Weather Underground may be telling me that it feels like 108 degrees outside, but for me this is one of the coolest times to be at Rice as we welcome our new students and welcome back our returning students, both graduate and undergraduate. Our students are truly spectacular in terms of their ability, but also inspiring in terms of their spirit and commitment, not only to Rice, but to the betterment of our world more broadly. We are also welcoming a significant number of new faculty, who will also play an important role in the renewal and success of Rice. All of this, coupled with watching Olympians from around the world compete in Rio, gives me a sense of joy and optimism at a time when our country and our world seem deeply troubled.
Our students and the athletes in Rio — who included two of our alumni! — are largely from the same age cohort, and what the two groups have in common is an extraordinary diversity. In our undergraduate population, there is no ethnic or racial majority, and whether we speak in terms of race, religion, national origin, talents, aspirations, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status or political affiliation, they represent every component of American society. We see here in our student body and in our athletes in Rio the strength that diversity brings as we recognize increasingly that talent, high aspirations and achievement can be found in every group of people, here at home and abroad.
In our house we do cheer first and foremost the Americans, and my children have been at their patriotic best. And the American athletes have indeed been an inspiring sight as we have watched barriers fall in sports like gymnastics and swimming, and witnessed the successful competition of an American Muslim woman attired in her hijab. But we have also cheered athletes from other countries, including spectacular divers from China and runners from Jamaica and Kenya. And we have cheered for teams winning the first medals for their country or territory, including Fiji, Kosovo and Puerto Rico. And we cheered with the Brazilian hosts as they celebrated their home team’s golden victory in their marquee sport of soccer.
But as our campus returns to full activity, we are in the midst of an odd yet crucially important political season, one which my 83-year-old mother describes as the strangest in her lifetime. And events over the summer— including unarmed black men shot by police, the killing of five police officers in Dallas, and the attack in Orlando apparently targeted at LGBTQ individuals — have further undermined the sense of safety and well-being of many in our community. The upcoming election suggests we are a deeply divided nation. In this environment, the old etiquette rule of “Never discuss religion or politics in polite company” may seem like especially good advice.
This may indeed be good advice for the workplace, or even for your social interactions after college or graduate school. But even on our campus, we have an understandable reluctance to bring these topics into our relationships, as strong disagreements might be seen to threaten the sense of community, caring and shared purpose that we cherish at Rice. It often seems difficult if not impossible to put in practice Thomas Jefferson’s view that he “never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.” While we might in fact trust a good friend to engage candidly in such discussions without harsh judgments, we are understandably more wary of those we know less well.
But such discussions can form an incredibly important part of an education, and enable us to truly benefit from all the forms of diversity in our community. We can’t, however, engage in them unless we bring to these conversations the spirit of community — of respect, tolerance and thoughtfulness — that we expect from each other. Higher education administrators and teachers often claim that we are in the business of educating citizens and leaders. In the course of a political season, nothing can really substitute for the kinds of conversations one can have with one’s peers, especially those with whom you disagree.
So I encourage you to put aside the rule of etiquette, and seek out those with whom you disagree — and also those with whom you agree — to learn from different perspectives about the issues facing our country and the world. Well handled, with respect and civility, such conversations can only make you smarter and indeed a more effective advocate for your beliefs. And while in my official role it would not be proper for me to advocate particular political or religious points of view, I too would benefit from such conversations. So I plan to schedule a series of “impolitic” dinners and lunches at our residential colleges this fall and turn the old etiquette advice on its head: The only topics of conversation will be politics and religion. I hope these conversations will begin, proceed and end with a manifest respect for each other. If we can’t do that here, what can we expect of our society today and in the years to come?
Oh, and for those of you who are eligible, be sure to register and to vote.
Welcome to what I hope will be a wonderful year for you at Rice.
David Leebron is the President of Rice University