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Presidents Remarks 2004

Inauguration Address
David W. Leebron
Seventh President of Rice University
October 2, 2004


Thank you, Bill, for those generous remarks and for your pledge of support on behalf of the Board of Trustees. We are indeed engaged in a common enterprise to create and advance knowledge and united in our aspiration to provide an education to our students that will serve them well throughout their lives.

I do want to thank you for the summons yesterday that brought me here—although, as a lawyer, it was the first time I thought of a summons as a good thing.

It is gratifying, humbling, and in fact, quite intimidating to see so many of you here to share in this both personal and institutional moment of transition. It is an enormous privilege and honor to be named the seventh president of Rice University. I begin my journey, as you have heard, in the company of three extraordinary predecessors—Norman Hackerman, George Rupp, and Malcolm Gillis—whom today we thank for their leadership and vision that produced the university of which we are so proud. I thank the past and present members of the Board of Trustees, most of whom are with us on this wonderful occasion. Your careful and dedicated stewardship has led Rice to ever-greater heights.

I am delighted by the presence of so many of our faculty, who are the body and soul of our academic mission. We are led in that mission by the outstanding deans of our eight schools. We are supported in our teaching and research by staff and administrators, without whose extraordinary talents and commitment we could not succeed. The participation in this event of Rice alumni—young and old, from near and far—reflects the important role they play in our university community. I extend my appreciation to the undergraduate and graduate students here today. Your promise is the constant source of our inspiration. We also welcome, with special thanks, our many friends from Houston and beyond, who have chosen to be part of the Rice community and who see in our university powerful potential for making contributions to our city and our world.

Joining the Rice community today are delegates from colleges, universities, and learned societies from across the globe. We recognize on this occasion that all such institutions are engaged in a common enterprise, supported by a great heritage.

I want to thank Derrick, Joanna, Gloria, and Bob for their remarks. And especially Derrick and Joanna who—as you will come to see—have given the short version of my remarks.

Because this occasion marks a personal, as well as an institutional, transition I take a moment to express my tribute to my family. My parents have shown their love and support every step of the way, and it is a source of immense joy that they are here to participate. My mother especially supported this move, although I believe it was because, at Rice, everyone calls me doctor. I come from a close-knit family, and thank my brothers and sisters—Betsy, Emily, and Fred—and their families for being here. I miss beyond words the presence of my sister Kathryn, whose life was cut short two years ago, but whose spirit continues with us today, and I thank my brother-in-law, Tim, for bringing his presence and hers here today. And most of all, I thank my wife, Ping, without whose support—no, actually, whose urging—I wouldn’t be here, and who joins me today in becoming a part of Rice University. Our children, Daniel and Merissa, who bring sparks of joy to every day, already regard Rice as the home of thousands of older brothers and sisters. Together, we enter into the Rice family feeling a tremendous sense of welcome and a great hope and optimism for what the future will bring.

Universities mark the investiture of a new President with great ceremony, with, as they say, pomp and circumstance. Most other institutions change leadership without such ceremony or formality. When I became dean of a law school—thanks, I might add, to the confidence of George Rupp—there was hardly a stir. One day my predecessor moved out, the next day I moved in. So why, when most institutions in the modern world have shed such elaborate ceremony, do universities engage in such to-do over the inauguration of a new president?

As with many things—and lawyers, I confess, are especially good at this—I see two possible, in fact nearly opposite, explanations. One is that universities are so tradition-bound, so unwilling to contemplate change, that traditions survive for centuries unexamined and unchanged. So here we sit, in the Houston air-conditioning, wearing gowns originally designed to keep students and faculty warm during cold German and English winters.

The opposite theory is that universities maintain the tradition of an elaborate inauguration precisely because they celebrate change and acknowledge the capacity—nay, the necessity—of educational institutions to periodically renew their leadership and sense of purpose. The pomp and circumstance suggests that this change be accompanied by institutional reflection and rebirth. Our capacity to change and to evolve is fundamental to Rice’s awesome responsibility as a producer and distributor of knowledge.

Ninety-seven years ago, a young professor came to Houston for the first time. He was 36 years old, and the city less than twice that. Its population was 80,000. It was during this visit that Edgar Odell Lovett first set eyes upon the parcel of land on which we now stand. It was part swamp and part dusty prairie. And so began the imagining of a great university here amidst the bayous of Houston. But could Lovett have imagined that one day this university would boast of being the font of technologies that would allow us to diagnose and treat disease on the molecular level? That it would sit across the street from the world’s largest medical center and engage with that center in path-breaking research collaboration? That its scholars would ponder the ethics of human cloning and the conundrum of religious tolerance? That it would be located in the middle, not on the outer edge of, a dynamic city of 2 million, the fourth largest in our nation? That it would attract world leaders through a public policy institute honoring the grandson of the man who had rescued Rice’s assets for their intended purpose? That it would have a music school of national and international renown, and that it would anchor one of America’s great cultural districts and, indeed, participate in the city’s artistic spirit through a unique art gallery of its own?

Well, as visionary as Lovett was, I don’t think he could have imagined all these things, and that is precisely the point. Imagination makes possible those things that we could not have imagined. Or as Yogi Berra once said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” With imagination, the future won’t be what it used to be, it will be better.

How shall we continue to imagine the future of Rice? We are fortunate that we are guided in this endeavor by the vision of Lovett. He set forth to build a university with, as he put it, no “upper limit,” dedicated to “the fundamental sciences, the liberal humanities, the progress of modern learning.” He conceived of a union between the “privileges of research” and the “pleasures of teaching.” In short, Rice has from its first moments been conceived of as a research university with an unquestioned commitment to both graduate and undergraduate education.

Over the years, Rice has built upon Lovett’s vision. Beginning with a focused endeavor of science, engineering, humanities, and architecture, we have added in the ensuing decades schools of continuing studies, management, music, and social science. We have built an institute of public policy, joined the Texas Medical Center and fostered interdisciplinary and interinstitutional collaborations and centers that sit at the forefront of the production of knowledge. At each step we have shown our capacity to renew and enlarge our endeavor, and to establish new fields of excellence. These developments are what one would expect from a great center of teaching and learning that ascribes to itself no fixed limits. We have done a great deal in recent years, and it may seem we should pause and enjoy for awhile the fruits of those achievements.

The response to that temptation was given in a speech here at Rice Stadium 42 years ago by President John F. Kennedy. He said:

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 . . . .

Edgar Odell Lovett would have appreciated this sentiment. In 1947, after serving for nearly 40 years as the president of the Rice Institute, Lovett passed the reins of leadership to William Houston. Lovett had every right to look back over his time here and express his satisfaction with what he had accomplished. But he did not. As he introduced his successor, Lovett embraced the transformation that was surely to come. “Rice,” he said, “is in a state of transition. It is a transition from good to better. Facing extraordinary opportunity, the institution is about to become braver, stronger, sounder, and more beautiful.” So, as we face once more extraordinary opportunity and transition, let us together aspire to move from better to best. Let us do our part to continue the realization of a dream set in motion by our great benefactor William Marsh Rice over a century ago. Our responsibility is to build on the vision of our founders, to remain true to Rice’s unique sense of its academic mission and intellectual ambition.

We are living in remarkable times, and daily see new possibilities for the quality of human existence. We see in technologies born at Rice the potential ability to detect and eliminate cancers, to manufacture tissue for those who have suffered disease or injury, to discover new sources of energy, to process and disseminate more quickly and accurately an astonishing amount of information, to understand and address the dangers posed by natural disasters, and to describe our world with the elegant simplicity of mathematics.

Science and engineering at Rice have long received recognition for their quality and achievement, and research and teaching in these fields continue to hold enormous promise. We must recommit and invest deeply in these endeavors. Knowledge increases human power and capacity and, potentially, our ability to enjoy life and make it meaningful for an ever-increasing share of the human population.

Yet, as knowledge of our natural world deepens, and our ability to change and engineer our environment grows, and as our power to harness the great forces of the universe expands, we are in more need, not less, of understanding our own humanity, of understanding the ethical relationship among human beings and between our species and the rest of our environment. As we increase our ability physically to change our world and affect others, we are in more need, not less, of understanding human social, political, economic, and cultural interactions. We increasingly, if regretfully, comprehend that as we discover knowledge that can do enormous good, that can improve the lives of so many, we almost inevitably discover knowledge that can be turned to harm and, indeed, to the advantage of those seeking to do evil. Thus Rice must remain a university committed to excellence in research and teaching that spans the full range of human endeavor. Otherwise, we cannot claim to fulfill our charge to create the complete understanding essential to human progress.

So as we make the large investments needed in today’s world to be at the forefront of research in science and engineering, so, too, must we recommit ourselves to the importance of the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts.

Our task in educating our students is no less broad. It is because of this breadth of research and teaching that we are able to provide the first-rate education that will prepare our students so well for a rapidly changing world that equally demands technical skills and humanistic values. Our students will become the leaders in many fields as engineers, architects, doctors, artists, musicians, economists, writers, scientists, scholars, business executives, and, yes, even lawyers. We must, of course, impart the substantive knowledge for them to succeed in their endeavors. But much more, we must teach them to succeed in a world that changes with such rapidity that many are likely to be working in fields not yet conceived. To limit their learning within boundaries of particular disciplines or within the boundaries of this campus would be to deprive them of the range of skills and values they will need to succeed. We must instill in our students a sense of public responsibility, of civic engagement, of compassion and moral obligation. We must give them the leadership and communication skills that will enable them to make the most effective use of their knowledge and specialized talents.

Those who would be leaders must participate fully in the human experience. The artists must appreciate science, and the scientists must appreciate art. Our humanity comprises, in part, our refusal to become compartmentalized cogs in a socially efficient machine. We bring our understandings of values, of culture, of economic analysis, of political institutions, of human psychology, and of science to each of our endeavors. When we ascribe to ourselves the task of selecting and educating those we deem most capable of benefiting from the very best education, we should not tolerate ignorance of culture, ignorance of human institutions, or ignorance of scientific knowledge.

But the education of the classroom forms only a part of the experience we must bring to our students. In our charge to bring our undergraduates from the cusp of adulthood to full participation and ultimately leadership in our society, we must take a holistic approach to the education we provide. We do this by assuring that they learn as much outside the classroom as they do in it. Their experiences—in leadership and participation in campus activities, on the athletic field, in constructive dialogue with students different than they are, in their work or study abroad, in public service here in Houston—are all essential parts of their education.

Our task with respect to our students can be simply put: It is to inspire. To inspire them about the joy and privilege of learning, to inspire them about contributing to our world, and, most of all, to inspire them about their own promise and possibilities. That inspiration occurs when we create opportunities for them to have transformative experiences—ones that ultimately shape the person they will become.

It is not an easy business to design transformative experiences. But here at Rice, we have the best environment one could hope for. We have the intimate and supportive system of residential colleges. We have both a student–faculty ratio and a culture that promotes deep faculty involvement in the lives and work of our students and welcomes them as collaborators on research. We are in a great city that offers endless opportunities to apply the knowledge learned in a classroom to real-world problems and to learn much more deeply and broadly in the process of doing so.

Our mission of inspiring our undergraduates is complemented by our commitment to teach at the highest level the future researchers of the world. Our graduate students at Rice are central to achieving our aspirations. As Lovett put it, one of our fundamental tasks is “the making of knowledge makers,” and that takes place most forcefully in our education of graduate students. These talented young researchers play a double role, for they are also increasingly essential to the success of our own established faculty.

Our responsibility as a great institution of learning extends from our doorstep to across the globe. From its inception, Rice has been engaged with Houston, and it is time to fully recommit ourselves to that engagement. We are doing much, but we can do more—we must do more—for the future of Rice is inextricably wound up with this great city. Our educational responsibilities extend to our city, and our School of Continuing Studies has served it well. An important part of our task is providing education in the skills needed by those engaged in commerce, government, and the arts. But it cannot be limited to that. We must provide education that increases our community’s understanding of our complex world and its appreciation of humanistic values. That is the responsibility of a great university in the modern metropolis.

Our ability to serve and learn from Houston extends well beyond the offering of formal educational programs. Our city must form an integral part of the educational opportunity we offer to our students. A portion of our research endeavors must focus on the problems of Houston, from its educational challenges to its environmental problems, and we must play a part in solving those problems.

Rice and Houston can achieve great things in the years ahead, but neither can do it without the other. We are joined together, great research university and great city, in a symbiotic relationship. It is the presence of a university like Rice that makes a city a center not only of production and commerce, but of ideas, and it is those ideas, in turn, that ultimately support the growth of commerce and culture.

At the same time, we must recognize that in this globalized world a great university is an international citizen. We lead our lives in a world shrunk by the forces of trade, migration, and communication. Our responsibility for human improvement and understanding must know no boundaries. Our faculty and our students must benefit from knowledge and ways of understanding that transcend the tendency to parochialism. That opportunity should take place not only through travel, but increasingly through the presence of scholars from afar. We must develop deeper relationships with comparable institutions around the globe, for the benefit of both students and faculty. We must seek as part of the great diversity of our student body an increasing component from the far reaches of the earth that chooses to study at Rice. These students enrich us while they are here and, in many cases, stay and contribute to Houston and to America.

Ambition and vision as to the breadth and excellence of our research and teaching, a commitment to engagement with our city, and an internationalization of both our community and our institutional relationships are some of the essential ingredients of our success. But those will not be enough. We need a sense of community, of common purpose built around common goals. That community requires diversity and demands tolerance. Mutual respect for the dignity of all persons and academic freedom to express ideas of all stripes are the twin pillars upon which the intellectual conversation that produces progress depends. We must embrace diversity not just in the community we have on campus, but in recognition of our responsibility to level life’s playing field by opening our doors to the best and brightest students that we can attract, regardless of their financial resources. We are creators not only of knowledge, but of opportunity and equality.

In his remarks upon the founding of Rice, Lovett categorized the institutions of the world, including educational institutions, as governmental, religious, and secular. Each of these types of institutions plays a distinctive role in our society. The work of our religious institutions is guided and motivated by both a belief in a divine order and an understanding of our common obligation to serve others. They are founded upon faith, a religious faith.

In my view, faith also has a role to play in secular institutions such as ours. It is a faith in progress—a faith in the importance of truth, of learning, and of reason in contributing to human development. Our universities exist because of a faith that knowledge will lead to enlightened understanding, which will, in turn, lead to a betterment of our world and the people who inhabit it. That sense of the unlimited potential of a great university to contribute to human progress is the faith and the vision upon which we are founded.

We set ourselves the goal of contributing to that progress, by creating the world citizens of tomorrow, by making our metropolis the very best it can be, and by creating the knowledge that will lessen human suffering and expand human possibilities. To do this, we must strive to achieve excellence in all our endeavors, in the laboratory and in the classroom, in the concert hall and on the athletic field, in theory and application, in communication and understanding, in art and in commerce, in leadership and in service. Our ambitions shall be unbounded, and so, too, our contributions. We shall be a university that is of Houston and for Houston, of Texas and for Texas, of America and for America, and of our World and for our World. Our reach will span from the nanoscale to the cosmos, from our neighborhood to cultures around the globe, from understanding of past civilizations to predicting the future of the universe, from the aesthetic appreciation of the arts to the understanding of the principles of commerce, from the architecture of our cities to the energy of our oceans. These shall be our fields of endeavor and our fields of dreams, the fields that we shall sow and we shall reap, not only for Rice’s honor, but for all humanity.

I close with Lovett’s words, which continue to guide us as we embark together on an extraordinary journey, defined by the unbounded imagination and ambition of our predecessors, to achieve a future yet unknown to us:

In the faith of high adventure, in the joy of high endeavor, in the hope of high achievement, we have asked for strength, and with the strength a vision, and with the vision courage: the courage born of straight and clear thinking, the vision of enduring forms of human service, the strength in resolute and steadfast devotion to definite purpose.

This is the legacy and the destiny of Rice University, and we are privileged to be part of it. Thank you.

Inaugural Remarks to Community Leaders