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Rice on Students, Tough Decisions and Her Oil Tanker

May/June 1999

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Rice on Students, Tough Decisions and Her Oil Tanker

Photo: Linda Cicero

She taught at Stanford, worked as a national security aide in the Bush administration, then returned to Stanford and served as provost. Now Condoleezza Rice wants to try the private sector. She'll step down from the University's No. 2 position in June. During her six years on the job, Rice has tamed Stanford's budget, wrestled with housing and tenure problems, and worked to increase student-faculty interaction. A member of several corporate boards (including Chevron, which named an oil tanker for her), Rice plans to sign on with an investment bank. She's also an adviser to presidential candidate George W. Bush. Rice talked recently with Stanford editor Bob Cohn. Excerpts:

Has Stanford changed in the last six years?

The essential Stanford has not changed very much. This is a place where research and teaching come together in very important ways. There is a little bit of a frontier mentality that makes us different from our counterparts on the East Coast. Everything from the fact that we sit in the Silicon Valley to the fact that we play big-time college athletics sets us apart. But some of the emphases have changed. We've emphasized the links between research and teaching. We've worked hard to emphasize the academic side of what we do. The University went through some very difficult times in the late '80s and early '90s, but in large part we've recovered after the earthquake. We're on better footing than we were seven years ago.

Do you see a difference between students today and students of the early 1980s, when you started teaching?

Students today are much more concerned about what career they're going to have and are probably less willing to take than when I was in college. It's a sign of the times, a sign of pressures from society, pressures from parents, pressures from peers to make all of it pay off.

You and President Casper have sought to reform the first two years of the undergraduate experience. What's the overall goal?

A big thread is getting faculty into serious intellectual engagement with freshmen and sophomores. We're learning that our students are ready for those experiences a lot earlier than one would have thought. Also, we're emphasizing undergraduate research more. Even if a student is never going to do a dissertation, or never going to do a major research project, just probing something really in-depth is a very important pedagogical tool.

When you became provost in 1993, Stanford was reeling from a sort-of triple whammy—federal reimbursement rates for research were cut back after the indirect-cost controversy, massive earthquake repair bills were piling up and there was a recession in the early '90s. What was the hardest part about being the chief budget officer during that period?

Constantly having to say no. In the first couple of years, there was very little to which I could say yes. Also, we had to restructure the administrative units of a lot of departments. That was hard, laying off people. That's not fun.

What did you learn from these experiences? 

That I'm able to make tough decisions. I think that you have to have a certain decisiveness about things. People would rather have an answer of "no" than have no answer.

Cutting the budget must have forced you to focus hard on priorities.

That's right. Clearly, undergraduate education was a priority, the physical restructuring of the campus, the growth of technology, the focus on teaching. Then there was the selective rebuilding of academic departments going through great demographic shifts, where you had to make some senior appointments.

Which departments?

Well, the humanities in general. But there were also major demographic issues in political science, in psychology. The Law School had large gaps in some areas, like in law and economics. Making selective decisions to support these departments was very important. I'll give you one very good example. We were always one of the strongest places on China. And then comes a few retirements, and a couple of junior faculty members leave -- and suddenly we were very weak on China. So we had to make some strategic key appointments there, and we did.

From 1990 to 1995, your office received an average of two to three faculty grievances a year. In the 1997-98 academic year, that number grew to 10. Why?

A lot of them have to do with tenure appointments. I'm not sure if the message about tenure is really getting stated in the right way for junior faculty. Maybe the expectations are unrealistic about the chances, and then people take it as a reflection, somehow, on them that they didn't get tenure. In fact, the historic rate is about 50 percent, far lower in some disciplines. It's a very tough evaluation; it ought to be a tough evaluation. I'm sure that some mistakes are made. But the University's making a very critical decision at that point, and so it's not surprising that it's a very, very high bar.

Are grievances increasing because department chairs are granting tenure in marginal cases—making the deans and the provost overrule decisions and be the bad guys?

I have seen cases where chairs have simply decided to pass off a difficult decision. I've seen that.

In a farewell editorial, the Stanford Daily wrote that you're a "campus celebrity . . . an administrator with panache [who seems] less like a ruler of a faraway land and more like a human being." With press like that, how can you possibly leave? 

I have to. When I decided that, at least at this stage in my life, I didn't want to go on in higher ed, the most important thing became to get back to what I do, which is international politics. I haven't been to Russia in 2 1/2 years. For me, going to Russia is like breathing.

What advice do you have for your successor?

Focus on what you really love about this place. That's what keeps you going when things are difficult. Universities like this are rare assets to the country and to the world, and if you remember that it's your job to protect that and to create an environment in which all of that can flourish, then having to deal with the annoyance of the day seems less important. Also, the job can be really fun if you get engaged with the substance of what we do, if you go hear Dick Zare's story about why he thinks there might have been life on Mars, or if you go listen to the string quartets' audition for the music department. On the days when you feel like you could be running Goodyear Tire, which is sometimes the way it is here, with the budget and facilities, the land use issues, things that have nothing to do with the academic enterprise -- at those times you have to go back to what brought you into the academy as a 25-year-old assistant professor.

You're a major Stanford sports fan. What do you say to those who believe that big-time sports have no place at a school like Stanford?

I believe that sports has a place. I myself was an athlete, and I believe I may have learned more from my failed figure-skating career than I did from anything else. Athletics gives you a kind of toughness and discipline that nothing else really does. The other thing I would say is that the kids we get in our athletics program ought to have a Stanford education. They shouldn't have to make a compromise between their athletic talent and their academic talent. It would be unfair if they had to go to places that only wanted them to play sports.

You've joked about being NFL commissioner. Is that your dream job?

Absolutely. I'm actually serious. I'd love to be NFL commissioner.

Speaking of jobs, it now appears that Gov. Bush will run for president. Will you be a full-time adviser to him during the campaign?

Oh, I don't think full-time. I think if he runs I'll certainly be involved. But I'm really going to try to go to the private sector, at least for a good bit of my time, and do what I can for him on the side.

What will you do in the private sector?

I'm planning to work for one of the investment banks, worrying about problems of private financial capital and economic growth in other countries.

Do you imagine it might be difficult reconciling the market orientation of an investment bank with your government experience, where you perhaps could afford to worry about things like income distribution?

I'm very much a market type. I believe private capital has to do what private capital has to do. I don't think you can change those incentives. The changes are going to have to come on the other side -- on the part of government, to understand those incentives better, to figure out how to make better use of private capital.

Will you work again in Washington someday?

Oh, maybe. Washington was great fun, 1989 to 1991 was really a super time. I'll cross that bridge when I get to it, but I'm not just dying to go.

What's it like having a tanker named for you?

When people say, "Where's your tanker?" I say, "When your name is on a tanker, no news is good news."

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