Rice University
Rice Magazine| The Magazine of Rice University | No. 3 | 2009

Defining and Realizing Vision

An early and abiding image of Rice University is a photograph of our first president, Edgar Odell Lovett, articulating his vision for the university before an international audience of scientists, scholars and dignitaries at Rice’s opening ceremony on Oct. 12, 1912.

It is especially powerful because the aspirations he put forth were more ambitious and farsighted than an institution of Rice’s modest beginnings and size had any right to expect. After all, Rice matriculated a mere 59 students that first year, and they were taught by a faculty of 10 on a campus that consisted of four buildings. Lovett saw more: He saw an institution that would “aspire to university standing of the highest grade” and that would “assign no upper limit to its educational endeavor.”

Leebron“Each of my predecessors since President Lovett has contributed to the further achievement of his vision. Each seized opportunities that the times presented. ”

Rice’s founding Board of Trustees shared that ambition. They could have purchased 30 acres in downtown Houston on which to build the institute. Rather, they purchased nearly 300 acres at what was then the considerable distance of three miles from downtown. They wanted enough land for growth for Rice to emerge as a leading university across a broad spectrum of human endeavor. Early maps actually included sites for a medical school and a law school.

Some might have called that hubris. In the northeast, where I come from, we call it chutzpah. But there is no doubt that Lovett and the founders had big plans for Rice and the courage to take the necessary actions, and even some risks, to realize them. Lovett took that courage even further when he embarked, in 1908, on an arduous nine-month journey to personally survey leading academic institutions around the world.

He interviewed university presidents and professors, recruited eminent faculty and toured facilities in an effort to distill the best elements of higher education and apply them to the new institute. Lovett returned to Texas from that journey just over 100 years ago. Two things emerged with clarity from his voyage: his view that Rice should aspire to be among the best universities of the world, and that it should take an international perspective in formulating its ambitions and measuring its success. The Rice University we know and esteem today is, in large part, a product of that journey of discovery.

Each of my predecessors since President Lovett has contributed to the further achievement of his vision. Each seized opportunities that the times presented. The significance of NASA coming to Houston — and of John F. Kennedy promising, in his famous speech in Rice Stadium, a manned landing on the moon by the end of the 1960s — was, for example, not lost on President Kenneth Pitzer, who responded to Kennedy’s gesture by creating, in 1963, the first university space science department.

Pitzer also notably increased the breadth of scholarship and research at Rice. To make the young institute immediately viable, Lovett had advocated a concentration on science and engineering, but he also recognized the need to later strengthen the arts, which included the humanities and social sciences. Under Pitzer’s tenure, Rice further developed the School of Architecture, the Department of Art and Art History and the Office of Continuing Studies — now the Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies.

When we herald the 100th anniversary of Rice’s opening in three years, we will remember much more than a single event. Rather, we celebrate all that has flowed from the founding accomplishment and the hard work and sustained vision since then. These include the launching of successful interdisciplinary efforts such as the Rice Quantum Institute, the Chao Center for Asian Studies and the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality. The success of the James A. Baker III Institute, The Shepherd School of Music and the Jesse H. Jones School of Business is testimony to the capacity of Rice to think boldly and expand the scope of its endeavor. We have been bold and yet prudent, and that combination has enabled us to move our great institution forward in changing and challenging times.

The Rice that people attended 50 years ago is not the same Rice of 25 years ago or the Rice of today. The question that demands our attention as we celebrate our centennial is what the Rice of 25, 50 or 100 years from now will be. Will we have continued on our historic trajectory toward greater scope and prominence, or will we have paused and, in so doing, perhaps fallen behind in the dynamic and highly competitive landscape of higher education?

Of course, even as we progress and adapt, there are things about our beloved Rice than must endure, and it is equally critical to our success that we recognize and sustain those. These include, for example, the extraordinary quality of our students, our supportive and collegial atmosphere, the small classes and the access students have to their professors, the college system, the beautiful green campus environment and the sense of student responsibility that we seek to nurture. These values and characteristics of Rice are not obstacles to our progress, but essential elements of it.

We have earned the right to celebrate Rice and all we have achieved on the occasion of our centennial. But we will celebrate not merely by looking back, but rather by taking from that history a sense of confidence and destiny that informs and shapes a bold future. Four years ago we launched the Call to Conversation, which produced the Vision for the Second Century. Over the next few years, it is the continuing responsibility of all of us who care deeply about Rice to continue the process of defining and realizing the vision that will not merely carry on the legacy of our founding, but will take us to ever greater achievement.