President Leebron on the State of the University

Beneath video monitors flashing images of messages from grateful students and parents, President David Leebron stepped up to a podium in Duncan Hall’s McMurtry Auditorium Oct. 16 to deliver his annual State of the University Address.

State of the University address

President David Leebron delivered his annual State of the University Address in Duncan Hall’s McMurtry Auditorium Oct. 16.

The emails and other communications showed a sample of the enthusiastic reactions to The Rice Investment, the recently announced initiative offering full-tuition scholarships to students from middle-income families as well as enhanced support for lower income students. While Leebron said he expected a positive response to the announcement, the emotions behind  the responses caught him by surprise.

“I really wish I could announce something like that every week,” he said. “This struck a very deep chord with our community.”

Still, the president had plenty of other initiatives to note during his hourlong presentation to Rice faculty. While he warned about some of the challenges facing the institution in the near future, he also offered an optimistic vision of what lies ahead for the university.

“I think we’re in an extraordinarily strong position, in many ways,” he said.

Rice owes much of that strength to students and faculty members who came from other countries, Leebron said, pointing out that nearly a third of faculty members received their first degrees from institutions outside the U.S. The international character of the university pervades every aspect of the institution, he said, but Rice anticipates challenges as it tries to maintain that identity.

Students from other countries who consider applying for admission to Rice face a series of hurdles, from securing visas to wondering whether they’ll be able to stay in the U.S. after they graduate. Indeed, Leebron said, many students worry that immigration agents will arbitrarily forbid them from entering the country even after they obtain visas. Such challenges make universities in other countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand look more appealing, the president said.

“Given this external environment, and the importance of our international community here at Rice, this ought to be a matter of concern to us,” Leebron said.

Rice is evolving into a more balanced research university, the president said. Graduate students accounted for only 8 percent of the total enrollment in 1950, but today they’re 42 percent of the student body. Among this fall’s entering class, 51 percent are graduate students. Meanwhile, the number of students receiving doctoral degrees has risen 51 percent since 2004.

“If you put Rice in the Ivy League, we would be the median school in the Ivy League in terms of percentage of students who are graduate students,” Leebron said.

Sponsored research revenues dropped 4.2 percent between the 2017 and 2018 fiscal years, but are still substantially higher than a decade ago. Rice received $124.7 million in sponsored research money for the current fiscal year, a dramatic increase from $79 million in fiscal 2008.

We’ve done a good job increasing foundation support, increasing industrial support, increasing state and local support on things like CPRIT,” he said. “On the other hand, we have been challenged by, in part, the lack of growth in federal research funding, particularly as we have tended to be more a recipient of  NSF (National Science Foundation) and DOD (Department of Defense) funding rather than NIH (National Institutes of Health) funding. But we have rapidly increased NIH funding as a result of greater faculty involvement in bio-medical research.”

The university’s endowment in 2017 roughly recovered, when adjusted for inflation, to where it stood before the economic crisis of 2008, Leebron said. That year, the endowment lost about one-quarter of its value. The president said its strong growth over the last year to a preliminarily estimated $6.3 billion has, in part, allowed Rice to pursue the strategic goals of the Vision for the Second Century, Second Decade (V2C2).

“It’s a challenging environment,” Leebron said. “And if we’re going to compete in the years ahead, one thing we really need to do is to grow other resources that we can bring to the task.”

The university is meeting its targets as it enters a new fundraising campaign, Leebron said. Although a financial goal for the campaign hasn’t yet been established, he said, it will certainly be larger than the $1 billion target of the Centennial Campaign.

The president reviewed a number of capital projects that are either already underway or planned for the near future, such as the Music and Performing Arts Center, Kraft Hall for Social Sciences, new teaching and research labs and the new Sid Richardson College, which may allow the current Sid Rich to be transformed into an on-campus housing site for graduate students. Among future projects is renovation of the most prominent building on campus.

“Eventually, we have to face the need to renovate Lovett Hall, for a variety of reasons,” Leebron said. “It is our most historic building. It’s a symbol of the university. We want to preserve it.”

Meanwhile, Leebron concluded, the university stands on the brink of a dramatic expansion of its impact on the city. Rice now has 14 acres of prime property poised for redevelopment as the Midtown innovation district, which will use the site of the former Sears building on Main Street as a hub for the city’s entrepreneurial, academic and cultural communities.

“The hope is that we, Rice, will contribute something transformational for the city of Houston,” Leebron said. “This is a remarkable piece of property, incredibly strategically located. But it requires a lot of vision, just as I’m sure the Texas Medical Center required a lot of vision.”

The innovation district is expected to open within the next two years.

“I think we face an extraordinary set of opportunities in the years ahead,” Leebron said.

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About Doug Miller

Doug Miller is director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.