Historic first: Rice University taps Black, Haitian immigrant to head the school – Denver Gazette
MIAMI — Reginald DesRoches, a Haiti-born engineer, is making university history after being named the first Black and the first immigrant to serve as president of Rice University in Houston.
DesRoches, 55, an earthquake resilience expert who flew to Port-au-Prince to volunteer his time and expertise after Haiti’s devastating 2010 quake, was selected by Rice’s Board of Trustees after a nationwide search for an academic leader to lead the school.
“I am just so honored and thrilled to be the next president of Rice and just proud, to come from where I come from,” DesRoches, who has ties to South Florida, said in a Miami Herald interview. “It speaks volumes to the roles that universities play in transforming lives; it’s certainly transformed my life and my family’s life. I couldn’t have been prouder.”
Currently serving as provost of Rice, DesRoches will succeed President David Leebron, who previously announced his plan to step down next summer after the end of the current academic year. DesRoches will be the school’s eighth president it its 109-year history when he starts his new role on July 1, 2022.
“We have found a leader who is inspirational and universally respected, a leader who is visionary, strategic and kind. We are proud to welcome Reginald DesRoches as our university’s next president,” said Robert Ladd, chairman of the Rice Board of Trustees.
Desroches joins the ranks of individuals like Haiti-born C. Reynold Verret, who in 2016 was installed as president of Xavier University in Louisiana.
DesRoches is used to breaking racial and cultural barriers. In 2017, he became to first Black dean of any department at Rice when he accepted the job as the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of Engineering at the George R. Brown School of Engineering. During his time as dean, the school increased in size, visibility and program rankings, the university said in a release announcing his selection as its next president.
Three years later, DesRoches was appointed provost, again the first Black person to hold the position. He was recruited from Georgia Tech in Atlanta, where he was the first Black chair of the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. While at Georgia Tech, the engineering school’s U.S News & World Report graduate rankings rose dramatically, reaching No. 2 in the nation — the highest in the school’s history.
“For those of us who are Black, or other under-represented minorities, as we move up the ranks, we often have to break barriers,” DesRoches said. His selection, he added, “speaks to the power of education; of how much Haitians stress education, how important it is. Our parents talk about, ‘you’ve got to get a good education and go to college.’ It’s because they know that this is what’s going to change our lives and provide opportunities that they didn’t have.”
Born in Port-au-Prince, DesRoches was a year old when he and his three older siblings, Lionel, Magalie and Pascal, fled Haiti in the late 1960s with their parents, Marie Therese and Jean Alfred DesRoches. The family settled in Queens, New York, where DesRoches graduated from high school and then went to the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned three engineering degrees.
He has a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering, a Master of Science in Civil Engineering and a doctorate in Structural Engineering.
His oldest brother, Lionel, is a nephrologist at New York University; sibling Pascal currently serves as chief financial officer of AT&T and sister Magalie “Maggie” Austin is senior adviser to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and director of the Mayor’s Office of Minority and Women Business Enterprises.
“My parents worked two jobs the vast majority of their lives so that we can have these opportunities. This is why they did it, to see things like this,” Reginald DesRoches said.
During his tenure as provost, DesRoches established the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and several new majors. DesRoches and his wife, Paula, have three children. His daughter is currently enrolled at Rice and will graduate in 2023.
After Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, which left more than 300,000 dead and destroyed most of Port-au-Prince and its surrounding communities, DesRoches flew to the Caribbean nation to help with engineering issues.
“I am beyond proud of my brother,” Magalie Austin said of Reginald DesRoches. “He is the smartest, kindest, funniest and most giving person. In a family of overachievers.”
His mother, Marie Therese, died 10 years ago and his father, Jean Alfred, 89, lives in South Florida, where Magalie and her husband, Dr. Jean-Philippe Austin, a radiation oncologist, are active in Haitian-American and Democratic causes and empowering the local community. In 2011, they both hosted President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, at their South Florida home during a $35,800-a-plate 2011 fundraiser during Obama’s second presidential bid.
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