David W. Leebron

David W. Leebron

16 Minute Read

Though it was a “coincidence” that first landed David W. Leebron in academia, today he proudly serves as president of Rice University. He sat down with Texas Medical Center Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy and Operating Officer William F. McKeon for a look at the university’s growth during his 11-year tenure—from a larger and more diverse student population, to a renewed commitment to the arts.

Q | Can you tell us about your formative years?
A | I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia and was the second of five children. And so far as I can remember, I had a good childhood, with a wonderful family. My brother is a writer, and I tell my children that they can be anything they want to be except a writer, because the first thing that most writers write about is their dysfunctional families. I went to a small Quaker school in Philadelphia, the William Penn Charter School, even though I’m not Quaker. It was a great education. I am very loyal to my high school and grateful for the values and perspectives that it inspired in me.

I grew up with probably more interest in science than other subjects. International experiences were also an important part of my teenage years. I took my first overseas trip to Scandinavia with the Boy Scouts when I was 13, and then when I was 16 I went back as an exchange student in Germany. And then my family hosted a string of visitors from Sweden, Switzerland, Mexico, Japan and Germany. So that was a somewhat different aspect of growing up in a suburb of Philadelphia.

Q | I find it interesting that your undergraduate degree from Harvard is in history and science. That is unique.
A | My mother did want me to be a doctor, so I was trying to humor her, although I didn’t think that was a likely outcome. And I was interested in science even though I didn’t think science would be my career. I just liked science.

So I was looking for a major that would allow me to do some of the things I wanted to do. I came upon this major that was administered by the Department of History of Science, but it was called history and science, because they thought it was too narrow just to study the history of science. Thus the major would include some science courses, and some history courses, and some history of science courses—courses that ranged from 19th century German history to advanced cellular biology.

Q | When you were heading the Law Review, did you anticipate a career in academia?
A | Not really. Although some of my friends in law school thought I should be an academic, I didn’t actually have any particular interest in being an academic. I decided to clerk for a judge following law school, applied only to one, and ultimately went out to Los Angeles to clerk for her. She promptly resigned. Really, it was not my fault. She resigned to become the first secretary of education. So there I was in Los Angeles, having made this big decision to go out to Los Angeles specifically to clerk for this federal judge, and I was jobless. So I had to figure out what I was going to do. Through a total coincidence, some folks at UCLA had called me about some colleagues of mine in law school, to ask whether I thought they would be interested in academia. After we talked about that, the person from UCLA said, ‘Well, now that your judge has resigned, what are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. Maybe I will work for a law firm, maybe I will teach. I don’t know. But I think I would like to stay out here in L.A. for a while.’ So he said, ‘Well, let me get back to you.’ It turned out UCLA had a professor who was on leave in New York and was supposed to come back to teach a course in the spring and didn’t want to come back. So they said, ‘Would you be interested in teaching this basic course for first-year law students?’ The course was called torts.

So I went to UCLA in the spring and taught torts, and had a great time. But then I left and traveled around the world for about four months. I thought I was going to go back to Philadelphia and get a job, and then I realized I didn’t really know anyone in Philadelphia anymore except my family. I decided that I wanted to go to New York instead. So I got a job with a law firm there.

But I didn’t enjoy the private practice of law that much. I thought, ‘Gee, that teaching thing was pretty good.’ And so I went on the teaching market, and received a few job offers and ended up at NYU.

Q | Can you share with us your perspective of how Rice University has changed during your tenure?
A | Rice was a great place, and I had great predecessors, each of whom had made a terrific contribution to the institution, and some in areas I am interested in. But people talked about Rice being ‘behind the hedges,’ and students getting outside of the hedges. Rice was seen as quite separate from the city, and many people came to Rice despite the fact that it was in Houston, instead of because it was in Houston. So that’s one thing that was important to me. This was an urban university, and we needed to take advantage of that.

The second issue is what were its relationships globally? And at that time, we had very little going on in Latin America and in China. We really focused on that. Here we are in Houston, and Latin America had to be a big piece of what we were trying to achieve. China is a great set of opportunities for us. Thus, that was also a focus.

We looked at some of the issues around size. We were a very small university. So we decided to grow 30 percent. At Rice, that’s not a huge absolute number, about 900 more undergraduate students. But you will find very few universities that have undertaken growth at that percentage level. And that allowed us to be much more national and international. So a big priority was building out the reputation of the university. A lot of that has to do with where your students are coming from. And then, having great people in public affairs who can get the word out.

Another thing was that the university needed to be really, really clear about its mission and ambition. Rice has had conflicted identities at different times. We really delayed participation in the federal research programs, and didn’t take any federal research money until the 1960s. We had some extraordinary programs, including in nanotechnology and bioengineering, but we needed to strengthen our research profile.

We also weren’t as diverse a university as we could have been. Today we are one of the most diverse elite private universities in the country. We are the only member of the Association of American Universities on Princeton Review’s ranking of the top 10 for interaction among students of different socioeconomic, racial and ethnic backgrounds. AAU is made up of the 60-some best research universities in the country, public and private, and Rice is the only one on that list. Today, we have no majority ethnic or racial population on the campus, much like our home city of Houston. The student body has been fundamentally transformed—it is much more diverse, national and international, as befits an internationally renowned research university.

We have also continued a century-long process of broadening the university. Rice was initially the Rice Institute, with a strong focus on science and engineering, because in the words of our founder, that’s what Houston needed. We must continue to invest in those core strengths. But over the past few years, we have also put a lot of emphasis on the arts, including art on the campus. We now have some of the best campus art anywhere, including major pieces by James Turrell, Jaume Plensa and Mark di Suvero.

We were also very fortunate to benefit from the generosity of the Brown Foundation in helping us establish an art history Ph.D. program. We are about to, with the generosity of the Moody Foundation, open a new Moody Center for the Arts. So we have made a whole new commitment to the arts on this campus. Of course, we already had the Shepherd School of Music, which was spectacular and among the best in the world. We are hopeful it will be even more spectacular, and we are working to build a new center for music and the performing arts. These projects, together with the existing Media Center, will create a whole new arts part of our campus. And I think that’s going to change the image of Rice into more of an arts destination.

Q | With your background, I always thought there were two components of Rice that you must have considered strategically: establishing a law school and a medical school. Did you ever consider adding a law school?
A | Yes, we did. When I arrived, people would often ask me questions about Rice starting a law school, and what I said to them was, ‘If someone came to me and gave me a check for $200 million and said, ‘This is for a law school,’ I would be very inclined to take that check, with the permission of our trustees of course!’ We hear a lot of enthusiasm about Rice having a law school, but it’s not something we would do from our existing resources alone.

But a law school would integrate really well with a number of the things that we do. Whether it’s in engineering or philosophy or economics or political science or history, these are all fields, plus many others, that have connections to law. So we have built relationships with other law schools in the city. But Rice does have a history of adding different pieces, whether it’s the Shepherd School of Music or the Jones Graduate School of Business or the Baker Institute. But above all, we stand for the excellence of what we do, and we don’t take on new ventures unless we see a pathway to achieving that excellence.

We are really proud of what the Jones School, the Baker Institute and the Shepherd School have achieved. And the path isn’t always straight or smooth. But those now are three extraordinary parts of this university, and getting better.

Q | What about a medical school?
A | In terms of Rice’s position in the world of elite research universities, we have two disadvantages. One is size and the other is the lack of a medical school. And some of this really just goes more to reputation than anything else. Pound for pound, we are an extraordinarily productive research university. And in some areas, we are ranked top in the world for what our faculty accomplish. If you look, for example, at generation of NSF research dollars per faculty member, we do extremely well.

The question is thus what are we going to do to grow that? We grew the university, and that was important because it gives us a bigger footprint, a more national footprint and a more international footprint. But then, of course, it wasn’t that many years ago, before I got here, that Rice didn’t have a big commitment to the biosciences. Under my predecessor, Malcolm Gillis, the university moved very substantially in that direction. And when I came in, we had the opportunity to build the Bioscience Research Collaborative at the intersection of Rice University and the Texas Medical Center. So we made a big additional push into the biosciences. We see the intersection, in particular, of nanoscience and bioscience as extremely important. But there is now the increasingly important intersection between biosciences and computational sciences, and materials science and medicine. These are areas where we aren’t just good, we are really great.

And so that is something we can provide to the medical center. One thought is that if we had a medical school, that’s an opportunity for increased integration, perhaps more than we might be able to achieve just by building deeper relationships. So we explored that opportunity with the Baylor College of Medicine, when Baylor was facing some challenges, and for various reasons, that did not come to fruition. But what came out of that was that we wanted to deepen these relationships. We might not be able to have a merger, but we wanted to deepen that relationship and others in the Texas Medical Center.

Q | How would you describe Rice’s relationship with the Texas Medical Center?
A | In some ways, I think that relationship is becoming more important. Physically, we sit just outside of the Texas Medical Center and we are one of its member institutions. And so while all of the infrastructure was important to us, and had consequences for us, we weren’t so much a direct participant in that. We are not a provider of medical services. Our provost and I have a little debate. He likes to describe us as the Switzerland of the Texas Medical Center, and I, having studied some aspects of international law and history, prefer to describe us as the Sweden of the Texas Medical Center. There are several different types of neutrality, and the Swiss have one form, and the Swedes have a much more engaged and active form.

That’s the model I see us in: we don’t compete with the other institutions within the Texas Medical Center, but we have things they very much want to have access to and be part of. And all of the institutions of the Texas Medical Center have research, teaching and activities that we want to be a part of.

What is changing now is that the TMC is becoming a more substantive actor in helping create an integrated research and translational vision. When I interviewed Bobby Robbins, my reaction was, ‘This is the guy,’ and I thought we would never be able to recruit him. So I was very pleased when his appointment was announced. The TMC board did a fantastic job in consulting with the various institutions on that search and executing that great hire.

The Texas Medical Center has always done a great job. The question at the time of a leadership transition was whether the medical center was going to envision itself as something more, not only the infrastructure for us, but as a big part of the intellectual fabric and glue of the community. It’s not going to all be easy, and one of the challenges for Houston is to get its extraordinary institutions to appropriately work together. We have the largest medical center in the world, but our ambition must be to be the greatest medical center in the world. And we aren’t there yet. But if we can get these institutions to all work together, we have a really good shot of being there, whether it is in areas like tissue engineering, personalized medicine, imaging or biocomputation. Rice may be comparatively small, but we are a big player in many of those things.

We are on the tissue engineering landscape. We are on the nanoscience and nanotechnology landscape. We are on the health policy landscape. But we can do that much more effectively by leveraging what we do with other institutions, with each of these institutions identifying the areas where they are leaders and the areas where they are highly valued collaborators. And, frankly, it is important to be able to distinguish between those two.

Q | Looking ahead, what excites you most about the future at Rice?
A | I think we are looking at a lot of things. One, higher education is being transformed, and Rice is really well positioned for that. Many people today talk about the threat to higher education from technology, but I like to talk about the opportunity from technology. I have used two pie charts to suggest that in 1985, 75 percent of the value proposition of higher education was around the classroom experience.

But in 2025, that will be reduced to 25 percent of the value proposition, although it will still be very important. A group of Rice students went out on their own, after I did this, and they surveyed their fellow students, and because of the way it was done, they had a 99 percent response rate. They asked the students, ‘What do you see as the value proposition on your education?’ The pie chart they produced from the actual data and my made-up pie chart were nearly identical. I had only made one mistake in my clairvoyance, and that was instead of it being in 2025, it was in 2015. We have to deliver more to our students, and not just more but more effective research experience, mentoring experiences, international experience, entrepreneurial opportunities and internships. That’s going to be an exciting time for universities.

The second set of things is the research that we can participate in. Rice is a small place. It has this opportunity to bring things together. So we are developing our strategy around big data. And that’s not just going to involve medicine in a big way, but also energy, urban studies and humanities research. So that’s a lot to come together. We are looking at a new effort in materials. In the biomedical area, if you are going to be putting materials into people’s bodies, they had better be precisely the right materials. And in the energy area, where you have problems with corrosion, or the environment— dealing with issues around fracking, for example—we need to create materials specifically designed for the task. We are a leader in materials science and nanotechnology, and we are going to be an even stronger leader in that area.

The Kinder Institute and urban policy is another area I am very excited about. Our new director, Bill Fulton, brings precisely the right experiences to amp up our contribution to understanding urban problems and to contribute to Houston’s solutions to those problems.

So when I look at it, it’s the three missions of research, education and service. And these missions are coming closer and overlapping more than they ever were before. Great research universities have been both engines of opportunity for individuals and a primary source of new ideas and innovation for our society. We need to ensure that we continue to play these roles in the most effective way possible.

And that’s what makes it exciting to be here. You are creating opportunities for young people and solving the problems of the world. What more could you ask for?

Q | Any closing thoughts?
A | We are very excited about what’s happening in the TMC under Bobby Robbins’ leadership. We think this is a great step forward for the city, and we look forward to participating in that.

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