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Home > News > At Rice, growth still tops the list of priorities

February 28th, 2010

At Rice, growth still tops the list of priorities

(Q&A with University President David Leebron and Houston Chronicle writer Jeanne Kever)

Q: Can Rice achieve what you want for it while remaining small?

A: One of the attractions of (merging with) Baylor was that it allowed us to take a very big step forward while not necessarily impacting our undergraduate program and population. ... The question is, how do we build on that small student population? One of the things I like to say about Rice is, we're too small to be arrogant. What that really means is, the way we succeed is by collaborating. Sometimes we collaborate internally. If you're looking at nanotechnology, we're one of the nation's leaders. It's not because there's one department which is great in nanotechnology. It's because there are a half-dozen or more departments that have nanotechnology as part of what they do.

The challenge for Rice is, because we are a Top Tier university, there are things we need to do at a Top Tier competitive level, without reference to our size. The BioScience Research Collaborative reflects that. We have to have one of the best bioscience research facilities in the country in order to attract and retain faculty. We need to have a great physics building to attract faculty. We need to build these multiple kinds of endeavors so that people with all kinds of interest will find a home at Rice. We have moved from being a university that some people perceive as primarily science and engineering to a broad-gauge university, even if a small university.

Q: You mentioned nanotech. What else is happening in science here now?

A: There is a lot around nanotechnology, but if you look at what our physics folks are doing, or our earth science folks, or in civil and environmental engineering.

Outside science and technology, we have Steve Klineberg's studies of Houston and now he and (sociologist) Michael Emerson are building their Institute for Urban Research, which is a great idea because it takes the specific advantage of being located in Houston and tries to build out from that a much deeper understanding of urban centers, not only in the United States but around the world. Or (Anthea Zhang), the professor in the business school whose research on whether it's better to take a CEO from inside or outside the company has gotten attention all across the country. Doug Brinkley's book on Theodore Roosevelt. ... It's that breadth of excellence.

To get back to science, some of it's around nanotechnology, but if you're looking at global health, there is the work our students are doing with Lab in a Backpack (a project to pack basic diagnostic tools health-care workers can use in remote areas), or the work our architecture and engineering students did in Zerow House (a solar-powered house designed for a national competition). It didn't win the prize in Washington, but they built the cheapest house that met the requirements, and in some respects, I'm more proud of them for that because at the end of the day, it's also about the economics, not just the environmental issues.

You look at even a very small department, like ecology and evolutionary biology, where a couple of our leaders study social amoeba. That may not seem important, but this commitment to fundamental science really characterizes the great universities. We often underestimate the importance of that.


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