William Marsh Rice is murdered in 1900 by a greedy lawyer and a treacherous valet who hope to gain control of the old man's vast fortune. Captain James A. Baker and his fellow trustees spend nearly 10 years working through the complex legal issues that result from the murder and probate cases, educating themselves about the best way to organize the William Marsh Rice Institute and selecting a president. In 1908, in an inspired choice, the trustees hire Edgar Odell Lovett, an energetic and brilliant mathematician and astronomer from Princeton University, and give him complete freedom to craft the Institute’s intellectual vision.
Lovett promptly embarks on a 9-month journey around the world to investigate the best and most modern establishments of higher learning and to deepen his vision for Rice Institute. Lovett pays close attention to the architecture and site plans of these institutions and urges the trustees to abandon Rice's original downtown property for a much larger suburban site. The trustees purchase about 300 acres of farmland 3 miles south of downtown Houston while Lovett is traveling.