TMC Spotlight: Renu Khator, Ph.D.
Renu Khator, Ph.D., is president of the University of Houston and chancellor of the UH system. She speaks with Pulse about her childhood in India, learning English from I Love Lucy, and her quest to turn UH into an academic and athletic powerhouse.
Q | Can you tell us about your formative years in India?
A | I grew up in a very small town, Farrukhabad, in a family that traditionally has been very conservative.
Q | Did you like to study as a child?
A | Growing up, I just loved studying and my father always put a lot of emphasis on education. My mother had a huge role; she took great interest in my schoolwork. So I did well in my high school.
Q | Did you attend university in India?
A | I went to Kanpur University because a campus opened in my hometown that was for girls only. My family didn’t want to send me to a coeducational place. I finished my bachelor’s degree; I had limited offerings because it was a brand new location, so I studied liberal arts. I won a national scholarship to study further, but the problem was that wherever I would go would be a coeducational place and it would be away from home.
Q | Did your family finally relent and let you continue your education elsewhere?
A | Eventually things worked out and my dad did send me to the University of Allahabad, where I always wanted to go because I was interested in political science. This is where political leaders had gone. It was a hub of political activity. At that point I thought I had won the war, but I had only won the battle. Nine months later, my father arranged my marriage to a young man who was studying for a Ph.D. at Purdue University.
Q | And you are still married to this man, Dr. Suresh Khator, now associate dean of the UH Cullen College of Engineering?
A | Yes. I met him the same day we were engaged. Ten days later — the time it took to get a passport ready — I traveled with him to Indiana. I was now barely 19 years old. I’m here in the U.S. and I don’t know any English. Because I was so distraught, I cried a lot. My husband asked me, ‘Why are you so sad?’ I told him I wanted an education. He said, ‘Well, you’ve come to the land of opportunity. You can study in the U.S. all you want and I will support you.’
Q | Is that when you enrolled in a graduate program at Purdue?
A | Yes. He took me to school and translated while I spoke Hindi to the graduate advisor. After a lot of talking, the advisor said, ‘I’ll let you sit in on two classes. No promises. No admission. We’ll see where we go.’ Once I got my foot in the door, I taught myself English. I watched eight hours of television a day; I know every episode of I Love Lucy. I got two ‘A’s that semester. I finished my master’s degree after one more year.
Q | And then you continued on with the Ph.D.?
A | We returned to India after my husband finished his Ph.D. and I finished my master’s degree. He was on a government scholarship and was obligated to return to India for five years. We had two daughters there. After five years I said, ‘I want to go to a Ph.D. program.’ I got admitted back at Purdue, so I started my Ph.D. as a young and new mom. When I finished that, we got an opportunity to go to the University of South Florida. My husband accepted a faculty position there.
Q | What was your role at USF?
A | They gave me a nine-month appointment as a trailing spouse. But again, once I got my foot in the door, I made my way up. Every two years I had a promotion, either academic or administrative, leading up to provost and vice-president. And then I came to Houston in 2008.
Q | Tell us about your unique role as president of the University of Houston and chancellor of the UH System. You have a reputation here as an astounding turnaround person. You’ve done so much to transform the university. How did you make it happen in such a short period of time?
A | What I saw in Houston was a tremendous city, not just large in size but large in capacity. I saw a great economy and a public university with top-notch faculty. So to me it was a big puzzle as to why it was not a Tier One university. [The Tier One designation goes to universities known for academic excellence, world-class research, innovation, scholarship and creativity.] For 100 days I had what I called my ‘days of solicitation.’ We asked everybody—through radio, letters, newspapers—to give me my charge. I told everyone that I was new here and asked them what I should do. I thought there would be 200 to 300 responses, but there were 3,600 comments that came in. That told me people cared.
Q | So what did you learn from all the feedback?
A | People were frustrated. People said they were stuck, that the university was stuck. So we came back and said, ‘We need to elevate this university. How are we going to do it?’ Tier One is the pursuit of excellence. We looked at various benchmarks and said, ‘We’re going to hit this, and this, and keep on moving forward.’ What I thought might take five to seven years—that’s what I promised my board—took three. It took three years to make the first Tier One list.
Q | And you also hired some distinguished faculty, right?
A | I knew we needed to hire more members of the National Academy of Sciences, whose scientists are elected in recognition of their distinguished achievements in original research. I decided I would not sell them the University of Houston; I would sell them Houston. Look at the Texas Medical Center, look at Rice, Baylor College of Medicine. Look at NASA. There are incredible assets here. We needed to sell them the package and the opportunity to be successful and work with great scientists. In our first six months we recruited our first one, and now we have recruited, of course, many.
Q | Can you share your vision for the future of the University of Houston?
A | Our vision is to build a nationally competitive institution, academically and athletically. Academically, we’ve made huge strides. Our core mission is to make sure our college completion rate beats state and national averages. We also have incredible opportunities in the city for doing synergistic, collaborative research in health, the arts, sustainability, and more. We’re looking to build an athletically competitive program, which means we need a nationally competitive stage to show our athletes’ talents. I want them to be on national television in front of a national audience as often as possible. And we’re also looking at the medical school. There are many communities in Houston that have difficulty getting access to health care. Our primary question is: What can we do to fill that gap? We have a College of Pharmacy, a College of Optometry, a School of Nursing. We have social work, psychology. Now, what can we do with these assets and 10,000 undergraduate students in this area?
Renu Khator, Ph.D., was interviewed by William F. McKeon, executive vice president and chief strategy and operating officer of the Texas Medical Center.