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

Unique Leadership for a Unique Time

The chairman of the Rice Board of Trustees reflects on his past and the university that has played such a large role in his life.

Jim Crownover ’65 was in the Rice infirmary suffering from the flu when he got a lesson that may have been the most lasting of his undergraduate days.

“I remember a professor of chemical engineering, Harry Deans,” said Crownover. “He was young, but he was a bigger-than-life figure, a real terror. A brilliant guy. He came by the infirmary. I will never forget that. He just sat there, and we talked — about school and all sorts of different things. For me, it captured the feeling, which is still here, of the relationships Rice students have with their professors.”

Jim Crownover addressed an enthusiastic crowd at the campus Centennial Campaign kick-off celebration. With him, from the left, were Rice President David Leebron and campaign co-chair Bobby Tudor.

That incident motivates Crownover to this day. He feels responsible for preserving Rice as a place where those close relationships can form, because he knows what they’ve meant to him, even as he guides the university through a period of change and growth.

“I was smart enough to seek people out,” Crownover said recently as he relaxed with coffee cup in hand in an Allen Center conference room. “Life is a contact sport — you’ve got to seek people out. Talk to them. Find out their views. And I learned that here at Rice because people were so accessible. Even if you didn’t quite know what you were going to learn, you learned something.”

My simple, simple life

After a career in the contact sport of business consulting, Crownover came back to Rice, where he’s still learning: He’s even taken a couple of undergraduate Spanish classes in recent years.

A member of the Rice Board of Trustees since 1999, he replaced Bill Barnett as chairman in 2005. Recently, he was elected by his fellow trustees to a second term that will run until 2013, which will take him through Rice’s Centennial celebration and complete his service to the board.
Crownover characterizes himself as “a very loyal, steady guy.”

“I have a wife of 32 years, I have a clothier of 32 years, I worked with McKinsey for 30 years. I went from Rice to Stanford, Stanford to McKinsey and then back to Rice,” he said. “Welcome to my simple, simple life.”

“Jim is an incredibly thoughtful, dogged person. Sometimes when you’re talking on the phone you have to ask, ‘Are you still there?’ Because he’s thinking, listening.”

                                         — President David Leebron

Simple? Crownover’s friends would disagree. Armed with an MBA from Stanford (where his daughter, Mary Corwin Crownover, now studies architecture), he joined the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. in 1968, eventually rose to its board of directors and also served as co-chairman of McKinsey’s worldwide energy practice.

In the early years, charged with running the Houston-based southwest office, Crownover found himself trying to gain a foothold in an energy industry that, he said, deeply mistrusted outsiders. Thanks to his perseverance and skill, McKinsey survived and thrived in Houston while many competitors failed.

“Jim became really important in my life when I persuaded him to go to Texas,” said his former boss, D. Ronald Daniel, who headed McKinsey in the 1970s and 1980s. “The office kind of went sideways until I was able to get Jim there, and then McKinsey in Texas really took off.”

You’re lucky! This is a good deal!

Crownover was thrilled at the prospect of moving back to Texas, but not his wife, Molly. “When it looked like we were going to move, Molly was tearful,” he recalled. But Crownover had an ally in her parents, native Californians who were stationed in Corpus Christi during World War II. “They said, ‘You’re lucky! This is a good deal!’ They had a tremendous affection for Texas.”

It didn’t take long for both Jim and Molly to become well known and respected, in part because of their generous contributions of time and talents to the Houston community. Crownover has served on the boards of the United Way, Houston Grand Opera and many other worthy causes.

“The man has a heart bigger than Texas,” said Anna Babin, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Houston, which named Crownover its Volunteer of the Year — twice. “When Jim Crownover speaks, it’s after much thought and consideration, and people listen.”

“Jim is able to help people understand the key role we play and establish great relationships,” added Anne Neeson, United Way’s vice president of donor relations. “That’s the basis of his approach to fundraising.”

Neeson considers Crownover her mentor. “I have this little card in my desk with something I’ve heard him say often. He says you’ve got to constantly ask yourself, ‘Am I a valued member of a team in pursuit of a noble purpose?’ I think about that a lot.”

The Stanford Graduate School of Business also appreciates Crownover’s extensive input and honored him last year with its John W. Gardner Volunteer Leadership Award. “He’s just phenomenal in what he’s done as a volunteer,” said Robert Joss, the school’s dean. “Helpful and selfless — he’s a terrific guy. The last three reunions in a row, his class has set fundraising records. And he’s a real leader of that class.”

This one is too big …

At 6 feet 2 inches tall, with sparkling blue eyes and a big smile, Crownover projects a warmth that tells you something about how he thrived for so long in the world of business consulting. In conversation, he doesn’t shy away from topics that can be controversial. He prefers to deal with them head-on while keeping the Rice board focused on the long view.

Those issues include the growth of the campus and expansion of the undergraduate student body, financial challenges caused by the struggling global economy and its effect on Rice’s endowment, and discussion of a possible combination with nearby Baylor College of Medicine. He expects that the Rice–Baylor issue alone — still in discussion between the two institutions as of press time — will keep the board occupied through many hours of meetings.

“For some issues, we can form an ad hoc committee and say, ‘Look, you study this thing and come back with a recommendation,’” Crownover said. “This one is too big for that. I want the entire board to get all the information possible.”

Having Baylor as a member of the Rice family “appears to make a great deal of strategic sense for the university,” he said, although it would be a complex undertaking that requires a mixture of vision, courage and prudence. “There are many issues the board has looked at, but the most difficult questions are: Can we bring all the necessary participants together, and can we make it work financially?”

People told me I had no chance

Crownover then and nowCrownover deserves considerable credit for bringing David Leebron to Rice as its seventh president. He led the search committee for a successor to retiring President Malcolm Gillis and was the first from Rice to meet with Leebron, then dean of Columbia Law School.

“People told me I had no chance,” Crownover recalled. “They said, ‘You’re not going to get him to leave New York.’”

But, as he said, you’ve got to go seek people out.

“I had breakfast with David at the Palace Hotel in New York and met him at 7:30 or 8,” he recalled. “At 11 o’clock, we parted, and I don’t think either one of us looked at our watches. Just three hours, locked in.”

“We really hit it off, and my first impression was that Jim was very engaging,” said Leebron. “Jim is an incredibly thoughtful, dogged person. Sometimes when you’re talking on the phone you have to ask, ‘Are you still there?’ Because he’s thinking, listening. He’ll often leave a meeting and call me five minutes later with a question or another idea because he’s still thinking about it.”

Crownover had an early ally in his campaign to lure Leebron to Rice in Y. Ping Sun, Leebron’s wife and now university representative.

“Partway through the process, I’d given him some advice, and there was a moment when Ping turned to David and said, ‘Trust Jim,’” he recalled, pleased to have won her confidence. “That was important.”

“Jim felt from the beginning,” said Leebron, “that the secret to getting me was getting Ping.”

I just dropped off the face of the Earth

Crownover’s own reconnection with Rice took a while, and there was a note of frustration in his voice when he said he had no contact with the university for decades, despite his status as a community leader in Houston. “Literally, I was not contacted by Rice for more than 20 years, other than maybe a letter,” he said. “I just dropped off the face of the Earth.”

A series of chance meetings with Rice trustees spurred the quest to get him more involved, and Crownover quickly found out why. He recalled the wisdom of a Rice financial officer at his board orientation in 1999. “The very first words out of his mouth were, ‘The big endowment is good news and bad news.’ I said, ‘I think I understand the good news, but what’s the bad news?’ He said, ‘Rice always felt like it had a lot of money. It developed in a way that’s very different from other universities. It didn’t feel the need to be aggressive.’”

Something needed to change, and Crownover came back to Rice as great change was brewing. There was a new emphasis on fundraising that has evolved into the current $1 billion Centennial Campaign, and the board was evolving as well. Among other things, it had grown from a two-tiered organization with permanent appointees to a larger board with fixed terms. As an agent of change in the business world, Crownover was quite comfortable taking on a new set of challenges — even though he said it sometimes felt “like building a bridge under traffic.”

McKinsey’s Daniel understands the challenges business professionals face in an academic environment — he served as one of the seven board members of the Harvard Corporation and as the university’s treasurer and also has been on the boards of Brandeis, Wesleyan and Rockefeller universities. He said Crownover is uniquely suited to his role at Rice. “I’ve had a lot of academic affiliations, and I know most businesspeople would get in there and say, ‘Why can’t we do this tomorrow? The hell with the faculty, let’s just do it!’ But Jim is a gentle soul and has the sensibility to think of Rice as a client and figure out how to really help and win their trust and confidence, which he has clearly done.”

I’d drink coffee like crazy and do my work

Crownover, a native of Norman, Okla., felt at home at Rice from the first time he stepped onto the campus with his parents, Maurice and Nell. “They’re both gone, but they were so proud that I came to Rice. I hope they know I’m here chairing the board. They’d be amazed.”

Crownover was a National Merit Scholar. “I was assured I would be accepted early. I may have applied to Duke and Stanford, but it was always Rice for me,” said Crownover, who majored in chemical engineering. “I liked that it had the reputation of being hard. I wanted to feel like I could live up to the challenge.”

So why didn’t he become a chemical engineer?

“I hated the smell of chemicals,” he said. “I thought I liked the security of getting to a definitive answer, but the lightbulb went on when I took an economics course, and I found I enjoyed those problems. They were open-ended, unstructured and dealt with people more.”

Rice offered many advantages, said Crownover, who played on the golf team and whose possession of a car throughout his undergrad years made him pretty popular. “My other memories are of great social times,” he said. “Great parties. We’d go to the San Jacinto Inn sometimes, and on Saturday afternoons, I would treat myself to a hot fudge sundae in the Village. I remember wonderful times studying in the basement of Hanszen. We had these little carrels, and I’d drink coffee like crazy and do my work.”

We’re the strange bird in the top 20

Those memories are motivation enough for Crownover to preserve the qualities he sees as truly unique among American universities. Beyond that, he feels growth is essential for Rice to keep its place among the elite institutions of higher education.

“It’s amazing we’re ranked as high as we are, frankly, because we’re so small, and we don’t have a medical school or a law school,” he said. “We’re kind of different and, other than Caltech, we’re the strange bird in the top 20.”

Crownover said the trustees were well aware that the status quo was not an option and welcomed Leebron’s Call to Conversation that led to the development of the Vision for the Second Century. “It’s not just me — we all have high aspirations for Rice,” he said. “We realize the competition is really strong, and we’ve got to change.”

He’s particularly excited about the soon-to-open BioScience Research Collaborative (previously known by its working name, the Collaborative Research Center), the Barbara and David Gibbs Recreation and Wellness Center, and the possibilities a combined Rice and Baylor would offer.

“You talk about ‘no upper limit,’” he said. “Right now, we have some centers of excellence, big and small, and we can enhance the quality of those centers and create new ones. Arguably, in two or three decades, Rice can be the best story of advancement among American universities. That’s not just pie-in-the-sky. I’ve actually thought this through.”

We’re improving the story

Crownover said Rice was never really static and, over the years, has grown and evolved.

“There were 1,600 students when I was here, and now there are more than 3,000,” he said. “Does that mean we’re not small anymore? It’s a nonissue. There’s nothing I feel more strongly about than the wisdom of increasing the size of our undergraduate student body. Not that it’s going to be easy, but it’s the smart thing to do.”

That entails making more people aware of the superior educational experience and environment Rice offers.

“In the past, we made a fine art of keeping our light under a bushel, so it’s tremendously important that we’re figuring out how to convey Rice to the world,” he said. “But we’re improving the story. I like this tag line of ‘Unconventional Wisdom.’ To me, being an old Rice guy, that really does capture us.

“Some people have tried to pin me down on what university we aspire to be like, and I say, ‘We aspire to be unique. One of a kind.’”