Presidents Remarks 2004
President's Letter to the Alumni and Parents
September 14, 2004
As our students return to campus and classes commence, I thought to begin my first letter to you by recounting my family's own orientation experience as we embarked upon our first academic year at Rice.
Ping and I, and our children, Daniel and Merissa, arrived in Houston at the end of June, and after a couple of nights in a hotel, moved into the Wiess President's House. This house, on the northern edge of campus directly across Sunset Boulevard from Brown College, was donated by Mrs. Harry Wiess in the 1970s. A couple of years ago, the Board of Trustees decided to renovate the house as a president's residence and site for university events, and generous donors stepped forward to support the project. The result is a wonderful asset for the university, which Ping and I plan to use regularly for the benefit of the Rice community. Indeed, on July 1, my first official day in office, we welcomed more than 200 faculty to the house. Soon thereafter, we hosted a dinner for the William Marsh Rice Associates to thank them for their generous support, and a few days later we had a casual dinner for the Orientation-Week coordinators.
Along with the students arriving at Rice for the first time, we experienced our first O-Week. It began on Saturday evening, as Ping and I visited receptions for new students sponsored by the Black Students Association, the Hispanic Association for Cultural Enrichment at Rice (HACER), and the Chinese Student and Alumni Associations. On an unseasonably cool Sunday, the campus became the center of more hustle and bustle as families completed delivery of our new students. That afternoon, I met and spoke to the families and played my small part in assuring them that their offspring, perhaps away from home for the first time, were in good hands and at the beginning of a wonderful experience. On the evening of that day, I gave my matriculation address to the new undergraduates. I have enclosed a copy so that you might have a sense of the message we are giving our students about making the most of their experience at Rice. After participating in the ceremonial entrance through the Sallyport with the students, deans, college masters, and senior administrators, Ping and I spent nearly two hours under the stars speaking informally with both new students and their upper-class advisors.
Although we had heard much about O-Week, we weren't quite sure what remained in store. On Monday evening, we began to find out, as a large group of students from Lovett College "invaded" our yard for lawn games--or at least those that one could try to play in the dark. We had a great deal of fun, and it was an early opportunity for Daniel and Merissa to begin interacting with the students. We offered to show the students around the house, and they enthusiastically accepted. For the rest of the week, we found ourselves to be items on the scavenger hunt lists of multiple colleges. At least we were worth quite a number of points in their friendly competition, although this occasionally required that we don a particular piece of clothing or speak a particular phrase. One group of students was even so generous as to babysit while I was still out with a group of alumni and Ping was carted off to one of the colleges as a prize. Two late-night stunts were especially memorable: Brown College's filling our driveway with 200 dining chairs (taken, of course, not from Brown but from Jones); and Wiess College's planting four dozen pink plastic flamingos on our lawn, each with a hairpiece. (See my Matriculation remarks to understand the symbolism of that.) When O-Week ended, Daniel and Merissa dolefully had to accept the idea that visits from Rice students were not an every night occurrence.
What most struck me during O-Week was the caring attitude of the upperclassmen toward the new students, from the moment they welcomed them onto the campus and helped unpack their belongings. It was clear that the Rice college system, designed to put students into more intimate and welcoming environments, succeeds at that from the very beginning. The scavenger hunt visits provided a wonderful opportunity for Ping and me to interact with a broad range of students, mostly in small groups. They are remarkable young people, and it is a real pleasure to be able to talk with them about a wide variety of issues, including, especially, their own goals.
Those conversations were part of my continuing education about Rice--its traditions, its distinctiveness, its accomplishments, and its potential for the future. I began that education as soon as the Board of Trustees announced my appointment last December, making numerous trips to Houston and engaging in many and varied consultations with groups large and small across all segments of the Rice community. I have had many occasions to meet with our students, faculty, staff, and alumni, and to hear their perspectives. I named to assist me a team of Rice graduates with expertise in various facets of the university: Maryana Iskander (BA '97), a former two-time Student Association president and Rhodes Scholar; Melissa Kean (MA '96, PhD '00), a historian of the university and its faculty; and Mark Scheid (BA '67, PhD '72), international programs director, incumbent assistant to the president, and current Rice parent.
An early initiative from those months of study is a renewed focus on the quality of undergraduate education and life. To that end, I have announced the creation of the position of dean of undergraduates, to be filled by a tenured member of the Rice faculty. The goal is to take a holistic approach to all spheres of undergraduate endeavor--from the classroom to campus life to engagement with the cultural and educational riches offered by the nation's fourth-largest city. The dean will assure that our concern for undergraduate education is fully reflected in every decision the university makes, especially with regard to the planning and development of the undergraduate curriculum. He or she also will bring together all of the broad aspects of the undergraduate experience, including advising, career services, extracurricular activities, and social life. This position and its related staff will preserve the best of the past, such as the open door students have for help, while closing the gaps between the education that occurs in labs and classrooms and that which takes place in the colleges, on the playing fields, in club offices, and off campus. The new dean's position replaces and augments that of vice president of student affairs, and puts the overall responsibility for undergraduate education and life with a member of our faculty.
As this process unfolds, I plan to remain in direct conversation with our students. During the fall semester, my family and I will have dinner at each of the residential colleges, and I will hold an open forum at each college to discuss with Rice undergraduates how we can improve and enhance their education, in all senses of the word.
To honor the outgoing vice president and his wife, Zen and Carol Camacho, and in particular their contributions to student life, the president's office, jointly with the alumni office, will be host to a tribute event. We are planning that for Beer Bike weekend to enable the alumni who graduated on Zen's watch to participate.
I also hope to see a large number of you as I travel in the coming months to Rice alumni events as close by as Houston, Austin, Dallas, and Fort Worth, and as far as New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. And, of course, we always welcome you back to campus at any opportunity you get. I invite you to visit Allen Center, to which we have moved the president's office to provide full accessibility to individuals with disabilities. In the meantime, as another part of my goal of making the president's office as open, accessible, and inviting as possible, please look for communications on my website-- www.rice.edu/president--or to write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I close this letter after having returned from our first Rice athletics events. The first was the inspiring victory of our football team over the University of Houston, which brought the Bayou Bucket home to Rice. It was great fun to take in the game with so many of our graduates and students. We and our children also more recently enjoyed an outstanding performance by our women's soccer team against the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. It ended in a tie after two overtimes, but the performance of our team at midday in sweltering heat was, to use the current vernacular, awesome.
My family and I have been welcomed so warmly to Rice and to Houston, and we are excited about getting to know more and more of the university's students, faculty, staff, graduates and friends. As I was quoted in the Austin American-Statesman, our only complaint so far is that Houstonians apologize too much for the weather. But then again, we are told that this August was unusually mild.
We thank you for your support and look forward to engaging with you, as together we seek to enhance this remarkable jewel of a university. Rice is a very special place, and we quickly have been made to feel completely at home. All in all, a good beginning as we look forward to the years ahead.
David W. Leebron