Rice University logo

Presidents Remarks 2004

An Interview with David Leebron and Y. Ping Sun


Following is the introductory interview conducted by Sallyport magazine, the quarterly magazine for Rice University. This interview will be published and posted to the Sallyport website.

Sallyport: You were both obviously attracted to law, but independently of each other. What about it appealed to each of you?

Ping: When I was at Princeton, I went to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. We had an opportunity to do an externship, and I thought I would go to work for a law firm and see what lawyers do. I saw how lawyers put transactions together, international transactions, mainly. One of the partners of the firm spoke excellent Japanese and Chinese and was able to become a bridge between different cultures to help the Japanese and Chinese understand the American legal system and how transactions are done here. I thought, that’s a good thing. That’s what I would like to do—to be a bridge between China and the U.S.

David: Sometimes I define a law student as somebody who faints at the sight of blood or mathematical equations. I was in the former category. What attracted me to law was really the public policy aspect of it. It’s a profession and a discipline engaged with people and their welfare and their ambitions. I was really interested in a profession that was actively concerned about people looking for ways to advance their lives. It’s funny, in some ways, that although my career did not go in that direction, I probably underestimated at the time the significance of law as a public policy tool.

Sallyport: Your career did go in that direction in certain ways. Your academic interests have included international law and trade, and privacy, and you’ve co-written a textbook on human rights.

David: Well, I tend to be a person who, intellectually, doesn’t settle down very easily. Another thing that attracted me to law is that it is not a narrow discipline. Sometimes people in the rest of academia think of law as narrow, but it’s not.  It’s engaged with a lot of intellectual disciplines and a wide range of human endeavors.
            If you look at what I majored in as an undergraduate, you’ll see that I wanted to explore different areas of knowledge. So I took half a major in biochemistry and half a major in German history and another half a major in the history of science. Obviously, I was not a major in math. The same thing attracts me to Rice—being involved in a wide range of inquiry about the world.

Sallyport: In the 7th through 12th grades, you were educated in a Quaker school. How did that shape the person you are now?

David: In a number of ways. It probably did shape me politically to some extent, not in a sense of making me antiwar, although that’s one thing that Quakers stand for. Rather, there’s a whole spirit of openness and lack of hierarchy in the Quaker religion and a real concern for others and their welfare. I actually have come to regard that as the fundamental thing that philosophically separates human beings: Either you are concerned about the welfare of others who are not related to you or you aren’t. That’s how the world divides to some extent. And Quakers, I always thought, were really quite firmly on one side of that—very socially conscious. It wasn’t so much that the education was religious; rather it embodied an attitude—a kind of humanism, openness, and nonorthodoxy.

Sallyport: What was your early education, Ping ?

Ping : In China , I went to a boarding school, where I learned English. And then in 1977, I was among the first group of students after the Cultural Revolution who took the national exam for college. One out of 100 students who took the exam could go to some sort of college. I was lucky, I went to Beijing Languages University , but I hadn’t graduated before I came to Princeton . I applied to Princeton from that college.

Sallyport: And how did it come to be Princeton ?

Ping : I sent letters out to about 10 different universities, but eventually I only applied to Princeton and Yale because they offered scholarships to foreign students. I was fortunate enough to get into Princeton . They not only gave me a full scholarship, but also sent an air ticket on Pan Am. 

 Sallyport: What led you to stay and to become a U.S. citizen?

  Ping : When I came, I thought, I will be here for four years and after that I will go back to China . And then, my junior year, I realized that there is graduate school. So, I thought, OK, I’ll go to graduate school. In between, I met this guy. I then thought, even if I’m not going back to China permanently, I can still do some work that could promote understanding between the two countries. So that’s why I decided to go to law school and then work at an international law firm.

 Sallyport: Your household now includes two beautiful young children, Daniel and Merissa. Ping , you obviously had a fast-track career. How did you weigh career considerations against starting a family or, for that matter, moving to Houston ?

  Ping : Balancing a legal career and family provided interesting challenges. After we had children, I found I needed to cut back somewhat, and I later took on a different role in the firm. I have been working at a law firm for almost 16 years, and found it rewarding. Even though I won’t be working at a law firm here in Houston , I am really excited about this opportunity.
            One of my priorities coming to Rice is to help David to do community outreach, to get to know the faculty and staff and students, and to get involved with the Houston community, including the Chinese community. I also would like to be able to reach out to the international community; there are quite a number of consulates here in Houston . I know Rice is well known, but we need to broaden people’s knowledge about Rice. One way to do it is to reach out to the international community and promote Rice even further so that more international students will choose to come to Rice. Initially, I will need to spend time helping Daniel and Merissa adapt to the new environment. Houston seems to be a great place to raise young children.

 Sallyport: David, your career took a turn, too. You clerked with a distinguished federal judge and practiced law for a while, but you fairly quickly chose to become an academic. Why?

 David: It was coincidence in some ways. After law school, I wanted to clerk for the best judge I could west of the Mississippi , so I applied to one judge who especially interested me. Happily, I got the clerkship and went out to Los Angeles ; unfortunately, she promptly resigned. So, I needed something to do in L.A. , and I ended up teaching at UCLA for a semester. Then I traveled around the world and went back to New York and practiced for a couple of years with a great firm. But I just did not enjoy the daily tasks that comprised law practice. And I had enjoyed the teaching I did at UCLA. I like spending my time thinking about issues and puzzling through questions. It seemed like a pretty attractive thing to do.

 Sallyport: Over the last decade, at least, it has been said that university presidents are no longer public intellectuals, that we don’t have the great university presidents of yore taking a stand on the public issues of the day. Do you foresee yourself becoming such a public intellectual?

 David: That’s a very hard question. The job has changed. The demands have changed: the demands on one’s time, the demands for resources, and the need to raise funds from a wide variety of sources. And there is, frankly, behavior by some on emotional issues that sometimes reflects a misunderstanding of what these institutions should be about. Some alumni get angry because the president has said this or that or because this department has done this or that. They sometimes make these quick judgments about institutions. The president becomes very identified with the institution. And therefore, I think the presidents and others became very cautious about issues that they speak on. Because, quite rightly, they don’t want to sacrifice the institutional interests to their own points of view. 
            I suspect—I hope—I will find some number of issues that I think are important, that I would be willing to speak out on, in appropriate circumstances. But my first obligation is going to be to the university. I do think it’s a loss. I think we need university leaders speaking out on some of the fundamental issues that we face, even if their views are unpopular with some members of the broad university community.

 Sallyport: It’s also harder because the media itself has become more polarized—the “you’re with us or you’re against us” attitude has become more pervasive. Meanwhile, there’s a theory that celebrity—coverage of people’s private lives—pushes out discussion of public issues because it’s so much more interesting to most people.

 David: There’s some truth to that, but you don’t want to have a sense of authorities on high deciding which issues and interests are legitimate and which aren’t. I do think that we used to have institutions that defined their mission other than by making the most amount of money or securing the greatest audience. But many of these institutions—take network news—are in the entertainment business now, and success is measured by audience share. I don’t think that was as true in earlier generations.

 Sallyport: Do you worry that universities are somewhat subject to these same forces, where success is measured by donations or by the number of applicants?

 David: I do worry. I worry that others have devised metrics for measuring universities and that universities have started to act as though those are the metrics that define their success. I think it’s a huge risk. The role of educational institutions as public institutions—in the sense of contributing to the public welfare, not whether they are publicly owned—has been diminished. There are many great things about these institutions being so intensely competitive, but there are many things that are not so great about this competition as well.

 Sallyport: Of course, having asked you about the personal versus the public, here we are asking you about the personal. David, you have spent most of your life in Philadelphia and New York , with a brief sojourn into Los Angeles . Ping , you were born in Shanghai , raised in Tianjin and went to school in Beijing , all huge cities. Is “city people” an accurate description of you? Or do you like to go off to the country and watch birds?

 David: Well, we like to go to France during the summer, and we like to rent a house in the countryside there. But as a place to live, I think it would have been hard to persuade us to go to some place other than a big city. I think cities just offer certain things. New York has an amazing intensity to it, which was hard for us to give up, but we also found so much in Houston that really attracted us. 
            And I think that the diversity is part of it also. Since our family has its own internal diversity, that environment is very important to us, and it’s important to how we want to see our children grow up. One of the first things I said to the search committee was, I don’t know anything about Houston , but if it doesn’t have a vibrant Asian or Chinese community, I’m just not going to be willing to talk about it. So they introduced us right away to the right people to talk to. You know, you can get that sometimes in places that aren’t cities, but you get it more easily in big cities. And there’s a certain cultural life. Even if you don’t use it, it’s nice to know it’s there and other people are using it, that it’s part of their lives. Then there are things that we like to buy, from special types of wine to a very good cheese; we need to learn where to do that in Houston . And we were very concerned about finding Breyer’s mint chocolate chip ice cream, but we finally did.

 Sallyport: Other than eating mint chocolate chip ice cream, what do you like to do for fun?

  Ping : Travel.

 David: Yes, we like to travel. We like to do a little bit of skiing each year. Occasionally we like to go to a movie. We love good food, Still, on my most recent birthday, the last thing I needed was another meal, so we went out to see the Lord of the Rings because we don’t often get to see movies without our kids. Most of the time that we have available is taken up by our kids. I love to walk around in New York City , occasionally do a little shopping. We go to a reasonable number of cultural things. We just have such busy schedules. That’s why we’re so dull.

 Sallyport: In a previous interview, the Thresher asked, if you could have been something else, what would you have been? And you answered, a pop musician. There was speculation afterward whether this would be Mick Jagger or Frank Sinatra. Do you want to clarify that for us?

 David: I don’t know. I think in some ways that I’m just not a natural performer, but I wish I could be. Some of this could go back to a different era, perhaps a different relationship with people who produced music. Great musicians produce, not only in terms of the music but also the lyrics—in essence, modern poetry.
            I think my wish is not to be a kind of a hard rocker but someone like Paul Simon or even a less successful name, like Don McLean. What I appreciate is a certain quality of artistry. A more daring example would be something like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I think people who can communicate through music have an incredible talent of communication that reaches beyond most others. Now, a lot of music out there is garbage—the same songs of frustrated love. But there are people who get some different, interesting ideas in the music.

 Sallyport: Ping , what would your fantasy life be if you were doing something completely different?

  Ping : Ambassador.

 Sallyport: To China ?

  Ping : Possibly. Ever since I was little, I have been fascinated with diplomatic relationships.

 Sallyport: Why? How does a small child even become aware of diplomacy?

  Ping : I grew up reading books. My hero was Chou En-lai, the Premier of China. I saw how skillful he was in dealing with foreign relations.

 Sallyport: So who’s your hero now?

  Ping : My hero now? You mean, in addition to this guy? That’s a good question. Throughout my childhood and even now, I would have to say my grandmother had a big influence on me. Just the way she taught me to be a good person, to do good things for the people around me, the importance of family. On a personal level, she’s one of my heroes. Of course, I’ve always admired Jackie Kennedy, how she dealt with very difficult situations. I guess I’m a little bit biased because I went to law school with Caroline Kennedy; we were in the same class.

 Sallyport: David, your hero?

 David: Hero is a word I am very cautious about using. It’s used a lot for political purposes and, as a result, has almost lost its meaning. Somebody alive or dead? For me, it would probably be Abraham Lincoln, partly because I have the same birthday. And partly because he set the nation in a very different and important direction—a direction he ended up giving his life for. He was also a great leader and a superb politician. He gave the world’s best speech, even though it was only 272 words.

 Sallyport: Many people will be happy to hear that you admire short speeches. Thank you very much for your time.