Lovett and the trustees must have been as thrilled by the opening of the new university as the first fifty-nine students were who enrolled on September 23, 1912, and gathered with the faculty to hear Lovett’s matriculation address. Surely they had a sense of the auspicuousness of the moment, collected together on the open Texas plain in the presence of great architecture and respected scholars. Who would have dared dream of such a confluence of bricks and brains a scant decade before?
Yet Lovett had another elaborate academic festival planned for October 10, 11, and 12, 1912, with “a galaxy of outstanding savants” representing famous universities around the world—an “array of learning,” the New York Times reported, “seldom . . . assembled in the United States.”
With these ceremonies Lovett was proclaiming to the world the kind of institution Rice was intended ultimately to become, a university international in reputation and influence. Addressing the assembled guests the final day of the festival on “the meaning of the new institution,” Lovett spoke movingly of its launching “in the faith of high adventure, in the joy of high endeavor, in the hope of high achievement. . . .”
Most of the prominent visitors were no doubt surprised to hear such seriousness of purpose on such a grand scale on what must have seemed the very verge of civilization. Julian Huxley a few years afterwards recalled for British readers the exhilaration he had experienced at the opening ceremonies. His first visual impression of Rice serves as a metaphor for the unanticipated ambitions of the infant university. After traveling several miles of almost impassable road from downtown Houston, he was suddenly “confronted by an extraordinary spectacle. . . . The Administration Building was before us, looking almost exactly as if it had risen miraculously out of the earth. . . . It seemed as new and real as a new species of Bird-of-Paradise lit on in a New Guinea jungle. Here it stood, brilliant, astounding, enduring. . . .” (That very same impression is made, more than eight decades later, on every visitor who comes upon Lovett Hall at the end of the entrance allée of live oaks.) Huxley was captivated by the magical quality of the administration building, as we are today, and he, too, intuitively grasped the promise that building projected. The motive force behind Rice’s subsequent history has been the effort to fulfill the vision President Lovett outlined that late summer day in October 1912, a vision that yet challenges Rice University.
Lovett’s aspiration for the new institution was breathtakingly bold, reminding one of that phrase that appears on every Rice diploma: “to all high emprise consecrated.” “For the present,” he wrote, “it is proposed to assign no upper limit to its educational endeavor.” For these students “the best available instructors and investigators are being sought wherever they may be found.” These faculty must be involved in research—“the vitalizing reaction of original investigation”—precisely because the best person “to lead the learner from the unknown to the known is the man who is continually leading himself from the unknown to the known.” The “privileges of research” are necessarily related to the “pleasures of teaching.” Lovett planned on limiting the enrollment—keeping “the standards up and the numbers down” were his words—and maintaining a balance between undergraduate and graduate students. In fact, the interaction between graduate students and undergraduates was deemed particularly beneficial to the undergraduates.
The students would be largely self-governed by an honor system, and Lovett announced at the opening ceremonies that “the residential college idea . . . is prominent . . . in the plans of the new institution.” He imagined students and faculty as a community of scholars, intermingling in dining halls and common areas, their minds exercised by spirited conversation and their bodies invigorated by intramural sports. Perhaps the spirit of the university was best captured by the inscription on the cornerstone of the first residential hall (now Will Rice College): “To the freedom of sound learning and the fellowship of youth.”