Arts & Science is marking the passing of Duncan Rice, whose vision for a world-class Arts & Science faculty helped transform NYU to the elite university it is today.
Rice arrived as Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science in 1985. As he recalled for In Our Own Voice: An Oral History of New York University’s Dramatic Transformation 1970-2010, “[President John Brademas understood] that in a major university anywhere in the world, Arts and Science has to be at the center. The reason is that the great theoretical questions, which inform every discipline, including the professional disciplines, are the ones that get thrashed out in Arts and Science departments.”
Rice began at once to expand the Arts & Science faculty and create a core of excellence for the University, employing his considerable charm and erudition. One strategy was networking to identify top academics looking to move on from Ivy League schools. Another was to lure well-known professors out of retirement, creating magnets for younger faculty and graduate students. He put special focus on developing academic areas he deemed to have the greatest potential. In this his instincts proved prescient.
A 1995 New York Times article chronicling NYU’s swift rise to a top-tier university describes an “energetic, decade-long recruitment of a stellar faculty to fill 88 new chairs…the hunt and capture supervised by Duncan Rice.” The article quotes Rice’s reaction on learning that Anthony Movshon, already a leading neuroscientist in 1985, was close to accepting an offer from MIT: “It made me wonder about what we could do to persuade him to stay, and, if we succeeded, how we might use Movshon to attract other outstanding people in his field…I knew that neuroscience was one of the most rapidly expanding fields in the biomedical sciences -- people were talking about this being the Decade of the Brain -- and it seemed like an opportunity to create a center of strength.”
Rice did persuade Movshon to stay, by giving him the opportunity to recruit ten professors for a new Center for Neural Science. Today the Center of Neural Science comprises dozens of labs, is a premier training ground for new generations of neuroscientists, and produces research spanning molecular, cellular, developmental, cognitive, behavioral, and computational approaches to understanding the brain. “Duncan Rice was a great academic leader,” said Movshon. “He was a historian who presided over the creation of a center in a wholly alien discipline. He was pressed and harried at every turn by an unruly crew led by me, brash neuroscientists armed with the certainty of youth, and with no real understanding of how universities work. Yet he gracefully managed to shape our eagerness into something enduring and worthwhile.”
Jess Benhabib, Paulette Goddard Professor of Political Economy, says that perseverance, chutzpah and optimism served Rice in his mission to build the Arts & Science faculty across disciplines. Benhabib worked closely with Rice and went on to serve NYU in various administrative roles including Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science. He recalls Rice as a hero and a mentor. “We would not have gotten off the ground without him. He was the game-changer. He believed that if you hire the best faculty, everything else will follow, and he was a master at recognizing talent and channeling resources.”
The resources eventually came: Rice was a key player in NYU’s transformative $1 billion-dollar capital campaign, which began in 1984 and finished a decade later – five years early.
Rice’s belief in the centrality of the Arts & Science faculty to NYU’s ambitions was shared by the faculty he led. In a 1987 5-year plan delivered to President Brademas he wrote, "An ‘essential intangible’ is our sense of optimism about the faculty’s capacity to achieve the ambitious leaps in quality this report envisages. In many respects, the project is one of extraordinary arrogance. What is happening is that an urban university, still with cramped facilities…is attempting to leap to the front of the American educational scene…with a per capita endowment income which is frighteningly small…What is most fascinating and therefore quite encouraging, is that most of the faculty believe it can all be done. This faith, so essential to realizing the agenda, must be maintained."
“Duncan Rice was Dean and a prominent figure on campus when I arrived at NYU as a PhD student,” said the current Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science, Antonio Merlo. “His insights into the relationship of an arts and science faculty to the ambitions of a university are as relevant as ever. Duncan’s innovative and forward-looking tenure is felt today across all of NYU, and serves as a great inspiration to me.”
“I saw him as a giant,” said Joseph Juliano, whom Rice recruited to serve as the Arts & Science Dean of Administration. Juliano is now NYU’s Vice Provost for Strategic Planning. “His vision that we could be better, and his creative recruitment efforts – often on his own time – were the inflection point. He was not only a serious academic who read everyone’s work, he was a real entrepreneur.”
Of Rice’s personality, Phillip Mitsis, Alexander S. Onassis Professor of Hellenic Culture and Civilization in NYU’s Department of Classics, recalled: “He was a great sport, had an enviable sense of self-irony and wit, and managed to get important projects done, the seriousness of which he never wore on his sleeve. He gave university life a deep sense of purpose, humanity, and decency.”
After serving as NYU’s vice-chancellor from 1994 to 1996, Rice returned to his native Scotland to become principal and vice-chancellor at the University of Aberdeen. At NYU, he left behind not only a faculty already becoming the envy of every top university, but a legacy that lives on in the memories of those who knew him.
“Learning leadership from Duncan was a life lesson in the theory and practice of academia — distilled to its essence,” said Movshon. “Duncan knew when to listen and when to speak; when to trust and when to be skeptical; when to act and when to wait. We are diminished by his passing, as we benefited from his life.”