Center for Houston's Future
Annual Lunch Keynote Address
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
The City and the University:
Essentials for our Future
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
. 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
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
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
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 "
" 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
Universities contribute much more to their cities than
undergraduate and graduate education. Rice, for example,
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
Susanne M. Glasscock School of
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
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.
Why has Houston emerged as one of America's most
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
Why has Houston emerged as one of America's most international
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
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
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
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
, 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.
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
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
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
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
. 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.