In the span of less than a week as our semester started, together we experienced nature presenting us with both beauty and devastation. Coinciding with the first day of the semester, tens of millions of Americans watched in awe the beauty of the solar eclipse as it crossed coast to coast in a just a matter of hours. The end of that same week brought us Hurricane Harvey and massive destruction and loss of life from rain and floods. These two near coincident events, along with Hurricane Irma and the massive earthquake which wracked Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, represent polar opposites of what our world brings us. The exhilaration of the elegance and beauty of the natural spectacle of the eclipse could not have had a more sobering counterpart than the pain and destruction of these natural disasters.
Nevertheless, I found some powerful emotions very much in common arising from the experiences of these two events. My wife and I were fortunate enough to be in Nebraska to observe the total eclipse, thanks to the kindness of my outstanding colleagues and associates who covered for my absence. I was not fully prepared for the wonder of a shimmering corona, or the 360-degree sunset around the horizon, or the mystical shadow bands on the ground just before and just after totality. For Paula and me and for tens of millions of us, observing the majesty of the motions of the heavens was and remains a humbling experience. There is a vast complexity to our world and our universe, and as Americans gathered across the country in and out of the zone of totality, I believe we were all reminded that we live together on just a small piece of this universe that we must share.
That lesson was hammered home just a few days later. The power of our understanding of the physics of the motions of the planets and of our moon is no match for the lack of power we have to control the complex forces of our universe and of own tiny planet. As Harvey approached, we could only shelter, wait and watch as the waters rose. But then, in the aftermath, the people rose up together. Those who could not escape the flood were ferried out by those who could help. Those whose homes were flooded were assisted in the start to recovery by those whose homes were not. Those who had no place to go were provided shelter, care and food by those who were more fortunate. Over 2,000 Rice students and staff volunteered in home recovery, shelters and the food bank, leaving campus to help even before the waters had begun to recede. The power of the storm brought out the power of our humanity. And in a very different but more striking way, we were all reminded once again that we live together on just a small piece of this universe that we must share. This is a humbling realization indeed.
Even as I write this as Irma is raking its winds across Florida, people outside the state are organizing to come to the rescue and help begin the recovery process. This humanity knows no boundaries, just as the destructive force of a hurricane recognizes no boundaries.
What then are we to make of two man-made tragedies of the past few weeks? Just days before the eclipse, small groups of white supremacists marched in various cities across the country, most notably of course in Charlottesville, Virginia, where they instigated violence and murder. The beauty of the humanity in responding to natural disaster stands completely contradicted by the darkness of the hatred of this small-minded band of individuals who stain who we are as a people. By awful contrast to our humility in the face of nature, the acts of the white supremacists are based on an ugly arrogance, a belief that this tiny world of ours belongs to and should be controlled by just one small set of humans. Borne out of ancient tribalism and burned into their beings by a shameful history of one race kidnapping and enslaving another race, this arrogance represents the absolute worst of human behavior.
We saw this arrogance on display again last week when, in the midst of recovery from Harvey, President Trump announced the termination of the DACA program, stranding in limbo and fear hundreds of thousands of our friends, neighbors, students, classmates and even family members. This decision which cruelly separates us does not reflect our basic shared humanity.
So what does this contrast have to do with the start of the school year?
At Rice, as at all great universities, we pursue and share the beauty of knowledge in all ways of knowing: the complex physical laws of motion which produce a precisely predictable schedule of solar eclipses; the art and poetry which challenge our sense of self; the economic and financial theories which bring us prosperity and to liberate us; the social analyses of the complexities of broken communities and societies which tear us down. The understanding that arises from learning these ways of knowing can bring us a false sense of power and control and arrogant social elevation. Or, it can humble us by reminding us that we are all one people working together and helping each other. We can either use our advanced education to build up our individual selves, or we can use the privilege that we gain from the knowledge Rice gives us to build up humanity.
I am challenging all of my students this year to think deeply about the purposes of their Rice experiences; first, through study and discussions to discover the person you want to be; and second, through experiences and personal interactions, to grow to become that person. Associate Dean Catherine Clack stated in her Diversity Workshop during O-Week that “We [at Rice] all have privilege. We each must leverage our privilege to help others by acts of inclusion in everyday life." My hope for each of you is that your growth in your time at Rice includes finding your humility in the privilege of your Rice education.