HOUSTON (AP) - From the western end of the Rice University campus, the BioScience Research Collaborative stands as a gleaming centerpiece in a wall of towers that make up the Texas Medical Center.
The collaborative, the largest and most expensive building Rice has ever constructed, could also stand as a monument to the university’s growth and changes over the last decade, under the leadership of President David Leebron.
The building is part of Rice, but it towers beyond the hedges that have long enclosed the campus. It is part of $800 million in construction projects that have added or renovated more than a dozen buildings. More construction is on the horizon.
“It’s both a necessity for and a symbol of being one of the top research universities in the country - and really putting a foothold in the Texas Medical Center,” Leebron said about the collaborative.
Leebron, who celebrates his 10th anniversary at Rice this month, has led a sizeable expansion that has opened Rice up to the community around it. The decision to build the collaborative, plans for which had been kicked around for years, was one of Leebron’s first on the job.
During Leebron’s tenure, just about everything about Rice has grown, from its physical boundaries to its student body and its art collection. His supporters say Leebron has been a bold leader who will be remembered as one of Rice’s best, largely because of how he has expanded Rice.
“It’s always been powerful, but it’s been sort of a small powerhouse,” Deborah Harter, an associate professor of French studies who has served as a leader on Rice’s faculty senate, said about Rice. “Universities in this country are changing. The pressures financially on them and on students are huge. It’s impossible to tell where all that is going to go.
“But David Leebron doesn’t want to simply wait and see. His nature at Rice is on top of and involved in all of the possibilities, so (Rice) can change and evolve as it needs to, as the landscape of higher education changes. I’m very proud of this president and I really do think he will be seen historically as one of our great presidents.”
Some fear Rice’s expansion will water down what makes the university special, however. Some classes at the small school have grown larger, for example. The undergraduate student-faculty ratio has grown slightly, though it’s still lower than many peer institutions.
The university also caused a stir when it sold a popular radio station in 2011. Tuition, meanwhile, has nearly doubled over the last decade to $39,880. The tuition growth is really a shifting of costs, as Rice provides free education to many students and those from families earning less than $80,000 can attend Rice loan-free.
“He’ll definitely be remembered for one reason or another,” Joey Yang, who managed the student-run KTRU when it was sold, said of Leebron. “I think time will tell whether this whole growth path thing ends up being positive, or if, along the way, Rice loses a lot of what makes it unique.”
Leebron says one of the first things that struck him about Rice was its location in the heart of a thriving city. So he’s worked to connect Rice to the surrounding community.
Under Leebron’s tenure, Rice expanded the Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, where anyone in Houston can take courses in foreign languages, nonprofit management, liberal arts and more. The west end of campus also boasts the James Turrell Skyspace, which has become a major draw. And at the bioscience collaborative, Rice students and faculty work with their counterparts from other Houston universities, as well as with doctors and researchers from the Texas Medical Center.
“I want Houston to feel Rice is an important part of the city,” Leebron told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1obu0RN ). “We’re a comparatively small university in a big city that’s treated like a big university in a small city. Our goal is to make sure that relationship is reciprocal on all fronts.”
Leebron has encouraged students to get off campus more, giving them free light rail and museum passes.