From an early age, Condoleezza Rice knew she'd be a concert pianist. "I could read music before I could read," she says. With grand plans in mind, she attended the school of the Aspen Music Festival after her sophomore year at the University of Denver. "That's when I saw real prodigies," Rice says. "And I realized I was going to end up playing the piano at Nordstrom or teaching 13-year-olds to murder Beethoven."
So Rice gave up on a musical career. But what would she do? A course taught by Czech political scientist Joseph Korbel, father of future secretary of state Madeleine Albright, changed her life. She went on to earn a PhD in international studies from the University of Denver. "It never occurred to me that a black woman from Alabama shouldn't want to know everything about the Soviet Union," Rice says. "I had found my passion."
This summer, after six years as Stanford's provost, Rice will return to her passion. She announced December 8 that she'll step down from the University's No. 2 post after graduation. She plans to work in the private sector on international economic and political reform, she says, but vows to return to Stanford someday to teach and do research. "You have to make judgments about how long you can afford to be out of your field before you're a dinosaur in it," Rice says.
A member of the faculty since 1981, Rice served as a senior official at the National Security Council for two years during the Bush administration, helping to shape policy on German reunification and the breakup of the Soviet Union. As a professor of political science, she won two of the University's highest teaching honors -- the 1984 Walter J. Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching and the 1993 Dean's Award for Distinguished Teaching.
Rice, 44, brought her diplomatic skills and no-nonsense style to the job of provost, the University's top budget and academic officer. Two episodes preceding her tenure -- the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the long-running dispute over federal funds for Stanford research -- had left the University in financial disrepair, making fiscal discipline an imperative in her first few years. She's proud to have helped restore "some semblance of financial equilibrium" to the University's $1.5 billion budget, she says.
"The hardest thing was to constantly tell people, 'No, we can't afford that,'" Rice says. It may have been difficult, but she did it well. "Negotiating with Condi over budget is no picnic," recalls economics professor John B. Shoven, who worked with her for five years as dean of Humanities and Sciences. "She does her homework, so you had better know what you are talking about or you are likely to come away empty-handed."
With the budget crisis resolved, Rice worked with President Gerhard Casper to find funds for their top academic initiatives, such as Stanford Introductory Studies (yielding a bumper crop of freshman and sophomore seminars) and new funding for graduate fellowships. She also oversaw major building projects, including the Science and Engineering Quad.
A few issues have been difficult to resolve. She's had a hard time increasing the percentage of women faculty at Stanford. "It wasn't for lack of trying," she says. "Diversifying a faculty at an elite university like this is just really hard." And while she's focused in recent months on graduate student and faculty housing woes, she concedes, "I pass on to my successor the housing problem."
The search for that successor begins when Casper convenes a committee in January. He calls Rice "the best collaborator I have ever had." Noting their different backgrounds -- "a black woman from segregated Birmingham, Ala., and a white man from war-torn Hamburg, Germany" -- he says, "Condi and I have become close friends and substantively disagree primarily about the importance of football." (Rice is a longtime season ticket holder.)
With her leadership experience and considerable poise, Rice has been courted by other top universities seeking presidents. She also is mentioned as a future national security adviser or secretary of state. For now, though, she's mum on specific plans. Only one thing's for sure: she'll still play the piano -- for fun.