Rice: The Next Century

Report of the Strategic Planning Committee

The Need to Change


Our successes notwithstanding, Rice University faces serious challenges in the years ahead that will require a substantial, sustained commitment to planning for our future. Some of these challenges arise out of the inherent tensions within the founding vision of the University; others arise out of a rapidly changing national and international context.

I. The Internal Rationale for Planning:

Lovett's ideal was that Rice be a small undergraduate institution dedicated to a broad-based education of the highest order, that is, a liberal education in letters, sciences, and the arts that would serve our students well as leaders in a free society, and at the same time, that it be a world-class research university, dedicated to intellectual inquiry and committed to the discovery of in-depth knowledge at the leading edge of specialized fields. At its best, Rice combines both.

Today, Rice is truly a unique university, unlike any other. We stand virtually alone as the only research university of such small size, high stature and balance across disciplines. While others, such as the technical institutes have achieved distinction by limiting their activities to specific fields of endeavor, we are unique in offering a full range of programs in the sciences, engineering, humanities, social sciences, and the three professional schools of architecture, business and music. When outsiders first learn about Rice they are frequently astonished that we can be so small and yet do so much with such distinction.

From its inception, Rice has used its small size to advantage. The close personal interaction between faculty, students and administrators, the many cross-disciplinary programs of research and instruction, and the ability to integrate research and teaching are all more readily accomplished in a small collegial setting than in a large multiversity. A highly selective student body and a substantially greater resource base per student are also a direct consequence of this simple strategy. Although less obvious, the institution also benefits from an administrative structure that is much leaner and perhaps more efficient than in comparable universities; decisions can be made more expeditiously and with on-going consultation with the Board and more involvement of the faculty than is possible in a larger university. Adapting to change is generally easier in a small institution than in a large one as well.

The strategies that have sustained Rice's advancement through most of the twentieth century are these: emphasize quality; remain small; offer a broad menu of instruction and research; and provide an affordable education to the brightest students regardless of their ability to pay. Although this combination of strategies has served us well in the past and accounts for much of our current level of distinction, they will not by themselves suffice to carry us where we want to go. They require reexamination. We have always understood that Rice, as a small institution can never be all things to all people. We must reaffirm the principle that we choose to not engage in some areas so that we can excel in those that we do choose to pursue.

While these strategies remain generally valid, we have not always implemented them well. Close scrutiny of our many programs of instruction and research reveals a mixed record. While some have achieved a very high level of distinction, others have not. This is especially evident at the graduate level. The recent ranking of graduate programs by the National Research Council showed that, while Rice has substantially improved over the decade since the last review was conducted, we still lag well behind our competition in most areas. What is even more striking is that most of our individual graduate programs do not rank as well as our undergraduate programs nor as well as the overall ranking of the institution as a whole. Although size correlates with external perceptions and may account for some of the results, it is clear that, like almost all other top-caliber universities, we have not succeeded in uniformly building strong graduate programs across a wide range of disciplines. To further enhance quality, we will need to make difficult decisions concerning the nature and range of our programs and the allocation of our limited resources. This report provides guidance for those decisions.

II. The External Rationale for Planning:

Public Support of Higher Education

Once the privilege of a small number of students, college has long been the natural next step after high school. Today, two-thirds of high school graduates enroll in colleges and universities. The growth of higher education since World War II has greatly expanded the number as well as the variety of institutions of higher education. The most striking development has been the burgeoning of public systems of higher education in every state. Where research activity was once concentrated in a few well-established European and American universities, it now extends to a multitude of educational institutions.[2]

The forces behind this development, include above all the infusion of federal funds to support research, especially in the sciences and engineering. Prior to W.W.II, the government spent a total of $70 million annually for research and development, of which little went to universities. Today, the total has increased a thousand fold - to $70 billion, with about $14 billion for universities, an increase in federal support that has far outpaced inflation and the growth in Gross Domestic Product.

The high level of federal funding for research and doctoral programs has not been cost-free for research universities. Quite the contrary. The rapidly growing post-war educational system needed more and more Ph.D.'s and large numbers of doctoral candidates to serve as indispensable junior members of funded research teams. Federally-funded research led inevitably to major outlays by the recipients - investments in expensive new facilities and equipment, in additional faculty researchers, in support personnel and compliance, and in increased student aid and library holdings, among other cost drivers.

At the same time, other forces contributed to the marked escalation in the cost of operating universities-rising costs of complying with federal laws and mandates, faculty expansion and improved salaries, significant capital expenditures, and increased services to students. These rising costs coincided with diminishing rates of growth of Federal financial aid. In the face of rising costs and weakened Federal aid support, most institutions of higher education resorted to tuition increases well in excess of the normal inflation levels. For a time, this practice could be tolerated, in part because enrollments continued to rise, in part because institutions offered discounts in the form of financial aid to those who could not afford to pay the full cost.

Higher education has now entered a new phase. The post-war expansion has come to an end. Public institutions have been hit by cut-backs in state budgets and are growing more slowly. The federal government is unlikely to continue supporting university research at former levels. Some educational and research authorities are predicting a decline in real-dollar support for university-based research.[3] The competition for increasingly scarce resources has become more aggressive, especially on the part of tax-supported public institutions. Many universities, including outstanding ones, have introduced cost-cutting and down-sizing measures similar to those practiced by many corporations. In such an environment, Rice University will have to manage its resources with even greater care than before.

Advances in Technology

The rapid spread of information technology has perhaps more profound implications for higher education than for society as a whole. While the ultimate impact on the educational process is still unknown, it will be far-reaching. Some argue that information technology will radically transform, or perhaps marginalize, the traditional university. Those who hold this view contend that universal access and interactive networking will no longer require teacher and student to be in the same place, or in direct communication. They suggest that faculty, administration, and even facilities can be out-sourced through a free market for educational services - in short, that the traditional university will be replaced by a "virtual campus."

No doubt, in the pursuit of innovation or cost-saving, some institutions will aggressively pursue the model of the electronic university-without-walls, seeking to provide greater access to information and programmed learning while cutting back on face-to-face interactions among students and teachers. At Rice, we have welcomed the new technologies for the many possibilities they present, and we will be challenged to find new financial resources to help us acquire them. Yet, as we are guided by our basic mission and vision of Rice as an educational environment where students are challenged to defend their ideas directly by experienced scholars and fellow students - an environment where they benefit from the constant interchange of ideas guided by disciplined perspective and critical inquiry. It is not just information that we seek or wish to communicate to students. Rather, we seek to foster the interchange of ideas, a culture that prizes asking questions, posing problems and seeking their solutions. This is a time-consuming process that requires close interactions between faculty and students. Keeping true to our basic mission, we must aggressively seek the selective deployment of technology in areas where it can enrich and even change the nature of education. This will require substantial investment and careful planning to ensure that Rice is a leader in innovative uses of information technology in instruction, research and the operation of the university.

Diversity and Internationalization

In the last few decades, the face and character of American society has been profoundly altered by demographic, cultural, and economic shifts. Because we expect such changes to continue, we must plan for them to be reflected in our curriculum and in our residential life so that through their studies and their interaction with teachers and students of different beliefs, cultures, and backgrounds, Rice students will be prepared to perform successfully in the global communities of business, science, government, education, and the arts.

The Changing Nature of Work

Until fairly recently, a college education provided the intellectual foundation for a successful lifelong career. In the first decades after the Second World War, graduates could reasonably expect that what they had learned in college would serve as a solid basis for a productive career of thirty or forty years. Today, the rate of change in our society - in technology, in communications, in methods of business, manufacturing, research, and teaching - is so rapid that the skill set for success in any given field may have a shelf-life of only a few years. Today's graduate needs continually to "retool," if only to remain current in the labor market. In response to this accelerating rate of change, we as educators must not only teach our students those skills necessary for a productive, rewarding life today, but also provide them with the intellectual underpinnings and critical faculties necessary to succeed in our ever more rapidly changing world.

To meet the challenges arising from the world outside of the university, and to satisfy the goals depicted above, careful planning will be crucial if we are to maintain the proper balance between a liberal education of the highest quality and consistently superior research and graduate training programs. Achieving this balance will be essential to maintain and enhance Rice's standing in an increasingly competitive world of constrained resources in higher education.


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This document is maintained by the Office of the Provost at Rice University. Last updated: 06 May 1997.
Copyright 1996-97 Rice University