The May 1991 celebration of the centennial of the charter of the university, culminated by the festive graduation ceremonies, was as much an occasion for looking ahead as for looking back. When the Board of Governors announced at its May 1991 meeting the establishment of another interdisciplinary center, the Energy and Environmental Systems Institute, the clear signal was that the university would continue to move forward aggressively by building on existing strengths. Rice’s small size facilitated interdisciplinary cooperation, and research, teaching, and service to society could be united by careful planning. Later that year, Rice and the Baylor College of Medicine signed an agreement to support the Science Academy of South Texas, a magnet high school in Mercedes, again building on the success of earlier programs—for example, the model science laboratory developed at Lanier Middle School and used to exemplify hands-on science teaching for other Houston middle schools. Such projects, combined with The Rice School-La Escuela Rice, a K–8 school developed in cooperation with the Houston Independent School District, demonstrated Rice’s institutional commitment to the phrase carved into the 1915 cornerstone of the Physics Building, “science in the service of society.” Again and again, as in the Rice Student Volunteer Program, students and faculty reached beyond the hedges to make a difference in their community.
Reflective of a long-standing university commitment to be affordable,Rice was named the number one “best buy” in American higher education by Money in the magazine’s September 1991 issue. Rice, of course, often receives stellar rankings from the various college guide books, but the Money magazine selection brought unusual attention and, along with the publicity attendant to its having hosted the 1990 Economic Summit, contributed to a significant increase in the number of applicants for admission. In the mid-1990s, approximately 7,000 applied annually to become one of the 650 new students. Along with the ongoing search for the best students, two other university perennials were debates over the place of athletics and where to park. In the spring of 1992, after intense consultation, an Athletic Review Committee released a study that supported the continuation of Division I intercollegiate athletics at Rice at the same time that it put into place stronger minimal guidelines for special athletic admissions. During the summer of 1992, after equally intense consultation, a Parking Committee proposal was accepted that called for greater utilization of the stadium parking lot and inauguration of a shuttle bus system to ferry people to the heart of the campus.
The Rice community approached the beginning of the 1992–93 academic year with a growing sense of confidence. The May 1992 commencement speaker, Richard von Weizsäcker, president of Germany, seemed a symbol of the university’s emerging international reputation. On October 9–10, 1992, eighty years after the impressive Academic Convocation that had marked the opening of classes in 1912, Rice held a “summit of the mind” featuring a panoply of speakers, including Robert Wilson, Rice’s Nobel laureate in physics. The celebration looked at what the university had accomplished and sought to project that trajectory of achievement into the future. But the sense of confidence and excitement on campus was dramatically punctured by an announcement made on October 22, 1992, by President George Rupp: he was resigning, effective June 30, 1993.
Stunned by this news, many in the Rice community were concerned that the academic momentum that Rupp had so energetically promoted would be lost. Charles Duncan, chair of the trustees, quickly moved to assure all that efforts to enhance the university’s programs would not flag, and Rupp, whose basic disagreement with the board was over the pace and method of fund-raising, continued his vigorous leadership throughout the final months of his tenure. A favorable omen for the future was the press conference held in the Founder’s Room on January 14, 1993, where Rupp and Duncan, along with former Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of State James A. Baker, III, announced the creation of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, an interdisciplinary center drawing together the expertise of academic scholars and policy makers from the world of government, business, law, and medicine to focus on real-world policy issues. This center, housed in a major building (designed by Thomas Beeby) that opened in the spring of 1997, has already sponsored several significant conferences and research projects and promises to help internationalize Rice’s instructional and research programs. Not only did former president Jimmy Carter deliver the commencement address in May 1993, but, at the October 1994 groundbreaking for the Baker Institute building, former presidents Gerald Ford and George Bush spoke in person, and Carter and former president Reagan presented taped video messages.
In its search for a successor to George Rupp, the Rice Board of Governors again utilized the kind of broad-based search committee that had worked so well in 1985. On June 2, 1993, the Rice community was pleased to learn that, effective July 1, the sixth Rice president was to be S. Malcolm Gillis, an eminent economist who had served for years as a fellow of the Harvard Institute for International Development and consultant to many foreign governments—especially in Latin America—and who was currently professor of economics and public policy at Duke University and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In his inaugural address on October 30, President Gillis paid homage to Rice’s traditions of academic excellence, small size, and interdisciplinary activities, but he also emphasized the diverse ways Rice needed to respond to a changing world. These changes—economic, geopolitical, demographic, technological, and scientific—require that Rice constantly evaluate its programs and reach out as never before to the local, national, and international communities: reach out to learn and to serve. “And by reaching out,” he concluded his address, “we reach forward as well, to our own vision of Rice—to an institution that is dynamic, open, diverse, and dedicated enough to meet the challenges that we face together as a university, a community, and a nation as the new century draws near.”
To achieve these aims, President Gillis vigorously pushed ahead initiatives already under way. Ideas are inert until they are funded and made concrete. Plans were announced for a major building to house a number of disciplines whose work involved the innovative concept of computational engineering. The exuberantly colorful building, designed by John Outram of England, was dedicated in the fall of 1996 as Duncan Hall. Another large project would provide state-of-the-art laboratory facilities for nanoscale science and technology, an exciting new field of molecular level study in which some of the most important discoveries have been made at Rice. This dramatically shaped building, designed by Antoine Predock and opened in the fall of 1997 as Butcher Hall, also houses the undergraduate chemistry laboratories. Both the computational engineering and the nanoscale projects involved more than just buildings: funding was provided for fellowships, endowed chairs, and programs, and both of these very significant projects were outgrowths of two of Rice’s interdisciplinary institutes. Beyond the necessity of seeing to fruition the Baker Institute and the bold enterprises in computation and nanoscale research, President Gillis has emphasized diversifying the Rice student body, faculty, and administration. He began to lay the groundwork for increasing the university’s acknowledgment of the importance of Latin America. And he continued efforts to recruit faculty and administrators of great distinction, beginning with the appointment of a new provost, David Auston, from Columbia University, to replace Neal Lane who in July 1993 accepted an appointment by President Bill Clinton to head the National Science Foundation.
It has become a cliché that university presidents must spend much of their time raising money, but it is sometimes less appreciated how often outside agencies and unplanned events impinge on the time and attention of university leaders. After a significant expenditure of faculty and administrative effort over a period of more than two years, Rice’s accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools was extended in 1995 for another ten years. Reaccreditation was never in doubt, of course, but the complicated procedure involving several internal committees and visitation teams of outside experts occasioned fresh analysis of the impact of the computational and communication revolution on universities. More important, the accreditation report was folded into a Strategic Planning Committee that over the course of 1995 and 1996 initiated very deliberate consideration of Rice’s goals for the next decade.
In December 1993 the Rice community was dismayed to learn that, after promises to the contrary, football coach Fred Goldsmith was leaving Rice to go to Duke; within two weeks Ken Hatfield—former head coach at the Air Force Academy, the University of Arkansas, and Clemson University—was named to replace him. Early the next year, the Southwest Conference, of which Rice had been a charter member since 1914, collapsed when four dominant members (the University of Texas, Texas A&M University, Texas Technological University, and Baylor University) forsook tradition for higher revenues and joined what had been known as the Big Eight Conference. For a brief period the seemingly eternal question arose about the role of Rice in what is known as big-time athletics. In April 1994 President Gillis, the Board of Governors, and the Athletic Department announced that Rice was joining an expanded version of the Western Athletic Conference.
Ironically, as the Southwest Conference was imploding, Rice varsity teams found success. The women’s cross-country track team won the SWC championship in October, the first Rice team championship since 1972. Later that year the football team ended the season in a five-way tie for first place (A&M being on probation), and in February 1995 the men’s track team won the indoor track and field title in the final event of the day. And in the spring of 1996, in the very last SWC athletic competition, the Rice baseball team won the tournament championship. The next year the baseball team in its inaugural season in the WAC won the conference championship and advanced to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. Perhaps the most spectacular athletic victory of the last three decades was the nationally televised football win over the University of Texas in November 1994, breaking a twenty-eight-year losing streak to the Longhorns. Yet despite these victories and the new conference, Rice officials are determined that athletics remain secondary to the central academic mission of Rice. The graduation rate of varsity athletes is among the highest in the nation, and the program has never been marred by corruption or scandal. Nevertheless, the competitiveness of the teams, fan support, and monetary losses will be carefully monitored over the next five years. The end of the SWC demonstrates that “forever” is ephemeral in intercollegiate sports.
While athletic victories always draw news coverage, the primary work of learning and teaching goes on quietly. Each year undergraduate test scores and the percentage of National Merit scholars gets more impressive, and graduates win remarkable numbers of national fellowships. In 1997, for example, Rice students won Rhodes, Marshall, and Churchill scholarships and three were awarded Fulbright Grants. A survey of more than two dozen of the most prestigious universities (including the Ivies) in the nation shows that more Rice seniors win admission to their first choice graduate school than do students from any other university. Likewise, Rice faculty garner far more than their portion of fellowships, grants, and awards. In October 1996 two Rice professors, Robert F. Curl and Richard E. Smalley, shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of carbon 60 or “buckyballs,” a breakthrough that suggested the kinds of advances yet to be made at the nanoscale level.
The overall academic quality at Rice has never been higher. Rice’s undergraduate programs are widely known for their excellence, the architecture and music schools are highly rated, and a 1995 study of graduate programs by the National Research Council showed not only that several Rice programs are in the top quartile of their fields but that in terms of improvement over the Council’s 1982 rankings, Rice ranked sixth in the nation. Even so, a strong conclusion of Rice’s Strategic Planning Committee is that a major goal for the next decade is to elevate a critical mass of the university’s graduate programs to the level of unquestioned distinction. Prospects of increased collaboration with the institutions of the Texas Medical Center, as well as with other institutions in the city, are a vital part of this endeavor.
No first-rate institution is ever satisfied with itself, and no institution can afford simply to try to maintain the status quo. An institution that is not evolving, improving, and challenging itself is really dying. That point was made vividly clear by Charles Duncan, speaking to the faculty on May 3, 1996, on the occasion of his being honored for having served fourteen years as chair of the trustees. Mr. Duncan had served as a strong guiding compass during years of extraordinary development and achievement at Rice. Quietly competent, always dignified, a business and governmental leader at the highest national and international levels, and a man of unquestioned integrity, Duncan guided a Board of Governors that had the confidence to choose, empower, and support strong academic leadership. On July 1, 1996, E. William Barnett, a distinguished lawyer, was elected to succeed Charles Duncan as chair of the trustees, and Mr. Barnett will continue the tradition of excellence in everything that Rice seeks to do.
President Gillis stated in his inaugural address that “excellence in a university is indivisible.” Attempting to make that ideal a consistent reality is the ongoing mission of Rice today. Student life with the college system, intramural sports, a lively schedule of theater, movies, talks, conferences, and the rich musical offerings of the Shepherd School of Music has been significantly enhanced over the last decades, but the intellectual potential of the residential colleges has still not been fulfilled. Graduate students need to be integrated into the life of the campus more completely, perhaps with a residential graduate center on campus. The curriculum, incomparably richer than it was a generation or more ago, must be creatively invigorated so that students will stretch themselves intellectually and learn to write more clearly, make effective oral presentations, and develop strategies for working both independently and in teams. Additional opportunities for studying abroad and honing leadership skills are already being explored. College should be a place for self-discovery as well as for learning new information. Faculty, staff, and students together have an obligation to create an educational environment that is humane, challenging, and personal. Ultimately the best measure of a university is the kind of people it produces.
The new facilities constructed over the past decade and a half include extremely functional and handsome buildings designed by world-class architects and the magnificent Edythe Bates Old Recital Hall and Grand Organ. The beauty of the campus is one of the signal glories of Rice, and steps have been taken to enhance the landscaping, the safety, and the convenience of the campus. Rice now has concert and recital halls with exquisite acoustics and laboratories with cutting-edge instrumentation. Fondren Library remains the weakest part of the research infrastructure, but aggressive and innovative efforts are now under way to address the varied information needs of the university community. The computer revolution is rapidly changing many aspects of scholarship, teaching, and learning, and Rice is exploring the best ways to take advantage of new technologies. Rice graduates tend to be lifelong learners, and Rice is investigating ways to keep alumni in touch intellectually with the university through electronic communication, television, and such on-campus events as the annual Alumni College. Available to alumni and others living in the Houston area, the noncredit courses offered by the School of Continuing Studies attract almost ten thousand people a year—more than twice the regular Rice enrollment. Rice wants to be the intellectual homepage of its alumni for their entire lives.
Rice University has changed a great deal over the past decades, and it remains open to exciting academic opportunities and ready to lead the way in newer fields such as nanoscale science and computational engineering, particle physics and bioengineering, and in such traditional areas as policy studies, cultural studies, language instruction, and several specialties within history. Research ranges from observing the edges of the universe with the orbiting Hubble telescope to investigating cells at the molecular level to studying the history of optical astronomy. Buildings sprout and programs develop in response to both needs and promise. Yet in a more profound way, the more Rice changes, the more it stays the same. The commitment to overall excellence is as firm today as it was at the opening of classes in 1912, when President Lovett celebrated “the freedom of sound learning and the fellowship of youth.” Rice remains dedicated to the highest university standing, to superior teaching and distinguished scholarship, to limiting the enrollment and remaining economically accessible for students who are as able as any in the nation, to the honor code, to maintaining a campus of uncommon beauty and serenity, to service in the larger community and the world, and to academic freedom and civil discourse. A rendezvous with greatness is the constant ambition of Rice University, and that goal requires the good will, ideas, and support of all its graduates and friends.