Thank you, Rob
Let me first take this opportunity to thank Ruth Simmons for her inspiring and thoughtful remarks.
Ruth, when the history books are written, you will go down as one of the most transformational higher education leaders of our time. You serve as a mentor to dozens of leaders across the country, and most importantly, throughout your career, you have been a steadfast advocate for underserved communities in higher education. Thank you for being a dear friend and mentor. You always have found time whenever I needed your advice. Houston is proud to call you one of our own.
Distinguished and welcome guests, a heartfelt thank you for being here. I am truly honored. And I am humbled. For as I look around, what I see is excellence. I see excellence in what surrounds us — the magnificence of these grounds, the elevated architecture, and our many donors who have given so generously to Rice over the years to make this possible. I see excellence in the spirit of our alumni who have walked these paths leading us to greater knowledge and whose achievements in life reflect the quality of a Rice education. I also see excellence in what surrounds these hedges and the opportunities that are afforded us as an integral part of one of the world’s most dynamic cities. Finally, and most importantly, I see excellence in the making, thanks to our incredible faculty, staff and the students we serve.
Before getting into where we are heading as an institution and what it will take to get there, I’d first like to take a moment to extend my gratitude to the many people who have paved my way to this podium.
First, I want to acknowledge David Leebron, along with his wife Ping Sun. David’s vision to push Rice outside the hedges has forever changed our university. His work to enhance the diversity and culture of inclusivity here has paved the way to a more equitable future for all of us. On a personal note, his trust in hiring me five years ago, first as the dean of engineering and, more recently, as provost during one of the most challenging times in our university’s history, allowed me to grow in new, sometimes unexpected ways. Thank you, David, for all you have done for this university and our community. We will build on your many accomplishments.
I would like to thank members of the Board of Trustees, past and present, for entrusting me with the honor of serving this institution. I am grateful for the incredible service you provide to Rice and the support you already have given me during my brief time as president. I want to specifically acknowledge Charles Duncan, whose passing this week reminds us of the invaluable contributions our trustees make to our university.
I would like to recognize our provost, Amy Dittmar, our vice presidents, vice provosts, deans, center and institute directors, and faculty for carrying out the important mission of our university. Let me also acknowledge the entire staff of Rice who keep this place running so seamlessly and, specifically, our senior administrative staff with whom I’ve worked closely. We are on this journey together and I am grateful for your service and contributions.
I am really pleased to see so many students in the audience. Having you sit alongside many of our alumni, faculty, staff, community members and supporters provides a full accounting of what it truly means to be part of this incredible Rice family. To my current and former students, I want you to know that I have learned as much from you as you have from me.
Thank you to the many people from the city of Houston, local industry leaders and members of the Texas Medical Center. I look forward to continuing to partner with you.
I’d also like to quickly mention a few others who have helped me achieve my dreams. A special thank you to my Georgia Tech family where I spent 18 years prior to coming to Rice. I want to specifically acknowledge John and Karen Huff, Mike and Jenny Messner, Howard Tellepsen, Fort and Beth Flowers, Dick Bergmark and my dear friend Larry Jacobs and his wife Kim.
Throughout my career, three mentors have had a profound impact on my development as a leader — Greg Fenves, president of Emory University, who took a chance on me as a new Ph.D. student 33 years ago; Gary May, chancellor of UC Davis, who has served as a role model for generations of young Black and brown students and faculty in STEM; and Ruth Simmons, who I consider the gold standard for university leadership. Greg, Gary and Ruth, for all that you have taught me, for all of the time you have given me and for all of the support in me you have shown, thank you.
And to my own family. My three wonderful children, Andrew, Jacob and Shelby. You taught me about unconditional love, and yes, at times, patience. I am beyond proud of the young adults you have become and of the values of kindness and gratitude you display on a daily basis.
Paula, my wonderful wife, has been on this journey with me since I was a student at UC Berkeley. My No. 1 fan, she has been by my side through both successes and setbacks. She is a brilliant, accomplished health care professional who I credit for raising our children while working full time. She is one of the most caring and loving people I know and, as you get to know her, you will understand why I am her No. 1 fan and how important she is to any success I have. All my love and gratitude, Paula.
To my siblings, Lionel, Maggie and Pascal, let me take this opportunity to publicly apologize for being such a difficult little brother as a child. As my second set of parents when Mom and Dad were working, you were always there to protect me and stand up for me. You were my guardians and my inspiration.
None of my accomplishments would have been possible without the sacrifices of my parents. They left Haiti in the late 1960s for the U.S., solely to provide their children the opportunity for a better life. My mom worked two shifts for over 30 years while also making sure the family was fed, the house was clean and we were ready for school the next day. My dad worked his entire career with one company, also working odd jobs on weekends. They did all of this so that their children could have educational opportunities and a life very different from theirs. As a result, I stand here today as president of Rice. Lionel is a physician in New York, Maggie is an attorney in New York, and Pascal is the CFO of AT&T and is now a Texan like me.
Our mom died 11 years ago, but our dad, who recently turned 90, joins us here today in the audience. Thank you, Dad, for all that you have done for us.
I am often asked why I left Georgia Tech to come to Rice as dean of engineering in 2017. I was at a very exciting point in my career, leading one of the top civil and environmental engineering programs in the world. Well, after 18 years in Atlanta, I could no longer take the heat and humidity, so I thought Houston would be a great break.
Seriously, I came to Rice because of its reputation as a truly outstanding university, and what I believed, and still believe, is the potential to be among the premier full-spectrum research universities in the world, with a continued commitment to a broad-based liberal arts undergraduate education.
I believe this is achievable even more today given our exceptionally talented and committed students, staff and faculty, the progress we have made on a number of fronts in the past several years, the support of a dynamic and exciting city, and a loyal alumni base.
I deeply believe in the mission of universities. Universities are places that can transform lives, just like mine. To come from a working-class community as a first-generation college graduate, to attending and then teaching at some of the best universities in the world, and now being entrusted to lead this great institution, is a powerful statement about the importance and relevance of universities in today’s society as places of opportunity and advancement.
As Nelson Mandela so eloquently put it, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
I believe it is also the most powerful weapon to change lives. We will keep this central in our minds as we develop our vision for the university.
My appointment here has been characterized in the media as historic in that I am the first Black individual, first immigrant and first engineer to become president of Rice. And while those are distinguishing characteristics of which I am very proud, they are not what define me. In fact, what defines me are those same attributes that I see in every student, every staff member, and every faculty member and alum. These are: hard work, perseverance, humility, gratitude and respect for others.
But there are other values that I hope define me, and that I share with those who walk with me on these sidewalks every day. These values are curiosity and courage — grounded in nothing less than excellence in all we do. I believe these values are instrumental in our trajectory of recognition as a premier university on a global scale. These are values that we will keep near and dear to us as we embark on this journey.
Curiosity is intertwined in the very definition of why we are here. As students and academics, we seek and advance knowledge to expand frontiers. Creativity is what we nurture and what makes it possible to do extraordinary things. We research new solutions with the goal of transforming ideas into action so that, as one of my predecessors, George Rupp, stated, “We can make contributions to broaden society.”
Curiosity is at the very core of why we as a university exist. That will not change as we move forward.
We must commit to excellence in all we endeavor at Rice University. Any undertaking we attempt must require our very best effort. Whether it is a research challenge, a critical question in the creative arts, an athletic competition or how we function as an organization, we need to strive to be the very best — we must strive for excellence. Striving for excellence takes diligence and intentionality.
As Aristotle wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.” We must remain committed to making excellence an ingrained habit that we repeat, over and over and over again.
Rice University is at an inflection point in a new era of change — change that, like never before, demands courage. Former President Gillis characterized Rice as “a place for ideas, for free and vigorous discussion of ideas.” It is also a place where we need to think BIG, and go beyond our comfort zone. And that, my friends, is why we need courage.
As we move forward, we must value and commit to the courage of our convictions. The courage to grow and the courage to evolve. The courage to explore new territories and to take risks. The courage to stand up for what is right and just. And the courage to make hard decisions that may not be popular or easy but are necessary to realize our ambitions.
It is not lost on me that 60 years ago on this very campus, President Kennedy in announcing the country’s intent to go the moon said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”
During the past few months, I’ve met with countless students, alumni, faculty, staff, donors, civic leaders and others to help me understand how to courageously evolve this university. Where we are headed is not my singular vision, but based on what I know from my own experience at Rice as a former dean and provost combined with conversations with numerous members of the Rice community.
While still evolving, our direction is clear.
In the coming years, Rice will significantly increase its visibility and impact as a premier research university. We will have graduate programs of the same distinction as our undergraduate programs, all while strengthening what Rice is well known for — an unparalleled undergraduate education. This university will be grounded in all we do by the values of diversity, equity and inclusion, a place known for its culture of care, tolerance and understanding.
The foundation has already been laid. This journey has begun. We only need the creativity and courage we hold in our hearts — and an unwavering commitment to excellence — to take Rice to the next level.
The original vision of our founders was that this institution would be a full-range university with undergraduate, graduate and professional schools. Dr. Edgar Odell Lovett, our first president, had bold ambitions for Rice as a premier research university, noting that “faculty must be involved in research because the best person to lead the learner from the unknown to the known is the individual who is continually leading themselves from the unknown to the known.” He further stated that “the privileges of research are necessarily related to the pleasures of learning.”
It is in this vein that we recommit ourselves to the importance of research, scholarship, innovation and creative works in transforming our city and the world, and in the process, our institution.
When a cure for some of the most pressing neurological diseases, like Alzheimer’s, is found, it will be our engineers and scientists working with the clinicians in the Texas Medical Center who unlock the mysteries of the brain — all while working with our social and behavioral scholars to ensure that these cures are used for good for all.
Rice will be central in developing knowledge, materials, technologies, business models and policies, working with industry leaders to accelerate the world’s transition to clean energy. Our research and scholarship will help solve the most pressing global environmental challenges facing the human race while working to ensure that all communities share the benefits equally.
Rice will continue to partner with our great city while we study and provide solutions for how Houston, the most diverse city in the country, can continue to grow and prosper in a resilient and equitable manner where all citizens have access to proper health care, education and housing. Our research on inclusive prosperity will be a model for other cities around the world.
Furthermore, Rice will recommit to the importance of the arts and humanities as a foundation for higher learning, and a means for addressing today’s most pressing challenges.
The arts and humanities expose the complex and diverse world around us, making us more aware of our place in society. The arts inspire us to create and challenge our beliefs, and to connect with people from different places and cultures on a deep, emotional level. The humanities and the arts build empathy, which is perhaps the most important skill set needed to solve many of the challenges facing us today.
To accomplish our goals, we must look to the foundation of any great university, which is its faculty. We will hire the best academics, and have the courage to settle for nothing less than excellence as we hire more than 200 faculty across the breadth of the university in the next five years. In addition to excellence in their fields, they will bring an unbridled curiosity and a collaborative spirit to the university, and add to the diversity of our great institution.
Recruiting excellence has been the foundation of our university since its founding in 1912 and we will continue to recruit transformational scholars — scholars like Kiese Laymon, who just two weeks ago was awarded a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, and who joined our School of Humanities this summer.
We will invest in our infrastructure — in terms of people, physical space and technologies — to ensure an alignment with our ambitions in research, scholarship and creative work. Facilities that match the excellence and talent of the people using them, such as the opera house, the Ralph O’Connor Building for Engineering and Science, and the William T. Cannady Architecture Hall — will continue to be added to our campus.
And we will support our graduate students and programs so that they can achieve the same level of distinction as our undergraduate programs. Bob Curl, our Nobel Prize recipient in chemistry who passed away earlier this year, would often note that his accomplishments that led to his 1996 Nobel Prize would not have been possible without the exceptional graduate students who worked tirelessly in his lab.
Importantly, we will make what I believe is the best undergraduate education in the country even better.
We will reimagine our general education curriculum for the first time in nearly 20 years, to ensure that our students are prepared to solve the problems of the future with training that combines analytical thinking with a deep understanding of history, policy and culture. We will continue to add new undergraduate majors and minors that align with student interests and global challenges, like our recently launched undergraduate business major and our new minor in environmental studies.
We will enhance opportunities for study abroad by pursuing new global relationships, including newly established partnerships in France, India, Scotland and Latin America. And we will continue to offer degrees and continuing education programs tailored to our community’s needs both inside and outside the hedges.
Innovation and leadership will be core tenets for our students. Our Ion innovation district and our new Office of Innovation are taking shape. Collaborations will ensure that our students have the skills and partnerships to create technologies and tools to transform our city and the world.
As we recommit to research, scholarship and creative works, we do this within the framework of diversity and inclusion that runs parallel to our own unique culture of tolerance, civility and open dialogue. This is possible because our student body is a multicultural reflection of the world. Our Class of 2026 has no single ethnic or racial majority, with 32% coming from underrepresented minority groups.
And I’m not just talking about demographics. The strength of our student population is in its array and depth of interests, talent, athletic abilities, leadership skills and personalities to create our unique culture. The diversity of our students and the breadth of support they receive at Rice are some of our greatest assets. Diversity at Rice is not just tolerated, it is celebrated as a strength of this great institution.
In complex times such as these, student support, including health and mental well-being services, and safety and security initiatives, will be reinforced to uphold our exceptional sense of family and belonging. So will our residential college system, which supports students intellectually, emotionally and culturally through social events, intramural sports, student plays, lectures series, courses and student government. In essence, Rice’s residential college system provides a community within a community, or perhaps more appropriately, a family within a family.
I am an engineer, someone who solves problems. But Rice is not by any means a problem to be solved. Engineers build things — small and large — and engineers make things better, stronger and more efficient. As president, I have been given the opportunity to build a stronger university starting with the firm foundation Rice has today. Presidents, like engineers, do not do their work alone. I will need the help of all of you — your ideas, your support, your hard work and your dedication as we build a better university that helps build a better world.
Is our road map for the future ambitious? Of course. Can Rice significantly increase its visibility and impact as a premier research university? For sure. Can we create new tools, technologies and ways of thinking that fundamentally change the world? Yes. Can we have graduate programs of the same distinction as our undergraduate programs while strengthening our unmatched undergraduate education? Absolutely.
It will require us to have the courage to take risks, the courage to push the envelope, the courage to make tough decisions and the courage to change.
Yes, we will change. But while our ambitions require us to evolve, there is one thing that cannot change, and that is the unique culture of care we have at Rice. The way we treat people with respect and dignity is paramount.
I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Maya Angelou on leadership and dealing with people. She said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
We must remain a place where people never forget that at Rice they felt loved, welcomed and special as they received an unequaled education that enabled them to transform their own lives and the world around them.
For at this university, we are dedicated to “no upper limits.” This is a place where the greatest problems of the world can and will be solved. It is in our DNA to go beyond the cusp of greatness to greatness itself. And, in John F. Kennedy’s words, we will “move forward with strength and courage.”
Thank you all for being here today. I am truly honored and excited to serve as the next president of this incredible institution.