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Center for Houston's Future
Annual Lunch Keynote Address
Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The City and the University: Essentials for our Future

David W. Leebron
President, Rice University

  I am honored to be asked to speak at an occasion at which Bill Barnett is being presented with an award named after Gene Vaughan.  These are two extraordinary citizens of Houston.  I can't claim to have much in common with them.  For one thing, both have more hair after more than seven decades of life than I had after three.

But, like them, I wasn't born here in Houston .  Since arriving here less than three years ago, I have often been asked what it's like to move from New York to Houston.  My response has been that, really, the two cities are much alike.  Both are very dynamic and very diverse.  In neither city do people care whether you were born there, or even when you arrived.  The difference is, in Houston, they are actually glad that you are here.  Bill and Gene epitomize that Houston spirit.  I'm truly honored to count them among my friends.

This past summer, Ping and I enjoyed a trip through the Mediterranean which brought us to Athens.  As I was wandering around the Agora, I was thinking:  This is where Socrates taught; this is where the first proto universities began to spring up.  Not too far away were the Academia of Plato and the Lyceum of Aristotle.  These early institutions of higher education were integrated into the life of the city.  Passers-by could listen in on the conversations that constituted the classes.

Over time, however, the notion of the university changed, and many followed the more monastic religious tradition that developed in Europe, a tradition of isolation from the daily commerce and cares of the world.  Universities grew up outside the great cities, in places like Oxford, Cambridge, Heidelberg and Tübingen.  In America, many great universities were built in major cities, but others were built in isolated locations-in places like Ann Arbor and Palo Alto and Charlottesville. The rise of the land grant universities further contributed to the separation of higher education from the life of the great cities.  And as the cities of America declined during the mid-20th century, even many of the urban universities, in such places as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, New Haven and Providence, found themselves isolated from their surroundings and dealing with town-gown antagonism. 

Ultimately, people began to realize that this negative relationship between the urban university and its home city was not sustainable.  Looking back over the history of great cities, there is plentiful evidence that it was, in part, the universities that made them great.  In fact, I would venture to say that no city today can be a great city without the presence of a great university.  Conversely, these urban universities cannot succeed without developing partnerships with their cities.  Virtually every major city today-New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Tokyo, Shanghai, London, Paris, Munich or Rome-is also a center of higher education and research.  

Closer to Home  

Earlier this spring, we launched the Center for Civic Engagement , an effort to have our students learn by doing research related to the problems the city faces.  In sum, we are succeeding at showing our prospective students that they should come to Rice not despite the fact it is in Houston, but because it is in Houston.  

Nowhere is this truer than in Houston.  But when I arrived here almost three years ago, Rice's message to students seemed to be, come here despite the fact that we're in Houston.  To put it mildly, that was not a strategy.  The well-worn expression at Rice referred to the city beyond the hedges; from the city's point of view, Rice was sequestered behind the hedges.  At one point, we actually debated whether we should just cut those hedges down to make a statement about the engagement of the campus and the city.  Ultimately we concluded that was not necessary.

Instead, we launched the " Passportto Houston " for our undergraduate students.  We gave them free Metro passes, and the nearby cultural institutions were wonderfully supportive in offering financial terms that enabled us to provide them free membership in the Museum of Fine Arts, the Houston Museum of Natural Science and even the zoo.  The student newspaper, the Thresher, saw the glass as one-quarter empty and complained that we hadn't included the Menil Collection in the Passport program-until we pointed out to them that the Menil is free.  In addition, we have arranged numerous Passport nights, with visits to the opera, symphony, theater and other venues.  Last year, we took nearly 400 students to the opera one night.  For those of you who go to the opera, you know that having 400 students there has a nontrivial effect on the age demographics.

Earlier this spring, we launched the Center for Civic Engagement, an effort to have our students learn by doing research related to the problems the city faces.  In sum, we are succeeding at showing our prospective students that they should come to Rice not despite the fact it is in Houston, but because it is in Houston.

This is a great city for students, and especially those at Rice.  As I have said on a number of occasions, if you took Rice off the map of Houston and could put it back anywhere in the city, you would put it right where it is.  At one end of our campus is the Texas Medical Center , the world's largest agglomeration of geographically concentrated medical institutions.  At the other end of the campus is the city's museum district, home to 16 museums and cultural institutions and growing with, for example, the addition of the new Asia House.  These institutions, with Rice, form the fabric of the intellectual heart of our city.

But that heart needs a circulatory system, not merely to bring people to it, but to connect it to the other great cultural, educational and commercial centers of our metropolis.  Here we are blessed again with the first branch of Houston's light rail system, a beacon of light in the otherwise somewhat dismal state of Houston mass transit.  We have seen firsthand what a difference it makes in how our students experience the city - their ability to learn from it and also to contribute to it by reaching out into the community.

A Collaborative Relationship  

The relationship between cities and universities runs much deeper.  A national university like Rice attracts talented young people to the city.  Many of these stay, but even those who leave after graduation are much more likely to return later if they have lived here as a student.  Our honoree today, Bill Barnett, is an excellent example of that.  He came to Rice from Louisiana, left to study at the University of Texas Law School, and returned to Houston to join the firm of Baker Botts.  Peggy, a Houston native Bill met at Rice, had something to do with that.   

So you see the first strand of this essential relationship.  Our future as a university depends on the city of Houston - on our ability to attract students, faculty, staff and others to the university because of what the city has to offer.  Just as much, the city depends on us.
 
But here I want to pause and say that, although I speak primarily from my experience at Rice, we are fortunate in Houston to have a number of institutions of higher education that contribute magnificently to the city.  We are pleased, for example, to count among our neighbors the University of St. Thomas, a wonderful institution with a vision to become one of the great Catholic universities of America.  Just west of us, we have another fine religiously affiliated institution in Houston Baptist University.  And of course the bulk of the young population of the city seeking higher education finds that opportunity at our public institutions:  the University of Houston, Texas Southern University and our important community college systems-Houston Community College and North Harris Montgomery.  Although Rice is the only private nonreligiously affiliated university in the city (and for that matter, the state), we know that both our public and religiously affiliated sister educational institutions all contribute to the fabric of higher education, and thus to our city.

How do we contribute to the success of Houston?  Most obviously, perhaps, we contribute to its reputation as a center of intellectual and cultural activity.  This past weekend, the Houston Chronicle ran an article on real estate prices in the city, and the zip code with the highest prices measured in cost per square foot was 77005.  Rice's zip code.  That's no accident.  Many factors go into this, including our location close to the medical center, Hermann Park and the Museum District.  But it's also because people are attracted to universities and all they offer in terms of space, culture and knowledge exploration.  That's true not only for those living in our immediate neighborhood, but also those thinking more broadly about moving to a city.  On almost every Website I visited that evaluated cities as places to live or move to, the number of colleges and universities was a factor. 

The relationship between cities and universities runs much deeper.  A national university like Rice attracts talented young people to the city.  Many of these stay, but even those who leave after graduation are much more likely to return later if they have lived here as a student.  Our honoree today, Bill Barnett, is an excellent example of that.  He came to Rice from Louisiana, left to study at the University of Texas Law School, and returned to Houston to join the firm of Baker Botts.  Peggy, a Houston native Bill met at Rice, had something to do with that.  

The Roles of an Urban University  

In Texas, Rice has the highest percentage of out-of-state students among all of the major colleges and universities of the state.  We help keep many of the most exceptional Texas students here and attract promising students from all over the world.  Texas, being a net exporter of college students, suffers something of a "brain drain" in higher education.  One of the reasons Rice is significantly expanding its undergraduate enrollment is to make sure that Houston imports more academically gifted freshmen even while we continue to attract more Houstonians.   

Universities contribute much more to their cities than undergraduate and graduate education.  Rice, for example, contributes to  K through 12 education both by providing programs for students from throughout the city and by helping educate the teachers of those students, particularly in math and science.  Harking back to the days of Socrates and Plato, when the citizenry of Athens could eavesdrop on their classes, the  Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies programs attract 10,000 enrollments per year.  

But perhaps the most critical element of the relationship is the role of the university in a city in which ideas and knowledge will-more than ever-drive the sustained economic success of that city.  Let me turn for a minute just to one aspect of that success here in Houston:  the health care industry and, more specifically, the remarkable institutions of the Texas Medical Center.

Houston is a health care center because of the research capabilities here in the city.  In the future, cutting-edge health care will depend on linking fundamental research to clinical practice.  Medical researchers will need to draw on fields such as physics and make use of powerful mathematical and statistical modeling and computing technologies.  Thus the great educational and research institutions of the Texas Medical Center need what Rice can provide, just as Rice-if it is to succeed in its research mission and attract the best scientists-must be complemented by the strengths of the medical center institutions.  That is why we are building, with the engagement of these institutions, a nearly 500,000-square-foot collaborative research center at the juncture of the Rice campus and the Texas Medical Center, at University and Main.

So Houston and higher education, Houston and Rice, are essential to each other's future.  We cannot wall ourselves off like some medieval monastic institution.  We must engage with the city and contribute to it.  The future of Houston will, in many respects, be the future of Rice.

Looking Forward  

Why has Houston emerged as one of America's most international cities?  

There are a number of reasons-our location near the border with Latin America, the fact that we are America's second largest port, the fact that we are the headquarters and hub of one of the world's major airlines, the fact that so many major corporations are headquartered here.   

What is that future?  What is essential to assuring Houston's future as a great city?

When I think about what attracted us to this city and what I have learned since being here, I am struck not only by Houston's physical location at the intersection of the West and the South, but by the cultural intersection as well.  This city combines the South's hospitality with the West's dynamic and entrepreneurial spirit in a great metropolis that partakes of all aspects of human endeavor.  I have to confess, I ain't no country boy.  When I was asked at my first press conference how it felt to be moving to Houston, I replied that, having been born in the fourth largest city in the country-then Philadelphia-I was glad to be coming home to the fourth largest city.

But beyond the mere question of size, Houston is an international city.  One reflection of this is the number of consular representatives.  With 86, we are third in the country, only a couple behind Los Angeles.  As a result, the city reflects the cultures, food and talent of people from all over the world.  It is an exciting place to be with the endless choices and surprises that such a diverse and international population brings.

Why has Houston emerged as one of America's most international cities?

There are a number of reasons-our location near the border with Latin America, the fact that we are America's second largest port, the fact that we are the headquarters and hub of one of the world's major airlines, the fact that so many major corporations are headquartered here.  But at least three of these four reasons I think go back to what is most important-Houston's relationship to energy.  As we are proud of saying, Houston is the world capital of the energy industry. 

To grasp the distinction and importance of this, ask yourselves how many cities are the world capital of anything?   Well, of course there's Gilroy, the world capital of garlic.  Or Castroville, the world capital of artichokes, or Strong, Maine, the world capital of toothpicks.  And surely you have heard of Beaver, Okla., the cow chip throwing capital of the world. (By the way, you're just in time to catch the annual cow chip throw this coming Saturday.)  Houston, however, can claim to be the capital of something truly significant-energy, essential to all nations and people. 

Economically, Houston has become more diversified and less dependent on the oil industry.  But we should not underestimate the continuing broad importance of that industry to our city.  We are the center of the energy industry because the energy industry remains centered on oil.  Many predict that, by mid-century, the petroleum supply will have decreased to the point that it is unlikely to be the primary source of energy.  In that scenario, absent the development of new energy sectors here, Houston will cease to be the energy capital. 

The book "Built to Last" attempts to define the characteristics of extremely successful, enduring business enterprises.  But authors Jim Collins and Jerry Porras speculate that their analysis could also apply to governmental entities such as cities.  Cities today, like universities, find themselves in a highly competitive environment.  And in such an environment, the path downward is far easier than the path upward.

We have certainly seen cities rise and fall.  For example, we have learned that the American automobile industry apparently was not built to last and, as a result, Detroit-once the undisputed world capital of the automobile industry-was not built to last either.  Today, Detroit's economy is on one of the steepest declines in the country, and the city is suffering all of the ills that accompany such a turn of events.  Indeed, in 1960, when Houston was the seventh largest city, the fifth was Detroit, the sixth was Baltimore, the eighth was Cleveland and the 10th was St. Louis.  Today, those cities rank 11th, 18th, 39th and 52nd respectively. 

Ambitious, Compelling and Fundamental Goals  

The future of energy depends first and foremost on research that will discover new sources of energy, new ways to make current energy processes and technologies more efficient and new ways to more efficiently transmit energy.  Some of the research will be fundamental, such as theoretical physics, and some more applied.  

Is that the fate of Houston?  What must we do to be sure not merely that our great city will continue to exist, which it undoubtedly will, but that it will thrive and excel?

In "Built to Last," the authors introduce the concept of Big Hairy Audacious Goals, or BHAGs.  BHAGs are ambitious, compelling, fundamental goals.  An example is President John Kennedy's decision to go to the moon.  He spoke about it in a  speech at Rice Stadium almost 45 years ago:

"But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win..."

I guess that's a little more elegant than "BHAGs."  What is the power of an audacious goal?  Consider Augustus and John Allen, who in 1836 had the audacity to promote Houston, where they were selling land for $1 an acre, as the future "great interior commercial emporium of Texas" and claimed that it was already a thriving port city, despite the fact that bayous were barely navigable.  Today you can try to buy land near the Medical Center at $10 million per acre, and Houston is the largest port in the country in terms of foreign tonnage.

I would suggest three such goals for Houston:

• To be the destination city for companies and entrepreneurs because of the quality of the workforce.
• To be the destination city for individuals and their families because of the quality of life.
• To remain the world capital of energy, however that industry may evolve.

What will it take to achieve these?  I don't quite have time today to answer that question, but in each area, the universities of our city are likely to make essential contributions.  Let me begin with the last, for it is here that a newer partnership of the city, energy companies and the universities will be critical.  The future of energy depends first and foremost on research that will discover new sources of energy, new ways to make current energy processes and technologies more efficient and new ways to more efficiently transmit energy.  Some of the research will be fundamental, such as theoretical physics, and some more applied.

My late colleague, Nobel Prize winner RichardSmalley , saw in nanotechnology the future of energy, and particularly in the efficient transmission of energy through carbon nanotube wires.  If we are to succeed in retaining Houston's preeminent position in this arena, we must invest in such research here in Houston.  The lesson of Silicon Valley is that in research, as in real estate, location does matter.  The city of Houston has served our energy industry well, and the energy industry has served Houston well.  We must build that partnership and secure energy research here, in the capital of energy.

Let me turn now briefly to our other two, closely related, BHAGs for Houston.  What are our challenges in making our city a destination for industry and people?  Our city was built on immigration, both from abroad and from within America.  We have today a remarkably diverse city, and that diversity is one of the reasons to have great confidence about our future.  Industries will seek out that diversity, correctly seeing it as the foundation of global success.

The quality of our workforce will be the single biggest factor in whether the industries of the future will see us as a destination, and the quality of that workforce depends on education.  If we do not solve our K through 12 education problems, if we do not address the horrendous dropout rate of our students, if we do not inspire them and enable them to be globally competitive in math and science, we will not be a great city.  Our universities are playing an important role here.

Fa cing Problems Together  

We know what our problems are.  We know they will not go away on their own and will be even more difficult to solve if we simply wait and hope. If we don't act, we will be culpable as our descendants struggle with the problems of an uneducated population, a fouled environment, inadequate transportation and substandard medical care.  

In addition to education, our community faces three other fundamental challenges to our quality of life:  the environment, transportation and health care. Anyone involved in recruiting knows how important the quality of life is.  A few days ago, I sat with a group of students and told them about this talk and asked for their advice.  They all said environmental concerns are at the top of their list. 

We have ignored these problems for too long here in Houston, and much is at stake.  For one thing, the energy industry of the future will be a clean industry, and a clean industry will not locate in a dirty city.  I commend the Greater Houston Partnership for endorsing the adoption of California emission standards, but the long time getting there has been costly.  
 
At the risk of being immodest, let me share "Leebron's law":  The longer you postpone addressing a problem, the more expensive, complicated and politically difficult it will be to solve.  And therefore, the more unlikely it is that you will actually solve it.  Maybe that's what Yogi Berra meant when he said, "The future ain't what it used to be."  In Jared Diamond's book "Collapse," he outlines several failures of collective decision making that lead to the collapse of complex societies.  The most frequent reason for such failure, he says, is that societies fail to solve a problem even after it has been perceived. 

We know what our problems are.  We know they will not go away on their own and will be even more difficult to solve if we simply wait and hope. If we don't act, we will be culpable as our descendants struggle with the problems of an uneducated population, a fouled environment, inadequate transportation and substandard medical care.  Solving these problems is not rocket science; it's harder than rocket science. They require the full spectrum of knowledge, research and resources that a city, its industries and its universities can bring to bear. That is why, for example at Rice, professor  Michael Emerson has launched the Program for the Study of Houston which will bring together scientists and humanists, engineers and social scientists to examine some of the most pressing problems facing Houston and other metropolitan areas. That is why, every year, Rice sociologist Stephen Klineberg conducts his longitudinal study of Houston. That is why we support research on air quality and health care.

If we work together here in Houston there is no challenge we cannot meet.  Kennedy again put it best when he spoke at Rice: "We meet at a college noted for knowledge, in a city noted for progress, in a state noted for strength, and we stand in need of all three."   And indeed, Houston and Rice played critical roles in putting a man on the moon.

A couple weeks ago, I visited Ann Lents in the offices of the Center for Houston's Future .  It's a nice office and Ann, Steve Miller and others are doing and supporting important and valuable work for which we should all be grateful.  But the center of Houston's future does not lie in that office.  The center of the future is here in this room with all of you, the people who have the power to do something about our future.  I think we really face only one fundamental question, and that is whether we will deal today with issues that will define Houston tomorrow; whether, as President Kennedy proclaimed, we are unwilling to postpone addressing our challenges.  If each of us commits to being a center for Houston's future, then our generation will take its place beside those bold adventurers who founded our city, and those who made Houston the first word uttered on the moon.