I’m embarrassed to say that for almost two decades I consistently underestimated Rice’s second president, William Vermillion Houston. I know now why I did this–I was young enough to be caught up in all the excitement and challenges of the early years of the Institute and then the launching of the modern Rice in the 1960s. But over time I have come to respect and admire Houston deeply. A quiet, reserved, and formal man, he had a thorough understanding of and dedication to the academic mission of the university. When he arrived at Rice he immediately set about redistributing authority, which had resided more or less in the person of Edgar Odell Lovett for almost forty years, to include the faculty in significant ways. He remained an active scholar (more about this later) and coupled his intellectual seriousness with an almost complete lack of pretension. This straightforwardness can be immediately seen in his prose style, which was characterized by clarity, concision, and humility.
This is the speech he gave when he was presented the Alumni Gold Medal at Homecoming in 1967. Note how little he talks of himself and how much credit he gives others:
Bonus: That chair you can see just a piece of in the picture of Houston at top? It’s in the Woodson now. I sat on it just to see how it felt.
Not that great, actually.
Ten extra credit point to whoever knows whose portrait is hanging behind it.