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David W. Leebron, President

Spring, 2009 


Dear Rice Community,

I sincerely hope that early spring finds you in good health and spirits.  May also the lunar Year of the Ox, which began in late January and is celebrated by many in the Rice community (including my family), be one of good fortune for you and your family.  Of course, in light of the economic developments over the last half year, some good fortune could not come soon enough.

My last communication to our alumni and friends was on two specific topics: our efforts to deal with Hurricane Ike and our discussions with Baylor College of Medicine about a possible merger.  I will have a bit more to say about BCM later in this letter.  I also want to focus on what is perhaps the worst economic climate in three quarters of a century, and how it has affected Rice.  But since we are all in need of good news these days, let me share some of that first.

Rice University continues to be strong and ascendant.  Applications for the fall 2009 entering class surged for the first time not only through the 10,000 milestone but past 11,000 as well, for a 14 percent increase over last year.  Most satisfying, our applicant pool has grown substantially over the last few years without any decrease in quality.  Evidence that our reputation is gaining visibility and respect is reflected in the strong increase in applications from outside Texas and another remarkable increase from international students, who now comprise 13 percent of the applicant pool.  Annual Fund donations through the end of the year were also up about as much as applications — most welcome and deeply appreciated in light of the financial challenges we face on other fronts.

We formally launched our Centennial Campaign on November 6 and announced that we have already received gifts and pledges totaling more than half of the $1 billion goal — truly an incredible start reflecting the extraordinary generosity of our alumni and friends.  The launch began with a gala here on campus and carried through Homecoming & Reunion Weekend, and then on to events in New York and San Francisco that attracted record turnouts.  We also celebrated the 15th anniversary of the Baker Institute for Public Policy and the 30th anniversary of the Glasscock School of Continuing Studies with memorable events.  Most recently, the Shepherd School of Music celebrated a third of a century of achievement with an elegant gala featuring a performance by Renée Fleming with our remarkable orchestra and voice students.  Each such celebration takes us closer to the biggest milestone of them all — our centennial in 2012.  The sense of anticipation for that historic moment is building throughout the Rice community.

On another note, Rice is realizing the benefits from the introduction of academic minors over the past two years, which has helped expand the range of curricular possibilities for our students.  In addition to the business minor offered by the Jones Graduate School of Management, we also now have minors in global health technologies, financial computation and modeling, and sociology.  Our entrepreneurial faculty is at work on others, and just a couple of weeks ago the faculty approved a new minor in Jewish studies that involves history, art history, religious studies, philosophy and other departments.  The introduction of the minor concept has turned out to be another way that a small university offers its students amazing opportunity.

Highly coveted awards won by our faculty have steepened the upward trajectory of Rice’s reputation.  Among them, Neal Lane, the Malcolm Gillis University Professor and senior fellow at the Baker Institute, was chosen recently to receive the National Academy of Sciences’ most prestigious award, the Public Welfare Medal.  Established in 1914, the medal is presented annually to honor extraordinary use of science for public good.  Naomi Halas, the Stanley C. Moore Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering and professor of chemistry and bioengineering, was named by the Department of Defense as one of only six National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellows from more than 650 nominees.  The journal positions: east asia cultures critique was chosen as the winner of the 2008 Council of Editors of Learned Journals Award for Best Special Issue for “War Capital Trauma.”  Founded and edited by Tani Barlow, the T.T. and W.F. Chao Professor of Asian History and founding director of the Chao Center for Asian Studies, the journal’s editorial office was previously located at the University of Washington and moved with Barlow to Rice last year.

Assistant Professor of Psychology Tatiana Schnur published a highly publicized paper in Proceedings of the National Academy identifying one particular part of the brain, the left inferior frontal gyrus, as necessary for choosing the correct word.  Jamie Padgett, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, was named one of 14 “new faces of engineering” by the National Engineers Week Foundation.  Doug Natelson, associate professor of physics and astronomy and in electrical and computer engineering, was named one of the nation’s top 20 scientists under age 40 by Discover magazine.  Cin-Ty Lee, associate professor of earth science, won two major awards from geological professional organizations for best paper and best body of work for a young scientist.  And Jim Tour, the Chao Professor of Chemistry and professor of computer science, mechanical engineering and materials science, was awarded the prestigious Foresight Institute Feynman Prize for experimental nanotechnology for 2008.

Our faculty members across the spectrum are increasingly visible in the news media, and I encourage you to subscribe to the university’s daily newsfeed, Dateline Rice, if you do not already.  A few unconventional efforts by our students are especially worth mentioning.  Undergraduate student-run science and engineering research on BioBeer, a possible cancer-fighting brew, was the most heavily covered Rice story of 2008 — appearing in more than 500 media outlets, including NPR, Fox News, CNN, Houston Chronicle, Popular Science, Computerworld, Discovery.com and USA Today.  For the second consecutive year, a group of our students was recognized by the Clinton Global Initiative for their international outreach efforts, this time in microfinance.  More recently, two of our undergraduates, Faheem Ahmed and Anish Patel, won a national competition to cover the red carpet at the Oscars on behalf of MTV’s college television network, mtvU.  Read more about their adventure and see the video at: http://www.media.rice.edu/media/NewsBot.asp?MODE=VIEW&ID=12163.

The fall also was a banner time for Rice athletics. The football team culminated its best season in more than half a century with a victory over Western Michigan in the Texas Bowl.  Among other highlights, the record-setting duo of quarterback Chase Clement and receiver Jarrett Dillard thrilled the crowd with a reverse touchdown pass — from Dillard to Clement.  Standout performances by James Casey garnered him a spot in the NFL draft; we will miss him but wish him well in his pro career.  Other teams also excelled, including our women’s volleyball team, which participated in the NCAA tournament.  Our basketball program returned home to play in the welcoming environment of the renovated Tudor Fieldhouse, which opened in November, and the new plaza leading to Reckling Park is taking shape, complete with palm trees.  The baseball team is off to an impressive start, including a recent two-hitter pitched by Ryan Berry in the Minute Maid College Classic.  And everyone at Rice will have many new opportunities for exercise and friendly competition when the new Gibbs Recreation and Wellness Center opens in the early fall.

The rest of our building program is on schedule, with the exception of a couple of minor setbacks from Hurricane Ike and other slowdowns necessitated by the downturn in the financial markets.  The new South Plant — with its shimmering glass tower, a creative take by the architect on traditional Rice towers — has been finished just in time to generate power for the BioScience Research Collaborative (formerly known by its working name as the Collaborative Research Center).  McMurtry and Duncan residential colleges will be ready in the fall to help accommodate an entering class of about 850 students, which is about 60 more than this year.  The new colleges will also house, respectively, students from Baker and Will Rice for the upcoming academic year while their colleges are renovated and expanded by approximately 20 percent.  Although this construction will inevitably cause some dislocation and inconvenience, ultimately we will be able to accommodate an increased percentage of our undergraduates on campus.  In addition, the new graduate student apartments on Shakespeare Avenue in the Rice Village opened in January.  The new facility has added 238 beds for graduate students, a major increase in our ability to serve those hard-working members of the Rice community.  And the Rice Children’s Campus is now providing an excellent child care option for the campus community.

Two long-serving deans have completed or are about to complete their administrative terms.  After 11 years of revered leadership, Kathy Matthews, dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences, turned over the helm to Dan Carson at the end of the calendar year.  After a national search, Dan was selected to join us from the University of Delaware, where he served as professor and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences.  During his 15 years as dean, Lars Lerup has led the School of Architecture through a rise in the rankings and innovative approaches to the city.  He has done an extraordinary job of positioning and building our school for this new century.  A search is currently underway for his successor when his term ends later this year.

Let me now turn to how the downturn in the financial markets and overall economy is affecting Rice.  Like every other university, our endowment has suffered a very significant loss, although it appears to be less than losses suffered by many other prominent universities.  As of the end of December, it was down approximately 20 percent and most likely has suffered some further deterioration since then.  Since we depend on the endowment for about 45 percent of our operating revenues, this necessitates some significant adjustments, including a substantial slowing of any increases in payouts from the endowment.  In preparation of the FY 2010 budget, we have asked each school and administrative department to cut 5 percent of the part of the budget supported by unrestricted funds.  We will seek to the extent possible to avoid layoffs, but some programs and services may need to be reduced or eliminated.  We will delay the construction of a new food servery for Will Rice and Baker colleges, as well as a few other projects, until the economy improves or funds have been raised.

 These measures should allow us to continue implementing our strategic plan and to seize some faculty hiring opportunities, but at the same time to remain within the guidelines set by the Board of Trustees for spending from the endowment.  Of course, if the economy gets worse or financial markets do not recover over the next couple of years, we will need to take more stringent measures.

We know that many of you are suffering from the effects of the economy as well.  This is true of families across America and indeed the world, and is why we are increasing our scholarship aid.  For entering undergraduates, students from families with incomes less than $80,000 will not be required to borrow money to finance their Rice education.  For those of you whose circumstances permit you to continue supporting the university, please know that your contributions are needed more than ever to support our ability to sustain our quality education and research and to ensure that no qualified student is denied a Rice education for financial reasons.

Rice has of course weathered such downturns in the past, and we will come out of this one stronger than ever.  Indeed, I was just rereading about President Lovett’s struggles to maintain momentum during the Great Depression, described by John Boles ’65, the William P. Hobby Professor of History, in his recent book, University Builder.  We need to be prudent, but at the same time we need to continue to exhibit the boldness that has characterized nearly 97 years of success.  As we continue implementing the Vision for the Second Century, Rice is well positioned, even in these times, to build on that record.  Indeed, our planned expansion will bring some additional resources that will help offset some of the endowment losses.

Finally, I would like to update you on our discussions with Baylor College of Medicine about a possible merger.  While the discussions are progressing, no decision has been made.  We remain interested in having a leading medical school as part of Rice, but we will not take undue risks or jeopardize the resources that support our mission and current programs.  BCM’s success as part of Rice will depend on the participation and support of a number of other parties, and those discussions are also under way.  We continue to engage various constituencies in these considerations.  As always, we welcome the ideas of our alumni and friends, and I invite you to email me at president@rice.edu with your thoughts about the opportunities and possible challenges that a merger with BCM might create.  I may not be able to respond to all of your comments, but will certainly read them and convey their substance to our Board of Trustees during our conversations.

There is no doubt that, should our discussions come to fruition, this will be a historic step for our university.  We would greatly expand our research mission, especially in the health sciences, while at the same time providing new educational opportunities for both graduate and undergraduate students.  And, as we approach our centennial, such a merger would help realize the vision laid out long ago by President Lovett; indeed, there is actually an early map of the campus showing a medical school.  But, as momentous as this could be, we are undertaking this process with as much prudence as boldness.

Last spring, as I was thinking about this, my fifth year at Rice, I imagined that it would be a fairly routine and quiet year, characterized by a continued and steady implementation of the V2C.  Our year began with a hurricane, followed by an economic storm.  That — together with the once in a century opportunity presented by Baylor College of Medicine — makes this undoubtedly a momentous year in our history.  Despite the challenges, and indeed perhaps because of them, it is a great time to be part of this unique university.

Warm regards,                                                        

David W. Leebron