Town hall: Leebron looks back on 18 years

David Leebron

After a year in which the university community largely returned to campus in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, President David Leebron dedicated his annual town hall meeting to reviewing both recent developments and the accomplishments of the university he has led for the last 18 years. He emphasized his and the university’s gratitude for the staff’s critical contributions in making Rice the institution it is today.

David Leebron
(Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

Hundreds of faculty and staff gathered April 21 in the Rice Memorial Center’s Grand Hall for what amounted to the return of a long-standing tradition. Unlike the last two town hall addresses that were delivered remotely due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, this year’s meeting was conducted in person with viewers also invited to watch through online streaming.

“All of you, together, are making Rice what it is,” Leebron said as he welcomed the crowd.

The university has become a larger and more complex institution since his arrival in 2004, he said, and it has changed in a broad array of quantifiable ways.

“We’ve become in every dimension a larger and much more diverse community,” said Leebron, who is stepping down June 30. “We’ve made investments in our faculty and programs, grown our research tremendously, grown the campus facilities to support the student experience and our research, become a far more sustainable university, enhanced opportunities for our staff, increased access through a major revision of our financial aid and really, greatly increased our engagement with our home city of Houston and across the globe.”

During the last year alone, Leebron pointed out, the university has embarked on a host of major initiatives. Undergraduate enrollment continues to grow for the second year of a planned five-year growth phase, with 1,200 new students anticipated for fall 2022. The $2 billion “Be Bold” campaign was launched with $1.2 billion already raised. A $100 million gift was announced to finance the Moody Center for Student Life and Opportunity. An Analyzing Diversity undergraduate course was approved. New deans arrived, the Board of Trustees approved reenvisioning the Academic Quad, Rice was invited to join the American Athletic Conference and the Ion opened in Midtown Houston.

“And as we’ve been doing that, we’ve been attentive to our staff, who really drive the university every day,” Leebron said. “And that’s been challenging.”

David Leebron
(Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

No Rice employees were furloughed during the COVID-19 pandemic or the related economic downturns, he pointed out. Meanwhile, minimum wage increases over the years have outpaced the federal minimum wage and will be raised to $15 an hour in the 2023 fiscal year. The university also increased tuition reimbursement from $1,000 a semester to $2,500 a semester and established a flexible work policy. As a result of these and other factors, Leebron said, Rice’s staff turnover rate of 12.8% is lower than the education industry’s overall rate of 15%.

“Those have been some of the key ways that we sought to make this a great work environment for those here,” he said.

The president reviewed the university’s mission statement and values — RICE, the acronym standing for responsibility, integrity, community and excellence.

“These are the pillars on which our university advances,” he said. “They are what must guide us in everything we do. And in my view, they were particularly essential during the pandemic.”

After remembering members of the Rice community who died in the last year and honoring employees who passed milestones in years of service to the university, Leebron announced the winner of the Elizabeth Gillis Award, which recognizes outstanding achievements and services by a staff member. This year’s honor was bestowed upon Lisa Birenbaum, assistant dean for finance and administration at the School of Social Sciences, lauded as a “rock of stability” overseeing financial matters at the school during the past decade.

The president also took a moment to thank the Faculty Senate, particularly Christopher Johns-Krull and Elizabeth Petrick, leading the audience in a round of applause saluting their leadership.

“Faculty Senate has been such an extraordinary part of this university,” he said. Without the Faculty Senate and student leadership, Leebron said, Rice “wouldn’t have done as well” in its response to the pandemic, which won praise and recognition across the nation.

Leebron said the university’s creative and health-driven responses put Rice in a leadership position in both keeping its community safe and continuing to execute its mission at the highest level. Rice’s response was nationally recognized several times. Leebron pointed in particular to a New York Times article that discussed the most recent evolution of Rice’s response to COVID-19 and featured a display of photographs graphically highlighting the campus.

David Leebron
(Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Rice opened with 77 students in 1911 and by fall 2025 expects to have an enrollment of 9,000, not counting online nondegree students. Every part of the university has grown in the last 18 years, Leebron pointed out, noting that some, like the Jones School of Business in particular, have expanded substantially. Undergraduate applications have mushroomed from around 8,000 when Leebron arrived in 2004 to more than 31,000 this fall. The number of applications coming from other states have increased from around 4,500 to nearly 17,000, and applications from other countries have skyrocketed from just a few hundred to more than 6,000.

“We have become a university with tremendous impact, really creating opportunity for more people,” he said. “And that has been driven by multiple programs, fueled by all of you.”

For example, he said, since 2005 Rice has added majors in business, environmental science, health sciences, neuroscience and sport management, among others, and doctorates in art history, business, history, sociology, and synthetic and physical biology systems.

“Just look at the number of new majors, new minors, new doctoral and new master’s degrees — an explosion, really, of opportunity and knowledge across the university,” he told the crowd.

At the same time, the university also transformed the undergraduate experience with new programs and institutions such as the Doerr Institute for New Leaders, the Baker Institute Student Forum, the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen and the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Rice and its schools and programs continue to rate high in national rankings, Leebron said. U.S. News rated Rice No. 17 among undergraduate universities nationwide, and Niche rated Rice No. 7 in its list of the best colleges in America. The Princeton Review rated Rice the 10th-best value among private colleges in the U.S., and Rice tied for the highest number of top rankings in Princeton Review’s criteria.

Although rankings are closely watched across the nation, Leebron said he wants Rice to maintain its identity as a distinctly Texas institution.

While Rice has successfully become a national and global university in terms of its students and faculty, he said, “We want to be a Texas school that attracts students from all over the world because of what they find here. And I think that’s what we see with our students.”

The president cited data highlighting the incredible diversity” of the student population and Rice is among the most diverse of its peer universities. He particularly cited growth in the number of first generation low-income students and underrepresented minority students.

“And a lot of that really is due to the Rice Investment,” he said. “I know I don’t get to make that many decisions that are almost unanimously popular, but this was one.”

Rice’s faculty is growing more diverse, Leebron said, but he conceded “that’s a slower process” since the faculty turns over at a slower rate than the student body. Underrepresented minorities accounted for 11% of faculty in fall 2021, up from 7% in fall 2012.

“Both the number of principal investigators on our campus has grown significantly, and our number of postdoctoral researchers has grown very, very dramatically,” he said, with growth in research funding and research centers “in every part of the university.” Rice has experienced a 146% increase in research awards during Leebron’s tenure.

David Leebron
(Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

He said the university’s expanding reach and impact are dramatically illustrated in the success of its online education programs. During the last decade, roughly 2.5 million people enrolled in online Rice courses. More than half of them — 56% — logged in from outside the U.S., with 27% from India.

“What that tells you is that the reach and reputation of the university has spread across the country and around the world,” Leebron said, noting that 12% of Rice undergraduates come from other countries.

At the same time, he said, “it’s been very important for us to engage with the city of Houston.” As examples of that engagement, he cited a list of initiatives and developments including the Ion, the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, the Houston Education Research Consortium, the Texas Policy Lab and the Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance.

“All of these things have engaged our students,” he said. “Rice now is seen across the city of Houston as a force within the city contributing to the success of our city. The Ion, I think, in particular has become a vital symbol of that.”

The president reviewed more than a dozen new building projects that are either already underway or on the drawing boards at Rice, including Sarofim Hall for the arts, the new engineering and science building, a new residential college, Cannady Hall for architecture and the reenvisioning of the Academic Quad. He called special attention to the “spectacular new student center,” the Moody Center for Student Life and Opportunity, that was designed by Sir David Adjaye.

“I think this will be a tremendous project and really benefit our students,” Leebron said.

Looking to the university’s future, Leebron sees Rice increasingly integrated into a global network of partners. The university has 37 international student exchange agreements and 74 memoranda of understanding with institutions in other countries.

“People are more mobile,” he said. “They want to have their education in more different places. And so the sense of a university as being defined by our unbelievable campus is going to change.”

As for his future, in response to a question from the audience, Leebron said he hopes to continue finding ways “to contribute to great institutions.”

For now, he said he plans to be at Rice. “I’m in the very painful process of figuring how to move to much, much, much smaller digs,” he joked. “And so if you need some miscellaneous furniture or something, let me know.”

As he concluded his remarks, a screen behind Leebron projected words of gratitude translated in 14 different languages, “kind of representing the incredible diversity of this group and our community.”

“I do not speak all of those languages, but I do acknowledge every one and more in my heart,” he said, expressing his gratitude with, “Thank you. Gracias.”