Baker Institute celebrates 25 years making history

In a divided political era, a genuine bipartisan conversation may seem like a lost art. But finding common ground was the goal of a candid conversation at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Two political legends, former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State James Baker III, sat down to talk about the issues that divide us. It was all part of a gala marking the 25th anniversary of the Baker Institute.

"I think the biggest challenge we're going to have over the next 10, 15, 20 years is to return to a civic conversation," President Obama said during the gala.

Their chat drew the eyes of the world to Rice University.

"We are viscerally bipartisan here at the Baker Institute," said Secretary Baker. "We're a think tank policy institute."

Baker founded the institute in 1993, not long after President George H.W. Bush lost his re-election bid and he found himself out of a job.

"Right after we lost in 1992, I got a call from George Rupp who was then President of Rice." said Baker. "They said, we would like to consider establishing a policy institute in your name at Rice University. I said, I'd be very honored."

After all, Baker's family roots run deep at Rice. His grandfather, James Baker Sr., is the reason the campus exists. A legendary attorney, he solved the 1900 murder of millionaire client William Marsh Rice, who is Rice University's namesake.

"When Mr. Rice died under suspicious circumstances, Grandfather said, don't do anything with the body. I'll be right up," said Baker.

It was James Baker Sr. who revealed a murder plot to steal Rice's fortune, millions that were bequeathed toward starting a university. Now, more than a century later, his grandson is leaving a lasting legacy of his own at Rice University.

"When we started, there was a lot of doubt whether we would succeed, because all the policy institutes are either on the east coast or the west coast," said Baker. "But we thought there was a desire for substantive policy debate in Houston, Texas, the fourth largest city in the country. We are now ranked number three among all university affiliated think tanks in the world."

The Baker Institute funds the research of some of the most critical policy issues our country is facing, from drug addiction to immigration and energy.

"Frankly, in the beginning years I was not too optimistic that we would be able to attract national and world leaders to the institute," said Baker Institute Director Edward Djrejian. "But lo and behold, it's sort of like that film Field of Dreams, you know, if you build it, they will come. And they came!"

With President Obama's visit, the Baker Institute has now hosted every living former U.S. President, addition to many other powerful world leaders.

"We had Nancy Pelosi last year. We've had adversarial Republicans, so people can't brand us as being just on one side or the other," said Baker. "We're very careful to be bipartisan in our approach."

The Baker Institute has used that bipartisan perspective to make history for a quarter century now.

"We have programs that are dealing with some of the most vibrant and important issues that impact on our nation's future," said Djrejian. "Honestly, I think that's what makes us relevant. We are dealing with very relevant issues and having an impact."
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