A new year begins at Rice, with both joy and sorrow
The beginning of a new academic year is both a busy and joyous time at Rice. Just over a week ago we formally welcomed 965 new freshmen and 35 transfer students into our community. And over the last week, 1,075 new graduate students arrived on campus, joining disciplines ranging from applied physics to art history and from music to chemical engineering. Our students come from all over the world. They arrive excited about the opportunities here at Rice and beyond. Our returning students are thrilled to get “home” to Rice, reconnect with their friends and make new ones. And we’re thrilled you are back.
Many doctoral students worked without interruption over the summer to make progress on their research and dissertations. While some of our faculty have been here the entire summer break, most have taken at least some time for vacation, research or other professional travel outside Houston. One example that garnered international attention was anthropology professors Dominic Boyer and Cymene Howe, who played a lead role in installing a plaque in Iceland marking the first demise of a glacier there and calling attention to climate change.
This week, students are busy attending their first classes of the year and selecting the courses that will define the next stage of their intellectual journeys. And even after just a summer, changes are visible on our campus. The exterior and structure of our extraordinary new Rice University Music and Performing Arts Center are virtually complete. We eagerly await Kraft Hall for Social Sciences, which will be open early next semester. And this year will bring not only new students, but new faculty, new programs and new facilities. In sum, welcome back to an exciting new year at Rice University.
As the new year begins at Rice, we must also be cognizant of what’s happening in the world around us. We cannot resume our work without taking stock of recent events and developments. Just three weeks ago in El Paso, a gunman who had traveled 10 hours from the Dallas area targeted Mexican Americans and Mexican citizens with the intent to kill as many people as possible based on the color of their skin and their ethnic origin. He murdered 22 people at a Walmart and injured two dozen more.
The heinous attack in El Paso is a stark reminder that events outside our campus do not affect all of us equally. This is a time when the Hispanic members of our community — faculty, staff and students — are experiencing both fear and a deep sense of loss. This is amplified by the anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric we are increasingly hearing, often aimed at Hispanic Americans and immigrants. We express our concern, sympathy and solidarity with all who have been affected by this tragedy.
Attacks that aim to divide our communities are sadly becoming more frequent. Just two years ago, my August note in the Thresher was in the aftermath of the neo-Nazi march and automobile attack in Charlottesville. Three years ago over the summer, it was the attack in a Florida nightclub aimed at members of the LGBTQ+ community, killing 49. And this past spring we witnessed murderous assaults on a synagogue in Pittsburgh and two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Our campus is not isolated from the hate and xenophobia that is now manifest far too often across our country and around our world. Ten days ago, someone came onto our campus and posted three flyers with a vile racist message that depicted cartoonish figures of the four congresswomen President Donald Trump had attacked. The language of the flyers employed words from the president’s tweets and heard at his rallies: “Send them back.” As I wrote on Twitter, “It is … heartbreaking that [people posting these flyers] feel empowered to commit such despicable acts.”
At Rice, we must both carry on our work of teaching, research and service, and respond to events around us. We must reaffirm our Rice values: responsibility, integrity, community and excellence. We cannot build that community by ignoring issues that ought to concern us, either here at Rice or outside our campus. We must engage with each other in respectful conversation. We must take responsibility for building community by treating each other with civility, empathy and respect.
As announced last spring, this fall we are launching a task force on slavery, segregation and racial injustice. The goals of the task force are to learn about and acknowledge Rice’s own history, to engage in conversation with each other around that history and to use the insights gained to work together to build a stronger university into the future. This is vital work a university does, and more details will be announced next week.
So welcome back to Rice — to the renewal of our community and to engagement with the challenges that confront our world.
More from The Rice Thresher
On May 25, Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. Chauvin, a Minnesota police officer, pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down on the ground. Floyd did not merely “die in police custody” as the Washington Post and other publications continue to insist on phrasing it. As Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe, a police officer killed him. Active voice.
In the midst of a global pandemic, Betsy DeVos, the United States Secretary of Education, announced new Title IX regulations that govern how schools handle allegations of sexual assault and harrassment. Under the guise of restoring due process, the changes harm and undermine survivors by enhancing protections for those accused of misconduct.
The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have given rise to a new phrase that has been thrown around by media outlets and social media users across the country: “We are all in this together.” Don’t get me wrong — I am not denying the fact that every person in this country has been impacted by the virus in some capacity, and I am certainly not denying the rise in local expressions of solidarity. Over the past couple months, we’ve seen students and volunteers across the country donate their time and resources to help their neighbors. Young people have come together on social media platforms to address issues surrounding mental health and online learning, creating a sense of community while also practicing social distancing. I am not denying the presence of solidarity. What I would like to discuss, however, is the fallacy of solidarity in a racialized society.