New provost looks ahead to unique challenges

Reginald DesRoches takes top academic post during Rice’s response to pandemic

As Reginald DesRoches formally assumes the title of Rice University provost, he expects the job will be every bit as challenging as he anticipated when appointed in December. But he didn’t anticipate the challenges of COVID-19.

Reginald DesRoches

Reginald DesRoches

DesRoches sees interesting times ahead as Rice strategizes to keep academics and research on track through 2020 and beyond while striving to protect the campus community’s health and safety.

“So much (of the academic mission) is based on engagement between faculty and staff and students and our broader community,” said DesRoches, who takes over this week from interim

Provost Seiichi Matsuda. “We need to rethink how we do this in light of COVID and the challenges around social distancing.

“It’s absolutely going to be a much more challenging role, not just for me, but for everybody at Rice, to be able to achieve our mission while making sure that health and safety is paramount in our minds.”

DesRoches, who joined Rice in July 2017 as dean of the George R. Brown School of Engineering, now has the opportunity to align his own vision for Rice with that detailed in President David Leebron’s Vision for the Second Century, Second Decade (V2C2).

As part of that process, he’ll help select four Rice deans, one of them his successor, along with architecture, natural sciences and social sciences.

DesRoches, a civil engineer by training, paused recently to Zoom with Rice News about how he plans to keep the university “punching above its weight” despite the challenges of working through a pandemic.

Q: Why are you stepping in now?

A: Everything we do from here on in is going to have implications for the fall and beyond, so it’s best for me to be involved. Seiichi’s done an outstanding job this past year — doing both his provost job as well as the GPS (dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies) job. But I’m ready to step in, especially now that we have an interim dean of engineering, Robert Griffin, who’s pretty much tuned into everything in the School of Engineering.

Q: What did you learn as dean that’s going to help you now?

A: It reinforced the importance of being a good listener, of constantly communicating. You can’t communicate enough with the students and the faculty and staff. It’s important to consult a wide group of people as you’re making decisions, because different perspectives are important to get.

And transparency is important. People appreciate and better understand your decisions when you lay out the data and show all the parameters. They may not agree with you, but they can certainly appreciate why you make a decision.

Q: How will you approach managing schools rather than departments?

A: This is obviously the challenge in being a provost. The question I get a lot is how will I make decisions about where to invest, given all the competing interests?

My approach is to make sure we invest in areas that align with the strategic vision of the university, in this case the V2C2. We need to be driven by a set of principles that are part of our core values.

I have to think about where can we build excellence and where can we have impact. There are pockets of these in every single school at the university. It’s just a matter of identifying them and trying to reinforce and support them. We also need to invest in strategic interdisciplinary areas that cross schools and departments.

The mistake we don’t want to make is to invest equally across the entire university. We need to be strategic and invest in those areas where we feel we can compete with anybody and be among the very best.

Q: Have you thought much about how COVID-19 will affect international enrollment?

A: Yes. First, we need to make sure we have a welcoming and inclusive environment for international students. There should be no question about our desire to have them on our campus, even if the geopolitical situation our nation has been in for a few years has put strains on our relationships with some countries. We must constantly reaffirm the importance of international students as part of the Rice community.

Interestingly, in engineering anyway, the graduate-level numbers for international students are up considerably this coming fall. Part of that is we’ve been aggressive in recruiting because we know there will be some melt in the summer and some students who just physically can’t get here because of COVID or because their visa offices are closed or their visas are delayed.

Q: What has recent experience taught you about the future of online education?

A: Several things. For one, you can do a lot online. It’s changed quite a bit over the last few years, for the good. The technology has gotten much better and offers a lot of flexibility and access for students.

For Rice, it was critical because it allowed us to finish the semester 100% remotely. We went from doing a handful of classes online to offering nearly 2,000 this past spring in a matter of two weeks. And credit goes to a lot of people on campus, including Rice Online and the Center for Teaching Excellence, which helped prepare faculty, and the incredible dedication of our faculty who put in a lot of time to shift to remote instruction.

Based on my conversations with students, there’s a great deal of variability in the quality of online classes. Some classes and disciplines lend themselves more to online than others. It’s a considerable amount of work to do an online class well. It requires rethinking the curriculum, rethinking how you assess the students, rethinking how you remain engaging and interactive.

I think the key for the fall is to continue to provide a high-quality and engaging classroom experience that Rice is known for, even with the social distancing constraints that we will have with COVID. We know this will be a challenge, but I am confident that the faculty are up to it. Fortunately, we have more time to prepare than we did in the spring.

Q: Lab and studio courses are going to be more challenging. Has there been a lot of talk about that?

A: Quite a bit. There’s a joint group in engineering and science looking specifically at labs, and I know there are some challenges with architecture and art studios and music in particular. I know they’re thinking through what they can do.

We’re hopeful we will have most of the on-campus experience in the fall and may even get some of those in-person things done early in case the virus comes back later in the fall. There are groups looking at creative ways that we can do labs and studios that require in-person interaction.

Q: What has the current situation taught you about the value of face-to-face learning?

A: Nothing replaces face-to-face learning. That’s no doubt. And really, the majority of face-to-face learning takes place outside of the classroom. That’s what students tell me they miss most, student groups working together, working with faculty in informal settings in the colleges, working hands-on in the OEDK (Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen), in an architecture and art studio or through undergraduate research. Those are hard to replicate when you’re fully online.

Q: What’s your primary aim as you push academics forward?

A: I’m not sure there’s one primary thing, but certainly several. At a high level, we want to make sure our strategies are aligned with the V2C2, including building an exceptional educational experience at Rice, building excellence among the faculty and staff, and to make sure there’s opportunity for everyone at Rice to succeed no matter where you’re from or your socioeconomic situation.

I’ve heard a lot from faculty about the need to build much stronger graduate programs and more impactful research. So I look forward to working with the deans and faculty on identifying how we can make investments to do that.

Q: How do you keep Rice punching above its weight?

A: I use that phrase quite a bit. One of Rice’s greatest challenges is being among the smallest of all of our peers. We compete incredibly well in so many ways with schools that are two times as big or have much larger endowments.

We need to continue to hire the very best people and provide them with everything that they need to be successful. Because we are small, and more so than most universities, we have to find ways to work across disciplines, and I think we do that fairly well.

There’s a lot of collaboration between engineering and natural sciences, and social sciences and the humanities, but we need to expand that across all schools in ways that may not be as obvious, such as engineering and music, or natural sciences and the humanities. You see some great examples of that collaboration in the recent COVID-19 projects that were funded with multiple schools involved.

Finally, we need to develop partnerships with key groups in Houston. We have an incredible ecosystem here that’s very unique. We have the largest medical center in the world. We have an incredible fine arts community and, obviously, a robust energy industry that’s going through challenges now, but we could play a major role in helping with the energy transition. So we are very fortunate; we just have to partner and leverage much more than some universities might have to do.

One thing David (Leebron) has asked me to do is to see how we can strengthen our partnerships with the Texas Medical Center. We do a lot with them, but I think we could do more, and have much deeper, more meaningful relationships. And you can see the importance of those relationships as things like COVID play out.

We’d also like a much more robust relationship with the city. We’re preparing for a potentially major hurricane season and we want to make sure Rice is positioned to assist the city, whatever happens.

I think it’s an exciting time. It’s a challenging time. I look forward to working with everybody to make our university even stronger.

Q: It’s certainly going be an interesting year.

A: Yeah, no doubt.


About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.