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Home » Discover Rackham » Alumni Spotlight: William Craig Rice

William Craig Rice, Director of the Division of Education Programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) since 2007, is both a poet and a scholar, or in his carefully chosen words, a “versifier” and “more an intellectual than an academician.” He hastens to add that nothing he says represents the views of the NEH.

He clearly thinks deeply about the words he uses to describe himself, his career, and the things he cares about, so it was surprising to find that his initial answer to the question, “What is the link between your poetry and your career in higher education?” was: “They are independent variables! I’ve been writing poetry all along–it has been constant. My career in higher education, such as it is, varied a great deal. They didn’t track each other.”

After a brief pause, he reconsiders: “But I realize there is a connection. In higher education, poetry has a slender presence. So helping out the things or genres or subjects that need help is something that connects my interest in poetry with my work in higher education. In higher education I wanted to find causes that needed support, including unpopular causes like the great books, just as poetry needs support. And so looking for the neglected good thing, that would be a link between the two.”

“Looking for the neglected good thing,” says the man who versifies everyday speech. This phrase succinctly mirrors all of Bill’s accomplishments, but it hasn’t always been an easy mantra to commit to. He remembers some of the defining moments along his path.

Already a successful scholar and teacher, Bill had earned a B.A. and M.A. from the University of Virginia (in 1975 and 1979), and an M.F.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan (1988 and 1991). He had won the University of Michigan’s Hopwood Award and the Brubacher Prize in the History of Education. He had published a book based on his dissertation, Public Discourse and Academic Inquiry (1996), as well as peer-reviewed articles.

But after a harrowing health scare and some soul searching at Harvard, Bill decided that he needed to recalibrate. He resolved to limit his pursuits to what actually excited him intellectually: “I had been trying to push myself into the professional mold and it just wasn’t fitting. The result was that I started inventing courses that I really enjoyed and that weren’t serving my research ends, such as they might have been. I couldn’t bring myself to teach students my next article, which is what my Harvard colleagues were often told to do by senior faculty.”

Pursuing his own interests is something Bill feels he had already been doing when he attended the University of Michigan. He advises other graduate students to do the same: “At Michigan, if you’re interested in something, no matter how esoteric, there’s likely a world authority on the campus. That’s what’s great about U-M being so large. I learned a lot from people I didn’t take courses from, people in psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and art history. My advice would be to use the whole resources of the university. You’ll find your interests rewarded.”

At Michigan, Bill not only took advantage of university resources, but he also contributed to the legacy of student activism on Michigan’s campus. Bill helped to prepare the successful constitutional challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union to the university’s speech code. He received mixed support from faculty; however, he recalls with pride that a mentor, historian David Hollinger, not only offered protection, but pointed him to an additional First Amendment attorney for the case.

This rejuvenated commitment to following his interests and ideals took him down a path that eventually led to his appointment as the 12th president of Shimer College, a great books institution that was once the women’s college of the University of Chicago, and his current position at the NEH, where Bill still seeks to support the untapped resources, or “the neglected good thing,” in education: “At NEH we have a program called ‘Enduring Questions Course Grants.’ The idea is to give support to a faculty member out there teaching an entirely new course based on a question he or she does not know the answer to–to explore that question with students through a variety of sources that have spoken to that question for a long period of time. I like to say that we’re trying to ‘fund the local Socrates,’ the person on campus who asks difficult questions, who puts you on the spot, who drills down into you and makes you figure out what you’re going to do with your life.”

It is clear that Bill has a tremendous commitment to higher education because of the space it allows for difficult questions and the great gifts that difficult questions can bear.

But he also deeply values the poetry of a life that most see as one opposite to the pursuit of intellectualism: “I did work at one point with my hands. I apprenticed as an auto mechanic for Alfa Romeo. I didn’t stick with it that long, but it was an important experience. I had gotten fed up with disembodied academia. I wanted to do something that you could point to and say ‘I changed your clutch. I rebuilt your valve train. You now have brakes that work.’ Reaching those tangible results was challenging.”

From the satisfactions of manual labor, to the challenges of a nation’s educational system, to the cosmic–in all of these things, Bill strives for perspective. “I have a great love of the landscapes of the Sung Dynasty. These are tall painted scrolls depicting towering mountain ranges, with scraggly trees holding onto sheer cliffs. Down at the bottom is a tiny human being, sometimes in a boat, sometimes crossing a footbridge or holding a fishing pole. To experience our insignificance, physically and philosophically, is what those paintings can do for you. When I’m being really honest with myself, when I realize how I’m just woven through with arrogance and willfulness, a Sung landscape or a late Beethoven sonata or the poetry of Blake or Dickinson or Whitman can act as a check. I’m grateful for these and other sources of, well, not salvation, but of stop-everything introspection. Beyond that, I feel I’ve been lucky in life. I’m astonished the world made room for me.”

We were saddened to hear of Bill Rice’s recent passing.

In addition to his loving family, Dr. Rice leaves behind a deep legacy of supporting and elevating the importance of graduate education in the humanities. He inspired countless graduate students and served as a valued mentor and role model.

Our deepest sympathies are with Dr Rice’s family at this time.