Dear faculty, staff and students,
Welcome back to a new year at Rice. It is indeed new in both senses of the word: it is just beginning and it is a year like no other. Our circumstances require that we be more thoughtful and aware about several issues. No matter how we are engaging with our Rice community – whether learning, teaching or working remotely or here on the campus – it is vital that we all continue to participate in the best ways we can. For those working or studying remotely, that will require more in the way of affirmative effort to be part of the community. For those living on or coming to campus, it will require more effort to make sure our care for each other and behaviors fully reflect the need for vigilant safety measures in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Each year in the fall I send a message to the Rice community regarding our values. In some years, I have sent the message in mid-semester and other years fairly soon after the start. This is the earliest I have ever sent such a message, in large part because adherence to our values is more urgent than ever.
In my view, we are simultaneously facing three national -- indeed international--crises that must command our attention and action, both in connection with the Rice community and beyond. These crises are the global pandemic, an overdue reckoning on racial equality and justice, and the rise of xenophobia and extreme nationalism.
Our values, as I hope you all know, are encapsulated in four key words that spell RICE: Responsibility, Integrity, Community and Excellence. You can find further elaboration of each of these on our Mission and Values webpage. Today I want to focus on just two of these, namely community and responsibility, as they are at the very heart of our ability to address the challenges that confront us.
We are of course in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Across the world, over 800,000 people have died from this disease. In the United States alone, 180,000 have died, and diagnosed infections are approaching 6 million. Our value of community requires that we take into account the effects of our actions on others. If we fail to take and execute that responsibility under the circumstances of this pandemic, we are literally endangering the health and safety of other members of our community. This obligation applies to all of us, whether we are on or off our campus. Responsibility requires that we comply with all health and safety measures, including wearing a mask on our campus as required, keeping our distance, and daily assessing our health and staying away from others if we are ill with any unexplained symptoms that are associated with COVID-19. Our responsibility to our community requires that we not engage in dangerous behaviors that might infect ourselves or others, including attending large gatherings or even small ones without masks and other precautions. If you cannot for any reason comply, do not come to the campus, and do not engage in person with others who plan to be here.
Please be aware that many across our community have been working nonstop for months to protect the safety of our community and provide the best possible opportunities under challenging circumstances for our faculty and students, both on campus and remotely. Unfortunately, on some occasions, we have treated each other in ways that question the intentions and integrity of others, perhaps bending to the stress that we are all experiencing. As participants in this remarkable community, we need to support each other even more during these times. If you see something we don’t agree with, please speak reasonably to the person who is doing something you think is unsafe, or ask for clarification or make a suggestion if you think the university’s approach could be better. We need everyone’s best selves and best ideas. Any harassment should be reported on our anonymous EthicsPoint site.
The killing of George Floyd in late May triggered an outcry over anti-Black racism and racial injustice in the United States, and also globally. We have been called upon to reflect on racist practices and legacies in every context. We cannot fight any forms of racism merely by relying on our own perspectives. We must educate ourselves about the perspectives of others, and modify our behaviors to help assure that others feel welcome and included. That is our responsibility as members of this community, and will require first a commitment to listening. We will not always agree with each other, but the obligation of respect incorporated in the idea of community requires that we do not act in ways that are likely to be perceived as unwelcoming or discriminatory. We have already put in place some efforts, and will be considering additional measures to assure we make progress in this regard over the year.
Discrimination is not only race-based. It may be based on other improper factors, such as religion, gender, sexual identity, sexual orientation, nationality, disability or age. Both the law and the values of our community require that we not discriminate in any of these ways.
Finally, I would like to address the increasing xenophobic, nationalistic and anti-immigrant attitudes around the world. People come to the United States under many different circumstances — as intended immigrants, as refugees, as visitors, and as students with a variety of aspirations and ambitions. We welcome into our community all those who have been living in the United States, regardless of their immigration status. This especially includes DACA students and others who are undocumented but have grown up or long resided in our country. This is university policy. There will be no discrimination on the basis of citizenship. Similarly, we welcome our students from around the globe who have been able to travel to Houston, and look forward to the arrival of other international students who may still be dealing with travel and visa issues.
We have seen in the United States and around the globe that discrimination against certain foreign peoples invariably spills into domestic racism and discrimination. This was tragically reflected almost exactly a year ago, when I wrote to the community about the killings in El Paso, Texas. In that case a gunman traveled specifically for the purpose of murdering both Mexican nationals and Mexican-Americans. Racially, ethnically and nationalistically based hatred is unacceptable in any context, whether aimed at Americans or foreign nationals. Whatever the hostilities on the international stage or in the political sphere, they have no place in our community. We extend a welcome to all members of our remarkably international community, wherever they come from. We cherish the opportunity to learn more about each other, in the hope we will build bridges and understanding for the future that enable greater respect and peace among peoples and nations.
Addressing each of these challenges will result in positive steps, but also significant disagreements. It is especially important in this election year that we acknowledge and allow the wide range of political viewpoints represented on our campus. As an academic community, we must provide the maximum protection for the free expression of ideas; this is the foundation of the search for knowledge. That protection does not, however, extend to targeting individuals with hateful discriminatory language, or to bullying or harassment.
If we all take responsibility for the health, safety and inclusiveness of our community, we will be able to sustain ourselves through these difficult times while enabling all of us to feel welcome. We will make it possible for each member of our community to participate in the best way possible under the present circumstances. Although all of us have different roles in carrying out the university’s mission, these responsibilities fall on all of us: faculty, students and staff. We have the opportunity as we work together in each of these areas to make Rice an example to others.
Thank you in advance for taking on these responsibilities for the benefit of all of us at Rice.
With best wishes for a successful beginning of the fall semester,