I SEE U, Episode 92: Here I Am with Rice University President Reginald DesRoches

A year into his historical presidency, Rice University’s Chief Executive Officer, Reginald DesRoches, is remaining steadfast and championing measures of inclusion despite the state of Texas dismantling them at colleges across the region, all while he leads an institution whose founder during slavery profited off individuals who looked like him.


Rice University President Reginald DesRoches


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Reginald DesRoches, the eighth president of one of the most prestigious universities in the country, recently completed the first year of his historical post. The Haitian-native is the first Black president, the first immigrant and the first engineer to ever lead Rice since the founding of the university in 1921. But the history of Rice is a bit complicated and very controversial. Join I SEE U as host Eddie Robinson chats candidly with the Chief Executive Officer of Rice, Dr. Reginald DesRoches. A university that once banned Black undergraduates from attending, DesRoches shares his feelings about leading an institution whose founder, William Marsh Rice, profited from the slave trade. With DesRoches establishing the first Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Rice, a private institution, he offers up his perspective as to why state lawmakers are looking to dismantle those same offices at public universities across Texas. Plus, we learn more about his mentor—the former president of Prairie View A&M University, Dr. Ruth Simmons—and the role she's played in his career since his arrival at Rice in 2017. A pioneer in higher education herself, Simmons now serves as the President's Distinguished Fellow and Advisor at Rice.


Full Transcript

Eddie Robinson: He recently completed the first year of his historical presidency at Rice University. Reginald DesRoches is the first Black president, the first immigrant, and the first engineer to ever lead Rice since the founding of the university in 1921.

Reginald DesRoches: To me there is an empowerment to know that I’m passing by and I see the founder who obviously did a lot of great things for the university.

Reginald DesRoches: We wouldn’t have a university without him. At the same time we know he was involved in the slave trade, he owned slaves. And here I am as president of this university.

Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson. Stay tuned as we chat unguarded with Rice University’s Chief Executive Officer, Reginald DesRoches. How does he feel about leading an institution of higher education when its founder, during slavery, profited off individuals who looked like him?

Eddie Robinson: Oh yeah. I feel you. We hear you. I SEE U.

Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m your host, Eddie Robinson.

Eddie Robinson: What you’ve just heard was a very small portion of a clip produced by Rice University in the announcement of Reginald DesRoches, who had been serving as the university’s provost at the time, being named as the eighth president of Rice. He succeeded President David Leebron, who was the gentleman speaking prior to my intro.

Eddie Robinson: Dr. DesRoches, of Haitian descent, is walking history. He is a globally recognized structural engineer, as well as an earthquake resilience expert. And if you recall back in 2010, a massive 7. 0 magnitude earthquake devastated the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Most severely affected was Haiti, where the Haitian government reported an official death toll of more than 300,000.

Eddie Robinson: One of the worst natural disasters in recorded history. Just days after it happened, desRoches would serve as the key technical leader in the U. S. ‘s response to that event. He’s been at Rice since 2017, when he accepted the position as Dean of Engineering at the George R. Brown School of Engineering. Now, prior to that, he served as Chair of the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, DesRoches has authored over 300 technical publications and has mentored more than 30 doctoral students, many of whom hold faculty positions at top universities around the world. We’re absolutely delighted and grateful that he’s taken time out of his busy schedule to chat with us in his beautiful office overlooking the entire campus as well as parts of the city of Houston.

Full Transcript

Eddie Robinson: The chief executive officer of Rice University, Reginald DesRoches. Reginald, thank you so much for being a guest.

Reginald DesRoches: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Eddie Robinson: Congratulations on becoming the first Black president of Rice, the first immigrant. Becoming president of rice, you know, it’s, I’d say what, it’s been a year?

Reginald DesRoches: It’s been a year and a month, it’s been a year and a month.

Eddie Robinson: Interesting in a month. How has it been? You know, was it what you’ve expected?

Reginald DesRoches: It’s been busy. And by the way, I’m also the first engineer president.

Eddie Robinson: Interestingly enough.

Reginald DesRoches: Let’s not forget that.

Eddie Robinson: Yes. And from what I gather, it was sort of like from your parents saying, you know, you’re going to be a doctor, you’re gonna be a lawyer, you’re gonna be an engineer.

Reginald DesRoches: Yes.

Eddie Robinson: That sounds so familiar. With my family and they, they said those exact words. You’re going to be a doctor. You’re going to be a lawyer. You’re going to be an engineer.

Reginald DesRoches: Or a disappointment.

Eddie Robinson: That is fantastic. I love that. I love that. What is up with that before we even get into what it was like, you know, for a year here at Rice. What’s with that statement of parents coming at us with these real, I mean, real statements. It’s, it’s, it’s not even paraphrasing. This is exactly what they said to me and sound like exactly in that order.

Eddie Robinson: You’re going to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer. Why do you think they came at us?

Reginald DesRoches: You know, at least for me. I’m an immigrant child. I was actually born in Haiti. My parents left Haiti when they were a young adult in their 30s and came to this country, had to learn the language, worked really hard. My mom was a nurse.

Reginald DesRoches: She worked double shifts. My dad worked, you know, weekend jobs in addition to his full time job. And so they sacrificed everything for us. And so they made that investment of their time and everything Uh, for us to have an education, to have the opportunities that they didn’t have and they knew they wouldn’t have.

Reginald DesRoches: And so, you know, they were, they were on us as kids. It’s like, you’re studying. This is, you’re studying every day. You’re gonna do this. You’re gonna do this. We’re putting everything, uh, so that you guys can have the opportunities we didn’t have. And, and so… Yeah, it was, it was just the way it was in the house, where, you know, they, we knew we had to perform or else we’d have to pay the consequences.

Eddie Robinson: It’s mechanical engineering.

Reginald DesRoches: Um, my undergrad, uh, my undergraduate’s in mechanical, then my graduate work is in civil engineering.

Eddie Robinson: And this was at… At Berkeley. At Berkeley. With a, uh, a doctorate in structural engineering at the University of California. A year and a month. What’s it been like? Here we go.

Reginald DesRoches: It’s been great. I mean, I, I, first of all, I feel, I feel blessed to be in this, in this role to be leading this incredible institution. It’s been a busy year. Fortunately, this summer, it’s been a little bit of a lull just because the normal cadence of things doesn’t, doesn’t occur during the summer. Uh, but it’s been, uh, it’s been a very, very busy year, uh, in terms of just the change that I’m trying to embark upon at Rice, you know, bringing in a whole new leadership team, hiring nine new vice presidents out of 12 in a period of a year. And it’s the sheer volume of events I went to. That was probably what’s most surprising to me. We probably were out, my wife and I, because she was part of this as a partner in this.

Reginald DesRoches: We were probably gone six nights a week. We didn’t, we weren’t at home. We were at an event in the city of Houston or outside the city of Houston or hosting something at our house. And uh, so that’s what was probably the most surprising is, is boy, you’re out a lot. You’re out in the community a lot, which was, was great.

Reginald DesRoches: I got to meet a lot of people from the community, a lot of alums, a lot of friends of Rice and got to see how, how much people really love and value the university.

Eddie Robinson: And that’s the kind of person that you are, right? I mean, I think for the first day that you were on board here at Rice, you were out and about and meeting students and going into classrooms and going to football practices.

Eddie Robinson: Is that the kind of person that you are? You know, make sure it’s hands on and people see you.

Reginald DesRoches: It is. I mean, that’s what I enjoy most is talking to people, you know, talking one on one, talking to small groups, going where people live and where people work and where they are to see what they’re doing. For me, it’s important that I understand what people are going through.

Reginald DesRoches: And when I was Dean, the first thing I did was I said, I’m going to go to every individual faculty members lab, meet their students, see what they’re doing.

Reginald DesRoches: Took me a year, but I visited around 120 people, because for me, it’s important that I understand what people are going through. If I want to help, help them change, or help the university change to meet their needs, I have to go to where they are.

Eddie Robinson: You caught me at the beginning saying, first engineer, you know, president.

Eddie Robinson: What does this moment, I mean, really mean, you know, for you and your career? I mean, it, what I’m really getting at is what does this say about our country? Because we’re still experiencing. These firsts. And here it is 2024 and beyond. And we’re still talking about individuals being firsts. What’s going on?

Eddie Robinson: What would how can you interpret that?

Reginald DesRoches: Yeah, a couple ways. I mean, certainly speaks to the value going back to our parents pushing us the value of education and transforming lives. And when I think about Why I’m in this profession, uh, in some ways, I’m an example of why I’m in this profession to be able to bring that to the masses, to transform lives.

Reginald DesRoches: My, our life, my life, my siblings lives were transformed because of our ability to go and get an education at, at great universities. To be able to come from where we’ve come from, where my, you know, born in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, first generation students, to then go on to be able to, First, get degrees from great institutions, in my case a PHD from a great institution, then go teach at great institutions and become a dean and a provost and now president at one of the best institutions in the world, speaks to the power of education in transforming lives. And this is, this is why I’m in this profession, because I think we, we need to continue to think about that and remember that’s why we do what we do as educators.

Eddie Robinson: You know, you were born in Port au Prince, Haiti, then migrated to the U. S. where you grew up in Queens. Uh, what do you remember about your time in Haiti? And what was it like for you growing up as an immigrant?

Reginald DesRoches: Yeah, so I, I didn’t remember Haiti from the time I was a kid because I came when I was one. And I only went back once, 2010.

Reginald DesRoches: Uh, and so this is, uh, I guess 13 years ago now, and that’s when it really hit home for me, the country I was from, why my parents did what they did, why they were always so frugal, why they pushed us hard, because I can see the poverty that, that they came from, uh, because I was too young to remember all that, and it was, it was, it, it was a transformational experience for me to be part of that, not just to help the country of my birth through this tragedy, but also to better understand it.

Reginald DesRoches: Where I came from, even though I lived in a somewhat Caribbean community in Queens, to be in Haiti, and I went back many times, uh, it really brought home, uh, why my parents pushed us so hard, and just really how amazing they were to be able to leave that, come here, start all over, and provide us with the opportunities that they did.

Eddie Robinson: This is I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson, and we’re chatting with the first Black president of Rice University, Dr. Reginald DesRoches. A Haitian immigrant with a decorated career in engineering. We’re learning more about his family in Haiti, what it was like for him growing up as a child, as well as his experiences here in Houston as a leader to a highly prestigious institution that’s widely regarded as one of the top universities in the country.

Eddie Robinson: We’re grateful to him that he’s allowed our I SEE U team to stop by his office on the campus for our conversation as he wraps up his first year of an historical presidency here at Rice University.

Eddie Robinson: You’re the youngest of your siblings, correct? It was pretty tough in this household.

Reginald DesRoches: It was tough. In some ways, I benefited from being the youngest because by the time they got to me, they were tired and they weren’t as strict as they were on some of my older siblings.

Eddie Robinson: Excellent.

Reginald DesRoches: But it was, yeah, it was a strict household for sure. It was a typical Caribbean household. You had to get home, you had to put your hours in, you had to study. I was fortunate enough to be able to at least have a little bit of a break. They allowed me to run track and get away from the house a little bit.

Eddie Robinson: Okay.

Reginald DesRoches: But. Uh, all my siblings went to school locally at the local college, St. John’s University. My parents wouldn’t have thought of sending a kid away to college, but again, being the youngest and having three siblings advocate for me to go away to school was the benefit of being the youngest, the youngest child.

Eddie Robinson: As you continue into your career, I mean, you, you can’t help but think about the sayings, the quotes, or something your parents would have said to you that still resonates with you to this day. And perhaps you’ve even. Share it with your children. Can you think of anything in terms of sayings or quotes or, um?

Reginald DesRoches: You know, they talked about a couple of things. Obviously, the importance of hard work. You know, you’re not going to be given anything. You have to work hard. Nobody’s going to hand anything to you. But they also talked about the importance of treating everybody with respect and helping people. And I can see that firsthand.

Reginald DesRoches: One of the things that they did do, and I think in some ways I’ve probably benefited from that more than anything else, is I always, they would always have family members come from Haiti. that were transitioning to the U. S. They’d put them up in our home. We didn’t have a big home. They’d put them up.

Reginald DesRoches: They’d feed them. Could be years until they transitioned, uh, and were able to get on their own feet. And that’s something that stuck with me in terms of the importance of helping other people. That’s something that really, really stuck with me.

Eddie Robinson: You mentioned, you know, helping out in the recovery efforts of 2010’s, um, devastating earthquake.

Eddie Robinson: You know, what was it like returning and seeing all that devastation?

Reginald DesRoches: It was probably one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in my life.

Eddie Robinson: Really?

Reginald DesRoches: Just for one, the devastation. I mean, it looked like a war zone. And I had been to other post earthquake places, but nothing was like this. You have to think about a quarter of a million people died in an earthquake. you know, country of four or five million. So something in like one in 10 people perished and then twice that were injured. And you can just see the devastation.

Reginald DesRoches: I got there less than two weeks after the earthquake. So there was still, you know, bodies in the streets and there was a stench of death. And it was really, it was really tough. And in fact, when I came home after that first trip, I remember my kids would, my wife would tell me that I didn’t say anything.

Eddie Robinson: Yeah.

Reginald DesRoches: I was just, it was just, it was, I was numb from seeing so much death, uh, and, and children. We passed by, I have a picture that I, I gave in talks of a kindergarten, and you can tell it’s a kindergarten because they have little kids, a picture of little kids, and around 50 kids were still buried in that place when we passed by there, and you can smell the stench of that.

Reginald DesRoches: And so to see that time and time again, it was, it was really an, an emotional experience from that perspective for me. But I also got to understand just the strength of the Haitian people because despite that people were there helping each other and doing things that just reinforce, you know, the strength that my parents had because they came from this tradition of faith and just this, you know, never give up kind of mentality.

Reginald DesRoches: It was a cab driver I recall that was driving us around and we were talking and he, and he had lost, he lost three, three of his family members, two kids and his wife. And he said, but he’s moving on. It’s that kind of strength that really stuck with me.

Eddie Robinson: Coming up, we continue our chat with the eighth president of Rice University, Reginald DesRoches. We’ll find out more about his thoughts on the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down affirmative action in college admissions, forcing many of these institutions to seek out other ways to achieve diversity.

Eddie Robinson: And speaking of diversity, we learn more about what President DesRoches thinks about the state of Texas and why he believes measures of inclusion are being dismantled at colleges across the region. Plus, we dive deep into the complicated and controversial history of Rice University and its segregated past.

Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson, a provocative segment of I SEE U that you do not want to miss. We’ll be right back.

Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, please be sure to subscribe to our podcast. I see you with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also, please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.

Eddie Robinson: It’s I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson. As we continue our conversation with President Reginald DesRoches, he’s leading one of the most prestigious universities in the country. In terms of academic rankings, Rice is considered a member of the top tier of national universities, according to the U. S. News and World Report.

Eddie Robinson: But the history of Rice, and its connection to slavery, namely by the institution’s founder, William Marsh Rice, has stirred a bit of controversy as of late. You see, the founder had chartered Rice Institute in 1891, strictly for the white inhabitants of the city of Houston and the state of Texas. The Rice Institute opened its doors in 1912 and became a university in 1960.

Eddie Robinson: Black undergraduates weren’t allowed to pursue an education at Rice until around the mid 1960s. And journalists have recently taken time to dive into past university yearbooks, only to discover a student chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, with social gatherings taking place at 80s. In early 2023, Rice announced plans to move a statue of William Rice from a prominent spot at the center of a frequently visited courtyard to a less visible location on the perimeter of the lawn.

Eddie Robinson: The university also formed a task force in 2019 to address this complicated history with the hopes of initiating dialogue on campus and offer up a better understanding of its past moving forward. I SEE U spoke with historians and co-chairs of this task force back in 2021 in an episode hosted by Melanye Price.

Eddie Robinson: Here’s an excerpt from that conversation with Dr. Alexander Byrd and Dr. Caleb McDaniel, both with Rice University:

Dr. Melanye Price: what is the connection between Rice and slavery? What are the things that you found?

Dr. Caleb McDaniel: Well, we, we started there, you know, our charge calls us to look at the history of slavery. And I think, you know, one of the things that we discovered early on was that the question of.

Dr. Caleb McDaniel: Rice’s connection to slavery had not been extensively studied in the past. It was known that William Marsh Rice, who is the namesake of the university and who gave the initial gifts that endowed the Rice Institute, did enslave people, but there wasn’t a lot of additional work. Into the details of that.

Dr. Caleb McDaniel: Um, so we know, for example, and that in 1860 on the United States Census, William Marsh Rice was listed as enslaving at least 16 people in 1860. And of course, that’s a snapshot of one moment in time. But we’ve also been able to locate documents, including fugitive slave advertisements. Um, lines in financial ledgers that are held at the university that can give some names to some of the people that, uh, William Marsh Rice enslaved and give us a little bit of a better sense of the extent of his connections to the history of slavery.

Dr. Melanye Price: So were these, uh, folks who he enslaved, was it on the site of Rice’s campus or did he have a plantation site elsewhere?

Dr. Alexander Byrd: So, uh, Rice was a merchant, and, and so one of the things that the, that the update, uh, attempts to do is to contextualize his slave owning as a member of a, if we’re going to call Houston and urban area during this time, what it meant to be a slave owning member of the Texas urban, uh, uh, elite.

Dr. Alexander Byrd: And so, um, Marsh, um, William Marsh’s rights, he wasn’t a plantation owner in the, in the classic sense that we think of a plantation owner striding across a a rural landscape. Uh, and interacting with agricultural workers. Um, he was a slave owner in a, in a city. Um, but, but one of the most in, um, I think intriguing and important findings of the update is contextualizing the ways that an urban merchant through his financial practices became entangled in many, many ways in owning people.

Dr. Alexander Byrd: Also, the updates outline some of his partnerships with folks who were plantation owners themselves.

Eddie Robinson: Taken from episode 25 of I SEE U, that was Dr. Alexander Byrd and Dr. Caleb McDaniel, Rice historians and co-chairs of the Task Force on Slavery, Segregation, and Racial Injustice. This committee was formed to address the segregationist history of Rice University.

Eddie Robinson: Now all of this context is important. As we head into this segment’s chat with the current president of Rice, Dr. Reginald DesRoches, we were fortunate to interview him inside his own office located on Rice University’s campus.

Eddie Robinson: Is there a weight to knowing that the person whom Rice University is named after, William Marsh Rice, profited off the slave trade of the people who looked just like you, and now you’re president of the same university?

Reginald DesRoches: Yeah, there’s a weight for sure. But there’s also an empowerment to that. To me, there is an empowerment to know that I’m passing by, and I see, you know, I see the founder, who obviously did a lot of great things for the university in terms of, uh, we wouldn’t, we wouldn’t have a university without him. At the same time, we know he was involved in the slave trade.

Reginald DesRoches: He owned slaves. And here I am. And here I am as president of this university. To me, that’s very empowering. And it speaks to the change that this nation and this university has gone through. Because remember, we didn’t accept Black students at Rice until the late 1960s. And yet, here I am as a Black president.

Reginald DesRoches: It’s empowering.

Eddie Robinson: I’ll say. Despite this institution being private, have you sensed any pressures or suggestions from donors or others involved within the university to remove or roll back? You know, diversity driven inclusion, inclusionary programs here at Rice.

Reginald DesRoches: We have not. I have not for sure. And obviously the political climate is out there in terms of what’s happening. We see what’s happening in the state of Texas.

Reginald DesRoches: As a private institution, of course, we’re somewhat shielded from some of that, not necessarily from the affirmative action ruling.

Reginald DesRoches: And we’ve been very clear about the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Rice. To me, it’s not a political issue. It is strictly how we educate our students. It is part of our mission, Rice students are amazing, not because they’re smart and have one of the highest SAT scores in the country or because our faculty are great.

Reginald DesRoches: It’s because we bring this incredibly diverse group of people to campus. They live together. They work together. They’re in classes together. They learn from each other. And that special sauce is why I think our students are incredible and our leaders all over the world. And we can’t have that without a diverse student body.

Eddie Robinson: Over the summer, you know, of 2023, the U. S. Supreme Court voted 63 and students for fair admissions versus Harvard, subsequently dismantling affirmative action in colleges.

Eddie Robinson: What were your thoughts about this decision? You know, how, and how will this court decision affect Rice, um, moving forward with its admissions process?

Reginald DesRoches: Yeah, we were disappointed, although we expected this would be the case and we had been preparing for that.

Reginald DesRoches: Um, we hope it doesn’t impact us. Obviously, we’re going to follow the rules and we no longer will use race as one of many factors in our admissions, but we’re going to have to work harder. And we’re going to have to do other things to try to maintain a diverse student body, and we’re committed to doing that, and I’m confident we will be able to do that.

Eddie Robinson: Um, some have even argued about ending the practice of legacy admissions and allowing wealthy, less qualified applicants into elite schools.

Eddie Robinson: You know, what do you think it’ll take for more high achieving students from low and middle income families to ensure that there’s access for them and an elite school?

Reginald DesRoches: Yeah, I think a couple of things. One is we we have to and all universities when I say we we Rice and we schools like Rice have to work harder to go into those disadvantaged communities where these kids where there are talented kids hiding in many places because we don’t know they’re there.

Reginald DesRoches: So we have to work harder to get these communities to find to find these young women and men. Um, the other thing is we have to tell them about our financial aid for us. We have this incredible, you know, the Rice Investment financial aid package where we provide aid up to $200, 000. A lot of kids don’t even apply to Rice because they think, I can’t afford it.

Reginald DesRoches: It’s so expensive. And yet the case is they wouldn’t have to pay anything. So we have to, we have to do that. We have to do more with community colleges. Uh, something that we haven’t done as well. And, you know, there are something like half a million community college students in the broader Houston area.

Reginald DesRoches: There’s talent there that should be at Rice. And so we need to form more partnerships there. And we’re forming partnerships with HBCUs as a way of really doing more in that community. So, a lot of things that we can do. And I’m confident we’re going to be able to maintain the diversity which is so important to our student body at Rice.

Eddie Robinson: You know, if I may speak freely, Mr. President. Um, What do you make of all of this? You know, we’ve got the state of Texas and what they’re doing with, you know, rolling back diversity, you know, banning, you know, diversity issues. And, you know, you’ve got, you know, affirmative action going on. Why do you believe these initiatives are being dismantled?

Eddie Robinson: The real reason the state of Texas is doing things like this, what say you, what’s going on here?

Reginald DesRoches: You know, all I can say is, I think it’s a lack of understanding of what we do, of how we educate our students, and what our DEI officers do, um, and how we think about diversity. Diversity is not just, you know, black and white, diversity is so much broader than that.

Eddie Robinson: That’s right.

Reginald DesRoches: So I think it’s a, it’s just a lack of education, a lack of understanding. of what universities do and how universities educate their students to be great citizens when they leave here.

Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson here speaking with Rice University President Reginald DesRoches.

Eddie Robinson: Dr. DesRoches, you know, your tenure at Rice University began in 2017 being the Dean of Engineering. Now, prior to that, You served as chair of the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. You improved school rankings there. During those recovery efforts in Haiti, you were known as Engineer DesRoches and taking on this massive endeavor.

Eddie Robinson: At some point, you had to say to yourself, I could become university president if I wanted it. Can you share with us what was going on in your mind that helped to elevate that kind of thinking? I mean What made you think that you could be president? What, what, what gave you the audacity to think that you can be president?

Reginald DesRoches: Yeah, you know, I think I’ve always, I’ve always thought that I can do whatever I put my mind to, um, for sure. You know, I wasn’t seeking, you know, when I came here, I was dean of engineering. Yeah, then clearly once you go on that track, dean and the natural next step is provost and president. I wasn’t necessarily thinking it was going to be in five years.

Reginald DesRoches: I wasn’t thinking it would be at Rice. My goal is always to get in. Do a great job and have an impact and then the rest will will follow whatever that might be, whatever the time frame might be, and that’s always been my approach to life. And certainly once you become a provost, which happened three years later, then it’s like, okay, at some point I have to decide I’m not going to go back to the faculty and go back and do my earthquake research.

Reginald DesRoches: Or will I pursue a presidency at some point and have impact in a different way? Both are very impactful. Um, and I knew I was likely going to do that. I didn’t know where, I didn’t know when, and again, uh, it was an issue of timing and being at the right place at the right time and being prepared. And being prepared.

Eddie Robinson: If you can, if you, if you don’t mind, if you can kind of go through the challenges of your first year.

Reginald DesRoches: Yeah. I mean, obviously one of the challenges is building a new team, right? So I’m in the process of hiring all new leaders and getting them in and getting them all on the same page and accustomed to the Rice culture, um, developing a strategic vision for the university.

Reginald DesRoches: You know, the personal challenge I face is, is balancing, right? Balancing my time and trying to find time for myself. And, you know, I probably didn’t have the right balance this last year. I was gone a lot and probably didn’t sleep as much as I should. And now I’m sort of reassessing and working with my assistant.

Reginald DesRoches: Okay. Why don’t you save me, you know, 15 minutes every couple of hours so I can clear my inbox because, you know, I need to figure out how to better. Manage my time so that I do have a little bit more time throughout the day to do some things and think as opposed to just constantly being in meetings in the day and then constantly being in events at night.

Reginald DesRoches: And so, um, the first year was, was a challenge from, from a time management perspective. And I, I blame Ruth Simmons for some of that, because she said, Reginald, your first year, go to everything. Don’t say no to anything. And, uh, she said, yeah, be out there as much as possible that first year. Then you can decide what you need to go to or not.

Reginald DesRoches: And that’s, that was great advice, but I’m exhausted. Uh, and so, um, but yeah, I just need to figure out a better amount, manage my time so that I have a little bit more time to sort of think and, and do other things and, and, and make sure I get a good night’s sleep and take care of myself.

Eddie Robinson: You have a great. Like work workout, you know regimen I would imagine right?

Reginald DesRoches: I do I do I’m pretty I’m pretty disciplined I think I’m disciplined in general, but I’m certainly disciplined with working out. So well, I work out six days a week I have now I have a Garmin watch I got Uh, Father’s Day that helps track my minutes, but no, I, I work out and for me, it’s, it’s something that helps clear my mind is the only time I have sort of to myself and run twice a week.

Reginald DesRoches: And I have a Peloton. I’ll do that twice a week. I’ll lift twice a week and the running I do with my wife. So it’s, you know, at least. Part of the day we have together it gets a little challenging in August and July. Much nicer in September and the rest of the year, but it’s it’s it’s tough.

Eddie Robinson: Yeah, that’s all that’s like it’s 110.

Reginald DesRoches: Yeah No, we do it for and I normally always work out first thing in the morning at six o’clock.

Eddie Robinson: There you go.

Reginald DesRoches: Get out there and do but it’s still I mean it’s 82 degrees and it’s a field like temperature of it at 94 So it’s still tough, but it’s it’s for me.

Reginald DesRoches: It’s it’s important for my mental health To be able to get out and do that. And, and, and I just feel better throughout the day. So that’s something that I don’t sacrifice.

Eddie Robinson: And what again, what I admire, how you’re just so open in terms of, you know, accessibility.

Reginald DesRoches: Yeah.

Eddie Robinson: And sometimes, you know, from a student standpoint, you know, coming from a university that, you know, I, I went to master my master’s in NYU I hardly saw our president, the president of that school.

Reginald DesRoches: Yeah.

Eddie Robinson: You know, I never saw the president, but you are accessible and you allow yourself to be that.

Reginald DesRoches: And I’ve, and I’ve always been that way. And I think that’s why this, this is a, this role is a good fit because that’s, it’s also part of the Rice culture is accessibility. I mean, I got an email from a student, any student that says, Oh, I want to talk to you about something.

Reginald DesRoches: I have an idea. I’ll meet with them. It may take a couple weeks to get ’em on the calendar, but I’ll meet with them. Uh, and that’s part of the Rice culture and it’s, it’s something I love to do. I absolutely love to sit down and talk to students and, you know, I’m accessible to the faculty. Sometimes if I’m just walking through campus, I’ll walk through a building and pop my head in the lab and introduce myself.

Reginald DesRoches: It’s just, it, it’s just part of who I am.

Eddie Robinson: Mr. President, I have to commend you. I mean, on some level, if I were a senior in high school right now, trying to determine my next moves, my next steps, it would be difficult for me not to consider pursuing a degree at Rice with you at the helm. I mean, you’re a great mentor.

Eddie Robinson: For someone who’s looking to become a true leader via that engineering route. You know, um, someone who already is an engineer, someone who brings people together with whatever project that’s up for the task, someone that encourages and inspires others who’s open and accessible to everyone, regardless of a title, you know, plus you, you know, there’s an attention to detail, right?

Eddie Robinson: When you’re an engineer and, and you’re black, you know, someone who’s Black, that’s real leadership and you’d be my hero. You know, you were the first Black dean at Rice, the first Black provost, the first Black president. Now, you know, I’m sure you’re a hero to countless individuals who’ve heard your story, you know, those who followed you, what you’ve had to endure to get to where you are, your work ethic.

Eddie Robinson: I mean, it’s really admirable.

Reginald DesRoches: Let me just say I’m still very uncomfortable with that whole, you know, people telling me, Oh, you’re like a hero. It’s just not, you know, it’s interesting. I’m just not comfortable with that. It may be because of the way I was raised and my personality, but, you know, people would come up and say, Okay, I got your autograph.

Reginald DesRoches: It’s like, no, let’s take a picture. Let’s take a selfie together.

Eddie Robinson: Yeah.

Reginald DesRoches: It’s just, I’m just Reggie. You know, I’m not, I’m not, it’s just not something that, and maybe because of the way I was brought up, um, but it’s just something I’m still uncomfortable with.

Eddie Robinson: With this institution being a highly selective private university in Houston, Texas, Rice is often called the Harvard of the South.

Eddie Robinson: Do you agree with that moniker?

Reginald DesRoches: I would say Harvard is the Rice of the north, northeast. So I don’t necessarily like, you know, these comparisons where the Harvard or the south of it or, or any of the things, because we’re unique. We’re very different. Uh, Harvard’s a great institution. We’re a great institution, but we are, we are a very special place and a very unique place because of where we’re located in the city of Houston, our unique size, the culture we have, the culture of care.

Reginald DesRoches: We are, we are just different from anybody else in the nation or in the world.

Eddie Robinson: Coming up, we wrap up our conversation with Rice University President Reginald DesRoches. We learn more about the future of Rice and what role Dr. DesRoches will play in positioning his institution as a place for academic excellence. And what kind of legacy does he plan to leave behind? Share your thoughts and insight.

Eddie Robinson: Follow us on Instagram or send us an email. Talk at I S E E U show dot org. I’m Eddie Robinson. Our final segment of I SEE U comes your way right after this.

Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, please be sure to subscribe to our podcast. I SEE U with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also, please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.

Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m your host, Eddie Robinson. We’ve been speaking with Dr. Reginald DesRoches, the 8th president of Rice. He’s a Haitian American engineer who’s made history as the first black president to lead this institution. His decorated career includes work as a civil and structural engineer and nearly 30 years of experience as a researcher and educator.

Eddie Robinson: All be it a private university, Dr. DesRoches is also remaining steadfast and championing measures of diversity and inclusion at Rice, despite the recent U. S. Supreme Court ruling that ends the consideration of race in college admissions and Texas state officials working to dismantle diversity programs at colleges across the region.

Eddie Robinson: But Dr. DesRoches is not the only voice committed to diversity and inclusion in higher education. Dr. Ruth Simmons, a Houston native. has been extremely vocal in speaking and writing on subjects that relate to these initiatives. She’s now joined forces with Rice as the President’s Distinguished Fellow, serving as an advisor to the President’s Office on a variety of matters across the Rice campus.

Eddie Robinson: We wrap up our chat with Rice University’s Chief Executive Officer Reginald DesRoches.

Eddie Robinson: According to the National Science Foundation, Blacks make up 5% of all engineers. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education states that Blacks make up just under 13% of all university presidents. As someone who’s part of the minority of both engineers and university presidents, has there ever been any moments of racial incidents that still impact you to this very day?

Reginald DesRoches: That’s against me, in particular. You know, not direct, and when I say that, not direct, nobody’s, you know, say, oh, you’re, you’re Black, you’re not qualified, but I, I guarantee you there are positions early in my career, opportunities I did not get because I looked the way I do, and I’ve been told that later on, people weren’t sure how you would work.

Reginald DesRoches: How you would fare at this university when I was applying to university jobs. And so, um, not, you know, malicious, but, you know, there was a concern whether or not you’d be able to fit into this university. I think we’ve come a long way with that, uh, but there’s no doubt there are opportunities that perhaps I didn’t have because of the color of my skin.

Eddie Robinson: Yeah, and we asked that we pretty much asked that quite a bit for our guests because it gets at the heart of the differences that we all have and for someone to really sort of capture and understand an incident that may have happened to them. Because I’m sure there is, right? And maybe you can share that with us, a narrative, some story that, or an incident that happened, even as a, as a young kid that really sort of inspired you or encouraged you or motivated you to say, you know what?

Eddie Robinson: Something’s not right here. This, this didn’t feel right, what she just said to me. This didn’t feel right, what he just called me. Can you think of anything?

Reginald DesRoches: But, you know, there, there are all these subtle, subtle things that happen. That, uh, you know, whether it’s somebody that sort of moves out the way when I’m walking down the street, I still get that.

Reginald DesRoches: I mean, you know, it happens less now that I’m older, but as, certainly as a, as a young adult, you know, even as a professor, even as a dean of engineering, you know, if it’s dark and I’m wearing a hood and I’m running, you know, people are still, there’s still this lack of comfort that happens as a black man walking down the street when it’s dark.

Reginald DesRoches: And so that, that continues to happen. Uh, that hasn’t changed, even though I’m president of Rice University, that’s something that, that can still happen. It still does happen. And so, uh, yeah, so there’s, there are tons of, tons of these things, you know, one of the questions I was asked, which was, which was, um, You know, an interesting question.

Reginald DesRoches: After I became president, um, during the inauguration, uh, I think it was an alum came to me and said, and this wasn’t a directly racist comment. It was just an interesting comment. But, uh, he’s like, wow, you know, you’re born in Haiti. What’s the, he said, what’s the chance of a kid today born in Haiti?

Reginald DesRoches: Becoming president of Rice University. He said, it must be a billion to one. And he put like an emphasis on a billion. Must be a billion to one. I thought to myself, really? A billion? I didn’t, he caught me off guard. I didn’t have a comment. A billion to one.

Eddie Robinson: Yeah.

Reginald DesRoches: What does that, what does that mean? That it’s, it’s just, it’s unacceptable almost, right?

Eddie Robinson: This is I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson. As we continue our conversation with Rice President Reginald DesRoches.

Eddie Robinson: Dr. DesRoches, I’m thinking of one individual who’s been an amazing advocate for creating equity between the state’s more substantially funded, predominantly white institutions and HBCUs, historically Black colleges and universities, namely Prairie View A& M.

Eddie Robinson: It’s Dr. Ruth Simmons. You know, this pioneer, this trailblazer, in my opinion. You know, raise the stakes, raise the standards, um, for other university presidents who come after her at Prairie View. She increased research spending. She single handedly ushered in major financial contributions and donors to the table of Prairie View.

Eddie Robinson: You know, Dr. Simmons served for six remarkable and transformative years as president and is currently working with you as the president’s Distinguished Fellow.

Ruth Simmons: “Let’s be careful, careful. of a narrative that overstates the racial implications of today’s ceremony. For that is only part of the story. President DesRoches will not and must not be given a pass because of William Marsh Rice’s error.

Ruth Simmons: He must be a president in full, judged, not on the basis of his race and how handsome he is. Oh. Sorry.”

Eddie Robinson: Her three month early departure from Prairie View, which is a member of the Texas A& M University System, raised eyebrows from both students and alumni in February of 2023, and it appeared from the outside looking in that she was faced with challenges of seeing the Texas A& M System, its administrators, its Board of Regents, all share in that passion, all share in that commitment to learning the needs of Prairie View and its affairs moving forward.

Eddie Robinson: Not going into any details with any of this, but I’m wondering if you could offer up some words of encouragement for alumni named, you know, me, for instance, at, you know, I’m a alumni at Prairie View, but can you provide some words of advice for those who are affiliated with HBCUs, those universities who face funding challenges, especially when it’s compared to predominantly white institutions, words of encouragement as a president of a university who has to consistently work with administrators from other institutions on certain matters.

Eddie Robinson: What say you to all of this?

Reginald DesRoches: Yeah, I mean, I would, I would say, obviously, uh, Ruth can give you the details on what went down, you know, I would say, don’t lose hope, uh, the role that prairie View and other schools like Prairie View play is so critical. And one of the things that I always took to heart when I would talk to Ruth and I talked to her frequently even during that time is she would talk about how She’s there because of the students.

Reginald DesRoches: It’s all about the students. And she cares so, and I think that’s what made her such a great leader. Because she really cared about the students and the mission of universities in helping and changing these students lives. And she never forgot that. And that’s what she, everything she did was around that.

Reginald DesRoches: And so I tell alums, don’t forget. Everything you do for the university should be around supporting these incredible young women and men so that they have the opportunities that you have.

Eddie Robinson: Has she imparted any advice to you, um, as a, you know, in your prestigious career, you know, as a university president?

Reginald DesRoches: Are you kidding? Almost every month.

Eddie Robinson: Oh, really?

Reginald DesRoches: Uh, yeah. Ruth has been, Ruth has been, uh, she, she tells it to you straight, Reginald, I wouldn’t do that. You know, she calls me Reginald, but, uh, I’ve been very fortunate to know her since I came to Rice and, and, uh. I’ve leaned on her, leaned on her during the interview process.

Reginald DesRoches: As I was going through that, I asked her questions, okay, for this next stage, what should I do for this next stage? What should I do? And obviously now that she’s here, I have. And, and just bounce ideas. I know I will get the truth from her. She’ll tell me if I’m doing something wrong. She’ll lay it out straight.

Reginald DesRoches: And so, uh, uh, she’s really, really a valuable asset to the university and certainly to me, me personally. And I’ll tell you the best piece of advice she gave me was during the During the last stages of the interview process for presidency, I knew there were a handful of candidates, probably two. And I was like, Ruth, I have an all day interview.

Reginald DesRoches: What, you know, what do I need to do at this stage? And she’s like, it’s not about how qualified you are at this stage. They know you can do the job. They want to know who you are as a person. Tell them who you are. Tell them your story. I was like, well, I don’t think I have it. She said, Tom, you want to take 10 minutes to tell me a story.

Reginald DesRoches: And I did that. And it had a big impact.

Eddie Robinson: Shout out Dr. Ruth, we love you. Um, what is the legacy, Mr. President, that you would like to leave behind for your children?

Reginald DesRoches: For my children, that’s what you want to ask for the university because I always avoid that question. Others will define the legacy. You know, I, I, I, I lead with integrity.

Reginald DesRoches: I always do the right thing. And I, you know, I constantly tell the kids, do the right thing. Make sure you do the right thing. Be a person of integrity.

Eddie Robinson: What can we sort of look forward to?

Reginald DesRoches: Yeah.

Eddie Robinson: With the DesRoches experience here at Rice?

Reginald DesRoches: Yeah, I mean, a lot of the same things this year. I mean, I don’t plan to pull back a lot on things now that we have a new, a new team on board. We have all the new leadership. Um, I still will be out in the community, still will be engaged in the city of Houston, engaged on campus, uh, probably a little bit more travel, uh, on the road, you know, in terms of meeting alumni, I didn’t do as much of that this past year, um, but more of the same thing, uh, you know, it’s a great, great place, it’s an exciting time, uh, it’s, it’s an exciting time for higher ed, I think, challenging, but exciting at the same time, in terms of the impact universities have on their communities, and so, I want to make sure that Rice, Rice is right there.

Reginald DesRoches: And is there anything missing?

Eddie Robinson: Like, is there anything in your mind that, you know, you look at how you’ve performed, and what’s going on with the university in and of itself. What’s missing?

Eddie Robinson: I don’t

Reginald DesRoches: think there’s anything missing.

Eddie Robinson: Oh!

Reginald DesRoches: I don’t think so. Everything’s here. This is a, this is an amazing place. There really is, there really is nothing missing.

Eddie Robinson: Yeah?

Reginald DesRoches: Uh, no, it’s, it’s, it’s uh, it’s a pretty remarkable place. The more I learn about both the city of Houston, Rice University, Rice’s unique role in the city, I realize how fortunate I am to be in this role.

Eddie Robinson: You’re the chief executive officer, 8, 200 plus students, 8 schools, just under 1, 000 faculty members. You’ve transformed Rice into a new level of distinction, nationally, internationally, positioning the university as a beacon of academic excellence, award winning scholarship, impactful research. Despite what the state of Texas thinks of diversity, you’ve made sure to include… In public statements, in press releases, you know, you’re maintaining a commitment in inclusionary measures, and that is admirable there. You’re married to a powerhouse leader, accomplished healthcare professional, highly accomplished nurse practitioner, esteemed administrator, Paula Gilmore DesRoches. You have three incredible children.

Eddie Robinson: You’ve accomplished so much, Dr. DesRoches. What lessons have you learned about yourself thus far?

Reginald DesRoches: You know, I think the importance of being true to yourself. Being yourself. And, you know, there are times where I’ve tried to say, I’m going to try to do something different. I’ll try to do this. I always come back to, you know what, I’m going to be myself.

Reginald DesRoches: I know there are certain areas I’m not comfortable in or certain venues I’m not, I’m not going to try to be somebody else. Be true to yourself and be yourself and I’ve learned that and now that is my guiding light. I’m gonna always do things my way the way and I always do things the way I’m comfortable doing them and doing them so I can sleep at night.

Eddie Robinson: That is all we have. I mean, I’m just grateful. That you were able to, uh, get through a lot of the question. I mean, this is, I was thinking I was trying to catch you off guard. You were like, no.

Reginald DesRoches: You’re a, you’re a, you’re a very, uh, natural at this. Obviously.

Eddie Robinson: Rice University president, Reginald DesRoches. Thank you so much for being a guest.

Reginald DesRoches: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

Eddie Robinson: Our team includes Technical Director Todd Hulslander, Producer Laura Walker, Editors Mark DiClaudio and Jonmitchell Goode. I SEE U is a production of Houston Public Media. Follow us on Instagram and Twitter. And subscribe to our podcast wherever you listen and download your favorite shows. I’m your host and executive producer, Eddie Robinson.

Eddie Robinson: And I feel you. We hear you. I SEE U. Thanks so much for listening. Until next time.


This article is part of the podcast I SEE U with Eddie Robinson

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Eddie Robinson

Eddie Robinson

Executive Producer & Host, I SEE U

A native of Mississippi, Eddie started his radio career as a 10th grader, working as a music jock for a 100,000-Watt (Pop) FM station and a Country AM station simultaneously. While Mississippi Governor Ray Mabus had nominated him for the U.S. Naval Academy in 1991, Eddie had an extreme passion...

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