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Letter to the Editor: Alumni donations address perceived needs at Rice

By Tom Kolditz     2/4/17 3:14pm

This letter is in response to “Invest in college facilities,” an op-ed in the Feb. 1 edition of the Thresher. In the article, Travis San Pedro ’12 said that he feels the money spent by the Doerr Institute on leader development would be better spent on residential college construction and upkeep.

First, we agree that the residential colleges are a treasured part of Rice and that they should be properly managed and maintained. However, when San Pedro’s fellow alumni make decisions about how to support Rice, they use both soul-searching and cogent analysis, including close collaboration with university leadership. At Rice, this has included polling of students to uncover what they sought in their educational experience. Often alumni donations follow a combination of values and passions, and they address a perceived need. Such decision processes are not always whether to enhance, say, leader development or entrepreneurship instead of buildings and grounds, but whether to establish an institute or center at a given university such as Rice or to create it elsewhere. Most people we have talked to in the extended Rice community are happy that Ann and John Doerr chose Rice for their generous donation in support of the development of emerging new leaders, and given the amount of deliberation that went into their decision, Mr. San Pedro’s flippant reference to their gift as “daft” is unfortunate.

Second, San Pedro cited in his article that the Rice Class of 2020 admitted high school club presidents and a number of student government representatives, and therefore, “we have a lot of leaders.” Empirical evidence would suggest otherwise. Holding office in a high school club or being on a high school student council might reveal some propensity to lead and early experience, but to suggest that those students are finished leaders who won’t benefit from deliberate development is off the mark. It also tacitly dismisses the majority of Rice students who didn’t have such experiences in high school. The Doerr Institute rejects that philosophy and assists in the development of students without regard to their past leadership experience. Even when accepting San Pedro’s numbers of former high school leaders who come to Rice, the percentage of the class that those numbers represent is objectively low in comparison to many top 20 schools. As we developed the strategic plan for the Doerr Institute we analyzed admissions data from three top schools and discovered that one of them was attracting twice as many high school leaders as Rice, and another approximately three times as many as Rice, and at a similar level of academic quality. We don’t fret about those statistics at the Doerr Institute, because we know that approximately 70 percent of a person’s capacity to lead is learned, and we are happy to work with all students admitted to Rice to help them achieve their leader development goals.

Finally, during the last academic year, the first year of the Doerr Institute’s operation, 742 graduate and undergraduate students participated in our programs, with an additional 260 active this semester. In 2016, the percent of those students attributing work with the Doerr Institute to positive developmental gains was in the 90th percentile. We funded 27 faculty and graduate student research and teaching projects related to leadership, and in two of our funded initiatives, graduate students earned national recognition (including further monetary awards). We have dozens of students consulting with us to ensure that our efforts are student-centered, and we host a full-time metrics team to make sure that our impact is both measurable and value-added.

In consideration of our students who wish to lead as alumni, there are many ways to give back. One way is to donate — a relatively small percentage of the cost of attending Rice is covered by tuition, and donations do help. But there are many other important ways to help Rice. We encourage Travis San Pedro and other alumni to organize and lead their peers in ways that might help to achieve the aims of the Rice experience. Engage, influence and support the people who devote their professional lives to making Rice University a gem. All of us at the Doerr Institute will do our best to help students develop the skills and abilities to lead among their peers, including fellow alumni, in whatever capacity they choose to serve.

Tom Kolditz, Director, Ann and John Doerr Institute for New Leaders

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