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Remarks at Rice University’s Centennial Campaign Gala 

November 6, 2008 

David W. Leebron, President

 

Welcome to all who are here to participate in the launch of Rice University’s Centennial Campaign. Thank you so very much for being here tonight.

I want to especially thank to Bobby Tudor and Susie Glasscock for chairing the campaign – and also Phoebe and Mel. And thank you to the members of the Centennial Campaign Committee.

Today we build on what has come before, so I want also to thank the leaders of our last campaign, Bucky and Cynthia Allshouse, Kent and Linda Anderson, and Malcolm and Elizabeth Gillis. Their successful efforts in the last campaign laid the groundwork for the initiative we are launching tonight.

We also thank those who have chaired our Board of Trustees: Jim Crownover, Bill Barnett, Charles Duncan – together they represent over a quarter century of Rice leadership.

I am privileged to be the president of Rice University. At least until recently, even my daughter was impressed. However, in light of recent events, she is a bit less happy with this presidency. It’s not that she thinks that being president of the United States is a better job than being president of Rice. It is that she learned that that president has promised his young daughters a new puppy.

Just over 96 years ago, a few hundred yards away from where you sit now, President Edgar Odell Lovett spoke at the formal opening of what was then the Rice Institute. Today that name brings a sense of nostalgia to some and of unfamiliarity to others, especially our younger graduates and current students. But although Lovett and the Board of Trustees, under the leadership of Captain James Baker, had chosen to designate the new institution as the Rice Institute, the ambitions he laid out were unambiguous. The new institution, he said, “aspires to university standing of the highest grade.” He spoke not only of science and technology, but of art, literature and architecture.

Of course, we were then in the world of higher education the “new kid” on the block. Of this, President Lovett had the following to say:

“The new institution comes as a rival to none, as a competitor of none, but as a child hoping to grow in favor, to gain the confidence and to win the respect of older foundations. It is the advent of a man-child that we have witnessed, and some of us believe we have discovered in its form the features and bones of a giant.”

And although Lovett contemplated the substantial growth of this new addition to the increasing strengths of Houston, he did not use giant in the sense of size, but rather in the sense of impact, of leadership, of eminence, of greatness. And while he noted that limited resources required focus on certain areas at the beginning, he said in those words we celebrate today, that we must set no upper limit on our endeavors.

And now, as we look back, we must ask ourselves: Have we achieved that aspiration?

Well, Rice has experienced a remarkable 96 years. We have seen our university recognized as among the very best in America, and indeed around the world. We have grown from a few small buildings to about 70. Despite our small size, our faculty wins recognition and accolades that suggest we are indeed a giant. Since the founding, we have added new schools and endeavors – the Shepherd School of Music, the Jones School of Management, the Baker Institute for Public Policy, the Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, the Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology – to name only a few. Almost a half century after Lovett spoke of the importance of residential colleges, the college system finally came to Rice. Two of our faculty received Nobel Prizes. In the last year alone, seven of our young professors were given National Science Foundation Career Awards. Only one private university — a much larger one — had more.

We are small but powerful. We have achieved what we have done in part through what in literature would be called hubris, in New York chutzpah, and here in Texas, perhaps, cojones. Our path has been unconventional and bold, but we must always remember that it is a path, a trajectory, that we are on — never a destination. That must be the meaning of no upper limit.

In a few moments we will show a video — in my view an extraordinary video — that invites us to pause and look behind, to remember what we have achieved, and to remind us why we feel so warmly toward this remarkable institution that has emerged over nearly a century.

In pausing, however, we are reminded of the words that President John Kennedy spoke 50 years ago and just a little ways from here, as he addressed a large crowd in the Rice football stadium:

“So it is not surprising that some would have us stay where we are a little longer to rest, to wait. But this city of Houston, this State of Texas, this country of the United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them. This country was conquered by those who moved forward . . .”

To say that we have set no upper limit means that we are not finished – there always new possibilities, new fields of knowledge, new endeavors, new opportunities for our university.

As we stand here on the brink of a new era for our university, we cannot be less daring than the ambitions that have brought us to this moment. Our understanding of our obligations to Rice can be no less than those set forth by Lovett at our founding. We must continue aspiring to be a “university of the highest grade.”

President Lovett wisely observed: “It is not difficult to plan for 50 years, nor is it difficult to plan for five years: Difficulty enters only when it is necessary to plan at one and the same time for the immediate future and for the next hundred years.”

And yet, that is the very task that lies before us: To do the things that must be done during the remainder of this campaign, and simultaneously to do the things that will serve as the foundation for our next century. And that is what we seek to do with the Vision for the Second Century.

This is a time in our country of turmoil and concern, and yet is also a time for many of hope and possibility. As we at Rice contemplate what we must do, we should so in the spirit of optimism and confidence. Some would perhaps say that a goal of one billion dollars for our centennial campaign is too much.

Of course it is not – I know Lovett would say it is not. He might instead tell us it is not enough – for no finite amount of resources can ever allow us to achieve the goals which reflect no upper limit. And President Kennedy, of course, would have said, “Why choose this as our goal? And they may very well ask why climb the highest mountain, why . . .”  Well you know the rest. But you may have forgotten what immediately follows: “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.”

We see evidence of such aspiration and achievement all around us, in everything we do. Speaking of winning, in our November 2nd game against University of Texas at El Paso, James Casey made a touchdown catch that seemed to defy the laws of physics – that’s really setting no upper limit. UTEP asked for a review of the call, but it turns out that a catch that defies the laws of physics doesn’t actually violate the rules of football.

In just four years we will gather again here on this plain to celebrate Rice’s centennial anniversary and what our Centennial Campaign has achieved.

What shall we see then (and even before):

    • Doctoral students in new programs in art history and sociology 
    •  A dramatic increase in international engagement with Mexico and Latin America and Asia, and perhaps Africa —producing knowledge and teaching students to serve a global community 
    •  An even more dynamic interaction with our home city of Houston, marked in part by the promise of life-changing research emerging from our enhanced relationships with the Texas Medical Center

 

Physically, we will also see our two new residential colleges, a new physics building, and structures that support that dynamic educational environment for our students — the Gibbs recreation center with its pools and palm trees, and already the Tudor Fieldhouse and our hugely popular Brochstein Pavilion.

We will see students who can attend without undue burdens on their families because of the generous donation of scholarships, and we will see extraordinary professors recruited with the assistance of newly endowed chairs and programs. And we will see Rice transforming the way engineers are educated.

And what might we aspire to see? The things that we know still remain undone, and in the best of worlds — in our world without upper limits — we would see as well:

    • A new center for continuing studies and Houston engagement
    • Policy experts from all over the world – in space freed up by a new Social Sciences building that will become part of a powerful new “policy campus” encompassing the Baker Institute, the School of Social Sciences and the Jones School .
    • A revamped undergraduate curriculum that will produce leaders even more capable of communicating across disciplines and cultures to address the challenges of our time
    • A new center for the arts on the edge of our campus, and a vibrant link between the talents of our students and the arts community of Houston
    • A global health program that brings through the work of our students and faculty prevention and cures to the most impoverished and remote parts of the world
    • A new opera house that provides a rich medium and training facility for young voices that will go on to inspire audiences here in Houston and all over the world

 

And as we look beyond those years, farther in the future, what are the accomplishments we might expect and for which we need to lay the groundwork now:

    •  That it will be here, at Rice, where solutions are discovered to address our energy needs and environmental challenges
    •  And it will be here, at Rice, where we came to see new and effective solutions for the treatment of cancer
    •  And it will be here, at Rice, where understanding of human migration and cultural interaction lead us to more effective public policies 
    •  And it will be here, at Rice, where we unleash the foundational principles of religious tolerance that will build greater peace in our world 
    •  And it will be here, at Rice, that our understanding of our planet and our universe reaches new heights.

 

That is what it means for us to set no upper limit – no boundary for what our students will achieve, no boundary for the growth and application of human knowledge and understanding, no limit to what we can contribute to our world today and in the future.

Just six months ago, we opened the Brochstein Pavilion, which has I think it fair to say been received with near universal acclaim. I had been eager for this building for many reasons, but among the things I was most eager to see was the pavilion at night. It shines like a jewel in the heart of the campus, beckoning all to join in the conversation and camaraderie that make for a great center of learning. This jewel sits near the heart of our campus, Fondren Library. Therein you find a new piece of art: nine extraordinary glass ships, symbols of the journey that learning represents. That is how we must think of Rice – as both a beacon and a journey.

I find it hard to believe that less than five years ago, like Lovett, I was lured from the Northeast – indeed from less than an hour’s train ride away from where Lovett began his journey to Rice – here to Houston by the prospect of leading this university. Unlike Lovett, I did not find a small city of 80,000, but instead a great and growing and diverse and dynamic city of several million. I did not come to build from the ground a university, but rather simply to build upon the university that, nearly a century later, is still the great but unfinished realization of President Lovett’s vision.

The universe of knowledge lies before us – it is our chance to educate and explore in ways that will create a new and better world.

For this great opportunity which stands before us on this fair night, the people of Rice have aspired and worked for almost a century. Let us live up to those aspirations. With your help, we will.