June 18, 2020
Little did we know when we began our 40th anniversary year last fall, that it would be a year like no other. Less than two weeks after our anniversary celebration and dedication of Kraft Hall at the end of February, the campus was largely shut down in order to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Within the space of 12 days, faculty and students had to pivot to online course delivery, a challenge they took on with resolve and ingenuity.
At a time of great disruption, uncertainty, and sadness over missing out on our campus experience, I’m proud of the efforts that so many of our Social Sciences faculty made to reinforce a sense of community and continuity in their courses. As we highlighted in this newsletter, a number of our faculty even devised ways to incorporate the pandemic into their revised course design. As an example, through journaling, students in Rachel Kimbro’s Medical Sociology class provided a chronicle of their COVID-19 experiences.
The lessons that we learned in March and April about novel modes of course delivery will serve us well as we look forward to fall. COVID-19 has not disappeared, so we are planning for a modified re-opening of the university and an approach to course delivery that will include both online and in-person elements.
Social sciences faculty and research staff have also been quick to identify new research projects to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Professor Bob Stein is leading a team of faculty to identify how to ensure safe in-person voting in Harris County this November. Another research group is conducting surveys in Harris County to identify barriers to compliance with stay-at-home orders. Our Texas Policy Lab is providing crucial analyses of epidemiological data to Harris County to inform policy decisions. Psychological Sciences Professor Chris Fagundes’ research on susceptibility to respiratory viruses strongly implicates stress, loneliness and lack of sleep as key factors lowering immune response. The National Science Foundation has funded a project in political science that studies how people interpret COVID-19 information and how this affects their beliefs about their own vulnerabilities.
Beyond the diverse contributions that our social science faculty are making to issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, they are also centrally positioned to speak to the economic and political crises to which the pandemic has contributed. Both COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the horrific killing of George Floyd have reminded us how critical the problem of inequality is—in health status, access and outcomes, in law enforcement and the justice system, and in education, to mention just a few areas. Over a third of our faculty do research in this area, and we have research staff devoted to evidence-based analyses that aim to inform public policy.
For example, the school launched two important initiatives last fall: Building Research on Inequality and Diversity to Grow Equity (BRIDGE) and the Collective for Research on Inequality and Social Equity (CORISE). BRIDGE focuses on research in the greater Houston area, and CORISE brings together faculty from all social science departments to promote cross-disciplinary discussions and collaborations. We have research interest groups in Health and Environmental Equity, Democracy, Voting and Social Justice, Education, and Employment and Opportunity. The work we do in Social Sciences illuminates the many facets and effects of systemic inequality and explores how it is produced and perpetuated. Importantly, we also study how change can occur. Five of our faculty will be featured on June 19 in a series of short online lectures, “Reflections on Juneteenth and America’s Racial Legacy,” which will be the first in an annual university series commemorating Juneteenth.
In addition to producing research focused on inequality, the School of Social Sciences is committed to providing equal access to all of our course offerings, including those that involve additional research or travel expenses. The newly created School of Social Sciences Access and Opportunity Fund provides low-resourced students with funding to participate in course-related research and experiential opportunities. This fund is just one of many powerful opportunities for you to support the school financially.
You can also lend your experience and expertise and provide guidance to students who are seeking career advice and connections within a profession, industry or organization. Consider Rice students when you are seeking interns, developing research initiatives and hiring new professionals for your organization. You are providing tremendous value to Rice students when you share your expertise and professional network.
As members of the Rice Social Sciences community, you are an important part of both our past and our future. We are proud of our School’s accomplishments and our commitment to connecting our teaching and research with policy for the betterment of society. Much of this could not happen without the generosity of Rice donors and volunteers who advance research, student experiences and the facilities, such as the new Kraft Hall, that allow us to do our best work. I hope you find the compendium of highlights from this year of interest, and I thank you for your support of Social Sciences at Rice.
Interim Dean of Social Sciences