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OPINION 8/27/15 11:52am

Leebron: The welcome back speech I don’t get to give

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.

OPINION 8/27/15 11:51am

Hutchinson: Pause and reflect upon who you want to be

Sociology Professor Jenifer Bratter’s Orientation Week faculty address focused on “identity,” how we define ourselves and each other, and how these definitions are flexible. I was inspired by the power of her message, and it seemed to me to resonate with two of the themes I want us to think about and work on this year. In terms of identity, the questions are not “Who are you?” and “Who are we as a community?” but rather “Who do you want to be?” and “Who do we as a community want to be?” And these are not trivial questions.As you begin your year at Rice, if you have not already given considerable thought about the question of who you want to become, now is the perfect time to do so. You are not defined by anything other than your aspirations and your choices and your efforts to achieve both. Your time at Rice is not about demonstrating what you can do; rather, it is about choosing experiences that will help you become the person you want to be and then learning from your experiences, whether they are successes or disappointments or even failures.  Many, perhaps most, of you consider college as simply the next thing to do in your life, another step on the road to wherever it is you are planning to go. Some of you have thought of Rice as a four- or five-year joy ride at someone else’s expense (most likely your parents’). In either case, if these are your narrow goals, I suspect you will succeed. But in doing so, you will have missed the greatest opportunity of your life at the most important time of your life. I strongly encourage you to spend time in reflection, rather than to make assumptions about a fixed identity. And I encourage you to make choices necessary to give yourself the time and space for this reflection. Take fewer courses so that you can get the most from each course. Pursue only a single major enabling you to explore the curriculum with more electives. Engage in the many opportunities for personal and intellectual growth that Rice offers through community engagement, independent study, internships and study abroad. Be an active member of your college and your campus, forming lasting friendships.As for who we want to become as a community, there are too many facets to discuss in this note, so I will focus on a single value we should hold together: honor. Our honor system is one of our longest-standing traditions, if not the single longest-standing. But it is quite easily taken for granted, and as such is quite easily compromised and violated. This year, Faculty Senate in partnership with the Honor Council and the Student Association will undertake an in-depth assessment of the honor system, including policies and processes. This will allow us to reinvest ourselves as a community in this shared value, together answering one of the most important questions of who we want to become. We want to be, now and always, a community where honor is an absolute, with integrity never to be compromised. I encourage every one of you to engage in this conversation so that honor and integrity become a common expectation to which we hold ourselves and one another.It happens that I am writing these words on Aug. 23, the seventh anniversary of the day our family lost Emma Grace Hutchinson. She was 20 and about to begin her junior year at Trinity University, a place that she loved dearly and an opportunity that she cherished. No one I’ve ever known has better understood the importance of experiencing life to its fullest by a willingness to take chances on difficult tasks, on new relationships, on challenging subjects, on once-in-a-lifetime opportunities not to be missed. No one I’ve ever known has more fully embraced her own uncompromising integrity, living her carefully considered values. No one I’ve ever known has more deeply lived life to its fullest with unfailing optimism about what life might bring. My aspiration for each of you while at Rice and in the years to come is that, like the Trinity student whose life I shared, you find your own inspiration to set your sights high and then to use this opportunity to become the person you most want to be.

OPINION 8/27/15 11:48am

Overcrowding inevitable, but not unmanagable

Some returning students have been asked to move off campus to make room for an over-enrolled class of new students. In a few cases, new students were switched between residential colleges after already receiving their assignments or had to live in a college different from the one into which they matriculated. The Thresher believes overcrowding is an inevitable and severe issue that demands discussion and preparation among the student body and administration during the year. The Thresher appreciates the administration’s efforts to fill every bed and understands the difficulty of predicting yield. It is not only reasonable but expected that the issue of overcrowding will arise and some shuffling of new students will occur. However, Rice lacks a cohesive plan to address overcrowding in a way that is suited to each of the residential colleges’ unique needs. For example, offering returning students the incentive to overcrowd rooms may work at Sid Richardson College, but is largely ineffective in the single suites at Martel College.  Moreover, incentives that provide monetary compensation to returning students to move off campus are unfair to students who voluntarily chose to move off campus for the following year. While monetary incentives are a viable way of ensuring all new students are accommodated on campus, they must be offered and distributed fairly. This is a tough situation to address but the Thresher believes it can and must be improved to ensure financial fairness. Overcrowding diminishes from new students’ first year experience. The residential college system is designed such that students become almost immediately attached to their home college, and to learn last minute that one has been shuffled between colleges can be disjointing. O-Week coordinators are often forced to bear the brunt of parental anger even though they lack control over the situation. It is understandably difficult to strike a balance so new students do not learn of their residential college assignment too late or too early. However, when new students are informed that their assigned residential college lacks the physical space to accommodate them, Rice and its student leaders, who are the face of O-Week, appear incompetent. One of Rice’s most commendable features is its emphasis on student leadership; however, if these leaders are not immersed in decision-making processes, they must face the consequences of decisions they had no hand in, in a situation they cannot improve.  The student body, administration and college masters and coordinators should collaborate throughout the year to change overcrowding from an emergency situation to an anticipated issue with an established solution. As part of this plan, new students must be informed by the administration that residential college and rooming assignments are tentative. In order to make the new student transition to college as smooth as possible, it is necessary to accept the reality of overcrowding and address it as best as possible for all parties involved.

OPINION 4/22/15 5:09pm

Grade collaring policies have no place at Rice

The Student Association plans to begin a discussion in the coming fall about departmental grade inflation policies. These discussions come on the heels of legislation passed by the Faculty Senate in April 2014, which called for faculty-wide discussions about grading standards every five years, among other stipulations (see p. 1). The Thresher supports this renewal of discussion on a subject matter that continues to affect many students at Rice, especially now that the department of statistics has implemented a blanket policy of no more than 40 percent A’s in many of its introductory classes. While it is understandable that a large proportion of high grades in a certain class may be cause for concern, The Thresher maintains the opinion presented in our April 23, 2014 editorial that collaring grades as a response to grade inflation is not an appropriate response. By instating a policy where only a certain percentage of students can achieve high grades regardless of how many points they accrue throughout the semester, instructors engender a system that directly contradicts the spirit of positive collaboration so frequently touted by Rice. If individual professors, departments or the administration wish to see a more even grade distribution, then perhaps looking at course rigor or taking a more nuanced approach is in order. Considerations for major requirements, distribution credits and class content should be made to help determine a change in grading scale, not the performance of the current grading scale.  Collaring grades is an arbitrary punishment to students that not only negatively impacts Rice’s academic environment of positive collaboration, but also does not address the root of any alleged problems with inflation. If too high a percentage of students receives A’s, the grading scale should not be the first place the faculty looks for a solution. The Thresher recommends investigating the content of the courses to see if it is appropriately rigorous for Rice students.  The Thresher believes the statistics department’s turn to grade collaring is a precedent other departments should not follow. Princeton University recently repealed their grade deflation policy after 10 years, citing how it adversely affected students’ willingness to take risks in course selection, damaged the academic atmosphere and discouraged students from applying to the university. There is no reason a similar policy should be implemented among Rice courses. The Thresher encourages each academic department to consider student feedback in the implementation of grading policies, and to give significant thought to the potential negative consequences of such policies. Unsigned editorials represent the majority opinion of the Thresher editorial staff. All other opinion pieces represent solely the opinion of the piece’s author.

OPINION 4/21/15 7:00pm

SJP’s hold over UCourt thwarts student governance

UCourt was not what we thought it would be. Nor was it what Rice pretends it is.When we applied to be new student representatives, we wrote that University Court allows students to “play a major role in shaping Rice into what we want it to be,” “maintain the integrity of the university” and “promote responsible decisions” by students. Maybe our wording was a little off, but even as new students, we got the idea: The point of UCourt should be to give students a voice in Rice’s judicial process. But as UCourt has matured, it has begun to collide with the rock wall of reality; Rice restricts us to operating in such a narrow space that our voice can hardly be heard.We have both been on UCourt for the last four years; between the two of us, we’ve served in every position, from new student representative to chair. From this vantage point, we want to communicate both UCourt’s potential and the serious pitfalls of the current UCourt-SJP power dynamic.For a little background, UCourt adjudicates cases under the Code of Student Conduct (analogously to Honor Council, which administers the Honor Code) and operates under Student Judicial Programs. UCourt was essentially re-established in the fall of our freshman year (2011) and has since come a long way.UCourt is an impressive organization in its mission. It provides students the chance to have their cases heard by peers who understand both what the Rice community means and the integrity it relies on. In our time here, UCourt has heard cases with consequences as serious as suspension and had long, serious, straining conversations about the conduct we should expect from Rice students in each case that has come before us.But UCourt’s ability to be a prosocial organization is restrained by its institutional limits. UCourt is dependent on SJP for case referral and its very existence, so while it would like to, it can rarely operate as a true voice for the student body, whether by advocating on broad issues or by reviewing specific cases.“You can always appeal to UCourt” is the message students are supposed to hear when they meet with SJP. But that’s not true. In reality, you have the right to bring your case to UCourt — unless SJP doesn’t want you to.None of this comes from Yik Yak; we’ve seen it year after year. UCourt operates as a functional judicial panel but lacks jurisdiction over or knowledge of cases until SJP chooses to refer them or allow students to appeal. There are legitimate privacy reasons to limit the information available to a student panel, but SJP frequently interprets these so broadly it seems the real intent is less to protect privacy than to prevent us from weighing in on cases and campuswide issues where it worries our answer may not be one it wants to hear.Which brings us back to the central problem: UCourt is stuck sitting at the little kids’ table. For example, in the 3.5 years prior to the semi-announced Code of Student Conduct overhaul this winter, SJP made unannounced changes to the Code at least 10 times. UCourt was not consulted on changes where a student perspective would have been relevant, but that pales next to SJP’s failure to even tell us the document we adjudicate under had changed.That experience represents the larger issue with the SJP-UCourt relationship. SJP treats UCourt as a student relations operation and a pawn. It often seems that SJP uses us to ease its workload by referring cases only when it feels comfortable with what our perspective might be — and, in doing so, it can pretend students have genuine input. That’s not to say UCourt is always expected to agree with SJP (it empirically doesn’t), but that SJP only gives us the chance to disagree on select cases.Even when cases are referred to UCourt, its influence is limited. Rather than having free rein to consider situations, their social meaning and appropriate responses from a student perspective, UCourt is often confined to a framework dictated by SJP and SJP’s own view of the charges and sanctions that fit the facts and students involved.For students found in violation, UCourt must determine an appropriate sanction, but SJP unilaterally sets the baseline for what is “appropriate.” Base fines, the starting point from which the Court can move up or down based on the specific case, are set by SJP and often change (read: increase) suddenly. Even if the changes are not arbitrary, they seem like it. We’re lucky to be told there was a change, much less to get an explanation.But this is much bigger than a question of the exact amount of the fines. We have long believed that fines are rarely appropriate except to repay actual damages. Despite a lack of evidence that fines educate or deter, Rice fines students left and right. (Fines also present a social justice issue; the same dollar amount has a disparate burden.) We firmly believe SJP and UCourt should aim to educate and rehabilitate. It is harder to design effective educational sanctions tailored to each case, but it’s better to work toward doing so than to continue fining students out of ease and inertia.This issue is also an example of when UCourt officers asked to discuss a major topic with SJP and were promptly shut down.Finally, UCourt’s decisions are only recommendations until SJP accepts them. While decisions are rarely overturned outright (as opposed to through the appeal process, an integral part of any judicial system), the possibility always looms, inevitably constraining the views we can provide.All of this puts UCourt at the mercy of fickle university politics, which is the last place a judicial panel should be. UCourt cannot currently serve as a check on SJP’s power; it’s been made clear throughout our time here that we are not in a position to hold SJP accountable.This is a classic case of a lopsided power dynamic, and it’s a shame that it’s between two organizations that could do a lot of good for the Rice community by working together.To be clear, we are not bringing into question our previous case decisions; we believe our perspective has been beneficial in the cases we’ve been allowed to hear. Our goal in writing this is instead to improve the overall system in which UCourt operates.Like most graduating seniors, we didn’t want to take all our institutional knowledge with us, but we could’ve never written this piece while we were in office. Now, we worry that we waited too long to say anything, and that if the student body doesn’t continue to advocate and enthusiastically call for change, the status quo will prevail.So it is on you, students and UCourtiers alike, to be mindful of the difference between what UCourt is, and what it could be.

OPINION 4/15/15 10:21am

Summer does not equal an internship

Spring: the season of rain, Beer Bike and Easter. But most importantly, the time of year when students scramble to find something, anything, to occupy that daunting, empty time without set classes, club meetings and term deadlines — summer. Springtime is a breeze for those who already have internship offers, study abroad plans or prestigious pre-professional jobs, but for those who don’t, it can feel like being the only senior without a prom date. Perhaps I’m exaggerating. But I have heard multiple stories of anguish and despair over finding the perfect summer internship. You know, the one that seems cool to friends, bolsters your resume and pleases your parents? Yikes. What a lot to ask out of a summer. What strikes me is the fact that I hear of very few people who actively choose not to pursue a traditional internship or research position. For many of my non-Rice friends, a job at a pool, coffee shop or restaurant is the norm. Granted, many students attend Rice with the goal of running headfirst into the professional world, so it makes sense that they would pursue internship opportunities over the summer. But this tendency alienates students who don’t want or need to spend their summer with this kind of position. Alternative summer experiences, aka those that don’t involve working at a nonprofit, Fortune 500 company or research lab, can be just as valuable to students as internships.Take, for example, students who love exploring new cultures. Maybe they can only travel through a baseline job in a foreign country, like a tour guide or a hostess. These jobs provide them with the opportunity to immerse themselves in another culture and potentially reflect on their experiences in a meaningful way, but they choose to pursue an internship instead, because, well, that’s the default option. Many Rice students undervalue or even completely overlook non-academic summer experiences. They disregard the potential of experience for the sake of experience, which is understandable given the temptation to fill one’s resume with appealing, professional-sounding titles. But if you’re doing something — virtually anything that requires getting out of bed and interacting with the world — your experience probably has some value to you and your future self, whether it promotes self-reflection, earns you some extra cash or simply makes you feel fulfilled. Internships are not the only way to prepare for the future.In no way do I mean to devalue the “traditional” internship experience or discredit those who truly love these kinds of opportunities. But I want to say that those who don’t want to spend their summer working their butts off in an office or lab shouldn’t feel like they are less hardworking or ambitious than their peers. After all, I can say from personal experience that some physically intensive jobs can be just as taxing and just as rewarding as hours of research. Pursue opportunities you think will add value to your person, not your resume. Your future employer won’t think you’re a bum because you chose to spend your summer on an organic farm. Internships can be an awesome way to prepare for the future, but they aren’t the only path to productive experience. 

OPINION 4/15/15 10:20am

SA Initiatives Program deserves more publicity

The Student Association will continue to accept proposals for the Student Initiatives Program. The program is tied to an initiatives fund populated by $18,000 Honor Council was forced to return following a Blanket Tax Standing Committee investigation into their finances. In the future, the fund will receive money from an increase in the blanket tax from $79 to $85 (see p.1). Currently, according to SA Internal Vice President Peter Yun, the SA is primarily pursuing one viable proposal to the program — an “Inreach Day” during which students will perform tasks normally completed by the Housing and Dining staff. However, currently, the Student Initiatives Program has been underpublicized and underutilized.The Thresher believes the program has great potential if the SA expends more directed effort reaching out to the student body.The success of SA40K should serve as a model for the administration of the Student Initiatives Program. The SA40K gave funding to a new Queer Resource Center, Rice Emergency Medical Services, Rice Bikes and environmental initiatives, such as subsidized reusable containers and water bottle fillers. Though the pot may be smaller, an equal, if not more, effort should go towards soliciting proposals. Nor should the amount of available funds discourage students from applying for funding.Still, publicity for the Student Initiatives Program has been lacking. While publicizing the SA40K, the Senate Executive Committee visited college government meetings, posted extensively on Facebook and constantly made students aware of the money’s potential uses. If anonymous social media is any indication of student awareness, the buzz surrounding the SA40k on Yik Yak has been markedly absent for the current Student Initiative. For the Blanket Tax Committee to effectively distribute the $18,000, students must be made more aware of its existence and purpose.The initiatives fund has the potential to be immensely beneficial for the student body moving forward. The fund allows clubs and students to apply for funding for initiatives that the yearly allocation of the blanket tax does not make provisions for. However, if the fund is not better publicized, the money will not serve its intended purpose in a timely manner; ideally, it should be spent on ideas stemming from those from whom the blanket tax funds originated. Unsigned editorials represent the majority opinion of the Thresher editorial staff. All other opinion pieces represent solely the opinion of the piece’s author.

OPINION 4/15/15 10:19am

Rice must better support low-income students to truly provide equal opportunity for success

Let me give you an example of a lower-income student at Rice University. This student has a high school diploma but no AP or IB credits, nor the background knowledge to comfortably excel in Rice’s introductory level classes. This student is also on financial aid, either on a full or partial tuition grant, has been offered student loans, and was given a federal work-study grant of about $2,500.Lower-income students like the one I describe face barriers to success that stem from these circumstances. Federal financial aid covers only four years of college, which might pressure some students to graduate in that timeframe, leaving less time for them to explore diverse interests and extracurricular activities. Additionally, students in these circumstances may feel more pressure to pursue a major leading to direct entry into a high paying field. Without AP credits, students might need to take extra courses other students can forgo, or might need to study more due to insufficient background knowledge of a subject.A lack of AP credit also limits students wanting a double major or dual degree. A student entering without AP credits must average 16.5 credits a semester over eight semesters to get a bachelor’s degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering (If this chemical and biomolecular engineering major also wanted a bachelor of arts degree, they would need to average 20.25 hours each semester, more hours than they can register). A 16.5-credit semester load might be feasible with some classes, but it might mean stacking extra hours atop difficult courses full of new material requiring substantial study time, which could compete with a 10-hour-a-week work-study job.These hours seem flexible if you only spend work-study funds on luxury items, but this money can buy textbooks and study guides, pay cell phone bills, health insurance and Saturday dinner. Since work-study funds are often capped at around $2,500 and generally hover a few dollars above minimum wage, a student must work over 250 hours to pay for these basic amenities. This is a huge time commitment for a student for little profit.Work-study sounds like a great idea on paper. It is a federal grant Rice allocates to provide a wage to students who qualify and work at university-associated jobs. It gives students who qualify for financial aid money to pay for personal expenses not covered by tuition and housing grants. Students choose the jobs they take on, often with flexible hours. However, work-study, in concert with the circumstances mentioned above, can deprive students of a good college experience. This “college experience” means more than getting an academic education and scraping by financially. As humans we need social interactions and relationships, and as students we try to build our resumes and networks as much as our transcripts. If a student needs a work-study job, it may interfere with their well-rounded education and keep them from using that time in ways that could pay off in the long run, but will not pay for more immediate necessities.With the amount of money coming in from the annual fund every year, Rice could afford to scrap its work-study program and pay students who would otherwise qualify for work-study a living stipend or allowance. This would cost the university, but it would be a cost worth providing all students the same opportunity to explore the same options.I have described some extreme circumstances, but high achievement extremes should be accessible to low socio-economic extremes. If college is supposed to be a great equalizer and Rice tries to welcome students of diverse backgrounds, we should focus on supporting success in all students as much as possible rather than setting expectations of excellence that exceed the capabilities of a lot of students. Requiring students disadvantaged financially or in their prior education to do extra work to keep up with other students does not allow these students to participate in as many of the Rice experiences as they should be able to. In a marathon, no one would think it fair to start some people miles ahead, set their times as standard, and expect the people starting at the beginning to finish within that time, so how can it go unquestioned here?

OPINION 3/18/15 4:06pm

SA-facilitated forum accomplishes little

The Student Association facilitated a student-only forum with residential college presidents about what constitutes a safe environment on campus, among other concerns, last Wednesday, March 12 (see p.1). More than 70 students attended the forum, which was held after the Senate meeting.  The forum came in the wake of an incident at McMurtry College, in which a president-elect resigned after a friend ordered a stripper to attend a private party celebrating the win. Informal discussions about Title IX and Rice’s sexual environment ensued, but these conversations left many confused about the legislation’s role in moderating student behavior. As such, students may have expected the forum to directly address the McMurtry incident and clarify what a Title IX violation entails.  However, the questions the SA used in the forum did not delve into specifics. They asked questions such as, “How do we avoid bad situations and what do we do when a value is violated?” While these questions did generate discussion, many left the forum with more questions than firm answers about campus values. The Thresher believes events like the forum should directly address student concerns. As the voice of the student body, the SA should embrace its role as both a facilitator of difficult conversations and an advocate for the solutions that arise from them. However, they cannot fulfill their role if these conversations leave students with more questions than solutions. Many at the forum expressed divergent opinions about the role of administration and their relationship to students. While it is necessary to promote discussion among the student body regarding the role of the administration in setting campus values, students deserve a seat at the table when their values and their community are at stake. Though administration necessarily plays a role in the discussion, the students’ voice should be loud and warrant recognition.  To ensure that the student voice matters in discussions about campus values, the SA must work toward concrete solutions. Passing legislation, for instance, codifies student opinion in both an authoritative and historical record students can point to when administration takes action that goes against their interests. For the forum to effect change, the SA should craft legislation that expresses student opinion on Title IX and the campus environment. While it may be a good start for the SA executive team to sit down individually with the administration in the future to facilitate discussions, it is not nearly enough. Creating legislation is the most effective way to enact lasting change in our community, as it transcends the short-term institutional memory that plagues other less concrete solutions.  Students wanted answers about Title IX and the McMurtry incident that the forum did not provide. In the future, the SA must take a stronger leadership role; haphazardly organized discussions without plans of action are insufficient. Tangible solutions, such as working groups and legislation, would better represent student voices in a lasting and meaningful way.  Unsigned editorials represent the majority opinion of the Thresher editorial staff. All other opinion pieces represent solely the opinion of the piece’s author.

OPINION 3/17/15 7:00pm

You need not travel far to study abroad

Last Wednesday, I stood in front of the White House press gate for at least 30 minutes among photographers, other journalists and later, with three of my classmates. Eventually, a White House staffer led us into a room decorated with white chandeliers and golden curtains. After 15 minutes or so, out came first lady Michelle Obama.  The occasion was the first lady’s Nowruz, or Persian New Year, celebration, which is also observed by people in Eastern Europe, Asia and other Middle Eastern countries. As an Iranian American, it was beyond incredible listening to her say “Nowruzetan Mobarak” and give remarks about a holiday my family and I celebrate. With all the political news about Iran, it was a nice change listening to someone in the administration touch on cultural aspects of the country. I was able to have this experience because of one of my amazingly resourceful professors in my study abroad program. Well, let me back up. Instead of actually leaving the U.S., I chose to study in Washington, D.C. through American University’s Washington Semester Program in Journalism and New Media. I did have some initial concern about missing out on living and learning internationally — in fact, I remember bringing that up the day I finalized my application with the Study Abroad Office. By choosing to stay within the country’s borders, I did miss out on being immersed in a totally new culture for a semester. However, I’ve now been in D.C. for more than two months, and I hold zero regrets. And because no study “abroad” is complete without the participant telling you why you, yes you, should also do it, here is my spiel. While studying abroad in a foreign country does have a lot of value, such as language and cultural immersion, it may not be for everyone. For some, a semester away from Rice University might mean reaching Spanish fluency in Spain or learning about state formation in Bosnia, and I’m all for that, because such particular interests are best explored abroad. However, for others, like me, studying internationally is not the best fit. Had I gone to London or Rabat, I would not be where I want to be in my journalism career. Living and working in the nation’s capital has been educational, fun, challenging and something that will give me a jump-start when I’m job-hunting in several months.At Rice there is a mindset of “unconventional wisdom,” or so people claim. I believe studying abroad, or away from Rice, for a semester is a vital addition to the Rice experience, provided that you can find a way to make it work with your major and finances. In choosing a study abroad program, do your research and pick one that caters best to your needs and goals. Furthermore, do not be afraid to think domestic. D.C. may not be “abroad,” but it has opened doors to a world that I would never have been able to imagine sitting in my room at McMurtry College last semester. 

OPINION 3/11/15 4:09pm

Tuition increases must be thoroughly justified

Rice recently announced they will increase undergraduate tuition by 4.2 percent for the 2015-16 school year (see p.1). The announcement came in a press release that touted Rice’s status as a Kiplinger’s “best value” education and its relative affordability compared to peer institutions. The Thresher believes the press release ignores the reality of Rice’s consistent tuition-raising. Under President David Leebron’s tenure, Rice has justified outsized tuition increases as the cost of business rising, seemingly turning its back on a history of affordability to become more like its peers for its own sake. These consistent increases would be more understandable if the administration clearly communicated the purpose of each one. At one point, Rice was free for all students, and for most of its history tuition was significantly lower than that of other high-ranking, small, private research institutions. Before 2010, Rice even increased tuition at lower rates each year for undergraduate classes that had already matriculated, but that too has unfortunately changed.  In 2000-01, when Rice’s average tuition per student was $17,720 — compared to Duke’s $24,890 and Northwestern’s $24,648 — Rice could claim significantly lower tuition than that of its peers, being on average 28.5 percent lower. However, Rice’s proposed tuition for the 2015-16 school year — $41,560 — is not as significantly lower than other school’s tuitions. At $47,488 and $46,836 respectively, Duke’s 2014-15 tuition (2015-16 numbers have not been released yet) and Northwestern’s 2015-16 tuitions are not as proportionally high as they once were — Rice’s tuition is on average 11.9 percent lower. It is the administration’s duty to explain why it needs to raise tuition by a comparably higher rate than its so-called peers. A circular argument that invokes notions of “becoming more like our peer institutions” won’t do. At a certain point, becoming similar to other like-institutions dilutes the aspects of a Rice education that make it pleasantly unlike peer institutions, such as its cost.  Maybe the cost of doing business is simply going up, or maybe Rice has used the increases to fund new opportunities for students. Either way, Rice News’ press release does not show the student body anything along those lines — only tired rankings and comparisons. Unsigned editorials represent the majority opinion of the Thresher editorial staff. All other opinion pieces represent solely the opinion of the piece’s author.

OPINION 3/10/15 7:00pm

Stress exists in the future, so be present

t was the ideal getaway: a tropical island beach, fruity drink in one hand, book in the other, reading a novel about love, revenge and cheese. The only thing missing was a foot massage from a shirtless exotic man. With each passing day of sandy pleasure, however, a latent anxiety began to creep into my consciousness. It started before bed one night, whispering fears of unsent emails and unread inboxes. Then, feeling bolder, the anxiety moved to the daytime, reminding me at the ice cream shop: Time to balance your bank account. Remember, you still have no money. At first, I brushed off these thoughts as silly intruders, but before long, they became overwhelming. I must be behind on everything, I concluded in a state of growing fear. Realizing this on my vacation, of course, only served to further my anxiety. I became hypochondrical, feeling physically unwell due to anxiety, but attributed the symptoms to an undiscovered deadly tropical disease that I had undoubtedly contracted. It was then that my exotic cheese book, The Telling Room, sent me a sign. Like me, the narrator and author, Michael Paterniti, stressed over deadlines, workloads, all-nighters and parenting (perhaps not exactly like me). In running away to Spain, he discovered a hidden town, the story of a famous cheese creator and salvation. Paterniti envied the cheese creator’s dedication to the present. He admired his vivacity and rich family history. He admired his ability to stroll, talk for eight hours straight and drink copious amounts of homemade wine. One of his observations sums up the difference between the two men: “He [the cheese creator] was webbed to the here and now, sunk into it, while I seemed to spend a great deal of time racing through airports, a processed cream-cheese bagel in hand, trying to reach the future.”Victory! I found it: my anxieties perfectly contained in a sentence about bagels and airports. Paterniti’s sentiment is the American mentality: rooted in efficiency, planning and running frantically toward an uncertain future.Here at Rice, we spend a great deal of time and money planning our futures, and not without reason. We want a fulfilling job, the money to live on our own and the security to retire peacefully. Even the day-to-day things — the homework, the problem sets, the essays, the applications — in some way connect to our future aspirations. We happily slave away in Fondren, or drink 14 cups of coffee, if it means we are setting ourselves up for success.But this mentality leaves no room for reflection or observation. Paterniti, after his first visit to the cheese creator, comes to this epiphany, standing in a field of sunflowers one early morning: “The impulse out in the sunflowers that early morning was to stay absolutely still for a moment, sucking in fresh air, immersed and drawn deep under by a powerful silence … I just allowed myself to register the feeling of existing there among the sunflowers.” I realize that, as students, most of us do not have the opportunity to travel to Spain for a sunflower revelation, however urgent the need. Still, we can access stillness and appreciation. Sometimes, deep in the passion of working, I will surface for a moment and realize I have not been aware of myself or my surroundings for hours. For an instant, everything catches me by surprise: the color of the desk, the firmness of the chair, the alabaster necklace of my neighbor.It’s so easy to get caught up in the future and anxieties about the present, and rightfully so. Students lead stressful lives, and sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day to finish the work, let alone reflect. That being said, I think the case for taking a moment to be still and conscious, even if it means simply sitting on a bench for 15 minutes and watching people pass by, is dire. If we always look to the future, we will always be behind. There is no “getting ahead” when you plan for something that hasn’t happened yet. There will always be something to worry about, and although anxiety and work is a tempting concoction, it will ultimately only breed more stress. A better escape is mindfulness. The smell of grass, the emptiness of the quad on a Sunday morning and the sight of rain through steamy windows of a dorm room are all effective medications. Each moment, although not quite as healing as an island getaway or a Spanish adventure, provides the opportunity to unwind. 

OPINION 3/10/15 7:00pm

The decline of student self-governance

When I matriculated into Rice in 2011, one of the most exciting prospects of student life was one I’d heard about consistently since I visited for Owl Days — that Rice students are largely self-governing. In my last semester, it’s clear now that students have leeway to influence university regulations and policies only when it doesn’t disagree with the well-intentioned yet flawed opinions of the administration. The elimination of Cheer Battle from Orientation Week, the recent events at McMurtry College reported in the Thresher on Feb. 25 and the controversies regarding Student Judicial Programs’ harassment of students during meetings are just a few examples of how student governance has eroded during my time at Rice.O-Week has been continually touted as a primarily student-run induction of new students, headed by the coordinators selected by each college. Yet despite the existence of the Cheer Battle for about 10 years, the administration decided without consulting the new coordinators that they would no longer sanction the event.At McMurtry, the administration applied an unclear moral standard, vaguely billed as a Title IX violation, to pressure an elected student out of office. The Rice administration has made it clear that students can no longer rely simply on consistent application of explicitly written policies to govern their behavior, since other moral standards may be applied. While students can lobby against existing and clear rules, haphazard application of vague policies diminishes this possibility. This kind of double standard extends beyond the recent events at McMurtry. Despite the prevalence of graphic posters advertising the Vagina Monologues all over campus, the administration rejected Sid Richardson College’s similar desire to portray a “phallic object” on their float this year as they did last year.Finally, the lack of action regarding student concerns about SJP’s methods demonstrates that the administration is not in touch with the student body on important issues such as these. Last semester, I went to President Leebron’s office hours to express my concerns about the policy that no other person, not even a college master, is allowed in student meetings with SJP other than the accused party, given numerous complaints of student harassment (see the Thresher article “Students allege mistreatment from SJP staff”). I was told the administration would address those concerns, yet months later no visible changes have been made. Similar concerns have been expressed to Dean Hutchinson at meetings with the college presidents, and a Thresher op-ed by Lovett President Griffin Thomas last week reiterated the problem (see the Thresher article “SJP meetings should not be secret affairs”).Many of the problematic administrative judgments concern a matter of community values and ethics, including the three detailed above. The Rice community’s sense of ethics, however, should be an open discussion that involves the students. When Dean Hutchinson came to the colleges to discuss changes in the alcohol policy two years ago, he came under the pretense of fielding student questions and concerns regarding future changes, but then told students he was not there to have a discussion. Similarly, in recent conversations about the stripper at McMurtry College, he told students he was disappointed that we even had to have this conversation. In many cases where there are evident gray areas, the administration imposes their views on the student body, but such questions of community values cannot be imposed top-down.The administration’s claims that it grants students the opportunity to govern themselves and that it considers student input in their decision-making appear inconsistent with their actions in the past few years. Dean Hutchinson touts that Rice students are adults who must act reasonably, respectfully and responsibly. This relationship, however, must be reciprocal, and the administration must begin to factor in student opinion more so than it does currently.

OPINION 2/24/15 6:00pm

Stripping incident muddles purpose of Title IX

A recent incident at McMurtry College involving a stripper and the college president-elect has set into motion a debate about Title IX’s application and the sexual climate on campus (see p.1). Behind closed doors, the future college president was surprised by a stripper that a friend had hired for him and did not turn her away. According to an email sent to McMurtry on Feb. 22, multiple students filed complaints under Title IX alleging harassment after the circulation of photos and a video of the event. The president-elect announced his resignation in an email to McMurtry on Feb. 20. In the course of these events, Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson has explained that students must use good judgement when engaging in potentially harmful or harassing practices. Accordingly, the administration cannot and should not outline how students should behave in specific situations, as the vague nature of policies governing student conduct allows for flexibility. However, the Thresher believes student reaction and confusion in response to this case has shown a need for more robust communication of what it means to act in good judgment. Considering the recent complex applications of Title IX, it is unreasonable to expect those involved at McMurtry to have understood how to act in good judgment in this situation. The recent federal updates to the Title IX policy have led to the release of an updated student Code of Conduct and the sexual harassment policy, but an unacceptable level of mystery still surrounds this broadly applicable standard. Title IX is an extremely important piece of legislation, and its purpose should not be misunderstood. Among other things, it has ensured the safety of survivors of sexual harassment by requiring that accommodations be made for their well-being. It has also provided scholarships for female athletes commensurate with those for male athletes. In short, it has fought against institutional structures that have prevented women from realizing their right to education. To prevent Title IX from becoming the focus of student hatred as an excuse to ban all forms of potentially sexual traditions, the administration must clearly communicate the policy’s purpose and implications. Part of Title IX’s purpose is to prevent the creation of a hostile environment that constitutes sexual harassment; some would argue that this incident constitutes such a hostile environment. According to Don Ostdiek, Associate Dean of Undergraduates and Deputy Title IX Coordinator, a hostile environment is not related to sexual expression, but results from preventing students equal access to educational opportunities. Previous events involving strippers have set a common-knowledge precedent of appropriateness for sexual entertainment. Baker College used college funds to hire a stripper to perform in their commons for Willy Week, and Hanszen College has consistently incorporated a student strip show into their Mardi Gras party. Even Baker 13 and Night of Decadence, both of which occur in highly public spaces, can be construed as stripping.  Considering Student Judicial Programs was made explicitly aware of the funding source and the activity involved in the Baker event, it was not unreasonable for the students at McMurtry to assume they could hold a similar event behind closed doors. Hutchinson has made clear that “opt-in” environments are acceptable under the policy. Considering those who attended the closed-door event were aware of the proceedings and were not forced to attend, this incidence seems to constitute an “opt-in” environment. If anybody in that room was unable to opt in or opt out, it was the president-elect himself. The administration should be sensitive to the novelty of this application of Title IX and the precedents set by other incidences of sexual entertainment when determining punishment for those involved. Title IX makes provisions for the survivors of sexual harassment; in this specific case, considering its relationship to sexual harassment, it is unclear if punishing the students involved constitutes an accommodation for the harassed. Moving forward, SJP can use this case as an example of when students did not use their good judgment, but it seems unfair to punish students from acting based on precedents of approval. Hutchinson cited a need for students to act as adults would in the real world and use their good judgment. However, in this case, students did act on their good judgment by holding the event behind closed doors and making it opt-in. The administration has the ability to set precedents for potentially sexual events, like NOD, Baker 13 and other events involving stripping through its adjudication of this incident. In order to gain students’ trust, SJP and administration must recognize student investment in this particular case and engage them in dialogue about the proceedings. What started as a private celebration of a student’s achievement has become a complicated discussion about what constitutes harassment on a college campus that is regularly home to sexually charged events. This is an important conversation to have, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that multiple individuals’ lives have been unexpectedly altered in the process. The administration and SJP should now work to ensure that students understand what good judgment and the consequences of not exercising good judgment entail. Unsigned editorials represent the majority opinion of the Thresher editorial staff. All other opinion pieces represent solely the opinion of the piece’s author.

OPINION 2/24/15 6:00pm

Students, administration must start Title IX dialogue

The Student Association exists so that students can connect with the administration. Right now, students feel completely disjointed from the administration, and now it’s our place to bridge the gap. It’s time that we take the conversation about McMurtry College out of the private realm, off of social media and into the open. The Student Association has a duty to advocate for student needs. However, if students aren’t aware of the conversations that are occurring behind closed doors, students can never trust that they’re being advocated for. This was written after spending hours meeting with college presidents, members of administration and college masters and talking to students first hand.Due to student confidentiality, no outside party can ever truly talk about the specifics of the case. However, if you look at this situation very broadly, it can serve as a learning experience for the every single member of the community: Students, students leaders, administration and RAs and masters. One of the biggest questions being asked among students is, “How does Title IX apply to the situation at McMurtry and to our campus as a whole?” Title IX is a federal civil rights act that prohibits discrimination in educational programs. This includes, but is not limited to, discrimination based on sex or gender. If a student feels that they have been excluded from a campus-wide resource as a result of their gender, and after an investigation this appears to be true, this can be considered a violation of Title IX. The next logical question is, “What resource was being denied in the specific situation at McMurtry?” In order to answer this, we need to understand that student leaders are resources. With an open mind, honestly answer this question: “If a male public figure hypersexualized or objectified a woman, and this knowledge became known to me, would I, as a female, feel as comfortable approaching this same leader with issues regarding my own sexuality?” As reasonable observers, we can say that this answer is no. Currently the undergraduate population is arguing about what is legal and illegal, when really this situation is much more complex. As a student body, we need to be reminded of why we elect student leaders. Student leaders are elected to foster a community of acceptance, equality and safety. Furthermore, they should behave in such a way that does not contradict the values and principles that Rice University holds. However, this rationale highlights a much bigger problem. We need to know exactly what values our community holds. We should never be in a situation where, as students, we are surprised about a value or standard that the administration has. While we will never have a written list of what is wrong and what is right, it is clear that we need to be given some sort of guideline to help us. Our community is not malicious. No student on campus wants to offend someone or make them feel excluded. No student has the intent to embarrass the university or jeopardize their own academic career. We need more resources to help us avoid these situations. What is important now is not what has happened, but what are we going to do. We are not going to go on a witchhunt for the person(s) who complained. This sets a dangerous and unfair precedent for other students who want to use SJP as a resource in the future. We are not going to demonize any single party in this situation because, as humans, we know that no story is black and white. The SA is currently planning an open campus forum for the week after spring break to be attended by members of administration and students and moderated by the Student Association. This will be a place to clarify and build a common set of goals within our community in a safe environment. We can’t undo what has already happened, but we can prevent future situations by continuing the conversation.

OPINION 2/18/15 3:12pm

President-elect Jazz Silva should look to past for leadership influence

Sid Richardson College junior Jazz Silva will be the Student Association’s next president. She received more than twice the votes of both Lovett College sophomore Aishwarya and Jones College junior Sandra Blackmun in the general election to secure the position (see p.1).  Silva has promised to bring Senate meetings to the residential colleges, involve athletes in the Student Association and implement Rice Education of the Future suggestions and the new blanket tax system. However, the Thresher asks that Silva and her executive cabinet also look to the successes and failures of the current SA administration in order to inform her presidency moving forward. Current SA President Ravi Sheth became leader of the SA with plans to “fix it.” Although his initial platform appeared vague and overly ambitious, Sheth generated tangible results under his administration, including the creation of Rice Education of the Future, blanket tax reformation and the pods system.  However, Sheth did not make a strong enough effort to reach out to the residential colleges and maintain an approachable public presence. On topics concerning students such as the add/drop policy and Cheer Battle, Sheth’s advocacy either did not match the student body’s interests, or he lacked a response completely. In order to address the current SA leadership’s shortcomings, we recommend Jazz not only to directly communicate students’ interests to the administration, but to go a step further and voice opposition to the administration when their interests directly conflict those of students. Silva showed a willingness to question administrative action when she voiced opposition to Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson’s decision to remove a designated time for cheer battle during Orientation Week, and the Thresher hopes that she continues in this vein. Silva should regularly update the student body on her discussions with the administration. Her presidency provides an opportunity to make the SA president’s interactions with administration, which have typically not been communicated to the student body, public. However, for this plan to be effective, students must care about the SA. Thus, Silva must make student body outreach a priority; otherwise, there will be neither an engaged constituency to provide input nor an audience to witness the SA’s progress. Silva built her campaign on her ability to enact tangible change and a promise to increase student involvement. If she realizes both campaign objectives, the SA will be in a position to better serve the student body’s interests. Unsigned editorials represent the majority opinion of the Thresher editorial staff. All other opinion pieces represent solely the opinion of the piece’s author.

OPINION 2/17/15 6:00pm

SJP meetings should not be secret affairs

In Fall 2012, Olivia Hansen, a former Rice student, wrote an op-ed claiming she was mistreated by members of the university administration when she attempted to file harassment complaints against an abusive partner, and was subsequently forced to withdraw from Rice. While the university claimed this withdrawal was for her emotional well-being, Hansen maintains that it was Rice’s attempt to silence an unhappy student to protect its reputation and quality-of-life rankings. Following Hansen’s alleged mistreatment, the student body lost a great deal of trust in the administration’s ability to adjudicate judicial matters and maintain student well-being; some of this skepticism and mistrust persists more than two years later.As a whole, the university has made tremendous strides to attempt to address student concerns and regain trust in well-being and judicial matters. In fact, Student Judicial Programs — one of the bodies Hansen alleges was involved in her mistreatment — underwent seemingly sweeping changes following Hansen’s allegations, including hiring a new director, Lisa Zollner.While I applaud the administration for the strides they have made, I am troubled by a recent trend within SJP that has greatly undercut student confidence in the institution. On April 24, 2014, the Thresher published an article alleging rampant mistreatment of students by SJP staff. Since this article’s publication, numerous rumors have persisted as students — past and present — have come forward to testify to the same crass, disrespectful and threatening treatment at the hands of SJP.Students who feel that they have been unfairly treated may file a complaint with Dean Hutchinson. However, SJP meetings are private, and students cannot record the exchange or bring a witness to the meeting, such as a Master or resident associate. This lack of documentation makes any student accusation of SJP an immediate he-said-she-said matter that is nearly impossible to prove.However, if repeated student claims of abuse are truly fictitious, and the methods used by SJP staff are as benign as the administration claims, why not increase transparency to assuage student concerns? Dean Hutchinson is currently the only check on SJP, and given repeated and continued student complaints, this check is clearly not enough. Thus, the administration should address these concerns directly by allowing students to record or bring a silent witness to SJP meetings. Such actions will not interfere with official proceedings, but will help ensure that students are treated with basic respect and dignity.SJP plays a tremendously important role on Rice’s campus — as it should. Ensuring that safety is maintained should be a top priority for the administration and student body alike. However, the recent decline of student trust in SJP has negatively impacted its ability to effectively execute its duties and has compromised the confidence it has regained since Hansen’s op-ed.SJP’s job is difficult enough when students have confidence in the institution, but it becomes infinitely more complicated when this relationship becomes adversarial. While the outcomes of SJP proceedings are not always in line with student desires, the student body must at least feel that they can trust in the fairness and legitimacy of the process.

OPINION 2/12/15 2:34am

The Thresher endorses Jazz Silva for SA president

The Student Association presidential debate revealed a clear choice for SA president. After responding to questions from the Thresher editorial staff and the audience, Sid Richardson College Senator Jazz Silva emerged as the most viable candidate. Though Lovett College Senator Aishwarya Thakur and Jones College Treasurer Sandra Blackmun showed passion for issues of importance to Rice students, Silva inspired confidence in her ability to enact change on these issues through the SA.