Higgs addresses RCEL students; Engineering shares anti-racism resources

Fred Higgs

Fred Higgs, vice provost for academic affairs, the John and Ann Doerr Professor in Mechanical Engineering and the faculty director of the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership (RCEL), wrote a letter to RCEL students addressing the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

The Department of Engineering also created a webpage of anti-racism resources curated by Kyla McMullen and Jeremy Waisome, faculty members at the University of Florida and co-hosts of the "Modern Figures Podcast." The page includes reading lists and toolkits for allies, information on self-care and ways to get involved in social justice initiatives.

Higgs' letter is below:

Dear Rice Center for Engineering Leadership students,

Fred Higgs
Fred Higgs

On May 25, George Floyd was pinned down by two Minneapolis police officers as a third one kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes, 46 seconds, until he was dead. The victim was African American, handcuffed and unarmed, and the police officers were white. A fourth police officer stood guard to prevent interference from pleading civilian onlookers. Although safely tucked away for days in my home due to COVID-19, one can imagine that it still did not take long for me to feel the existential threat here because when they called in Mr. Floyd’s description — black, 6-foot-4, around 220 pounds — they were calling in my same description.

As someone who has spent his entire professional life being one of the small number of "black faces in white places," I know that there are a diversity of people and perspectives. However, at a world-class institution such as Rice, one can visibly see that nearly everyone is treated with dignity, respect and kindness. After all, the stakes are high as we aim for everyone to receive the best of everything, i.e., best education, best on-campus experience, best workplace, best opportunities for advancement, etc. However, there are some invisible aspects of one’s lived experiences that often weigh heavily on black students. One of them that keeps emerging in my recent conversations is that black students typically tell friends and teachers that all is well, when in fact, all is not well. No matter one’s race, only the most sincere mentors are allowed to hear the raw responses and comments from these students in pain. This presents an opportunity for each of us, as campus leaders, faculty and staff, to be sensitive to a fundamental difference in lived experiences.

However, there are three timing factors that have persuaded me that Mr. Floyd’s death will bring about a historic watershed moment for America; the second two are due to COVID-19. First, the death was captured with clear video and audio. Second, millions of people around the nation and the world are home either watching TV or working on the internet where news videos are a click away. Third, peaceful mass protesting can occur unabated because many people are out of work due to the pandemic or just home for the summer. These three factors form a potential perfect storm for positive, national change.

I am further encouraged by the number of non-black leaders of police forces at universities (especially Rice) and in cities across the country (especially Houston) that have expressed their outrage. This is important because it confirms to black people that other eyes see what our eyes see. Non-black leaders of cities, starting with the mayor of Minneapolis, have also confirmed that outrage is a shared sentiment without excuse or tone-deaf critique. Since empathy is a refreshing, helpful emotion, I encourage Rice students, faculty and leaders to embrace it, even if you have to fumble through awkward conversations and brief “how is everything with you going on a personal level?” check-ins. RCEL students are certainly expected to broker tough conversations because that is a part of what leaders do, whether in technical or non-technical roles. Practice responsive listening.

Although imperfect, dreams are possible in countries such as America because our government, by and large and on median, administers justice. When vigilantes murder people based on skin color as in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, it certainly invokes outrage, at least until the police bring the assailants to justice. However, when there is injustice against one race by police officers (possibly without consequence), then the ground beneath one’s feet moves. And when that happens, the compass spins wildly. For example, black parents struggle to explain to their children what is up vs. down, good vs. bad and right vs. wrong. After all, advice like “if something happens to you, find someone with a uniform” gets confusing. Likewise, Rice students, especially those affected, look to the authority figures in their world to convey a true north.

I have a deep concern for all Rice students, because I know you are trying to make sense of a range of emotions due to this act. Let me say to black students in RCEL, Rice engineering and (other departments) at Rice that your life is also precious and to be held in the utmost dignity. What you saw in the video was unjust: the sin of hatred of at least one man against another. It was wrong and inhumane. As someone who is not only the faculty director of RCEL but also a university leader (as the vice provost of academic affairs), let me assure you that every Zoom meeting involving leadership that I have attended since May 25 has had the George Floyd tragedy on its agenda in some implicit or explicit way. As expressed by President (David) Leebron, Rice is concerned about you. Freely reach out to an RCEL faculty or staff member if you need to talk out your concerns.

Let me encourage all RCEL students and remind you that as a Rice University student, you were brought in as the best and brightest. You can be emotional, but you must also be moral and visionary. This means that you might protest, but your protest must be peaceful and safe. This ensures that narratives that distract from the original injustice do not get oxygen.

RCEL is training you to be tomorrow’s leaders of engineering and technology. Pour your energy into productive reading and learning something new this summer; like those superheroes in training, prepare to be the best you possible. RCEL believes that all of you will become technology leaders of tomorrow, and this is a good thing for society.

We are committed to making sure that RCEL brings to Rice diverse engineering and technology leaders and professionals with whom all students can interact. No matter your color or race, you will see what you can be; we will find engineers of all colors to engage with you. I will work with RCEL leadership, faculty and staff and we will create apolitical team-training experiences that educate Rice engineering students to work in teams that not only understand our biases, but that leverage diversity as a competitive advantage.

Whether your emotion is anger, confusion, guilt or something else in between, exchange it for one that is thoughtful and strategic. The revamped, silent protests reflect your brilliance. Society assumes that its best and brightest young people will lead it into a better tomorrow. Rice expects its students to think critically and act justly. RCEL expects that its students will do all of the above, but with the ability to enter technical workplaces (or initiate start-up companies), eager to follow and flourish while being ready to grow into leadership.

Mr. Floyd certainly did not choose to be a martyr or catalyst for change; he just wanted to breathe. However, unfortunately, this watershed moment has been created. For me, I choose to exchange my personal pain for a hope that all RCEL students are being well-trained to be thoughtful, ethical, diversity-valuing and ready to rise into leadership positions in engineering and technology and beyond. And when they do, that team, that division, that company, that institution, that city, that nation, that planet will become the one we all dream will allow everyone to flourish and be equally valued. Now that is a dream worth giving oxygen to.

C. Fred Higgs III
Faculty Director, Rice Center for Engineering Leadership (RCEL)
Professor of Mechanical Engineering
Vice Provost for Academic Affairs