Fall Message from the President

Dear Rice Community,

As another academic year gets underway, I wanted to take a moment to welcome everyone back to campus as well as those attending remotely, and extend a special welcome to our new students, both graduate and undergraduate.

For the second time, we are beginning the academic year under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic. In many ways, the state of the pandemic is very different from what we experienced a year ago. Vaccines are readily available in the United States, and the overwhelming majority of our community has been vaccinated.  At the same time, the delta variant is far more transmissible, and breakthrough cases among the vaccinated are occurring with some frequency.  That said, the evidence remains that vaccination significantly reduces infection and transmission, and especially prevents serious illness or hospitalization. As the pandemic continues to evolve, we will respond quickly to changes in circumstances, making the best decisions we can in light of available information. We can all be proud that our community reacted this past week to our communications with calm and determination.

As Ping and I wandered around campus on move-in day at the beginning of last week, we observed once more the qualities that make our community special. If you haven’t watched the move-in and matriculation videos, I highly recommend that you do.

In addition to a sense of pride, they will provoke both smiles and tears.  They reflect the sense of belonging we strive to create, and the caring and welcome we extend not only to our students, faculty and staff, but to our visitors as well.  The joy of our community in being together was palpable. This sense of community is equally important to our graduate students, and I note that this year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Valhalla, which has been important in supporting that spirit.

Despite the pandemic, we are both coming off and beginning remarkable years at Rice. Our entering classes, both undergraduate and graduate, are larger than ever. We have nearly 4300 undergraduates, and 4180 graduate students, for a total of approximately 8500 (including 109 visiting students), by far our largest enrollment ever. These include 1226 new freshmen (selected from among a record almost 30,000 applicants), 30 transfer students and 1467 new graduate students. 

These entering classes are extraordinarily talented and wonderfully diverse. The undergraduate class includes students from every state and 45 countries.  About 27% of the domestic students are from underrepresented minority groups. Our graduate students come from 67 different countries, and 29% of the U.S. students are from underrepresented minority groups. These amazing students reflect our commitment to extending opportunities to the most talented and promising students wherever they be, and whatever their citizenship or immigration status, including DACA students.

As we welcome new students, we also welcome new faculty—48 this year, of which around 30% are under-represented minorities. We are also poised to continue our outstanding research growth, with a record $182 million in research awards last year, as we make rapid progress toward the V2C2 goal of doubling our research funding. Our finances are strong, with record fundraising and endowment returns. We are well positioned to continue making strong investments in our university.

These investments include our physical facilities. Three buildings were torn down over the summer to make room for three new ones: the new science and engineering building on the site of Abercrombie, the new building for the visual and dramatic arts, and a new wing of Hanszen College.  Soon we will begin construction of a new building to add space for the school of architecture, as well as a dramatic student center that features a new multicultural center as a focal point. In just a few weeks, we will officially dedicate the spectacularly renovated mechanical laboratory building as Maxfield Hall, which will be the new home for the statistics department.

There are important issues to confront, both within our university and in our city, nation and world. These include continuing to address issues of equity and inclusion, as a broader society and at Rice. The work of the task force on slavery, segregation and racial injustice is continuing, and we must respond thoughtfully as a community to their findings. A few weeks ago, the report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change renewed the sense of urgency on issues of the environment and climate change, and we at Rice must accelerate and expand our efforts in both how we operate and our research and discovery endeavors on many aspects of these issues, spanning almost every part of our university.

We must also be cognizant that even while our campus remains comparatively safe with a low COVID positivity rate, members of our community continue to face a wide range of challenges, from caring for children who cannot be vaccinated to perhaps themselves being immuno-compromised or otherwise vulnerable. Of course, beyond the harms caused by COVID, which fall disproportionately in different communities, suffering and tragedies will continue around the globe and often affect those in our community. In that context, want to take a moment to express sympathy and support for those affected by the unfolding situation and deadly attacks in Afghanistan, including our veterans at Rice and Afghan Americans and immigrants.

Before concluding, I want to thank everyone who has been working to support our safety and our success in these times. They include colleagues from every part of our community, but especially our custodians, housing and dining staff, IT staff, magisters and others in our residential colleges, as well as every faculty member seeking to teach and engage with our students to provide an education that inspires.  In the recent Niche.com rankings (where Rice was ranked #7 in the country), among the top ranked universities Rice had the highest percentage of students who said that their professors “put a lot of effort into teaching their classes.”  Our student experience extends beyond the classroom, and the staffs of our library, research facilities, recreation and wellness centers have provided vital support to our community. The offices of our dean of undergraduates and our dean of graduate and post-doctoral studies, as well as the staff of OISS, have worked tirelessly to help assure student opportunity and achievement in a supportive environment.  And I especially want to thank our students, who have distinguished themselves by taking responsibility, supporting each other and assuring compliance with effective safety measures.

This is no doubt going to be a challenging year, and none of us knows exactly how it will unfold. Our commitment remains as ever to keep our community safe, and to carry out our missions of teaching, research and service with the excellence for which we are known. Each of us has a role to play in taking responsibility for ourselves and others.  This includes taking the most effective measures available against the pandemic, namely getting vaccinated, wearing masks whenever required, and maintaining social distance when possible.

I am confident that working together we will deliver an outstanding experience and opportunities for all in the Rice community.

With best wishes for the upcoming academic year,