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Dr. Reginald DesRoches: Houstons Rice University’s first African-American provost in a University that once banned Blacks

HOUSTON – In 2019, Rice University announced the promotion of the dean of engineering, Reginald DesRoches, Ph.D, to provost. This was a historic moment for the university as Dr. DesRoches became the first African-American provost, especially at a university that didn’t allow blacks until 1965.

In honor of Black History Month, Khambrel Marshall sat with the newly appointed provost to talk about Dr. DesRoches’s childhood, his legacy and making history in 2020.

When do you start and what will your role be?

I start on July 1st of this year. I still have a few more months. I will be the Chief Academic Officer of the university. So, responsible for Academic Affairs, faculty affairs including the hiring, promotion, and tenure of the faculty and the research of the university.

Born in Haiti to New York, mechanical engineering, dean, provost; that’s a good story.

I’m blessed, I always tell people I certainly worked hard, but I am certainly blessed. I’ve had some good mentors along the way and luck, that always plays into some of these things. We had two parents who always stressed the importance of hard work, sacrificed a lot for us to get where we are. My siblings and I came from Haiti, really struggled early on, in Brooklyn, made sure we had everything we can to have a good education. I feel very fortunate.

We came in 1968. There was a shortage of nurses here in the US. My mother was able to come over with the four of us initially without a dad. She worked two eight-hour shifts every day just trying to make it through. My dad came a year later. My dad was in the accounting area. Neither of them had college degrees. But they both had multiple jobs in the U.S. As the typical Caribbean, you’ll always have a couple of jobs. We ended up moving to Queens, living in a working-class, Carribean community in Queens. Just a typical great community.

Growing up, were there any things that happened in your life that you led you to see bias. That could inhibit your progress if you allowed to?

Being from the Carribean, two of my parents not having seen the type of racism that exists in the U.S. When we moved to queens we lived in a Carribean community and literally across the freeway was a predominately white community that had better schools and better playgrounds. We couldn’t go there. It became clear to us that this society still has some challenges in terms of the differences between houses and communities that are based versus each other.

As you were growing up did your parents stress for you not to think of anything related to color but just your achievement?

They always told if you work hard, there is nothing you cannot do. That was the mantra the entire time. Keep working hard, get a great education and you can do anything you want if you put your mind to.

How did you end up becoming an engineer?

After high school, I decided to study engineering because I love math and science. I didn’t like other subjects, history and English. I ended up studying mechanical engineering at UC Berkely. From there, the earthquake happened in 1989, I got fascinated with earthquakes and how structures behave in earthquakes and decided to go on and get a Master’s and Ph.D. in civil engineering, studying earthquake engineering.

How did your other leadership positions develop you?

I had my first leadership job maybe five or six years into my first assistant professor job at Georgia Tech. After completing my Ph.D. at Berkely I went to Georgia Tech, became an assistant professor and did the normal things professors do. After five or six years in someone tapped me to associate department chair. I helped the department chair. I did fairly well in that, then I became the department chair there. I did that for five years and then I got the call to become dean at Rice.

What do you tell people who are studying black history, they see you, they see your face, they see your history. What does tell them about their abilities, their chances of succeeding?

I tell them there is nothing you cannot do. If you put your mind to it, you can absolutely achieve whatever you want to achieve. I also tell them the importance of them. Often times I get students coming to my office, “well I’m not sure if I wanna do this. I don’t see a lot of people that look like me. I’m not sure if I want to go ahead and get a Ph.D.” I tell them that’s why you wanna do it. It’s so important that you do it so others can see faces like them because it does have a huge impact on kids if they see someone like them.

Have you thought about what kind of legacy you want to leave?

I really haven’t thought much about a legacy. People are focus on the fact that I’m the first black dean and the first black provost. I want to be the best provost Rice has ever had. That’s sorta my goal. The significance of being black also is very important in terms of the ability to be a role model for others that may want to follow me in my footsteps. I just want to be the best at whatever I do.

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