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Stanford Report, June 9, 1999

'Velvet-glove forcefulness' Six years of provostial challenges and achievements


Gathered last week to bid farewell to Provost Condoleezza Rice, about 100 members of Stanford's African American community were listening to Brenda Sepolen give a rapturous rendition of two of Rice's favorite gospels, "I Need Thee Every Hour" and "His Eye Is on the Sparrow."

Rice, letting down her guarded public persona for a moment, was moved to tears.

"This kind of music has the capacity to make mountains tremble," said associate provost for foundation relations Michael Britt, who accompanied Sepolen on the piano. "Good gospel music makes ice melt ­ always remember that," he said, adding quickly of Rice, "Not that she's as cold as ice."

Rice is attending a lot of farewell parties these days. In some ways, she is having her own commencement, heading into a future that is both promising and uncertain.

"Ambiguity has never bothered me at all," the outgoing provost says during a recent interview at her modest office in Building 10. "I think that part of it is that I'm pretty religious, and that probably helps to make one less fearful and more optimistic about what's possible. I rather like living with ambiguity."

But no one seems worried about Rice's future, even if its course is uncharted. And for all the goodbyes, Rice isn't really going anywhere. Her campus condominium isn't for sale; nor are her cherished season tickets to Cardinal basketball games. She will leave her office to incoming provost John Hennessy, dean of the engineering school, for space at the Hoover Institution, where she will be a senior fellow. She will be doing some work for J.P. Morgan on international economic issues and is looking forward to a lot of traveling. And yes, she says, "I'm doing some work obviously for Governor Bush."

While it has been only six years since her appointment as provost raised many eyebrows­at 38, Rice had not even been a department chair, let alone a dean ­ it seems an eternity since anyone questioned her ability to do the job. That's distinguished, of course, from questioning her decisions.

"She has tremendous ability and intelligence, and the maturity of someone far beyond her age," the outgoing provost, Gerald Lieberman, said at the time of Rice's appointment.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Rice holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Denver, a master's degree from Notre Dame and a doctorate from the University of Denver's Graduate School of International Studies.

Coit Blacker, now deputy director of Stanford's Institute for International Studies, remembers meeting Rice soon after she left graduate school.

"She was like 12, well, 25," when she came in 1981 to be a fellow at the arms control and disarmament program to augment her background in Soviet affairs with a grounding in security issues, he recalls. "I think what struck people at the time was a combination of all the personal stuff ­ charm and very gracious personality . . . a kind of intellectual agility mixed with velvet-glove forcefulness," he said.

He quickly learned she was no shrinking violet. Blacker can still picture Rice and another program fellow arguing one day over the relative merits of Russian composers, perhaps Rachmaninoff versus Prokofiev. "They were really going at hammer and tongs. I thought, now this is real interesting," Blacker said.

"She's a steel magnolia," he continued. "She has a wonderful kind of Southern affect in the positive sense ­ a kind of graciousness. But mixed with this is a very steely inner core. She always knows what she wants and is extremely disciplined, both at personal and professional levels."

Rice stayed at Stanford, taking a tenure-track position in the Political Science Department, publishing, picking up a raft of teaching awards and becoming very active in the Stanford community as a whole. Her work on various search committees caught the attention of people outside her academic department, such as Gerhard Casper, whom she and fellow members of a presidential search committee visited in Chicago. She kept up with her lifelong love of playing the piano, occasionally giving concerts on campus, and became a megafan of Cardinal sports, traveling often to other cities to cheer for Stanford teams. (She celebrated her most recent birthday by indulging in a weekend spectating spree that included a women's basketball tournament, football game and a men's basketball game, not to mention the 49ers on television.)

In the early 1990s, Rice left Stanford for two years to serve as assistant to the president for national security affairs and senior director for Soviet affairs at the National Security Council under President George Bush. It was a great perch from which to witness the fall of communism, but Rice also relished her return to the academy, and two years later, in 1993, President Casper tapped her for the provost's job.

Six years ago Stanford was still recovering from the effects of the indirect cost dispute and was going through budget cuts. Rice had never managed a big budget, let alone one in excess of $1 billion, but she boned up on budgeteering and boldly began challenging some basic assumptions.

Balancing the budget, Blacker believes, was Rice's most important accomplishment as provost.

"There was a sort of conventional wisdom that said it couldn't be done . . . that [the deficit] was structural, that we just had to live with it," he recalls. "She said, 'No, we're going to balance the budget in two years.' It involved painful decisions but it worked, and communicated to funders that Stanford could balance its own books and had the effect of generating additional sources of income for the university. . . . It was courageous."

Wielding the budget knife made her some enemies, she acknowledges. But even Rice's detractors have credited her with, at least, candor and directness, which contrasts favorably with the subterfuge and back-stabbing that could attend such a difficult process.

"I'm very proud we're fiscally sound now," Rice said. "Even after we had already been through $40 million-plus of budget rejection under [former Provost] Jim Rosse, who had started this process . . . we still had $20 million to go and there wasn't much low-hanging fruit left," she recalled. But she moved the university to "revenue-constrained" budgeting ­ meaning you've got to live within your means ­ and went through with additional cuts. Such action "does mean that people get laid off, and that's not easy," she says.

But Rice sees bigger pictures. "I saw it as going through some of what American business had had to go through in the `80s, and we're seeing now in the United States a tremendous benefit from having gone through that. Because that's why the United States continues to experience growth rates as it does," while the rest of the world has lagged, she says. "As someone said, the world economy is flying on one engine."

In recent years, a healthier economy has made for much easier budgeting, which Rice fears could make some people complacent.

"Universities tend in times of relative flush to keep growing and add functions, and to stop thinking of the necessity for consolidation," she says. "And that's a little bit of a danger with this period of time. Because I've seen more requests in the last couple of years for a new position here, a new position there, many of which were cut out in earlier budget times. It seems almost as if there's a pendulum, and you have to be very tough to not have the pendulum swing."

Mariann Byerwalter, vice president for business affairs, said that as a result of changes in budgeting made under Rice, Stanford will face new budgetary challenges ­ such as making investments in technology and facing salary pressures in the Silicon Valley labor market ­ from a strong position. "We've had a great partnership in the day-to-day work of the university. She's a quick study and gets to the heart of an issue very quickly," says Byerwalter, who will miss hearing the pounding on her office door that signaled Rice's arrival. "She has a keen understanding of business issues," says Byerwalter, adding that Rice's membership on corporate boards of directors ­ she's currently on the boards of Chevron and Transamerica, for example ­ "lends an important perspective in the university environment."

Even as Rice helped Stanford become more financially secure, she and President Casper ushered in a set of new academic initiatives centered on improving the experience of undergraduates. Quick to point out that they have been a group effort, she called the initiatives "just stunning. I think the experience that an undergraduate has here in the first two years is just 180 degrees from where it was . . . much more in touch with faculty members, much more small group oriented, much more research oriented."

The changes have not come without controversy, especially over what should constitute undergraduates' core requirements in the humanities. The debate over multiculturalism in Stanford's curriculum was played out both on campus and on the conservative editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal.

"The argument that I have never bought on the conservative side is that the study of Western civilization ­ devoid of the study of all the other civilizations that helped to shape it ­ was the smart thing to do," Rice says. "Human history has been the story of clashes of civilizations and that is the interesting part about it. It is absolutely true that our political structures, our civic structures, come more from Western history than from almost anything else. But I think it is important to teach about clashes of civilizations and how they infected and affected each other and how certain civilizations have won out at certain times. I never understood the critique that you should teach only Western civilization.

"On the other hand, I've never much liked the representational argument or the identity argument for the teaching of more than Western civilization ­ the 'I need to know about my culture' argument. Culture is something that many times can be adopted. I'm probably as comfortable with Russian culture as I am with almost any other culture. I think that you need to be able to cross cultural lines. I think that it is great that black history is being brought more into American history because my view is that Africans and Europeans landed here together and built this country together, and the separation of African culture and African history from American culture and American history is just ahistorical. If you're going to read and understand Frederick Douglass, then you'd better understand Thomas Jefferson, because that is who he was referencing."

Stanford's new Introduction to the Humanities core, by introducing students to humanistic inquiry through literature, the arts, history and philosophy, allows students to see "how the methods of those different disciplines address important questions of human cultural identity and development that students will be able to mix and match for themselves," she said. At the same time, Rice allowed herself to say "something that probably wouldn't be very popular. I think that our students' basic knowledge of history ­ names, facts, places, what came first ­ is abysmal. Someplace ­ it's got to be either in high school or college ­ someone has to teach basic history. I've had too many students not be able to get Bismarck in the right century."

Rice also has been in the hot seat over the issue of faculty diversity, especially the pace at which women have joined the Stanford faculty. It is an area where she expresses some disappointment.

"I clearly would have liked to have been able to do more about the diversification of the faculty, but it's a slow process and I think we've tried very hard and I think we've made a lot of progress. But I think it's just a slow, tough slog, and you just to have keep working at it, especially if you're going to continue to maintain both your focus on excellence and standards, which you have to do and you're going to diversify ­ and I think those two goals have to work hand in hand," she says.

Asked how, as a woman and as an African American, she felt about being criticized on the subject, she says, "It comes with the territory."

She says she can understand the emotionalism that sometimes enters the debate, "but in my job it is more helpful to try and figure out what the problem is. I am somebody who is very data-driven and analytic. When I see a problem, my first question is, why do we have that problem ­ it's not to accuse others of trying to continue the problem."

Looking at the problem analytically, she says, "you see 1 to 2 percent turnover rates in the tenured faculty. So you simply know that if you're not enlarging the size of the faculty, percentages are going to move slowly. That's an arithmetic fact. People may not like that arithmetic fact, but it is an arithmetic fact."

The math is compounded by the decentralized nature of university hiring, she adds. "I have not hired ever in my life a single faculty member as provost," she says. "Departments hire faculty. There is no such thing as a university hiring decision."

Some faculty believe there has been gender discrimination against women, but Rice disagrees. "I really don't believe anybody has discriminated, wanted to discriminate, has been biased, wanted to be biased. I just don't believe that has caused the difficulty."

Nonetheless, Rice says she's interested in research on "how subconscious biases and preferences may come into decision making ­ and heaven knows we all have them ­ so this is a very human system and I would never say that under no circumstances has anybody ever subconsciously looked at a case differently . . . I'm respectful of those who are doing research on this question."

When Rice presented her annual report to the Faculty Senate this year on the progress in hiring women faculty, observers said the atmosphere was less tense than last year.

"I'm deeply appreciative of her willingness to examine data, and that is very important," says Laura Carstensen, a professor of psychology and member of the women's faculty caucus. "We see eye to eye on that. We might interpret the data differently."

Carstensen worries about the slow pace of change that the data suggest. "If, 50 years from now, Stanford as a university has predominantly white males teaching classes and the student body is incredibly ethnically and by gender diverse, then I think we're going to be much more uneasy about that 50 years from now," she says.

Housing has been another flashpoint during Rice's tenure. A shortage of housing for graduate students led some of them to demonstrate in the Main Quad last year, while this year some faculty leaseholders have opposed university plans to build in-fill housing on campus lands.

The university provided some immediate relief for graduate student housing by offering leased rentals below market rate and there are concrete plans for additional on-campus construction. But faculty housing plans are still in the works, and construction of any kind is receiving greater scrutiny and skepticism by local jurisdictions.

Housing is another issue that seems to frustrate Rice, even if she describes frustrations as coolly and clearly as she does her accomplishments.

"I see this incredible ability to compartmentalize about Stanford," she says. "On the one hand, people tremendously enjoy our athletic events, our cultural events, our land up on the Dish, take benefit of our unbelievable health care system, and enjoy the benefits of the Silicon Valley ­ for which we bear considerable responsibility ­ and on the other hand don't believe Stanford should use its land to Stanford's purposes. And I just don't understand it.

"The notion that Stanford is some sort of irresponsible developer that will overrun the community if not checked is just peculiar to me. If you look at the fact that we've developed about one-third of this land and developed it so beautifully, if you just drive along Foothill Expressway or along Junipero Serra there is a lot of open space out there and it's because Stanford has been very responsible.

"And I think Stanford can be counted on to continue to be responsible, but the Stanford trust was not given as an open space trust, it was given as a university trust and the university has needs. And if it's going to continue to be a place that people can look to and enjoy the benefits of in that other compartment, then its needs are going to have to be met in terms of the use of its land.

"I think we are good neighbors with the community. No one wants to cram things down the community's throat. But I think you would like the community to recognize too what a tremendous place this is, and that asking it to stand still would make no sense to any of us. It would be as shortsighted in the interests of Palo Alto and Santa Clara County as it would be for Stanford."

But for now at least, Rice will watch such issues play themselves out from the sidelines. Byerwalter, for one, would rather be watching a game with Rice than playing against her. "She wants to play a lot of tennis this summer. I'm nervous," Byerwalter says, recalling that an invitation from Rice to play tennis one day turned into participation in a full-day tennis camp.

Rice has decided against pursuing leadership opportunities in higher education, even though they beckoned. She wants to retool. "I don't want to come back [to Stanford] and do research and teaching on exactly what I was doing research and teaching on six years ago," she says. Globalization has produced winners and losers; what, she asks, is going to happen to the losers?

Of course, leadership opportunities may present themselves elsewhere. She's a top foreign policy adviser for Texas Governor George W. Bush's nascent 2000 presidential campaign. And she's only 44 years old.

"I would expect that Condi's last tour in government will not be her only tour in government," Blacker says. "At some point in time, I expect she's going to be a person of consequence in the American foreign policy establishment. The handwriting's on the wall."