The Vital Role of Student Leadership
As I write this, the Rice campus has been open to students for the fall semester for a month, plus a week of orientation. We are in hybrid mode, giving students and faculty as much of a choice as possible in how they want to learn and how they want to teach. Over half of our courses are offered in person, and those students report they are grateful and happy to be here. Approximately 40% of our undergraduates are living on campus (compared to the usual 73%), about 37% are living off campus but occasionally come to campus, and the remainder are remote. So far we have been remarkably successful, with a positivity rate of 0.10% from 30,000 COVID-19 tests.
How was this achieved? After we decided in March to send most students home and switch completely to remote delivery of our courses, we began detailed planning for the fall — including comprehensive testing, isolation and quarantining protocols and facilities, improvements in air handling, and construction of outdoor tents and temporary classrooms that would enable distancing. Classrooms were equipped with additional technology to support dual or hybrid delivery and reconfigured for physical distancing. The Information Technology group instituted a student corps of technology assistants, and they, along with staff from Rice Online and the Center for Teaching Excellence, provided remote delivery support and education for faculty. This required an immense amount of organization and work from faculty, staff and administrators, and they all stepped up.
Approximately 40% of our undergraduates are living on campus (compared to the usual 73%), about 37% are living off campus but occasionally come to campus, and the remainder are remote. So far we have been remarkably successful, with a positivity rate of 0.10% from 30,000 COVID-19 tests.
But frankly, without the extraordinary leadership of our students, these steps would not have been enough to open our campus safely. On the undergraduate side, this required completely reimagining new student orientation. Our campuswide O-Week coordinators, Matthew Burns and Erica Lee, led a group of 33 college coordinators to redesign and deliver O-Week in a dual-delivery format, including redesigning a variety of events that happened across the 11 colleges.
In planning for the fall, we knew that student behavior would be a critical, if not determinative, factor in our success. Indeed, since August we have watched many colleges fail to sustain their openings as a result of student behaviors. We hold our students accountable for their behaviors, but it’s more important to recognize that they also hold each other accountable. This is reflected in our Honor Council and in our college judicial system under the college chief justices. Of course, we must be realistic in our expectations as we develop our plans. But at least in the case of Rice, I think we can also say that our expectations of student responsibility are realistically high.
Indeed, we took a similar approach to undergraduate student behaviors under the rules we adopted for operating Rice during the pandemic. Working with the students, Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman created the COVID-19 Community Court, staffed by undergraduates from each residential college. Their intention is not primarily to enforce rules and penalize violators, but rather to determine educational and alternative responses with the goal of helping students correct their behaviors at an early stage. Yes, there have been cases reported to the court, but they have been minor. And our students have been outstanding at calling attention to any potential violations. That, too, is leadership and reflects the student commitment to our “culture of care.”
As our students returned to campus, Sid Richardson College faced a particular challenge, as we had decided to vacate the building and use Sid Rich for isolation of any positive cases. That required dispersing Sid Rich residents across the campus. Nia Prince, president of Sid Rich and a proud Houstonian, demonstrated remarkable leadership in keeping the college’s culture and identity strong. Indeed, Sid Rich became in some ways the most visible college on the campus despite not having a home, since they were everywhere. Nia didn’t stop there. She also proposed the idea of public health ambassadors — students on the ground who were tasked with directly educating and reinforcing the principles of our culture of care to peers. The response was amazing, with 165 students serving in that capacity.
Student Association President Anna Margaret Clyburn and her leadership team worked tirelessly to address collaboratively the wide range of issues that the spring and summer presented. Lovett College President Chloe Oani — who hails from Hawaii and is also my occasional Fitbit competitor — worked with student sports reps across all the colleges as well as rec center staff to come up with guidelines to allow outdoor activities.
Student leadership and volunteerism have always been a central part of the Rice experience and, in this pandemic, Rice students have demonstrated that leadership in ways that will have an impact for a long time to come.
In some ways, our graduate students faced even greater challenges, as they don’t have the social equivalent of residential colleges and they were dispersed even more than usual as the result of the pandemic. One of their key gathering places, Valhalla, was closed and remains closed under the rules for Harris County. Our graduate students have had to find new ways to accomplish their work and support the community. Graduate Student Association President Alison Farrish and other GSA officers have worked hard and nimbly to use online tools to promote graduate student community, well-being and success.
Black Graduate Student Association President Joshua Moore instituted a twice-per-month online lunch, which was especially important given the dual burden of the pandemic and racial issues that our Black students are dealing with at this time. Graduate students have found ways to continue their research, and indeed some have pivoted to support work being done around COVID-19.
And, of course, our students provided campus leadership on issues not directly related to the university’s response to COVID-19, including the issues of race enveloping our nation and the upcoming elections, especially regarding voter turnout.
They say that leadership “starts at the top.” Maybe. But as my dad might have said, it doesn’t mean squat if you don’t have leadership on the ground where it counts. Student leadership and volunteerism have always been a central part of the Rice experience and, in this pandemic, Rice students have demonstrated that leadership in ways that will have an impact for a long time to come.