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Leebron lives up sabbatical year

Michelle Gachelin / Thresher

By Michelle Gachelin     4/18/23 10:51pm

After 18 years as the president of Rice, David Leebron has been spreading his wings. During what he refers to as his sabbatical year, emphasizing that he is too young to be retired, his pastimes have included skiing and attending musicals. He also spends his time listening to Aretha Franklin and Bob Marley.

During his time off, Leebron has accrued one million vertical feet in total skiing. 

“For me, there’s just something kind of magical about going down the mountains,” Leebron said. “It’s a tremendous amount of fun, and the scenery is fantastic … I would say that at the end of the day, that still leaves time to do reading and work and learning.”

Off the slopes, Leebron was a visiting professor last fall at Harvard University and Columbia University’s law schools. While in New York, he watched a few musicals, and strongly recommends “Some Like It Hot” for its “modern sensibility about sexuality.” He said he also enjoyed running into Rice students.

“I was actually quite close to some of the students who are up there. I was walking by [New York University] one day, and we had almost gotten past the corner and just heard this voice screaming, ‘President Leebron! President Leebron!’ out of NYU … It was a Rice graduate who had been a student in a course that I taught here who I’d recommended at NYU,” Leebron said.

The courses Leebron taught this past year have focused on religious diversity and the law, which he said he was partly inspired to focus on because of his identity as a Jewish person in Texas, as well as the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn the right to abortion. 

The case is fundamentally driven by religion, according to Leebron, who co-taught a course on the legal framework of religious tolerance while at Rice.

“I tend to be pretty strong on separation of church and state, and people who say there is no separation of church and state in the Constitution are idiots. I guess you can quote me on that,” Leebron said. “It doesn’t literally say that, of course. But the whole historical foundation is built around this notion, partly given the complexity of the United States religious configuration at the very founding of the nation.”

Leebron will return to Rice as a professor in the fall, where he will teach two courses: Religion and Democracy and Race and Law in the U.S. He said that discussions about these issues are a great opportunity for students interested in learning about the evolution of the law, particularly with less known Supreme Court cases. 

“I hope I’ll have at least three students, and I hope they will have a beneficial experience,” Leebron said. “I always have fun interacting with my students, so I’m not worried about me.”

Leebron, who said that we currently have the worst collection of world leaders since the 1930s, considers governance to be inherently political, whether it’s leading a country or a university. 

“Frankly, whether it’s the governance of a university or the governance of a country, we have to find ways that it can be guided by the values that are important to us … The question at the end of the day is, are the values of the institution — which is an abstraction, but it’s made up of a lot of different people — sufficiently aligned with your values? For me, over 18 years, I found a lot of that alignment,” Leebron said.

Beyond his impact on campus, Leebron is considering how he can further contribute to the world now that he is less constrained in the opinions he can voice.

As Leebron continues his post-presidency life, he’s committed to expanding his horizons

“If you’re just spending time with the people who think like you, you’re not getting educated,” Leebron said. “In between ski runs, sitting on the ski lift, that’s what I ponder, is how can I have some impact. I hope [to] make some kind of contribution.”

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