TEXAS HISTORY MINUTE: The first president of Rice | Columns

To accomplish great things, one must be willing to perform great work over a great span of time. Rice University in Houston, which has come to exemplify such glory, has in its century of life become one of the most respected universities in the nation. The college started from nothing, except for the dream and generous donation of its founder. It was the job of its first president, Edgar Lovett, to make that dream a reality. With years of hard work and determination, Lovett built the institution and set the direction for greatness for its students and the college itself.

Edgar Odell Lovett was born in 1871 in a small town in central Ohio. As he grew up, he had a solid education and steadily moved up the academic ladder. He received a degree from Bethany College in West Virginia in 1890 at the age of 19. From there, he moved into graduate studies. To help pay for graduate school, he taught at West Kentucky College. He graduated with a doctorate from the University of Virginia in 1895.

Enchanted by mathematics, he went to Germany and studied at the University of Leipzig, earning a second doctorate in 1896. He returned to the US, and steadily moved from one institution to another as an instructor, including such prestigious institutions as the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins University. He married in 1897, and the couple eventually had four children. In 1898, he was hired as a math professor at Princeton University. Eventually, he became chairman of the Department of Mathematics and Astronomy.

The family suffered a devastating loss in 1906 with the death of an infant daughter. In the meantime, a nationwide search was underway for the inaugural president for the new Rice Institute. Woodrow Wilson, the future President of the United States and the president of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910, recommended his old friend Lovett to the search committee. Impressed by Lovett’s credentials and Wilson’s recommendation, the search committee extended an offer. Looking for a way for the family to start over, he accepted, and the family moved to Houston. Lovett assumed his new position in 1907.

Lovett faced a great challenge. He was president of a college that did not yet exist. He had to start from scratch. Businessman and benefactor William Marsh Rice had left a large fortune to start the college, but there was not yet even a location or a building for it. Lovett toured dozens of universities around the world to try to model the new institution.

He worked with architects on several building designs and plans for the future campus. He was determined that the new college would maintain the highest standards in education. With a location set, construction on the main administration building began in 1911. He set about hiring ten professors in preparation for the opening. The ornate administration building was completed in fall 1912. A total of 77 students enrolled, including women, all of whom attended tuition-free thanks to the generous terms of the Rice endowment. The school was officially dedicated on September 23, 1912.

The co-educational status was unusual for the time, but Lovett made sure that the men’s and women’s dorms would be across campus from each other. Athletics were a tradition Lovett established immediately while he chose the blue and gray team colors. Students quickly adopted the owl as the mascot. At the first graduation ceremonies in 1916, some 36 students graduated, including one with a masters degree.

Elaborate plans for new buildings were developed. The student newspaper was established in 1916. In 1918, the college awarded its first doctorate, for math. The college grew, but because of limitations of the Rice endowment and the intention to keep quality as high as possible, freshman enrollment was capped at 450 in 1924. Competition for slots into the college was high, and tuition was still paid by Rice’s bequest.

By 1941, Lovett considered retiring. However, World War II erupted, and he decided to stay and continue to guide Rice. The college became part of the Navy’s officer training program, a forerunner of ROTC. In 1945, he officially retired after leading the institution for nearly four decades.

He stayed in Houston after his retirement, keeping a careful interest in the university he helped build. Grateful for the work he had done, the university renamed the administration building after Lovett in 1947. He died in a Houston hospital in 1957.

Dr. Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He can be reached by email: drkenbridges@gmail.com.

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