Ratnoff honored with Bloomberg Award

Martel College senior David Ratnoff’s collaborative spirit, strength of character and commitment to crafting public policy for the greater good have earned him the 2018 Michael Bloomberg Commencement Speaker Award for Passionate Community Impact, Innovative Thinking and Entrepreneurial Spirit.

From left: Rice President David Leebron, David Ratnoff and Michael Bloomberg. Photo by Tommy LaVergne.

From left: Rice President David Leebron, David Ratnoff and Michael Bloomberg. Photo by Tommy LaVergne.

Each year, Rice University honors a graduating senior who exemplifies the values and ideals of the commencement speaker. This year’s speaker was Michael Bloomberg, the entrepreneur and philanthropist who served as New York City’s mayor for three consecutive terms. Bloomberg has served as the United Nations’ Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change since 2014 and as the World Health Organization’s Global Ambassador for Noncommunicable Diseases since 2016. His own charitable organization, Bloomberg Philanthropies, distributed $702 million in 2017 alone.

“I am humbled and honored to receive this award,” Ratnoff said. “Mayor Bloomberg’s commitment to public service — both at the local and national level — is impressive. The professors and mentors I encountered at Rice encouraged me to engage with my community, as Mayor Bloomberg has. I have tried to emulate his entrepreneurial spirit while at Rice, especially when I co-organized the inaugural 2018 Houston-Centered Policy Challenge with Elisabeth Kalomeris (Martel ’18) and Meredith McCain (Duncan ’20).”

Ratnoff and Bloomberg also share a commitment to art and creativity, which Ratnoff pursued through his coursework in both photography and podcasting. These courses, he said, allowed him to imagine the world in new ways.

Ratnoff graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in history (with honors) and political science with a minor in politics, law and social thought. He plans to teach history and government before attending law school.

During his time at Rice, Ratnoff served his campus in many roles, including president of the Baker Institute Student Forum (BISF). “As president of the Baker Institute Student Forum, I took risks to bring diverse campus voices together to discuss gun control policy, immigration policy, women’s health policy in Texas and U.S. foreign policy in the Western hemisphere,” he said.

The honors student was also active in Rice University Young Democrats and the Rice branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He contributed articles to the Rice Thresher, participated in the Rice School of Architecture Spring 2017 Mini Charrette and spent the summer of 2016 as a fellow of the Baker Institute’s Jesse Jones Leadership Center Summer in D.C. Policy Research Internship Program, working at the ACLU’s legislative office in Washington, D.C.

Political science research he undertook with Chloe Wilson (Lovett ’19) and Robert Stein, the Lena Gohlman Fox Professor of Political Science, focused on how election laws influence voter turnout in local elections. His honors thesis in history, written under the supervision of Peter Caldwell, the Samuel G. McCann Professor of History and chair of the department, explored British Euroscepticism that culminated in the 2016 Brexit vote. “Drawing from social science and humanities methodologies, my research aimed to enhance contemporary understanding of voter turnout and its consequences using innovative thinking and new data,” Ratnoff said.

Ratnoff was also a training manager at Rice Coffeehouse, where he mentored new staff and oversaw the hiring and training of all student employees.

In one of several recommendation letters for the commencement speaker award, nominators praised Ratnoff’s character and commitment to crafting public policy with the goal of creating a better world. “We have observed David’s engagement with peers at the college and watched his leadership develop over the years through his role as training manager at Coffeehouse and his involvement with the BISF,” they wrote. “Classmates continue to return to work in his groups because he forges relationships based on respect and trust.”

Another nominator wrote, “I will not dwell on David’s intellectual gifts. Suffice it to say that David possesses one of the finest undergraduate minds I have come across since coming to work at Rice University in 1995.”

Instead, the nominator focused on Ratnoff’s leadership abilities.

“He is always looking for emerging opportunities — whether we are talking about gun control or Houston’s need to reassess its land-use policies in the wake of Hurricane Harvey — where BISF engagement can help inform students of the pressing issues that confront their communities,” the nominator wrote. “Animating all David’s work with the BISF is his profound and abiding belief in the ability of public policy to improve the human condition.”

Another nominator worked with Ratnoff on the 2016 Mobility Houston Policy Challenge, in which teams researched and pitched policy proposals for the city’s mobility-related challenges. Ratnoff’s team won the competition with a proposal that would locate B-Cycle stations near METRORail stops and create a shared payment card between the two systems.

“Given my positive experience interacting with David on the Mobility Houston Policy Challenge, I was quite pleased when he approached me in the spring of 2017 with the idea of organizing another policy challenge,” the nominator wrote in a recommendation letter. “He explained how formative he felt the previous policy challenge had been in his own career at Rice and said that he wanted to offer the same experience to other students.”

The one-off experience with the Mobility Houston Policy Challenge transformed into the Houston-Centered Policy Challenge, its new name paired with a new logo and a $24,000 budget that Ratnoff helped obtain from the offices of the president and provost. “Their vision was grand: They intended to launch an annual Houston-focused policy challenge for Rice students that would address a new, pressing civic issue each year,” the nominator wrote.

The event was a huge success, primed to endure even as Ratnoff departs Rice. He made sure of that by spending time before commencement working to ensure its continuation.

“As David and his co-organizer finished their last week of classes and looked forward to graduation, they spent their evenings interviewing applicants for next year’s Houston-Centered Policy Challenge organizers,” the nominator wrote. “David is never one to toot his own horn, but I hope that he recognizes the lasting impact he has made on the university through this and his many other endeavors.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.