Rice University

By: John B. Boles

Type: General Entry

Updated: May 3, 2019

Rice University, a private, independent, coeducational university in Houston, opened in 1912 as the William Marsh Rice Institute. It was chartered in 1891 by former Houston merchant William Marsh Rice with a $200,000 interest-bearing note payable to the Rice Institute upon his death. Subsequently Rice made other gifts to the institute, all payable after his death. However, when he died in 1900 in New York City, his probated will directed that his fortune should go to his lawyer. After an extensive investigation and sensational trial it was determined that Rice's butler, in league with the lawyer, had chloroformed Rice to death in order to collect upon a forged will. When the estate was settled in 1904, approximately $3 million was given to the institute as a separate capital fund added to the original endowment, which had grown to almost $3.3 million. At the time the university opened in 1912, the endowment stood at approximately $9 million, a sum that enabled all students to attend the university without paying tuition-a privilege that did not end until 1965. The original charter very generally prescribed an institution "dedicated to the advancement of literature, science, and art." The board of trustees in Houston determined that it would be a university and in 1907 appointed mathematician and astronomer Edgar Odell Lovett of Princeton University as president with directions to plan the new institution. After worldwide traveling, discussion, and faculty recruitment, Lovett oversaw the opening in 1912, marked by an elaborate international convocation of scholars. From the beginning Lovett intended Rice to be a university "of the highest grade," and despite several decades of financial stringency following the early 1920s, the institution has striven to maintain that vision. The entering class of seventy-seven students had an international faculty of ten (Julian Huxley, for example, was the first professor of biology, and Harold Wilson from the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge was the professor of physics) and two major academic buildings (with an elaborate plan for additional buildings) by the renowned Boston architectural firm of Cram, Goodhue, and Ferguson. The Thresher, an independent student newspaper, began in 1916, and that same year the Honor Code, a cherished Rice tradition, was adopted by the student body. By 1924 the entering freshman class was limited to about 450, and the undergraduate enrollment has been carefully controlled ever since. In 1987 it was approximately 2,600. The graduate enrollment has grown gradually to about 1,300.

Under Lovett's direction Rice Institute first developed major strength in the sciences and engineering, though distinguished instruction was offered from the beginning in the humanities and architecture. The curriculum broadened, and the faculty increased greatly in size after World War II under the administration (1946–60) of physicist William V. Houston, as the name change in 1960 to Rice University acknowledged. A number of new buildings were constructed in two periods of growth, the late 1940s and the late 1950s. Graduate work, present from the beginning, was enlarged. In 1987 advanced degrees were offered in more than thirty fields. Moral, social, and economic imperatives drove the university successfully to seek legal authority in 1964 to break the founder's charter in two regards: permission to admit students without regard to race and to charge a modest tuition. Further expansion, especially in the humanities and social sciences, came in the 1960s and 1970s during the administrations of chemists Kenneth S. Pitzer (1961–68) and Norman Hackerman (1970–85). In 1961 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration located the Manned Space Flight Center (now the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center) on land made available by Rice, and in 1962 the university established the nation's first department of space science. The Journal of Southern History has been published at Rice since 1959; Studies in English Literature was founded at Rice in 1961; and the Papers of Jefferson Davis project has been headquartered at Rice since 1963. In July 1985 Rice University Studies (formerly Rice Institute Pamphlet, begun in 1915) became Rice University Press. The Shepherd School of Music and the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Administration were added in 1973 and 1976 respectively.

In July 1985 theologian George E. Rupp of Harvard Divinity School became Rice's fifth president. As he took over the university, the faculty numbered approximately 420, with slightly fewer than 4,000 students. The campus has forty architecturally consistent buildings grouped in quadrangles under graceful live oak trees on a campus of 300 acres in the heart of Houston. The endowment in 1987 stood at more than $750 million, the largest of any private university in the South. The small undergraduate student body is among the nation's most select, with average SAT scores of over 1,300 and one of the highest percentages of National Merit Scholarship winners. The student body, formerly mostly from Texas, now is predominantly non-Texan, and the relatively low tuition makes possible an economically diverse student population; yet what most shapes the character of Rice is the unusual academic talent of its students. Almost paradoxically, Rice, with its 73,000-seat stadium, continued as a charter member of the Southwest Conference until this athletic union ended. No fraternities or sororities are allowed; all undergraduates are assigned to one of eight residential colleges (the system was established in 1957) around whose recreational, cultural, educational, and governmental activities student life revolves. In 1993 Malcolm Gillis, an economist and dean from Duke University, became the sixth president.

Rice University maintains a variety of research facilities and laboratories. The Fondren Library contains more than 1.3 million volumes and 1.6 million microforms and subscribes to approximately 11,000 serial titles. It is a depository for United States government documents and patents, and is a university affiliate for census data. Rare books, manuscripts, and the university archives are housed in the library's Woodson Research Center. The library is particularly strong in Texas materials, Confederate imprints, and eighteenth-century English drama, and holds the papers and library of Sir Julian Huxley. Two major scientific collections are the Anderson Collection on the History of Aeronautics and the Johnson Space Center History Archives. The university's central computing facility is the Institute for Computer Services and Applications. There are a number of other computing facilities located elsewhere across the campus. Rice is also associated with the Houston Area Research Center, a consortium supported by Rice, the University of Texas, Texas A&M University, and the University of Houston. A number of interdisciplinary research institutes and centers are located on the Rice campus, including the Rice Quantum Institute, the Rice Engineering Design and Development Institute, and the Computer and Information Technology Institute. The Rice Center for Community Design and Research, housed off campus, is involved with urban planning. The Office of Continuing Studies offers a wide variety of noncredit enrichment and technical short courses to thousands of Houstonians annually. In 1990 Rice hosted the annual G-7 economic conference of the United States, Canada, Japan, and Western European countries. Rice's goal has been to combine the teaching emphasis of a liberal arts college with the scholarship of a research university. In 1991 Rice was ranked first among the nation's top 100 schools as a "best buy" in education. Rice University had 462 faculty members and 4,268 students for the 1992–93 regular term and 723 in the 1992 summer session.

Fredericka Meiners, A History of Rice University: The Institute Years, 1907–1963 (Houston: Rice University Studies, 1982). James C. Morehead, Jr., A Walking Tour of Rice University (Houston: Rice University Studies, 1984). Andrew Forest Muir, William Marsh Rice and His Institute: A Biographical Study, ed. Sylvia Stallings Morris (Rice University Studies 58.2 [Spring 1972]).

Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • Great Depression
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

John B. Boles, “Rice University,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 25, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/rice-university.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 3, 2019

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