University of Southern Indiana

The Man Behind the Beginning

by C. L. Stambush

When Dr. David L. Rice moved to town to be dean of Indiana State University’s Evansville (ISUE) campus in 1967, the 19th century Centennial School was only a temporary home for the University. But beyond the 100-year-old walls and windows, and the fact that the region produced the lowest number of postsecondary degrees in the state, Rice saw a bright future.

Rice’s vision and knowledge of people and what they were capable of came from his experiences growing up in a family with 14 children, attending school in a one-room school house, being a soldier in the Korean War, teaching in a public grade school, and being a professor and academic researcher for both the government and Ball State University. But it was his humble personality, exemplary listening ability, collaborative instincts and mind for understanding data that propelled him to transform USI into today’s academically renowned institution.

Dr. David L. Rice, USI's first president

Between the institution’s opening in 1965 and Rice’s arrival two years later, enrollment swelled from 412 to 992, defying the naysayers’ rejection of the need for public higher education in the region and confirming his belief in the University. He began recruiting faculty from area colleges; later he enticed experts and researchers from private sector industries to join the faculty, always with the understanding their innovative ideas remained their professional property.

Rice strengthened ties beyond the faculty, as he listened to and collaborated with area businesses and educational institutions to create a path for community-wide success. When national consultants labeled Evansville as a risky business choice, he founded the Labor-Management Education Forum to allow employers and unions to find common ground. His partnership with Ivy Tech Community College, to have the University accept 30-hours of credits, led the Indiana Commission for Higher Education to insist other state institutions do the same.

Education ever on his mind, Rice grew the University’s programming roster from an initial seven program offerings to 54, establishing undergraduate degrees across the arts, sciences, healthcare and business, and creating master’s in education, business and healthcare. Now, area residents no longer had to travel to advance their careers.

Movement, however, was in the University’s future. Two years after Rice was recruited to be the dean of ISUE a new (current) campus was established in 1969 on 1,400 acres of rolling farmland surrounded by trees. Along with his wife, Betty, he embraced students, faculty, staff and community members, often welcoming them into their home. Two years later, he assumed the role of president, and it was the beginning of something bigger. Under his quiet political prowess, housing sprang up, Indiana University’s medical school took-up residency, the Physical Activities Center opened. The campus bubbled with life and learning. Rice, known as a visionary, mediator, planner and consensus builder, knew potential when he saw it. Sixteen years after making this institution his forever-home, he lobbied for and led the University to independence in 1985.

As a young boy who once tutored younger and less-advanced students in a one-room school in Montgomery County, Indiana, he never lost his zeal for education. As a man and extraordinary leader, he propelled his dream of ensuring so many had access to quality education. But his reach went beyond the classroom and into the community, where he is credited for his impact on the economic development of Evansville and Southwest Indiana, a credit he always gave to others. Yet without him at the helm for 27 years (1967-1994), a more thriving community and vibrant University is difficult to imagine.

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