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Presidents Remarks 2004

“Houston & The World”
President David W. Leebron
October 2, 2004


Thank you again for joining me and my family in this day of celebration for Rice University.

As some of you may know, my family and I arrived in Houston at the end of June, and I began my appointment as Rice's President on July 1. The search and selection process itself was an interesting experience. I came to Rice for the first time almost a year ago, I think. The weather was gorgeous, perhaps around 80 degrees. Jim Crownover [chair of the presidential search committee] told me that the weather was like that all year round. I now see why Jim was so successful as a consultant. As some of you know, there is a new slogan around Houston—Houston: It's Worth It. I actually have one of their T-shirts here. On the back is a list of things that some see as challenges of living in Houston. I see the list as those things Jim and the search committee didn't tell me.

This evening I want to speak briefly. (For those of you who were at the lunch today, I am pleased to let you know that my daughter pronounced that second speech boring as well. So she's at home tonight.) I want to return, with special acknowledgment to those in this gathering who represent both Houston and the world, to two of the themes I emphasized: engagement with Houston and engagement with the world.

What is it that brought us to Houston? Of course, most importantly, it was Rice University, this incredible jewel of a university, situated three miles from the center of the nation's fourth-largest city, in the middle of its cultural district. It is a university that both provides the very best undergraduate experience and makes important contributions to our knowledge of the world.

I am, in fact, on record as saying that our only complaint about Houston is that Houstonians apologize too much for the weather. You know how it is. Houstonians are incredibly hospitable. The typical welcome we get is something along the following lines (please excuse me, I don't have the Texas drawl down yet): "It is so great to have you here, welcome to Houston, and I'm sorry about the weather." Well, on another occasion, I suggested that we Houstonians take a lesson from real estate advertisers in New York and stop describing the weather here as hot and humid and instead describe it as “cozy.”

So what attracted us to Houston other than Rice? The diversity and dynamism of Houston. Its openness—no one seemed to care whether we were from Houston or Texas. Its southern hospitality. Its culture. Its internationalism, and its welcoming of immigrants whether from New York or Nigeria.  Once more, I can't do any better than quoting Lovett [Rice's first president]:

Houston—heavenly Houston, as it has been happily named by a distinguished local editor of more than local fame—you will find in some ways a bit too close to New York, perhaps, but here you will find many a heartening reminder of the memories and traditions of the South, and all the moving inspiration in the promise and adventure of the West. Here, in a cosmopolitan place, in a community shaking itself from the slow step of a country village to the self-conscious stature of a metropolitan town, completing a channel to the deep blue sea, growing a thousand acres of skyscrapers, building schools and factories and churches and homes, you will learn to talk about lumber and cotton and railroads and oil, but you will also find every ear turned ready to listen to you if you really have anything to say about literature or science or art.

Lovett sensed that Houston would grow into a major metropolitan city, and Rice would be a critical part of that important transformation. Indeed, one of the things that I began to learn immediately about Rice is the special relationship between it and the people of Houston. Even for those Houstonians who never attended Rice, it occupies a special place. They see in Rice, I believe, a symbol of the city's own commitment to intellectual excellence and a necessary engine for their own progress. From the very beginning Houstonians supported Rice—with scholarships, funds for lectures, and other contributions. Rice can continue to make an extraordinary contribution to the future of Houston, but only if Houston chooses to make an investment in Rice.

As a matter of educational philosophy, civic responsibility, and competitive advantage, Rice ought to be fully engaged with the city of Houston and capitalize on all that it has to offer. This is a project of engagement that begins with our academic mission. We have created numerous relationships with Houston that inform the scholarly work of our faculty and the intellectual conversations on our campus. Let me cite only a few examples. For the past 23 years, the Houston Area Survey has systematically tracked the continuities and changes in demographic patterns, life experiences, attitudes, and beliefs among Houstonians. This social science research has contributed enormously to our understanding of the major economic, social, and political shifts that have defined Houston's evolution.

Our scientists and engineers affiliated with both the Environmental and Energy Systems Institute and the Shell Center for Sustainability are undertaking critical research on the atmospheric and climate challenges facing Houston and other large coastal cities. Two of our architecture professors run the Rice Building Workshop, including a collaboration with Project Row Houses in Houston's Third Ward, to apply the principles of their field to the housing needs of our community.

The effort to create intellectual synergies with other Houston institutions can best be seen in our joint efforts with the Texas Medical Center. The perhaps fortuitous proximity of Rice and the TMC research institutions has already led to a significant number of individual collaborations, numbering some 75 programs. We envision an even deeper institutional relationship as we conceive of a collaborative research center at University and Main. Perhaps nowhere else in the world will be able to bring together biochemistry, bioengineering, basic biology, physical science, computation, medical science, and medical practice in a way that so fosters collaboration, and is so necessary to progress. We must build other collaborations—with the cultural and artistic institutions which surround us, with the political institutions of our city and state, and with nonprofit organizations that seek to serve our people.

Our engagement with Houston must also contribute to the first-rate education we offer to our students. Rice is distinguished by the uncommonly high level of undergraduate involvement in faculty research. And while our students actively participate in each of the research endeavors I have mentioned, Houston has a great deal more to offer our undergraduates than what they might learn in the classroom or laboratory. Indeed, we want our students to see Houston as perhaps one of the most important learning environments available to them while they are at Rice. Whether it is attending an exhibition in the world-class Museum District that neighbors our campus, participating in a public service internship with a government or nonprofit organization, or hopping on the light rail to enjoy any number of Houston's diverse cultural and culinary offerings, Rice students must view this dynamic city as an integral part of their experience on an urban campus. To foster this, we plan to provide to all our undergraduate students next year a metro-pass coupled with museum memberships and cultural information that together we will call a “Passport to Houston.” It will in fact be a passport to an important part of their education.

Thus our faculty and our students must learn from the city. But we must also contribute to that city. We do, in part, through research, but I emphasized this morning the importance of educational endeavors as well. Rice contributes importantly to the improvement of K-through-12 education in Houston, and by so doing, it enhances the opportunities available to the least well-off among us. We have over 65 different outreach programs that bring the remarkable resources of Rice into secondary-school classrooms to teach and we hope inspire a new generation of students.

I spoke this morning of the importance of our School of Continuing Studies. Each year the noncredit courses spanning the arts, humanities, and sciences to foreign languages, information technology, and professional development draw 75,000 to 100,000 visits by Houstonians to our campus. And just as Houston provides cultural experiences for our students, we provide cultural opportunities for Houston. I mentioned at lunch today the remarkable Shepherd School orchestra, but the truth is that there is some performance by these talented young people almost every day. Our art gallery, though small, provides a unique space in Houston for installation art.

In short, we cannot allow our hedges to be barriers either for the engagement of our students with Houston or the engagement of Houston with Rice. The hedges that define our campus should be appreciated primarily for their aesthetic beauty. By placing sprigs from them tonight on the table as centerpieces, we hope to symbolize an acceleration of the process of achieving a more open and welcoming relationship between our great university and this vibrant city.

But just as Rice was engaged with Houston from the beginning, so too was it envisioned as a university with an international perspective and an international contribution to make. Prior to assuming the presidency at Rice, Lovett made a world tour in which he visited the distinguished universities of England, France, Germany, and Japan, among others. Those visits played an important role in the conceptualization of the Rice Institute, and in particular, in the decision to make it into a broad-based research university. At the ceremony founding the university, scholars from all over the world participated, and a number of the first professors recruited were from abroad.

Thus just as the hedges must not be our campus boundary, neither must the boundaries of Houston, our state, or our country. We are very pleased tonight to welcome so many consular officials to this dinner who represent countries from all over the world. Through them, and our international companies and institutions, Rice's access to Houston facilitates our access to the world. The size of the consular corps, the third largest in the country, continues to expand steadily. It is one of the most striking proofs of Houston's growth in global importance and its recognition as an international city. Your presence here tonight signifies the important role you play as cultural bridges to our community and to our region, together weaving a network that ties Houston and Rice into the world.

Rice's international orientation is reflected today by our partnerships with universities in France, England, Mexico, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Turkey, South Africa, Australia, and Germany. The research of our faculty spans the globe—from the preservation of language spoken by people in the Nilgiri Mountains in Southern India to investigations of the origins of life in Mexico's hot springs, from research on employee creativity in Korea to studies of international accounting standards in Canada and Australia, and from explorations of Islamic finance principles to research on the ice sheets of Antarctica and the Arctic Ocean.

The Baker Institute for Public Policy creates a central link for Rice to the most pressing international issues of the day. The foreign policy agenda of the Baker Institute includes efforts addressing regional conflict resolution, important work in the Middle East and North Africa, debating key North–South issues through the Institute's Americas Project, understanding the culture of the emerging middle class in China through the Transnational China Project, and analyzing the geopolitical framework of energy supply and security issues in the Gulf and the Caspian Sea Basin. These programs and our students benefit greatly from the visits of world leaders who come to Houston and to the Rice campus to engage in discussions of these complex questions.

We seek to bring the world to our students, through the research of our faculty as well as the growing presence of international students and professors; we bring students and scholars from 87 countries to Texas. We also seek to deliver our students to the world in the form of study-abroad initiatives. By graduation, 42 percent of Rice undergraduates have had Rice-sponsored international experiences in countries quite literally around the globe and in every habitable continent. For these efforts, Rice University was honored by the Institute for International Education last year for “garner[ing] national and international prominence . . . in the country and the world.”

Thus, from the time of its founding, Rice has served as an international “port” in Houston through which art, ideas, and people from around the world flowed into Texas. It is imperative that we continue in this tradition at a time of increasing global interconnection and complexity.

Well, this brings to an end my inauguration speech, and indeed, we approach quickly the end to the inauguration festivities altogether. I thank you all again for making these events so special for Rice and for me and my family. It has been a wonderful day. Tomorrow perhaps we will take some time off, but Monday we begin anew to continue building a great university that contributes both here in Houston and around the world.

See Also: Inaugural Address