better engage with the community and promote Rice’s reputation around the world. “In each and every one of these, we’ve seen, even in a relatively short time … some significant achievement.”

He praised the previous day’s statewide referendum to extend the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, which has provided $64 million in research funding to Rice over the past decade. “It has enabled us to recruit really extraordinary people,” he said. “Some might not immediately think, since Rice doesn’t have a medical school, that we’re a center of cancer research, but actually scientists across the university are making major breakthroughs in cancer treatment and other areas of health care.”

Leebron said the university’s profile in Houston has been on a steady incline since the implementation of the Vision for the Second Century, and is now focused on “engaging with and empowering the success” of Houston. This has been most recently highlighted by the Rice-led innovation district centered at The Ion, now under construction at the former Sears building on Main Street.

He said the university has committed $1.8 billion to on-campus facilities between 2005 and 2026, with the overwhelming majority going to academic facilities, including current construction at the Music and Performing Arts Center and the Patricia Lipoma Kraft ’87 and Jonathan A. Kraft Hall for Social Sciences, Rice Architecture’s upcoming Cannady Hall, renovation of the Mechanical Laboratory, and preliminary plans for a new arts building to house the Visual and Dramatic Arts department and construction of a new science and engineering facility. Planning is also underway for a new student center.

Leebron also took questions from faculty about his view of the federal excise tax on university endowments (“I’ve never heard a good defense of this tax,” he said) and on the ongoing admissions scandal involving other institutions that has not affected Rice. Despite that, he said the “Varsity Blues” scandal has had an impact on every university.

“I just couldn’t overstate how bad this has been for public confidence in universities,” he said. “We don’t deserve the support that we get unless, overall, we play a role as a vehicle for fairness in society and opportunities for every socioeconomic segment.”

About Mike Williams

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