The first two decades of academic life at Rice consisted of striving to make real these noble ideals. Several new buildings were added (Physics in 1914, the first Field House in 1921, the Chemistry Building in 1925, Cohen House, the faculty club, in 1927), and the character of student life was established. Rice became a charter member of the Southwest Conference in athletics in 1914, and in 1916 students began publishing the student newspaper, The Thresher, and the yearbook, The Campanile. A school mascot, the owl, and school colors, blue and gray, were chosen. Women students could not then live on campus and resided instead at nearby approved boardinghouses (if they did not live with their parents). Students of both sexes quickly identified “underneath the Sallyport” of the administration building as the place to see and be seen. When Autry House (under Episcopal auspices) opened in 1921 on Main Street across from the Institute, it immediately became the unofficial student center, offering meals, facilities for plays and musicals, and a fireside where town students and dorm dwellers alike could meet.
Fraternities and sororities were not allowed, but several “literary societies” for women evolved, and they played an important and changing role for more than a half century. High academic standards were emphatically the first rule for classwork. Lovett soon arranged for a variety of prizes to be awarded for scholarship. True to his desire that Rice be a research-degree institution as well as an undergraduate teaching college of the highest order, the initial doctorate was awarded in 1918 to Hubert E. Bray in mathematics, who remained to become a much-admired professor. In 1928 Rice was granted a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.
Enrollment grew rapidly and soon strained the capacity of the existing facilities. By the early 1920s, with the student population over one thousand, it became necessary to limit enrollment. Though entrance requirements became more stringent, applicants far outnumbered available openings. The faculty too grew rapidly and by 1927 numbered seventy in all ranks. Many of the professors beloved by older alumni came during these years. While no partial list could avoid omitting some favorites, during the period from 1920 to 1940 the campus was graced by such scholars as Floyd S. Lear, Lynn M. Case, and David M. Potter in history; Alan D. McKillop and George Williams in English; Marcel Moraud, Andre Bourgeois, Fred Shelton, and Max Freund in languages; Frank A. Pattie, Jr., in psychology (remembered for hypnotizing students); Arthur J. Hartsook and Lewis B. Ryon in engineering; Edgar Altenburg and Asa C. Chandler in biology; Tom Bonner in physics; Floyd E. Ulrich in mathematics; George Holmes Richter and Harry B. Weiser in chemistry. John W. Heisman served briefly and unsuccessfully as football coach in the mid-twenties.
The faculty did not enjoy tenure, although it was tacitly assumed they would maintain their positions so long as they taught and pursued research at least moderately well. There were only a handful of administrators: Lovett and three trusted associates, John T. McCants, Samuel G. McCann, and William Ward Watkin, ran the entire operation, and there were no departmental secretaries. The Institute was administered with a minimum of rules.
On June 8, 1930, the statue of William Marsh Rice, sculpted by John Angel, was dedicated at its site in the center of the main academic quadrangle, with the ashes of the founder interred at the base of the statue’s pedestal. Ironically, though the founder’s gift had been munificent in 1904, the trustees had proved such cautious money managers that, in their understandable desire for secure investments, they had hesitated to commit the funds aggressively enough to generate significant new income. The Institute’s endowment, which by 1913 had grown to $10 million, inched up to $12 million in 1923, grew another million by 1933, and by 1943 stood at only $17 million. Moreover, there was a genteel reluctance to ask for donations, and potential donors mistakenly assumed that “wealthy” Rice had no financial needs.
Consequently, by the early 1920s, in an era of inflation, Lovett found his dreams for Rice thwarted by a shortage of funds. As Lovett wrote Captain Baker in 1923, current and “prospective revenues are inadequate to the realization of the programme of instruction and research on which the [Institute] has entered.” The problem was exacerbated after 1929 by the economic collapse of the Great Depression. The institution’s budget grew very gradually in the 1920s but had to be cut substantially in the 1930s. Faculty salaries were scaled back, and the number of faculty was reduced from a high of seventy-three in 1930 to fifty-eight in 1938, only to move back up to sixty-four in 1940.
Depression-era austerity halted Rice’s advance toward greatness that Lovett had projected in the Institute’s formative years. Unlike Duke University, endowed in 1924, Rice did not immediately become a major research university. Between the two world wars Rice remained primarily a small, undergraduate college for mostly Texas-born students. While this period of quietude was not the destiny Lovett and the trustees had planned in 1912, Rice was an excellent college that set academic standards other institutions in the region envied.
Rice gained a special place of affection in the hearts of its alumni of those years. Writer John Graves, who attended Rice at the very end of the era, reminisced about life at the Institute then, when students had “a feeling of separateness from time. That,” he wrote, “and a sense of study as a way of life, a fusion of living and thinking . . . still seems to me as good a thing as a school can give.” He described an English class on Chaucer with Professor Alan McKillop: “In the court below the windows of the room . . . hedges of cape jasmine were in bloom, and the warm drowsy afternoon breeze drove the odor through our brains as we sat for three hours, reading in our turns from Troilus and Criseyde or listening while the professorial bass moved regularly along the ancient penta-meters. . . . By rights, it should have been impossible to pay any attention at all to sweet Geoffrey. And yet I think it was the most meaningful class I ever sat in. It had a quality of revery. . . . It was Rice as I knew Rice, that class, a summing up.”