UH President reflects on life and vision for university

"They were the kind of people who would help anybody. I'm hopeful this gift will help advance the lives of students who need help to complete their studies."

Video Transcript

- I mean, did you ever expect to be in this position as a child?

RENU KHATOR: No. I grew up in India and in a very small town. And unlike many people here who have come from very metropolitan areas or even otherwise and have gone through English medium schools, I mean, I was just very different growing up so many decades ago,

I was going through all girls Indian school and college and Hindi medium and never thought-- never ever in my life I thought I would be in the United States, and definitely not that I would be chancellor of this fabulous University in this great city. But life has many turns and twists, and here I am and feel extremely blessed

- What did you want to do when you were a child?

RENU KHATOR: I had only one dream and that was I wanted highest educational degree possible, which I didn't even know was PhD. But that is something I wanted. And I didn't know what I was going to do with it. I was I enjoyed studies and that's all it was. And I continued to move forward.

And when I graduated with my bachelor's degree I was 17 years old and that's the time we had a little bit of family rift in terms of whether I can go to college in India to do a master's, because in my hometown there wasn't any all girls college where I could attend.

However, that same year I got married, an arranged marriage, and my husband was here. So I followed him here to this land where I didn't understand what people were talking because I didn't know their language. And I definitely did not expect anything here because I had never watched even an English movie. But once I was here, within a month, I said, "I remember I told you that I had a dream and my dream was to get highest degree possible." So he said, "Well, I'm a student. Let's go to Purdue and let's see what we can do."

So there I was and I think I persisted in arguing that I should get admission in the master's program. And I did, and a year and a half later, it's a long story, but a year later, after watching a lot of "I Love Lucy" shows to teach myself English, there I was before I turned 20. I had my master's degree from one of the finest institutions in the nation, Purdue University.

- That must have felt amazing.

RENU KHATOR: It did. I just didn't know what it felt at that time because I was so driven. But now I look back, and I said there were so many moments I could have quit. But I didn't and thanks to my husband, who actually made my dream as his dream, our dream, and he worked equally hard, taking second job, third job, reading my drafts and commenting on them.

So it was really a sort of a joint project in that sense. And also I give a lot of credit to people at Purdue University who believed in this teenage girl wrapped in sari, coming-- can't speak English and just came, you know, and they said they'll give me a chance. They didn't give me admission. They said they'd give me a chance. And I just took that chance, and as luck would have it, here I am and feel extremely humbled and blessed.

- So how do you-- when you kind of think of yourself, how do you identify? Do you-- are you kind of half and half? Indian and American? A little bit of both. How do you feel about that?

RENU KHATOR: Oh, I'm very proud of the heritage that I come from. The values that I brought from India. From my family. I think no matter for anybody, your values are your foundation. But I also I'm so grateful for the opportunities I got in America.

So I often say that, you know, how we say in India, that your motherland is one thing, that's your-- your place you were born, but your [INAUDIBLE] or your place where you get opportunities is different. And that's where I feel I am. And I doubt very much that in any other place, the kind of opportunities I had, the kind the way I was able to achieve my dream would have been possible but in America.

- That's amazing. So what was it like when you first came to you of UofH? That was in 2008, right?


- So what was that like for you? I mean going to a new school because, you were in Florida, unless I'm wrong.

RENU KHATOR: I was in Florida for 25 years and I started there on a nine month job-- academic job, and just had every two years I had promotion of one type or another. And I finished my career there as a provost and senior vice president, and I honestly was not thinking about University of Houston, at all.

As a matter of fact, when call came about the presidency at University of Houston, my first reaction was I don't know that University. I haven't seen it on an list, and I don't know anything about it. So, no. And then second call came and the third call with the persistence came. I said, "OK, I'll take a look at it." and then I started searching more and learning more about the University of Houston.

Gave calls a couple of people who had been here and the more I learned, the more intrigued I got. And there were a couple of reasons for it. For sure, one of them was, that this was Houston. There's a lot of fabulous industries here. And you don't really make a great University out of nowhere. You need great people to build a great University. And Houston already was full of great people thinking. And can do attitude. So that intrigued me. That there's energy and medical and NASA and Port, and we can actually go and do something.

But the second thing was as I started looking at the faculty and the caliber, I was absolutely blown away. There was so many members of the National Academy here. And we had you know just-- just all of these top honors and I was intrigued that, how come you can have a talent like that in a place that has opportunities like that and you would have institution that is not on national list.

So I thought it would be a great project to just go there and be part of something. Possibilities, and that's what brought me here.

- Had you ever been to Houston before? Had you visited or--

RENU KHATOR: I had them only one time for an Indian wedding for a day and a half. And you know Indian weddings. There was absolutely no time for me to even explore the town, let alone the University. So I accepted the job actually without ever being on campus. It was offered to me in a hotel and in 15 minutes, I said I need to check with my husband and I checked with him and I said yes. And exactly the reason I said yes is because of those two things that I mentioned to you.

- So what is it been like over the years? What are some of the challenges you faced and the good things, too?

RENU KHATOR: Right, so I think it turned out better than what I had even learned from my research. The caliber of the faculty turned out even more powerful than what I thought. The city turned out even full of more opportunities than I thought it was possible. And when I came here I know I told the Board of Regents who interviewed me, they would give me five to seven years, and we can absolutely build a tier one University here.

And guess how many years it took? Three. Why? Because of Houston again and because of the faculty who were there whose resumes I could see. And this staff who were dedicated. Whose resumes I didn't see, but they were so dedicated here. It was in third year that my heart was stolen. Up to three years, it felt like a job, you know, because I'm not from Houston. Not from University of Houston. It was a job.

Sometime in the third year, I don't-- I can't pinpoint to you exactly when. Sometime, my heart was stolen. And after that, it was hard to move-- move me from here. As long as I felt that more things are possible. We could do something together. I believe very strongly that Houston deserves a University-- Public University that's worthy of a fourth largest city in the United States. Full of vitality. Full of potential and opportunities.

And that's what we are. On a roll here. That's what is our goal. We are building this institution what should be here and not because it's a badge of honor for us,

- Of course. Is there something specific that you were able to kind of pinpoint, as some of the reasons why the University was able to improve and is continuing to?

RENU KHATOR: So every business has core mission. What is the University's core mission? Students, and their success. We had hundreds of students coming to the University as freshmen and only 40 were graduating in six years with a four year degree. Now, that is to me is not being true to the core mission. So we started focusing absolutely strongly on that core mission.

How do we get our students to succeed? How can they become successful? And they don't leave from here with the diploma failure. Because if you drop out, it's almost like it's there that you quit. And we didn't want that. Regardless of whatever kind of students come here. I didn't want to hear any excuses that they are first generation. That they come from underprivileged communities. So what? Once you admit them, they're-- you own them. You-- they are your responsibility. So we got to work around everything to figure it out. How are we going to make them successful?

And I think that is what eventually helped us change the culture of the institution. And win us a chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa, which is hardly given to commuter schools who have had a history of that. So that was one thing. But the second thing was we had to connect our research with the strengths of the region.

Because you don't build something out of nowhere. We already had energy, capital here, sitting right here. But we didn't have petroleum engineering program. Well, why not? Because people are being served by other universities. But we are University of Houston. We got to commit to serving Houston by making sure we have the workforce that Houston needs. By making sure we have intellectual power that our industry is going to need having connections.

So I think our triple rocks, which was energy, health, and the arts. Those were the three rocks and those are-- those helped us because they were built on the strength of the region. So today, as I look back 13 years. It has been 13 years. Can you believe that? I can't believe I'm in my 14th year now. But I can tell you, it is really truly the credit to the city of Houston that has made our transformation so fast and so possible.

But now our goal is to really become a top 50 public University in the nation. And people say, "Wait a minute. That just doesn't sound possible. Are you it can be done?" and my answer is, "Well. Guess where we were 10 years 125th." We have come up to 87th in 10 years. Can we go from 87 to 50? Absolutely. We can do this. We just need help. We just need the energy of the whole village. We need our legislature. We need our city. We need our donors. We need our industry. We need our students, alumni, and then you just watch and see how far we can go.

- Speaking of, let's talk about this year. I mean this past year, especially when you were talking about these big goals that you'll have. This year has been rough for every University. Described to me some of the challenges like when this first happened how are you all able to pivot immediately.

RENU KHATOR: So this has been about a year now and it truly has been a year full of challenges, unpredictability. Because, you know, you just had to come up with some principles that will ground you, you know. So we came up with two principles in March: one was our flexibility, that we're going to be flexible and second one was compassion, because the biggest asset you have are your people. No, we're going to be flexible with the students. We are going to be flexible with faculty and staff. We're going to keep their safety and health first and foremost. We're going to be transparent in all our challenges.

But you know, [INAUDIBLE] in any type of crisis-- and this wasn't a crisis that lasted a week like hurricane. This was a crisis that has been lasting and lasting, right? The leader-- leaders have to be transparent, of course. Be absolutely clear in terms of what the crisis is. But the same time, they also have to give hope and they have to keep things calm, right? I feel that with our two goals and just keeping the community together, being very transparent, I think we have successfully navigated the challenges that we have had.

We have had millions of dollars of losses. This year we are looking at $100 million worth of loss. Last year we had close to 80 million of loss. I mean we got help from the federal government, of course. We got help in terms of our faculty and staff. Immediately stopped all kinds of expenses and we saved several, several millions of through that expense control. We had to pivot, you know, 20% of our faculty had ever taught online and within a week, 100% were teaching online. But things came that we had not anticipated.

For instance, we didn't think our students would not have laptops. Of course, you know we got blindsided. We should have thought about it, but we didn't. Immediately we had to come up with 300 computers so that we can give it out to students as it is a loan to so they have something. But then we realize the students didn't have access to wi-fi. How are they going to take online? So we had to come up with different ways of-- of helping that.

We also gave in-summer time. We gave tuition discount. We always had planned to be more face to face, but spike came and we said we'll pivot. Just making sure our students are safe and our faculty staff are safe. So I would say it has been challenging. I feel like I'm on the balcony trying to give a bigger view and just make sure to give hope and give calm, but then I am running down to the ground floor to make sure that immediate issues are resolved. And I feel like four times or 10 times a day I'm just up and down and up and down and it's exhausting. But-- but you know, I cannot be more proud of the people that I work with here.

Absolutely amazing. We are serving more students today than we've ever had. Record breaking enrollment. Record breaking research. We finished our capital campaign of $1.24 billion. It was $1 billion. We raised 240 million more. We have record breaking in terms of our technology transfer. We open a medical school during the pandemic. And we have 30 students. This year we have 6,000 applications for 30 seats for our medical school.

So lucky? Yes. You can plan everything you want, but you have to be lucky. And we have been definitely lucky, but we have had a lot of help from the city, from our donors, from the legislature. Very, very-- I mean, it's been hard but we have navigated it.

- Absolutely And I know there were also problems with some of the athletic teams and I know that's something that a lot of the universities have dealt with. What was that like--


- --dealing with?

RENU KHATOR: So we had to be very flexible about that, as well. There were rules that were set up by NCAA and I'm on the board there so very much familiar with that. We had rules set up by our own conference and you follow those rules. The idea being, let's give opportunities if we can keep people safe. So yes we have had outbreaks several times and I think every single team probably in the nation has-- has done that.

But even during all of this. I mean, there's a resiliency of our players. I mean we are-- we are the top 10 teams in basketball. Is fun to watch them. And I'm certainly hope that with vaccine availability and with the control of the-- the-- the virus and the variants, I'm certainly hopeful. Fall will look more normal. It would be nice to have the energy back because I always say, my energy comes from my interaction with the students. And I haven't had interaction, virtually yes. I mean I dropped in so many classes but it's not the same thing. So I hope things can get back to a little more normal.

- It's not as much fun, right? I imagine your job on a day to day basis is missing a little bit of that.

RENU KHATOR: It is, but you know, at the end of the day, you just know that whatever hand you are dealt with, you got to play your best game. And at the end of the day, did you play your best game. And I feel that our such dedicated faculty and staff who have not been given any-- any reward for their productivity, have really taught more students and serve more students. Think about that. I mean, but they haven't complained.

They are here immediately-- or during and immediately after the winter storm. I mean their dedication just inspires you. So any time I feel I'm getting down, I just-- just try to talk to somebody who is constantly here and I just feel inspired and I say, "OK. Nothing to complain about. Let's take your hand. Play your best game."

- Describe to me, sort of, how you feel in terms of identity? Is that something you think of a lot? Do you feel like you are in a sort of male dominated world when it comes to academics and what you do? Or is that not even something that crosses your mind?

RENU KHATOR: Well, I'm very proud of being who I am. And that's woman. That's, you know, from India, as well. So those are part of who you are, you know. So once I say that I understand all of the challenges, as well, of being a woman and I would tell you that those challenges are real. They are there.

But the choices like what Maya Angelou said, and I always keep hard things in my drawer, and that is people are going to do things that are not right. It's up to you how you take them. And I don't believe in staying down. I just believe in when you're knocked down, you get up and you say, "I'm not going to allow anybody to victimize me." Yes, you'll probably shed some tears, and you will resolve to change the system when you have an opportunity to do so.

But then you've got to get up and move it, with extra power and extra resolve in you. So our goal actually has been here-- here, as well as in higher ed, because I am a mentor for higher education. I have many, you know, people who have come here to spend some time here at the University of Houston. Because I want to see more and more presidents, more and more provosts who are coming from under served communities and women, of course, a part of that, as well.

Idea is that we got to keep on breaking this ceiling. And but you know, all in all honesty, when the time comes for making decisions, you don't make decisions based on you a woman or you're going to get any slack cut because of it. But I think it becomes part of the way you look at problem and you make decisions. So I am proud of that fact. I'm never afraid to ask for help and simply call and say, "I really don't know the answer." I don't have ego issue that way.

So yes, there are challenges. The road we have traveled a lot and in a good way we have covered, but let's not think that it's all over. We have to still continue to make sure that we are pulling more and more women to positions. We have just now hired new Dean of our libraries. She's a Latina woman. We have our UH Clear Lakes president is an African-American woman.

I mean, there are minorities as well that we are thinking about. But I feel very proud of where we are at the University of Houston and in terms of our faculty, our staff, our students, in terms of the representation of women and the leaders, too. I think half of my cabinet is probably women. But they are there because they are really good at what they do. It's not because they're women. And that's important, you know. You should never discount somebody's talent. You just got to give them more tools and opportunities.

So, we-- we keep on working. We also have very good women's studies department. They do a wonderful job there as well. And people like you, you know. You are a role model for women. They see you out there, particularly I know Indian girls, you know, young girls and they look up to you and say, "Well. I want to be like her."

- So I will take the compliment, but you were-- you are truly-- I mean, do you feel like a role model? Is that something that goes through your mind? Because you are, whether or not you feel like it.

RENU KHATOR: No. I don't really feel like that. I feel like I have a responsibility, for sure, and I don't feel in that sense that I have power to-- to change somebody or to be able to do something for them, but I know I have a responsibility to help at least 10 women succeed and that's the challenge I keep offering to my students, as well. If you're good, if you're an Honors Scholar. You're doing good. You're good. You have a responsibility to help 10 other people who are not as fortunate, to really pull them up, because there a lot of people who pulled me up.

I mean, look where I came from. This would not have been possible without mentors. Without people helping you.

- Absolutely. So what kind of advice would you give to a young girl?

RENU KHATOR: I think other than saying what I said before, which is don't allow people to victimize you. Because they may make you a victim, but if you keep that inside of you, I would say you victimizing yourself over and over again. So that would be one piece, but the second piece for me would be, have dreams, you know.

You as a woman, as a young girl, are as much entitled to have dreams as anybody else. Have dreams. Don't let people dissuade you from it. Find your passion and then go after it. But as you continue to succeed, be humble. And make sure that you realize who helped you and make you realize that you have a responsibility to help others succeed as well.

- That's great. When you were growing up, what were your parents like? In terms of, were they-- did they instill a lot of that in you or is that something you sort of got on your own?

RENU KHATOR: I would 100% say my mother, she was so different for that time period. I mean, she was so different. We have two sisters and one brother. She treated all of us exactly the same, which was not the way it was in India that time. She took equal amount of pride in my bringing really good marks or all A's as she did for my brother. And I think that has a lot to do with why I felt that it was good to excel.

And to my father, I would say he provided every opportunity at home although he kept us in a very protected environment but he provided us every opportunity. We got so many books and you were in a small town but he got all kinds of magazines and books and everything. And-- and also took us every year on a-- a trip somewhere nationally, explaining us about all these different things. I mean, we have seen-- gone to some exotic trips. Unbelievable.

I mean, we've gone to the Himalayas and spent three days camping in the snow. I mean, those things weren't possible but he truly believed in it. Now I will say that too, though he never thought his daughters would ever have a job. Or they would have a career. So he wasn't doing this because he thought a professional career was important for them. He was doing it because he thought we deserved that. We deserve equal opportunity as a brother.

Because I do remember, later on, any time I would say, "Dad, I want to work." and he would say, "That decision has been and your husband." So he never interfered in any of that. My mom, of course, she was very different. I gave a lot of credit to her for-- I don't think she ever thought I would be chancellor. I would be working, either. But she absolutely instilled in us that anything we wanted to do was possible.

- That is great. That is great.

RENU KHATOR: And we do have two daughters. So that's sort of, you know, in terms of continuation of that. And I give a lot of credit to my husband Suresh for helping me become who I am but helping those two also. Both of them are ophthalmologists. They are in their practice and very proud of being who they are. For their heritage, but fearless.

- I love that. Is there anything-- I love that. I love that. And talk to us a little bit about what it's like for you just, I mean, obviously now it's different with the virus, but generally going to these events, hanging out with these students. I mean, everybody knows you at that point. I mean, did you expect to kind of have that relationship with others?

RENU KHATOR: Not that, but I did not expect it, but it is my vested interest because everybody has a battery that they need charging, you know. My batteries charged by my interaction with the students because that keeps me grounded. Why is it that we are even here in the first place? And I enjoy it. I spend my free football game with tailgating with the students, as opposed to like, you know, with donors. I spend more time with them during the game, but I just I enjoy it. I mean, their smiles, their dreams, their-- even their problems.

I give my email address to freshman class when I visit them and I do 25 classes every fall semester when the semester begins. I give them my email and tell them that, you know, try to solve your problems but if you solve it, send me an email. I get hundreds of emails. And we do solve the problems for students because I want them to know somebody cares. Somebody is invested and I think tone is set, you know, from the top.

In this kind of a case, we're proud of where we are with our culture but I won't say we're perfect. So that means I just need to constantly keep on learning and listening to students. What more we can do to make this University a better place for their experience and for their success.

- That's great. And I bet everybody asks you the same question. Is everything in your closet red?

RENU KHATOR: Yeah. It actually--

- Everything?

RENU KHATOR: Almost everything I would say is red. If it's not red, then I have to put on either a red scarf or a red flower because I can't even walk out of the house. My husband is the first one who will tell me, "Where's your red today?" And then I come here. 10 other people will stop me. I'm telling you [INAUDIBLE] one time I landed in India at 2:00 AM, and I went for an official business there.

So I got the government escort and people came to receive me. And I just walked past them. And then they came running after like 10 minutes looking for me. And they said, we were told here that you will be in red. And I said, here at 2:00 AM in India, I would be landing in red. So yeah, expectation is there.

- At this point, you have no choice, right?

RENU KHATOR: No. I love red. I mean red has always been my favorite color. I think red looks good on every skin tone. I'm just partial and I love it. I love the power of red, too.