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Rice University will use a $50 million gift -- the largest in its history -- to create a new institute aimed at developing the leadership skills of every student at the university.

On Wednesday, David Leebron, Rice’s president, described the institute as “a reconceptualization” of what an undergraduate education is meant to provide. The institute will assess the strengths of each student as a freshman and then develop those strengths over four years through a custom plan that includes classroom instruction, personal coaches and real-world experience.

Rice is one of a growing number of colleges and universities that have in recent years devoted significant resources to real-world, or experiential, learning. It's also one of the most selective universities to try this approach. The institute will help continue and broaden those efforts, Leebron said.

“This is part of a larger initiative at Rice that emphasizes the importance of opportunities outside the classroom,” he said. “We’re now in a time where if institutions are really going to deliver the value that students expect, they must place front and center the development of skills and characteristics that are key to our graduates living lives of impact."

The funding and intellectual seeds for the project come from Rice alumni John Doerr, a venture capitalist who helped build Amazon and Google, and his wife, Ann, the current chair of Khan Academy. The couple previously donated $15 million to an earlier leadership initiative at the university, the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership.

In a statement, John Doerr said today’s students "want to see the big picture and their role in it, get frequent feedback and be empowered -- not micromanaged."

The Doerr Institute for New Leaders will be directed by Tom Kolditz, a retired brigadier general in the U.S. Army who has headed leadership training at Yale University and the United States Military Academy at West Point. The institute will not focus on just one kind of leadership style, nor will it focus just on creating leaders in typical areas like military, government and finance, Kolditz said. It’s about cultivating the leadership skills of all Rice students in their respective areas of study.

The institute also will focus on cultural and global diversity and inclusion.

"We want to give students the ability to be effective wherever they are going to lead," Kolditz said in a statement. "Style suggests a consistent way to behave, but we want to teach students to be adaptive in the way they lead people. A failure to lead is a failure to adapt."

Leebron said an underlying premise of the initiative is that leadership is primarily a learned skill, and that all Rice students can be leaders in their respective fields.

While many colleges and universities have sought to develop select students into leaders -- sometimes from the moment they arrive on campus, through initiatives like honors programs -- Leebron said it’s time for institutions to treat all students as though they have the potential to be leaders, not just a predetermined few.

“There’s one model were you look at undergraduates and you find the 17- and 18-year-olds who you somehow think will be leaders of the future,” he said. “You give them special privileges and cultivation over the next four years that other students don’t receive. Then there’s another model where you consider that every student has the capacity to be a good leader at whatever they do. And that’s the model that this institute represents.”

Leebron said the university's new focus on leadership mirrors an earlier focus on writing and communication skills. A chemistry student might say he or she is not a natural communicator or a talented writer, but both skills are important to the profession, Leebron said, so the skills should be developed regardless.

That was the idea behind Rice’s Center for Written, Oral and Visual Communication, which opened its doors in 2013. Effective communication is critical to student success both at Rice and after they leave campus, Leebron said, so the university created a space that signaled that importance to students.

The new leadership institute has a similar goal.

“We expect people to take note that this is a conscious part of their education at Rice,” he said. “We want to emphasize that whatever a student chooses to do, whether they’re going to be in an academic or corporate environment, or a nonprofit environment, or in government, or in the military or athletics, that all those environments demand leadership. We expect students who are rightfully demanding of their educational institutions to look at this aspect of what Rice has to offer and say, ‘yes, that’s what I want from an education.’”

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