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‘I don’t like to lose’: Reggie DesRoches puts work and family first — but won’t say no to a good game of Monopoly

Channing Wang / Thresher

By Ben Baker-Katz     2/28/23 11:44pm

The first thing to know about Reginald DesRoches is that he prefers to go by Reggie. He’s also a Jets fan and the first Black president of Rice University. But above all else, according to his wife and three children, he’s the most competitive person they know.

“I like to win, in everything,” Reggie said. “[My colleagues] might describe it as ambitious … [but] I’m never satisfied. I always want to be better, I [never want] to say ‘this is good enough.’ It’s not good enough until we are the absolute best. That’s just the way I am.”

The youngest of four, Reggie’s love for competition was first realized in Queens, New York, where he would race and play sports with his siblings. His family moved to New York City from Haiti when Reggie was just 1 year old, and aside from an annual road trip to Niagara Falls, the city was all he knew until he flew across the country to attend college at the University of California, Berkeley.

“[Growing up], I lived in a Caribbean, working-class community … that was my entire life until I went to Berkeley,” Reggie said. “I didn’t know anything but Queens.”

Berkeley was where Reggie discovered the two loves of his life: his wife, Paula, and civil engineering. According to Paula, the couple met early in her freshman year, his junior year. The two became friends, but waited a while before they started dating.

“There was a gathering of freshmen, and there were upperclassmen giving advice to freshmen students, and he was one of them giving advice. Imagine that,” Paula said. “He was eyeing me. He claims that my eyes were on him; I disagree, but that was the first time [we met].”

A year later, in 1989, the 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake rocked the Bay Area, causing more than $12 billion in damage, injuring over 3,700 people and killing 63. Reggie said the aftermath of that disaster, particularly the partial collapse of the Bay Bridge, was what sparked his interest in civil engineering.

“From where we were on campus, you could see the smoke [from the Bay Bridge],” Reggie said. “That really sparked my interest in studying earthquakes. I was so close to finishing [a] mechanical [engineering degree], I ended up finishing [undergrad] as a mechanical engineer and then switching over to civil [engineering] for my graduate work.”

After staying at Berkeley to complete his Ph.D., a decision he will neither “affirm nor deny” was influenced by Paula’s presence in the Bay Area, Reggie began teaching civil and environmental engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology. 

He had been at Georgia Tech for more than a decade when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck his home country of Haiti. Three days later, a colleague called to ask if Reggie wanted to join a team of engineers traveling to Port-au-Prince to assess the damage.

“We ended up going on day seven, which was crazy, because they were still finding people alive and bodies were still in the streets,” Reggie said. “We [didn’t] know how we’d get there or when we’d get back, it was pretty chaotic … We ended up sleeping in a tent, my first time in a tent, at the airport.”

Reggie ended up taking numerous trips to Haiti after the earthquake, spending 12-hour days assessing damage and determining the structural soundness of remaining buildings. According to Paula, the trips had a visible effect on his emotional state.

“Every time [he] would return, [he was] sort of drained, emotionally,” Paula said. “I think it was just the devastation of the whole experience.”

Despite the emotional toll, Reggie felt the work was rewarding, both personally and professionally.

“It was my first time back to Haiti [as an adult] … It was good for me to be able to give back to the country of my birth, [and] it absolutely helped my career in terms of [putting me] on the national scene.”

Reggie was promoted to the chair of civil and environmental engineering at Georgia Tech in 2012, and shortly after, was approached for even higher positions by other universities. According to Jacob, Reggie and Paula’s second son, the family quickly realized Reggie was bound for bigger things.

“When he started getting job offers [and] looking elsewhere other than Georgia Tech … we knew that he was potentially moving to the next level, but it wasn’t for the majority of my childhood,” Jacob said. “I thought they’d be in Atlanta the rest of my life and that he’d be at Tech forever.”

Reggie became the dean of engineering at Rice in 2017 and quickly rose through the ranks, becoming provost in June of 2020. In November 2021, Rice announced DesRoches would be its next — and eighth — president. According to both Reggie and Paula, the transition from dean to president happened incredibly quickly. 

“It was definitely a lot faster than I anticipated, but that’s life,” Reggie said. “You can plan all you want, but you have to be ready when the opportunities come.”

Eight months after he stepped into the role, Reggie said the job has been nothing if not eventful, both literally and figuratively. He’s tried to attend as many events as possible in his first year, based on advice he received from Ruth Simmons, the former president of Brown University and the first Black woman to lead an Ivy League university. 

“[Ruth] told me, ‘Your first year, Reginald, go to everything. Be visible, be out there,’” Reggie said. “Part of that strategy was then, in subsequent years, if you don’t go [to a certain event], people will forgive you because they’ll say, ‘oh, he went last year, he must be really busy.’”

A few months into his tenure, and just a few weeks into his first semester, Reggie received a difficult diagnosis. Religious about regular check-ups due to a family history of prostate cancer, Reggie noticed his prostate-specific antigen numbers kept rising during his yearly screenings. To be safe, he got a biopsy, which came back positive. Though doctors said that he caught it as early as possible and could have waited, he decided to have it removed in what would be the first surgery of his life.

“I thought about waiting for the summer, but for me, mentally, I [wanted] it done and beyond me,” Reggie said.

In the interest of transparency, the DesRoches family decided it was best to issue a statement addressing his diagnosis and procedure. There was, however, one person Reggie decided not to tell: his father, who lives nearby in an assisted living facility.

“We thought, ‘Well, he’s 91 years old; we don’t have to tell him, he won’t find out,’” Reggie said. “And of course, it made it to the [local] newspaper. So we walk in there [one day] and he’s like, ‘Why didn’t you tell me this? What’s going on? You can’t do this.’”

Other than incurring the wrath of his father, Reggie and Paula said the whole ordeal was less stressful than anticipated. Today, their focus remains on health as well as maintaining as strong a work-life balance as possible.

“Work-life balance has been hard, because I’ve said yes to everything I can fit in … There might be days where I go to four or five different things,” Reggie said. “Next year, I’ll be a little bit more judicious about what I go to and how I spend my time.”

Part of that allocation includes making time for his family, which Jacob said is something upon which Reggie has always placed a premium.

“[At] our sporting events, school … He [was] always there, no matter how busy he was,” Jacob said. “You can really tell he loves being around his family.”

Shelby, Reggie and Paula’s youngest child, said it’s not an uncommon occurrence for Reggie to whip out his computer to answer emails on short car rides.

“He makes an effort to be there for everything, [especially] family functions, but he’s always working,” Shelby, a Sid Richardson College senior, said. “It’s kind of incredible to me, how much he can multitask.”

But valuing time with his family doesn’t mean Reggie loses his competitive edge when he’s around them. For the last few years, the extended DesRoches clan has taken holiday gatherings as an opportunity to split into teams and compete in cooking competitions.

“About a month before [the competition], the trash-talk text messages start,” Reggie said. “This year, we had this thing where people had to announce what they’re making, and I sent out a press release [explaining] what we were making and why, this is the context and the history behind our dish … It’s gotten out of hand.”

This past New Year, Reggie and his team made a gumbo dish that earned second place (first place went to a lobster bisque). The competition was particularly intense, according to Andrew, Reggie and Paula’s oldest son, who still thinks that he and his father’s team was robbed of a victory.

“I think that’s the loudest the house has ever been,” Andrew said. “We should have been first, the [gumbo] was really good … we were stirring that thing for hours.”

Aside from cooking competitions, the DesRoches are also keen players of card and board games. According to Andrew, Reggie is particularly good at Taboo, and Shelby even went so far as to accuse her father of cheating at Monopoly, an accusation Reggie denied unequivocally.  

“I’m just really good at Monopoly,” Reggie said. “My best friend, when we were 5 years old, he lived across the street. So he’d walk over, and we would play Monopoly until like 6 a.m., [so] I understand Monopoly. I know which properties are the best — it’s not the most expensive [ones]. Yeah, I know the game.”

Although a self-professed fan of day-to-day competition, Reggie values his down time. And as his time at Rice has progressed, he’s learned how to take a step back on occasion and enjoy the show.

“The other day I was at [a Rice] baseball game, and I could’ve gone to the boxes — though I still don’t know exactly how to get to the boxes — and I thought ‘man, this is a beautiful day, I’m just gonna sit out here by myself,’” Reggie said. “I just wanted to watch the game.”

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