Revealing the Builder and What He Built
Review by Christopher Dow
As Rice University’s first and longest-serving president, Edgar Odell Lovett has iconic status. His words are quoted with regularity, his name adorns buildings and giving societies, and the campus itself epitomizes the way he thought a great university should look and perform.
Despite our familiarity with him, Lovett often remains an enigma. While this may be due, in part, to that iconic status, it also is because Lovett’s story is practically synonymous with the story of Rice. He assumed the reins of the fledgling institution when he was just twenty-six, and he died only eleven years after retiring in 1946. To many who look back on Rice’s history, Lovett wasn’t so much a man as an embodiment of the university that flowered from his ideas and aspirations.
In University Builder: Edgar Odell Lovett and the Founding of the Rice Institute (Louisiana State University Press, 2007), John B. Boles, the William Pettus Hobby Professor of History and Rice’s unofficial historian, does a wonderful job of putting both the man and the institution in perspective. Boles manages to put flesh on the icon by revealing Lovett’s more personal side as well as illuminating the way he transformed his educational philosophy into a tangible reality. Lovett, Boles writes, “had two great love affairs: his family and this university. He knew he couldn’t do everything he was interested in, so he focused on those two with his whole heart.”
A richly detailed account, University Builder shows the many problems Lovett faced in starting a major university from scratch. “More than anyone else,” Boles writes, “Edgar Odell Lovett experienced, over almost four decades, how difficult it was to achieve noble aspirations when one had to deal with real people and real needs in an era bookended by two World Wars and the Great Depression in between.”
In gathering an outstanding international faculty, instilling high academic criteria and dealing practically with budgetary constraints, Lovett established an exceptional institution of higher education for his own time and laid solid foundations for its future intellectual growth and greatness.
Reprinted from Rice Sallyport, Spring 2008.