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Leebron reflects on his time at the corner of Sunset and Main

Katherine Hui / Thresher

By Tomás Russo     4/19/22 11:12pm

In his almost 18 years at Rice, President David Leebron said he’s never taken more than four weeks off at a time, despite having the option for a sabbatical every seven years. While he doesn’t know what his future career plans are after stepping down this summer, he plans to take full advantage of his delayed sabbatical.

“There are places that [my wife and I] like to spend time,” Leebron said. “We like to spend time in Paris and France. We like to go skiing. We like to occasionally go to Hawaii. Then there are more bucket list places. Machu Picchu is close to the top. Maybe the Galapagos Islands. There’s Antarctica. There’s an African safari. Bhutan. We won’t do all of those things, but it would be nice to do a couple of them.”

Leebron said his career path hasn’t been this open since he was 27, when he quit his job at a law firm without knowing what he’d do next.

“It’s an incredible opportunity being president of Rice, but it’s simultaneously constraining in some ways,” Leebron said. “It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience, but now I think it’s the right time for a transition, for me to take a breather.”

According to Leebron, one of the biggest outcomes under his leadership is clarification of Rice’s identity as a top research university. Other changes include an almost 80 percent growth in the student body and increased diversity through recruiting more minority students, more non-Texas students and more international students. But Leebron is also proud of what Rice has chosen not to change, such as the residential college system.

“It’s not that [the residential college system] is perfect, but it’s way more successful than most and brings Rice this whole distinct sense of welcome and community and provides students with a larger social unit than is provided at both smaller and larger colleges,” Leebron said.

A very specific development that Leebron said he is proud of is the growth of Coffeehouse.

“The coffeehouse that existed prior to the creation of what is now Coffeehouse was a closet in the [Rice Memorial Center],” Leebron said. “They made truly terrible coffee that I would buy and then throw out. Now I think the coffee there is great. My only criticism of Coffeehouse is there’s usually a line out of the door, which is a sign of success. Success not just because people want to buy something, but success because now it’s a place people want to be and be part of the community at Rice.”

Leebron said that he spends a lot of time walking around Rice and that he thinks it’s a spectacularly beautiful campus. Some of his favorite spots include the walkways of covered arches at Lovett Hall, the palm trees at the Recreation Center and Brochstein Pavilion. 

“I really do like Brochstein – everything from the architecture to the way people gather there,” Leebron said. “It serves a vital role in providing a space for people to come together. [Previously,] graduate students and visitors to our campus in particular had no space to serve that function, but [Brochstein] served that function so well that everyone wanted to use it.”

While Leebron has welcomed notable visitors – from former presidents like Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama to the Dalai Lama – in his 18 years at Rice, he said some of his favorite memories are welcoming new students to campus during Orientation Week.

“Move-in day I think simultaneously captures Rice and the spirit of Rice and really reflects the kind of community we are,” Leebron said. “One of the student events that is really special for us is the barbeque [during Orientation Week]. When we can do that at the house, it’s just a fantastic event.”

Leebron said that he has appreciated the chance to directly engage with students, staff and faculty at Rice even though the pandemic has made it harder.

“It’s not common for a top-tier research university that the president has that type of opportunity,” Leebron said. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of people over the years. The university is not an abstraction but a collection of people.”

As Rice’s president, Leebron said he has learned to listen to others and make difficult decisions.

“The more you listen, the better you do,” Leebron said. “You have to make decisions, and decisions have consequences. There’s not enough resources for every reasonable request. You have to do things that you hope will be received well by most people and that folks will come to see eventually that they were good decisions. You have to do the things that cause people to trust you even when they disagree with you.”

According to Leebron, Rice is unique in that students’ input is often taken into account in decisions affecting them.

“What’s different at Rice is that decisions are pretty consultative and … there is generally student participation in decisions,” Leebron said. “It’s a very important part of Rice to have a sense by the students that the faculty and the administration trust them and that they have a sense of autonomy and that they have a sense of participation in decisions.”

Leebron said that he has enjoyed working with Rice’s student leaders. He thinks the quality of student engagement and leadership is a major reason for the university’s success during the pandemic.

“We’ve had some extraordinary student leaders over the years,” Leebron said. “Some of them in recent years, have been so capable, so good at interacting with the administration, so good at thoughtfully pursuing student interest – knowing how to balance the expression of aims with more careful deliberation and thoughtfulness.”

Looking back at his time at Rice, Leebron said that he doesn’t have many complaints or sources of unhappiness. However, he wishes people took more advantage of Rice’s open and accessible administration.

“People expect other people to address all the things they want to be different,” Leebron said. “Almost anybody who wants to talk to me can get to talk to me. And yet to see people sometimes not take advantage of that or abuse it.”

Speaking from his own experience of reconnecting with college roommates and high school classmates over Zoom during the pandemic, Leebron said that his one piece of advice for Rice students is to make the most of the relationships they develop here.

“I think sometimes students don’t realize what an extraordinarily special time of their lives this is … in particular the relationships that [they] are developing with other people,” Leebron said. “Your classmates or friends in college have the potential to play a very special role in your whole life, but it’s not free. You got to stay in touch and invest with them. Start candidly figuring out who those people are that you want to stay in touch with. Make sure you turn these relationships into things that have lifelong value to you.”

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