This year we are reminded once more that we don’t live in a bubble here at Rice, and that external events — good and bad — have an impact on our community. On Monday morning, I sent a letter to the campus community conveying some thoughts on the outrageous and tragic events in Charlottesville. I placed it in the context of our own values, and the importance of both our commitment to those values, and for taking responsibility for living those values.
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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.
Each year I have the opportunity to address the entering students at a matriculation ceremony held at the beginning of Orientation Week on the first night our new students are on campus. What I don’t have an opportunity to do is welcome back our returning students collectively in any formal way. So when the Thresher offered me the opportunity to write a short essay for their first issue of this academic year, I jumped at it. Although limited in scope, it presented an opportunity to deliver a message I have always had in the back of my mind.This year I wrote a new matriculation address. After a bit of explanation, I gave the nano-matriculation speech (taking inspiration from Anthony Brandt’s nano-symphony), which went as follows:We are thrilled and grateful you are here.You should be thrilled and grateful to be here.Seize your opportunities.Get to know your classmates.Don’t do stupid stuff.You can change the world.Thank you and welcome to Rice.After thunderous applause received primarily because they actually thought the speech was over shortly after it began, I got back up and delivered a decidedly non-nano address (but shorter than last year).The nano-speech could be turned into an appropriate welcome back speech by simply adding “back” after “welcome” in the last line. But actually, my nano-welcome back speech would be even shorter, along the following lines:We are thrilled and grateful you are back.Thank you for all you do make Rice the special place it is, and for passing that culture onto our new students.(Okay, I probably should leave in the “Don’t do stupid stuff.”) To explain why I think that is the primary message to our returning students (and indeed to those who have graduated), I would refer to the recent Princeton Review rankings. As I hope you know, we came in No. 1 in the country for both overall quality of life and for interaction among students from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. We also remained in the top 10 for student happiness. While there are many reasons for our success in these categories, I believe the primary reason is the way our students treat each other — with enthusiasm, acceptance, encouragement, support, curiosity and respect. They create the strong sense of community in which the vast majority of students feel welcomed and included. Two aspects of Rice are critical in creating this culture and atmosphere: O-Week and the residential colleges. I am amazed each year by the outpouring of enthusiasm for participating in O-Week, and then by the sheer joy our students take in welcoming new students to Rice and making sure their Rice experience is as good as it can be. Our upper-year students do this primarily because they care about their new students. But an O-Week advisor I spoke with over the past weekend told me how much he gained from the experience. The realization that he is now a role model, and the responsibility that entails, resulted in a leadership experience from which he learned a great deal. The faculty, staff and administration, and of course especially our college masters, do all we can to support the special Rice culture, a culture that emphasizes inclusion and support, and disdains features of exclusion and elitism such as fraternities and sororities. The success of that culture, and especially its transmission from one group of students to the next, rests largely in the hands of our students, and that is a responsibility that they rise to magnificently. We aren’t perfect, and indeed the moment we believe that we are is the moment we will get worse rather than better. Under the leadership of our student coordinators, O-Week continues to be refined and improved, year after year. And despite many changes in the university, the culture persists and attracts extraordinary students each year.So to all our returning students:We are thrilled and grateful you are back.Thank you for making Rice a special place, and for helping our special culture endure.And, oh yes, don’t do stupid stuff.