The qualities that had always set Rice apart continued in the late 1980s. Student achievements were remarkable. In 1991, for example, the year Rice once again won the College Bowl, its per capita number of National Science Fellows was fourth in the nation, and it tied for the highest number of Watson Fellowships. The debate team also garnered national honors. Rice’s average SAT scores were among the highest in the nation, as was its per capita percentage of National Merit Scholarship winners. Student interest led to creation of the Rice Student Volunteer Program, and under RSVP auspices tens of thousands of hours of community service were performed.
Students were just as creative, energetic, and bright as ever, perhaps even more so, and their talent for whimsicality produced one of Rice’s most memorable pranks: the turning of William
Marsh Rice’s statue so he faced the library. Faculty accomplishments were generally less capricious though similarly distinguished, with dozens of books and hundreds of articles published, scores of major grants received, and innumerable lectures and concerts presented, editorial positions and consultancies held. Across a broad spectrum Rice served its city, region, and nation. Excellence remained the hallmark, along with the realization that because a small university could not do everything well, choices had to be made. For example, in 1996 Rice ended its university press.
Perhaps no other event so represented Rice’s emerging role as a national, even international, institution, than its being chosen to host the 1990 Economic Summit of the Industrialized Nations. For three days in July heads of delegations from the United States, Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Canada, and the European Economic Community held talks at Rice, covered by thousands of journalists and communicated to the world. Rice had long hosted major world figures—General Pershing; Presidents (or presidents-to-be) Taft, Hoover, Eisenhower, Kennedy (announcing the goal of going to the moon), Johnson, Carter, Reagan; Sir Harold Wilson; Prince Philip; and the Dalai Lama suggest the range of famous visitors. But never had such an assemblage appeared at one time as during the Economic Summit. Alumni around the globe were thrilled to see on television world political leaders walking through the familiar arches of Lovett Hall.
Rice did not begin its second century without problems. Despite the ambitious plans for enhancement and the new construction on campus, despite rising numbers of applications for admission and increasingly able students, despite imaginative leadership, the specter of financial limitations again rose. Houston and Texas entered a deep recession just at the moment when President Rupp arrived and sought to recover for Rice University that sense of academic aspiration set forth by Edgar Odell Lovett. Compared to practically every other private university, Rice was extraordinarily well off. But for Rice truly to become an international university of the first rank—as Lovett proposed in 1912—support for libraries, laboratories, and faculty positions would have to be increased substantially. Committed both to the highest quality and also accessibility (Rice’s tuition remained about half that of similar institutions), the university had to seek additional funds. Thus a major priority for Rice’s leaders at the beginning of the university’s second century was increased fund-raising.
Almost of equal moment was the perennial question of whether Rice should continue to participate in Southwest Conference athletics. Critics pointed to the significantly lowered academic standards for admission of athletes and the continuing multimillion dollar losses of the program, while advocates defended the student diversity provided by scholarship athletes and the entertainment and community-building value of intercollegiate sports. How this complicated matter would ultimately be resolved remained unclear.
Contemplating the future, thoughtful Rice leaders saw many challenges ahead. Beyond the immediate issue of athletics and fund-raising, in its second century Rice must attract a more racially and ethnically diverse student body and faculty. It must attract, support, and retain more faculty of international distinction. It must balance the highest standards of research with teaching of the highest order. Normal disputes about curricular changes, academic methodologies, athletics, and political ideologies must not be allowed to destroy civil discourse and academic freedom. The university must keep its alumni informed and excited about developments on campus, and alumni, friends, and supporters must continue to make possible Rice’s vigorous pursuit of excellence. But in all these matters Rice’s future needs were little different from those of the past. They simply illustrated the complex relationship of a university to its place and time.