On Changing The Charter

Rice Thresher article on Changing the Rice Charter - 1963

On Changing The Charter - Part Two

2nd Rice Thresher article on Changing the Rice Charter - 1963

Intervenors Attempt to Appeal Rice Charter Decision In Court

John Coffe and Val Billups appeal the court decision allowing Rice to change its charter - 1965

During this time period, the faculty and students began to constantly discuss desegregation. It became increasingly difficult to hire new, prominent faculty members due to the issue of desegregation. When many heavily recruited scholars discovered that the university was still segregated, they terminated their employment application. The Thresher staff of 1961 made it blatantly obvious and clear that it was for desegregation. Late November 1961, Rice’s Student Senate passed legislature and a referendum pressing for desegregation. This was the largest total vote in Rice election history, and it resulted in many people pushing for desegregation.

Finally, on September 26, 1962, Rice’s Board of trustees (not including the governors, because they lacked voting rights) unanimously passed a resolution to charge tuition and desegregate. During that same board meeting, Rice also passed a resolution to allow NASA to build their space center on Rice’s property in Clear Lake. It still took the school’s attorneys months to actually file the petition. This inaction was delaying funds for the capital campaign and federal government. (Rice was now essentially the only prominent southern private school that had not desegregated.)

It was not until February 21, 1963, that Rice’s attorneys finally followed through with filing the lawsuit. The legal team at Rice argued that, since the time the university was chartered in 1891, the changing times within the nation, specifically dealing with higher education, called for a new interpretation of the charter where loyal following of its stringent clauses and guidelines would prevent the school from achieving its main goal of being “a university of the highest order” (28).

On September 20, 1963, two alumni, John Coffee and Val Billups, filed a suit of intervention against Rice for breaking William Marsh Rice’s Charter. They claimed to not be against desegregation and the charging of tuition but were more concerned with “the sanctity of testamentary documents” (29). It seemed that they were generally more upset with the changing times and how Rice, as a school, had transformed dramatically since their days as undergraduate students there. The alumni intervention caused problems including the following:

  • Certain national foundations told Rice they would wait for the outcome of the suit before they finalized their decision to give Rice money

  • The head of Navy ROTC program threatened to end the program if Rice did not desegregate soon

  • NASA would have to terminate its relationship with Rice if it didn’t desegregate soon

  • Certain government agencies were refusing to hold employment interviews with Rice students on campus

  • Rice was unable to recruit top-tier scholars to join the faculty 

The new case between Rice and its two alumni came to a jury trial in a Texas state district court on February 10, 1964: “The jury unanimously agreed that William Marsh Rice had intended to create an outstanding university through his gift, and that maintaining segregation would make it impossible to carry out this intent. The judge, William Holland, entered judgment in favor of the university on March 9, 1964” (30). This decision allowed Rice to officially desegregate and actively seek funding. Raymond Lewis Johnson, a black graduate students already conducting research in the math department, officially enrolled in Rice in the fall of 1964. That being said, Coffee and Billups kept up appeals until 1967. These two alumni reflected the larger body of angry alumni who felt that the Rice administration and trustees had sold their souls to the federal government in exchange for funds. This mentality reflects the greater white Southern suspicion of Federal Government.

For a general breakdown of the legal proceedings to change the charter and the appeals that came after, please consult this presentation (31):