Dec. 17, 2003, 10:24PM
Rice University trustees, tapping Ivy League experience once again, today selected Columbia University Law School Dean David Leebron as the private Houston school's next president.
Leebron, 48, will succeed Malcolm Gillis, who announced a year ago that he'll step down June 30 after 11 years as president. Leebron will then become Rice's seventh president.
"Everyone we talked to about David spoke with the greatest admiration: that he is 'highly regarded by faculty,' 'combines being a great strategist with great executional skill' and is 'a powerful intellect combined with great humanity,' " said Rice Trustee Chairman E. William Barnett. "He has a quiet strength that just keeps impressing you."
Leebron's Ivy League administrative roots mirror those of former Rice presidents Edgar Odell Lovett and George Rupp, who came from Princeton and Harvard, respectively. In addition, Gilli taught at Harvard, and Rupp left Rice in 1993 to become president of Columbia.
The selection is somewhat unusual because Rice doesn't have a law school. Law school deans typically become presidents of their own universities or those that have law schools, where they thus have a natural faculty appointment. (Leebron's tenured professorship at Rice will be in political science.)
Rice search committee chairman Jim Crownowner, acknowledging Rice's historic emphasis on the sciences and liberal arts, said the committee made a conscious choice to go beyond traditional candidates and "be creative." He said they also looked at heads of think tanks.
"We talked to a lot of successful presidents who had been law school deans, like Stanford's Gerhard Caspar and Harvard's Derek Bok, and they all said that was irrelevant, that they spent no time as president on the law school," said Crownowner. "The thing we liked about David's legal background is that he's a top scholar and he has a real-world grounding."
Leebron has been a faculty member at Columbia since 1989 and dean of its law school school since 1996. As dean, he oversees 1,300 students, 70 full-time faculty, more than 200 staff members, an $80 million budget and construction projects of $120 million.
At Rice, Leebron will oversee 4,800 students (2,850 undergraduate and 1,950 graduate), 533 full-time faculty, more than 1,500 staff members and a budget of $350 million.
Leebron, who has never taught undergraduate students, said that he has been contacted by other schools with presidential vacancies, but that it took Rice's "marriage of undergraduate excellence and great research" to truly interest him.
"Being a provincial Northeastern, I didn't know much about Rice when I was first contacted for the presidency," said Leebron. "But what I found out that excited me is that it is an institution of great breadth and depth and committed to making a serious contribution to the world."
He downplayed what some described as his less than natural fit, noting that law schools today are very interdisciplinarian, interacting with historians, economists, political scientists and sociologists.
Crownover and Leebron said Leebron's biggest challenge hasn't been determined yet, but observers said it will be to elevate Rice's image from a top-flight regional schoolto an elite national one. That has been Rice's goal for some time.
Leebron's selection was praised by Nobel Laureate Robert Curl, who said "you will not meet anyone smarter;" faculty council speaker Ed Akin, who said professors are very happy with the choice because the process was so good; and Rupp, now head of the International Rescue Committee but previously Leebron's boss at Columbia, who said he'll bring "a thoughtful, intellectual style" to the Rice presidency.
As a Columbia law professor, Leebron taught and published in corporate finance, international economic law, human rights, privacy and torts. He was in private practice for two years in New York.
His wife, Y. Ping Sun, was born in Shanghai and raised by her grandparents during China's Cultural Revolution. Her first trip outside China was to attend Princeton University.
Leebron's selection follows a seven month search in which Crownover's committee considered 250 candidates before recommending the Columbia administrator to the Rice board of trustees.
Leebron will be formally introduced to Rice faculty and staff Friday.