Rice University recently inaugurated Reginald DesRoches as the first Black and first immigrant to hold the position as president since its founding in 1912.
Although DesRoches assumed his role in July, he marked the beginning of his term during his inauguration ceremony in October where he promised to continue the momentum of academic excellence and growth the university has seen.
Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, DesRoches was raised in Queens, N.Y. and studied mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, where he also received his master’s and doctorate degrees.
He taught at Georgia Institute of Technology as a professor of civil and environmental engineering for nearly 18 years before starting his journey at Rice University in 2017 as dean of engineering and then provost in 2019.
Now as Rice’s eighth president, he has a position which encourages the institution to be open with the struggle of its racist past. Founder William Marsh Rice was a slave owner who endowed the school as a whites-only institution until the acceptance of its first Black student in the mid-1960s.
DesRoches’ passion for academia, dedication to improving the quality of student life for all backgrounds, and vision for the institution play a major part in the school’s efforts for change.
The Defender spoke with DesRoches about what he’s been up to in his new role.
Defender: What are the top priorities you are focused on this school year?
DesRoches: I’ve been at Rice University for five years first as dean of engineering and then I became provost a few years later. Now I’m president. I’ve been president for about six months and the broadness of the goals are still the same. Obviously, some things are slightly different as I move up into different roles. One is certainly to increase the visibility and impact of the research as a premiere resource university.
Universities are increasingly being called upon to serve as economic engines of the communities in which they reside. My goal is to really create that infrastructure for us to drive economic development and technologies, creation of new companies and approaches in the city of Houston.
Defender: What initiatives have you launched to increase the diversity of the university’s faculty and graduate student population and sustain it?
DesRoches: Rice is routinely recognized for having a very strong race and class interactions and having a campus as friendly to LGBTQ and other underrepresented groups. In fact, if you look at this matriculating class, the class that came in that will graduate in 2026, there is no single ethnic or racial minority with 32% of our incoming students being from underrepresented groups, Latinx, African American,or Native American. It is an extremely diverse campus and it’s something we are proud of.
Diversity is not tolerated; it’s celebrated here at Rice. When I arrived as provost in 2019, we set up the office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and hired our first vice president Alex Byrd to that role who happens to be a Rice alum and historian professor at Rice. The goal is to provide a focused and coordinated effort around various things we want to do as a campus around DEI. We’ve doubled the number of Black faculty in five years.
It’s really important that students see people in classrooms that look like them. We’ve diversified our graduate student population and significantly formed new partnerships with HBCUs. We launched a couple of new curricular additions including one that is a five-week class for incoming students to orient them to issue around diversity. Also we have a new requirement for all students to take as part of general education.
Defender: Rice is considered one of the most elite private colleges in the South and ranks 15th in the nation in the U.S News Best Colleges 2022-2023 edition. How have you maintained academic excellence even through the COVID-19 pandemic? What new strategies have been implemented in the “new normal?”
DesRoches: I would like to say that we were one of the premiere universities in the world and part of our goal is to increase the worldwide reputation and impact of the university. Clearly, we are a great university, but I’d like to see us do more and be more present and known throughout the world.
COVID has impacted all universities and for us we’ve always had two rules. One is to make sure we maintain the health and safety of all members of our community. The other is that we make sure we’re always delivering on our mission of education and research. It requires us to be flexible among our faculty and staff.
In some cases, we’ve asked them on short notice to shift to online or we’ve asked them to come back in person when we think we have the campus in a safe place. Same thing with our students. They’ve been jostled back and forth for the past two years and they’ve been very flexible as well. One of the reasons I think we’ve done very well is that everybody has taken personal responsibility for themselves and keeping their communities safe while also delivering on our mission.
Defender: In January, Rice was named in a lawsuit along with several elite universities in a “price-fixing cartel” conspiring to favor wealthy applicants, which the university denies. What do you say to those students, families and community members who still feel skeptical about the situation?
DesRoches: I’ll just say that the lawsuit doesn’t make any specific allegations against Rice. We believe that it’s meritless and we’ve been vocal about defending our financial aid program. We follow our own policies in providing very generous aid. We are committed to need blind admission and we will stand by that. We know that there are people around the country who are skeptical about universities, but come spend some time at Rice and other universities to see how we truly transform lives of our students.
Defender: Does the institution have a relationship with K-12 institutions in Houston? What has the institution done to expand and strengthen its pipeline for students interested in going to college and those who are first-generation collegians?
DesRoches: There are a couple of things we do in K-12 and even between that and community colleges. We have the Kinder Institute for Urban Research and it has a program called HERC which is a research practice partnership between Rice and 11 Houston area school districts, to really help us better understand how we can support K-12, and how it can evolve to send more of its students beyond the high school level.
The other thing we’ve done is just this past year, we launched a new pilot program aimed at expanding access to educational opportunities, particularly for STEM students across the greater Houston area called Take Flight STEM Pathway and it’s a partnership between Rice, San Jacinto and Lone Star [Colleges] to expand access and increase the number of students who complete STEM degrees from community college and helping them matriculate to four-year colleges like Rice. There is a huge number of kids that are in community college and we have to figure out how we can support them.
Defender: What are some goals you hope to implement now as president that you didn’t have the chance to do while you were dean and provost of the university?
DesRoches: I’ve been telling everybody that these things will take time. I mentioned the one about growing the research and the impact of the work we do, so it can impact not just our city, but the state and the country. The other is increasing the stature and the size of the graduate programs. Traditionally, we’ve been known as an undergraduate focused institution, but as we evolve as a university, we realize the importance of having comparably strong graduate programs across the breadth of the university.
We’re forming new partnerships, we just established a significant presence in Paris, India, Edinburgh and Scotland. We’re working on strategic locations in Latin America. Given our location near the Gulf, we need to be very strong at the south of the boarder where we can send and recruit students to come to Rice.
Defender: What plans will strengthen job-readiness for incoming students and alum?
DesRoches: I think we do a great job with preparing our students for the workforce. The curriculum, the rigor, the broad-based liberal arts education coupled with strong analytical skills, I think this prepares our students for jobs of the future. We have a number of co-curricular programs outside the classroom. One of them is the Doer Institute for New Leaders, which prepares our students to be leaders when they leave Rice. Obviously, we have career centers to help with job placement, but what’s most important is the skill set they need to be successful.