By Kendall Schoemann
“Rice has so much to gain and so much to lose if we do not continue to embrace the importance of diversity among our campus,” Provost Marie Lynn Miranda told students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members at a panel discussion on “The State of Black Life at Rice” Oct. 1 at the BioScience Research Collaborative.
The panel was part of Rice’s yearlong celebration of 50 years of black undergraduate life at the university. In 1965 and 1966, the first black undergraduate students were admitted to Rice University. It marked the beginning of five decades of diversity progression.
The Association of Rice University Black Alumni and Rice University organized the panel to promote meaningful conversation about the current state of black life at Rice and future goals. The panel stressed the need for improving, supporting and engaging campus diversity.
Miranda presented opening remarks. Drawing on significant people in African-American history, she asserted Rice must continue to exude a common trait they all shared — bravery.
“What does it mean for Rice as an institution to be brave?” she asked. “To me, it means we will never be satisfied. We will never stop seeking, stop reflecting, stop self-criticizing. And while we should celebrate our successes along the way, it means we will never stop striving to be better.”
She then stressed the importance of supporting students of color on campus.
“As parents, we’re not supposed to have a favorite child, and as provost we’re not supposed to have a favorite program,” Miranda said. “I do have a favorite program, and it is the Rice Emerging Scholars Program. It’s an amazing witness to our commitment that every student at Rice has a positive, strong experience and feels welcomed and nurtured by this community.”
Sharing recent accomplishments in pursuit of a diverse faculty, Miranda emphasized how diversity and quality can be pursued and achieved harmoniously.
“The pursuit of diversity on our faculty does not require us to forsake quality or excellence,” Miranda said. “It makes us stronger, makes us better and allows our institution to achieve more of its most aspirational goals.”
Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson also addressed the audience.
“It’s a bit humbling to imagine that I have something to say about the state of black life at Rice University,” Hutchinson said. “The role I can play is listening. We must all listen. When people tell us things need to change, we need to be responsive and not defensive to those requests.”
Taking the opportunity to look backward and see how far Rice has come, Hutchinson highlighted recent programs that have resulted from listening to student and faculty needs on campus, such as the Rice Connection Program and the ongoing creation of a multicultural center in the Rice Memorial Center.
Hutchinson then recognized the memorable anniversary as both a bright and dark time in Rice history.
“As we mark the anniversary of the first undergrad black student on Rice campus, it celebrates the beginning of something good and simultaneously marks the end of something terrible that never should have happened.”
Following opening remarks, the audience heard from a panel of Rice alumni, staff and faculty.
Catherine Clack, associate dean of students and director of multicultural affairs, discussed current student life.
“Often, students feel they can either be a political person or they can be themselves,” Clack said. “We must encourage students to come out of bystander mode and help them to build courage.”
She also urged the need for students’ thoughts and requests to be received as part of the community’s needs as a whole, not just a section of that community.
Tamara Siler ‘86, senior associate director of admissions and coordinator of minority recruitment, discussed Rice’s current admissions approach and the programs in place to help recruit black students.
“We just concluded this year’s Seeking Opportunities at Rice (SOAR) program,” Siler said, noting that Rice made arrangements for nearly 125 low-income students to visit campus to help encourage their interest in attending college.
Siler added that more than 50 of those students were African-American. She also shared that 35 low-income scholars were given four-year full packages last year as a testament to Rice’s commitment to all socio-economic backgrounds.
“You can’t erase race from an applicant. It’s always in there. Race shapes everything about an applicant,” Siler said. “It’s the ethnicity that they want to celebrate, respect and advance.”
Jenifer Bratter, associate professor of sociology, offered her thoughts on faculty diversity.
“Oftentimes we find discussions of race are confined to the classroom or other designated spaces,” Bratter said. “Race is a relevance that seeps into all aspects of campus life and should be discussed in a variety of venues.”
She also shared the importance of faculty diversity in terms of student needs.
“Students can feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts and needs with a faculty person who looks like them,” Bratter said. “They want to be listened to and understood and not fear they will be received as complaining.”
Aislyn Orji, a junior in Martel College and president of the Black Student Association (BSA), shared her perspective as a current student.
“A lot of times, Rice students are empathetic to black culture as something that can be looked at, but not participated in,” Orji said. “Where does our speech clash with apathy and how do we combat that?”
She also referenced how the current Black Lives Matter movement is being discussed on campus.
“When we talk about Black Lives Matter in the classroom, it’s often analytical and aloof,” Orji said. “It’s hard for me to hear students talking about it without emotion. You’re talking about my mom, my peers, my life.”
Following the panel, the audience enjoyed a luncheon and special entertainment selections from the Rice African Student Association, the Multicultural Affairs Office and BSA.
–Kendall Schoemann is a staff writer in the Office of Public Affairs.
Editor’s note: The gallery below includes photos from Sept. 30-Oct. 1 events held as part of the celebration of 50 years of black undergraduate life at Rice: the Blueprint for Excellence Gala, the panel on “The State of Black Life at Rice” and the 50th Celebration Reunion Party.