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Monday, June 17, 2024 — Houston, TX

An open letter to President Leebron and the Board of Trustees on the future of Rice

By David Axel     5/22/12 7:00pm

There were five hours to go until the end of the College Battle giving campaign when I read the email. Upon reading it, I found that my beloved Brown College was in the embarrassing position of last place. I hadn't planned to give this year, despite having given the first few years after graduating, but last place? For a moment, it became a matter of pride. I clicked the link to donate. And then I was reminded why I hadn't planned to give this year and why I hadn't given last year.

I was greeted by an incredibly slick website. Portraits of students and profiles from each of the colleges and a video where "Brown" says it's not just about winning, but about "supporting Rice's great college experience." Oh, really?

I don't recognize some of the "great college experience" at Rice anymore. Vastly improved media image and campaigning, increased national prominence and an unprecedented building spree are all well and good, but they point to where I feel Rice has gone wrong in the last 10 years or so. One of the reasons I went to Rice was because I felt the institution was focused on what should be the most important thing at any college: undergraduate education.

Yet since I matriculated, it seems President Leebron and the Board of Trustees have focused more and more on Rice's image, national recognition, ranking and fundraising, rather than on education. This makes for a lot of good things: There are much nicer facilities on campus than when I was a student. Rice now has a coherent brand and image, unlike the unfocused and cobbled-together media image we used to have. Prospective student applications are up, and money is pouring in for the Centennial Campaign. Every month in the @Rice email bulletin, I read about the most recent research accomplishments of the faculty or how much more has been done with the Vision for the Second Century. But how important are these things, really?

I'm much more concerned about the following: The increase in the student body has not been matched by a commensurate increase in faculty size. Class sizes have exploded. Despite the building spree on campus, I'm told students now regularly don't have seats at the beginning of the semester in the larger introductory courses. Despite the addition of two new colleges, there isn't enough bed space on campus for everyone who would prefer to stay in the colleges - by a wider margin than in the past. The cost of attending Rice has shot up. Though we are still ranked as having one of the best values in the country, the cost to attend Rice is now much more in line with the Ivies than with low-cost state colleges. This is hardly in line with our history of being an inexpensive place to get an excellent education. (How many current students know Rice used to be free?) Ironically, despite all these efforts, Rice's ranking remains unchanged.

And apparently, the character of the student body has shifted subtly toward a "shots shots shots" culture (to quote a student from a Thresher article that was published Dec. 1, 2011) that needed to be contained such that the Alcohol Policy was suspended for nine months. A conversation with my parents about this some months back ended with this comment from my father: "The type of students they were recruiting before were the type that were looking for a bang for the buck, the best value in education, and were smart. Now they're just recruiting the rich kids." I can't help but think he might be right. What I read and hear about the campus culture today doesn't sound like the culture I remember. Has anyone considered what kind of students we're attracting these days?

Given all of this, I put the following question to the president, the board and students alike: What has happened to the focus on undergraduate education, which was both the reason Rice was founded and the means by which we gained a proud, yet humble, national reputation for excellence in the first place?

So, despite the fact that it means I will not be helping Brown out of last place, despite the fact that it means I will not be helping Rice's alumni giving percentage, and despite the fact that I am gainfully employed and much more able to give this year than in the past, I will once again decline to do so. I didn't go to Rice because of brand-new buildings, slick marketing, the wet campus or its fundraising prowess. I didn't go to Rice because of the research credentials of its professors, its national ranking or because it aspires to be "the Harvard of the South." I went to Rice because it was focused on its students and their education, not money, prestige or appearances.

I believe that focus has been lost. Rice shouldn't aspire to be like the Ivies. Rice shouldn't be part of the national trend of college tuition rising disproportionately relative to other goods and services. William Marsh Rice left an endowment for a free institute of higher education in order to repay the community in which he made his fortune. We should be fighting to preserve that historic mandate and character, not pursuing other visions. David Axel is a graduate of Brown College, class of 2006.

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