Message from the President, Provost and Vice Provost for Diversity Equity and Inclusion

Dear Rice community,

As the semester break approaches, we must acknowledge that in multiple ways this has been a difficult and sometimes tumultuous time. Until a little over a month ago, COVID-19 had receded to relatively low levels in Houston and many other places. Now it has surged, with over 1 million new cases being diagnosed each week in the United States. A divisive election has been followed by an unprecedented refusal to acknowledge the results or participate in the transition process. But in the middle of these continuing events, we must remain mindful of the calls for racial justice and equity that followed the killing of George Floyd last May. As a university, we must address those issues both for the good of our own institution and for the betterment of our nation.

We write to report both on progress that has been made over the course of this semester on these issues and to recommit ourselves to further progress this coming spring. In previous communications, we outlined a series of commitments focused on university leadership; enhanced diversity training for staff, students and faculty; targeted research funds and extracurricular support for faculty and students in areas related to equity and anti-racism; and the initiation of a scholar in residence program meant to facilitate creative discourse around issues related to racial justice.  One significant sign of progress is the addition to our faculty of Brian Washington as current scholar in residence for racial justice, whose new book, Memorial, has received wide acclaim.

Now we want to focus on progress with training, speak briefly about faculty and the curriculum, address student recruitment, and introduce a newly defined position in Rice Athletics.

An essential part of building an inclusive community is providing the training and education that will benefit all of us.  We are pleased to announce that coming in the spring, we will pilot a training program for staff, faculty and students, both undergraduate and graduate, designed to assist all of us as we continue to build a more equitable work, research, teaching and residential community at the university. We appreciate the accelerated work of the Council of Diversity and Inclusion, the university's Ethics and Compliance Program, Human Resources and others in helping to make the spring pilot possible. At the start of next semester, you will receive details on how to register for the training. Work continues on an extended orientation program for new undergraduate students focused on living and growing in our diverse community, and on a proposal for expanding general education to include a wide range of courses offering deep engagement with questions of inequity and power. We expect both of these endeavors to be fully implemented in fall 2021 and we will report further on them in the weeks ahead.

Diversity of various kinds — based on racial and ethnic identity, intellectual perspective, gender identity, disability and international background to name just a few — is fundamental to the continued and growing excellence of our faculty. Along these lines, we want to report on recently concluded and ongoing faculty searches specifically related to the new Center for African and African American studies (CAAAS). Presently the Department of Anthropology has two searches under way to bolster research and teaching in CAAAS. The first is for a scholar focusing on race and health or biomedicine in Africa or the African diasporas, and the second is for a scholar whose work addresses structural and historical factors shaping political, legal and economic conditions in Africa and its diasporas.  When hired, these faculty members will join two new faculty also affiliated with CAAAS from searches in the spring semester in the departments of English and Art History.

In addition to the kinds of disciplinary and intellectual diversity represented by strategic faculty growth in CAAAS, we can also report that departments across the university had good success last year attracting candidates who identify with groups that have been historically underrepresented. More than 45 percent of those hired in recently concluded searches were women, and nearly 25 percent of new faculty identify as black or as Hispanic or Latino/a. This is crucial for Rice:  A diverse faculty is better able to address fundamental problems presently defining the most important work in the arts, sciences and engineering. Moreover, a more diverse faculty improves our overall ability to teach, mentor and inspire the university’s increasingly diverse student body. We are grateful to the work of the search committees, departmental faculty and deans that made for such an excellent year in recruitment and hiring. Such progress, however, is clearly not enough and we have stressed the importance of continuing to build diversity with the faculty searches currently under way.

We were pleased this fall that we had a significant increase in early decision and Questbridge applications and that the most significant increases among U.S. applicants were among underrepresented minority students (Black, Mexican-American and other Hispanic).  A number of doctoral programs have had notable success recruiting underrepresented minority scholars. Over the past five years, Biochemistry and Cell Biology, Sociology, Mechanical Engineering, Political Science and Anthropology have recruited doctoral students of which at least a third of the domestic cohort is from an underrepresented group.  But, again, there is still substantial work to be done. 

We also note that the athletics department has taken an important step in creating the position of Associate Athletics Director and Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer for athletics.  We congratulate JP Abercrumbie on her promotion to this new position.  The Task Force on Slavery, Segregation and Racial Injustice has continued its work over the course of the semester, researching fully aspects of Rice’s history related to race and putting on an educational and stimulating series of programs, some aimed specifically at Rice’s history and some much more broadly at the issues our society and its institutions confront.  It is important for the entire community to follow and engage in this work.  We encourage you to track the task force research on their web site and hope that you will make time to attend the weekly Friday updates, which are also available via podcast.  The task force’s work will continue in the spring, with a preliminary report expected before the end of the semester.

We are grateful for the Rice community’s efforts undertaken thus far, and we are committed to continuous and significant progress on making our campus more diverse, equitable and inclusive throughout the remainder of 2020 and into the New Year.

With warm regards,

Alex X. Byrd                                                                                    
Vice Provost for Diversity,                                                                                    
Equity & Inclusion

Reginald DesRoches

David W. Leebron