For many undergraduates these were exciting but trying years. Math 100 still struck terror in their hearts and minds and turned many an aspiring science-engineering student into a chastened academ. Grading at Rice was still rigorous, almost punitive. The grade distribution for all undergraduate courses in the Fall 1961 semester revealed that 63 percent of freshmen grades were C or lower; over half the grades in 400-level courses were C or lower. One third of the freshman class did not graduate for academic reasons, even though their average standardized test scores proved that Rice students were among the most able in the nation.
By the end of the decade welcome changes in faculty grade expectations were made. A special freshman math course for academs was devised—pace Math 100. The faculty recognized that if significant numbers of Rice students were failing, then the professors were failing. Consequently, distribution requirements were changed, and much heavier emphasis was placed on excellence in teaching, even to the point of developing an elaborate system of recognizing and rewarding superior instruction through the Brown Teaching Awards. In the 1960s Rice students were named Rhodes scholars and Marshall scholars, and the 1966 Rice College Bowl Team won the national championship.
The student generation at Rice—as across the nation—was caught up in the ferment and turmoil of the 1960s. With rock music, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war and accompanying protests, changing attitudes toward drugs, dress, and sex, American values underwent profound alterations in a short span of time. Rice students may have seemed polite and apathetic when compared to media stereotypes of students at Berkeley and Columbia, but compared to their predecessors in the 1950s, Rice students in the 1960s were concerned, committed, and rebellious.
The issues that moved Rice students were the issues that engaged students elsewhere: political injustice, racism, the war in Vietnam. A section of the student center was even fire-bombed. Here, as elsewhere, students also questioned aspects of their own lives at the university. They advocated and were eventually granted many changed regulations and reforms on the part of the administration. Dress codes for women were relaxed—they could wear slacks, then jeans, and eventually shorts. Visiting hours for members of the opposite sex in the colleges were liberalized. The curriculum became far more flexible and the grading less harsh. More than ever before, the colleges became the center of student life. These changes went on apace into the 1970s as administrations changed.
In many ways the student experience at Rice became healthier after the academic reforms and changes of the mid-1960s. Students seemed happier with greater freedom in their choice of courses, though faculty sometimes worried about whether students chose wisely. Less rigorous grading produced more relaxed, more creative, more satisfied students who were often more satisfying to teach. The breadth of cultural activities at the colleges expanded several-fold, with a smorgasbord of plays, after-dinner talks, musical events, and movies from which to choose.
The bright Rice students proved that they were not “nerds” who only studied. In fact, their skills were only partly academic, and most had other impressive talents. From college cabarets that showcased musical, comedic, and other theatrical abilities, to creative parties like Archi-Arts, the School of Architecture’s annual ball, and Wiess College’s tongue-in-cheek Night of Decadence, students at Rice did more than simply study. A student-run low-wattage FM radio station, KTRU, began broadcasting in May 1961, playing music and discussing topics seldom heard on Houston’s airwaves. In 1991 KTRU’s power was increased to 50,000 watts, enabling it to attract listeners across the entire metropolitan region.
Challenged in the classroom and rewarded by life in the colleges, students found Rice an extraordinary place at which to invest a portion of their youth. The fortunes of the varsity football teams plummeted at the same time that less-pressured students apparently had less need to vent their academic frustrations as spectators of big-time sporting events. Rice students expressed their zany sense of humor with the transformation of the Rice Band from a poor-man’s version of the large state university bands into the irreverent Marching Owl Band (the MOB), whose outrageous antics and satiric skits at halftime made fans forget the often lopsided scores.
Wearing fedoras and trench coats like make-believe mobsters, the MOB members run onto the field helter-skelter, suddenly stopping amid the apparent confusion in the shape of a formation. When the skit or song is finished, the band members scurry about like ants, only to emerge seconds later in another formation. Props, unlikely musical instruments (a cello, for example), strange costumes—anything might be seen or heard at a MOB performance. Participation in the band soared, and visiting fans, too, came to understand that at Rice football games one went to the concession stands and restrooms before halftime. For many thousands of fans, the MOB shows set Rice apart from sister institutions in the Southwest region as much as her academic standards do.
Rice University paused in October 1962 to celebrate its semicentennial. On the fiftieth anniversary of the opening, another galaxy of internationally distinguished scholars was assembled in a year-long academic festival both to mark what had been accomplished in Houston in five decades and to suggest what remained to be done. As the Semicentennial Committee stated, the festivities were intended “to re-create the international academic enthusiasm engendered by the significant ceremonies held . . . in 1912. To present to the world at large . . . plans and projects whose frui-tion . . . will make secure the place of Rice University in the forefront of the world’s distinguished institutions of higher education . . . [and to] inspire . . . a renewed awareness of the importance of both the search for truth and the dissemination of knowledge. . . . ” Throughout the year a series of symposia provided an ongoing intellectual feast. As in 1912, Rice was making a statement about the place it wished to take in the academic world.