Welcome to TEACH Talks, Featuring Dr. Renu Khator, Chancellor – University of Houston System & President – University of Houston
For the latest episode of our TEACH Talks interview series, we’re joined by Dr. Renu Khator, Chancellor of the University of Houston System and President of the University of Houston. Now in her second decade of service, Dr. Khator assumed her post at UH in 2008, becoming the first Indian immigrant to head a comprehensive research university in the U.S. and the first female chancellor of a Texas higher education system.
Dr. Khator’s passion for education is striking. From her own dedication as a young scholar to now setting the course for thousands of students at UH, her decades of service have been nothing short of exemplary. We are honored to have such a phenomenal leader and tireless advocate for public education, right here in our Houston community.
Enjoy Part 1 of our conversation with Dr. Khator above or read the full transcript below.
Meet Dr. Renu Khator
Renu Khator holds the dual titles of Chancellor of the University of Houston (UH) System and President of the University of Houston. The UH System’s first woman chancellor and the first Indian immigrant to head a comprehensive research university in the United States, she assumed her post in January 2008.
As chancellor of the UH System, Khator oversees a four-university organization that serves nearly 70,000 students, has an annual budget that exceeds $1.7 billion, and produces a $6 billion-plus economic impact on the Greater Houston area each year.
As president of the University of Houston, she is the chief executive officer of the largest and oldest of the four UH System universities.
Khator was born in Uttar Pradesh, India, earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Kanpur. She received her master’s degree in political science and Ph.D. in political science and public administration from Purdue University. A noted scholar in the field of global environmental policy, she has published numerous books and articles on the subject. Prior to her appointment, she was provost and senior vice president at the University of South Florida, capping a 22-year career at that institution.
Alvin Abraham: Hello. My name is Alvin Abraham, executive director of To Educate All Children, better known around the Houston community as Teach, a nonprofit helping educators create positive and learning environments for all children. Thank you for joining us for Teach Talks, our video series featuring one-on-one interviews with some of Houston’s most influential leaders.
Today, we are thrilled to be joined by Dr. Renu Khator, Chancellor of the University of Houston System and president of the University of Houston, where she talks about what educational doors were opened for her and how she opens educational doors for thousands of students.
Having received my master’s at U of H, the opportunity to get to know Dr. Khator on a more personal level was hugely meaningful to me, as I hope it will be for many of you. Now in her second decade of service, Dr. Khator became the first Indian immigrant to head a comprehensive research university in the United States and the first female chancellor of a Texas higher education system.
Under Dr. Khator’s leadership, the university has experienced record-breaking research funding and private support, soaring enrollment, and an expansion of its curriculum and campuses. Today, the Chancellor will share with us some of her personal story and her thoughts on education. Having led the university to raise over $1.2 billion in 18 months, she may even have a few fundraising tips for us. Welcome to part one of our Teach Talks conversation, with the remarkable Dr. Renu Khator. We hope you enjoy our conversation.
Chancellor Khator, thank you so much for joining us today for Teach Talks. I really appreciate your time, I know how busy you are.
Dr. Renu Khator: Oh, it’s a pleasure to be with you. I look forward to our conversation.
AA: Great. Well, let’s start from the beginning. As a young girl, growing up just outside of Agra, what did you imagine you wanted to be when you grew up?
Dr. Renu Khator: It’s very difficult to imagine big things when you don’t have role models around you. I grew up in a family, in a town, where I just did not see any woman, after being married, to have any kind of career or even going to school. So I don’t think I imagined very many big things for me.
But one thing for sure was there, I had passion for education. I loved being in a school. I excelled in a school. So one thing I knew, even that time, that I wanted to get the highest degree that’s possible. What I would do with it, I had no idea. I didn’t even know what the highest degree was. But that was definitely my dream and my passion.
AA: I think that’s incredible. I also am an educator, but I didn’t grow up imagining that that would be my path.
Once you finished school and actually took on teaching, what gave you the passion and energy to continue in that field?
Dr. Renu Khator: Right. But even getting to finish was not something that happened very naturally because I was only 18 years old when my parents arranged my marriage to somebody who was living in this country. So I ended up coming here without knowledge of English. And again, it was same thing, that my husband, at the time of wedding, since I was crying a lot because I say, “My life is over.” He asked me why, and I said, “Because now I cannot study and that was my only dream.” So he promised me that he will make sure I do get my dream.
So I tell him, “Okay, it’s time.” We’ve been here in this country for a month and I could not speak any English, and I said, “It’s time to go to school.” So he took me to Purdue University’s graduate office, and that’s where he translated while I said I wanted admission. And they said, “You’re 18 years old, you can’t speak English, how do we give you admission to a master’s program?” But I’m just a very strong-willed person. I was hardheaded. We argued and argued and he said, “Okay, I’ve got a deal for you. You take two classes, not taking classes, but I’ll let you sit in them. And we’ll talk at the end of the semester.”
He told me later on he never thought he’ll see me again. But there I was. I watched eight hours of television a day just to pick up English, just to get my grammar right. I wrote eight drafts of everything that was given. Hardly spoke in class; just couldn’t talk. However, at the end of the semester I had both As, and therefore the committee said, “What do we do with her? We can ask her to take TOEFL or anything else?”
Okay, so I got admission. And then I finished in a year and a half, had two kids. And then I got into PhD with the two little kids.
Dr. Renu Khator: And it’s simply because I always had that dream. I wanted highest educational degree that was possible. After I finished the degree, I would say then it became the issue as to what I do about it. I wasn’t so crazy, but I knew it would be great to have a job in the academy. My husband, he’s a professor too, so both of us found our way at the University of South Florida, in Tampa.
So you were asking, what kept me going? And I would say … and that’s what I tell everybody … if you have a dream, no matter how crazy it sounds, that’s your dream. Have it. Keep it. However, don’t let it become nightmare, which means you got to work toward it. And I know those were hard times. The first year, I just don’t even remember what I did because I just studied day and night. But it got me somewhere.
Education is such an important pathway. People sometimes don’t realize the power of it. But I can tell you, from my experience and so many I see, it opens so many doors that we didn’t think possible. It gives you dreams that you didn’t even know how to have those dreams. So I’m very grateful.
AA: I can’t even imagine having written college-level papers, not knowing English, in English, much less working through your PhD, having two young kids on top of all of that.
On some of your toughest days, what would you say is something that really kept you motivated to push through and get to the end? Because a lot of people, as you know, start their PhDs and don’t finish. And again, with all the sort of things on your plate, what were a couple of the things that really pushed you to get to the end?
Dr. Renu Khator: Well, one thing is a absolute obsession for getting my PhD. So that was definitely important. But that alone doesn’t take you very far if you don’t have a good support system. So I will give a lot of credit to my husband, who made my dream his dreams. His dream was to see that I do finish my PhD. So even when I said, “Oh my gosh, I don’t think I can do this, this is 25 page paper.” And I would just have mistakes, and I’ll read it and do second draft, third draft. Go at midnight, have an ice cream, come back and do again. Cry my heart out, then do it again. But he kept me going.
And I would say my mom is the one who, even when I was young, growing up, she took so much pride in every little success that I had. She made sure that she always said, she said, “You got to put your heart and soul if you want to stand out.” So I think she always believed in me. And then my husband made my dream his dream. And I would say that’s how it became possible.
And then I have so many other people. I guess there are always mentors around you, you just have to be willing to ask for help and you have to have the humility to take the help. Because sometimes people just don’t even take the help, for whatever reason. So I’ve been lucky and blessed, but I think it’s my obsession and the support system that kept me going.
AA: You have two daughters who are successful ophthalmologists. You also have … is it three or four grandchildren? Remind me.
Dr. Renu Khator: Three.
AA: Three grandchildren. As you think about them having watched you and your husband come to this country and make it, as all of us would know and say, what do you think that they have learned from you and your husband?
Dr. Renu Khator: So they have been always very proud that I was working, or first when I was doing my PhD, to the point that if I would tell them, “Okay, if you guys don’t clean your room, your rooms aren’t clean, if you don’t help, I’m going to quit my job.” And they will immediately go and clean them.
AA: No pressure.
Dr. Renu Khator: Right, immediately go and clean their rooms.
Dr. Renu Khator: I think about it, and that tells me how much it meant to them. And I think I’m very proud of both of them. They have fire in their belly. They are physicians, they are surgeons, but very caring ones because that’s what I wanted to make sure, that you don’t treat patient as a number. I think I see the value because I’ve shadowed them, and I saw how much they know about the personal lives of their patients when they are interacting with them, which made me very happy and very proud.
So I would say they’re very proud of me. I think they take lot of joy and lot of pride in saying who their mom is and who their dad is, and the relationship. And our grandkids, now 11 and nine, they live in Florida, these two. And they come every summer, every spring break, every winter break. They love here in Houston. They’ll be taking actually basketball camp with Coach Sampson this summer.
AA: Love it. Lucky kids.
Dr. Renu Khator: Lucky kids.
AA: That’s fantastic.
Dr. Renu Khator: And the other one is three years old, so she really doesn’t know very much about other things. But I think that’s the best thing, having those grandkids and seeing how you can have a relationship with them. And even though we are far away, but since they come without their parents and spend time with us, I think they know a whole lot and we have such a beautiful relationship.
AA: I’m sure they have lots of red in their wardrobes too.
Dr. Renu Khator: Oh, yeah. Always. My wardrobe is red. And you ask them every time, “For your birthday, what do you want?” The first thing they’ll say, “Some more Cougar shirts.”
AA: Yeah. I love it. Representing the university well.
Dr. Renu Khator: Absolutely. Absolutely.
AA: That’s fantastic. So at Teach, we are built on the foundation that every child deserves a great teacher. Do you have a special educator that motivated you and inspired you as a child?
Dr. Renu Khator: Oh, absolutely. I mean, in my elementary, in middle school. But I would say the person who really put that hunger in me was Urmila Dwivedi, that’s my teacher. She brought me all kinds of books, because in my school … I went to all-girls school all the time in a small town, so we didn’t have resources. And actually, just because that school extended into the college, just a tin roof and without even cement in the walls, it just started opening. And that’s how I was able to even go for my bachelor’s, because my father didn’t want me to go to a co-educational school. So it was all-girls in small place, no resources.
But whenever she would travel, she would bring me the books about political biographies, that I would read then and we would discuss. And she always gave me extra time. And she always said that, “You can do whatever you want to do.” And eventually, because of her encouragement, that’s what ended up happening, that when I finished my bachelor’s degree I got one of Indian government’s scholarships to go anywhere I wanted. But my father said no, he would not let me go outside, because I come from a conservative family. I think at that point in time, I put my foot down, got my uncles and aunts to support me. And finally, he sent me. But I wanted to go to the university where Gandhis and Nehru, they went to school or they were influenced, the leaders were being built. Because I wanted to do in politics.
And I would say that nine month of experience was an eyeopener because I went outside of my home. But within nine months, since my dad didn’t want me to study there anyway, he arranged my marriage. So I never finished my first year of master’s program, instead I got married and I came here. So I landed up in this land of opportunities. I mean, this is a place, this is a place, if you want it, you can get it. This is America. And I always feel so grateful.
But the one other thing I feel always is, just like people opened the doors for me, somebody believed in me when I couldn’t speak English, that, okay, I can sit in class. How can I open the doors for others? And I think that is one thing that has kept me at the University of Houston. It is extremely diverse. We have students who didn’t think education was possible. And I take lot of pride in saying that my university is on the mission of proving that diversity and excellence are not mutually exclusive, that you can take two and you can build a tier 1 university, you can have first generation students, you can have students who come from at risk backgrounds without role models, and you can give them those dreams and you can help them transform their lives but also the lives of the generation to come.
AA: That is beautiful. Thank you for sharing that. As you’ve just shared, you’ve come across thousands of students in your tenure at the university and as chancellor of the entire system. Is there a couple of stories that stand out to you that still stick with you to this day?
Dr. Renu Khator: Yeah. There are actually several, I would say. I remember in my second month or third month maybe here, as president, I had a group of women from Middle Eastern countries. They stopped me as I was walking from my office, and they said, “Can we take a photo?” And I said, “Yes, sure.” And they said, “Because we want to show it to our mom, because you are our role model and we want to show it to our mom, that you can do it we can do it.” That day, I came home and I felt so much weight on my shoulders, because I hadn’t thought about it up to that point that so many are counting on me being successful, because my failure means that their dreams are also being crushed. So I think I remember that, how that motivated me to do even more than that.
Second, I would say, I think I felt … I mean, I faced adversity of different type, but then there are adversity that people are facing, those who are undocumented for instance, those who come from single parent homes, or those who are coming with very, very, very minimum resources. To say that I understand their adversity would be very presumptuous.
So I remember sitting down in a forum one time, because I do these student round tables. So every two months, I collect 20, 25 students, sometimes just putting it on Twitter or on internet, saying, “Okay, who wants to have tea with me?” And then I just sit down and listen. So this was a group that … they shared their stories, I asked them. And I left from there thinking, “I don’t know anything about where their adversities are.” Which gave me an insight that we have to actually look at different groups and see what kind of barriers they have been facing. That is how we can help them see how they can be successful in school.
So the one thing that worked with, let’s say, somebody who comes from Vietnamese background or Indian background, doesn’t work somebody who comes from African American or Latino background or the first generation. I mean, it just became such a complicated exercise. But we spent a lot of time at the university after that, just looking at the barriers in a very focused manner, targeted manner. And that’s what helped us raise our graduation rates in different categories. Because we are, at the university, so diverse, that if we want to raise our graduation rates we have to raise it for everybody. We can’t simply say that, “Okay. If these students, they are doing good, it’s fine.” No, because we are so diverse.
And that’s the beauty of University of Houston. It’s the place of opportunity. And I think I would not find the same gratification, satisfaction, anywhere that I have been able to find here at University of Houston in the last 14 years. So I’m just so blessed to have the opportunity.
AA: So U of H has taken off under your leadership, to say the least. I recently had a chance to connect with Paul Mendoza, former UH regent. And she of course sang your praises during her tenure at the university. What would you say are three things you’re most proud of, as president and chancellor of the UH system?
Dr. Renu Khator: Wow, that’s a difficult question, because nobody does things on their own, it has been a team effort. But where we are, in 14 years, if you want me to sum it up, I would say the best thing is that alumni can stand taller, with their head high, and say, “I graduated from the University of Houston.” I think that increase in pride and belonging, in engagement, I think says it all.
But I would say there have been many things, like getting tier 1 designation and getting medical school. All of that, good. But one thing which people don’t realize so much, and it is a designation, trying to get the university to be a very student-centric university. Because Phi Beta Kappa, you don’t get that designation unless you have a history of being a very student-focused university.
That piece, for us being urban, for us having the history of being a commuter school … which I’m, by the way, very proud of, because if you are established in the boonies you can’t be a commuter school anyway. But because we are in this metropolis, we should be allowing students, we should be a place where students can come and get great residential life but also great commuting experience too. So to turn that whole culture and get the staff and the faculty administration, everybody thinking, first and foremost about students, and then doing everything else. I think when we started changing that culture, which, by the way, I had like a nine point plan to do that, including in that was-
AA: So that’s not easy to do at all?
Dr. Renu Khator: No, culture is never easy. But including in those nine points were even very trivial things, like wearing red on Fridays. And people say, “Well, that sounds so trivial.” Yeah, it may be trivial, but it is a pride in your journey that you are taking. So I think that that designation, which is given by all of these finest of the institutions, very few in the country, who vote for you … and we got a near unanimous vote on it too … I think that was a signal that we have been able to change the culture, that we’re putting our students first.
And for every organization there’s a core mission. For a university? Research. Great. Everything else is great. But your core mission is your students. And if you cannot serve your students, then I think you’re not living up to your potential. So that, to me, is really very important.
But I won’t get … since you said three points. So the third for me would be just seeing how athletics has come back to its former glory.
Dr. Renu Khator: Because when I came here, I was always reminded … which I knew already anyway … the Phi Slama Jama or the Andre Ware days, or how we played with the power schools and beat them. But the thing is, you cannot beg to be at a different place. You have to earn it. We had to invest a lot in athletics. We had to relentlessly focus on it. And I totally believe in athletics. I believe in the value of athletics for academics as well.
So I think to see now that our basketball program is a Final Four program, Elite Eight program.
Dr. Renu Khator: To see our football program went without any losses last year, and we just had three NFL drafts yesterday and day before picked.
AA: Yeah, Vermont’s as well.
Dr. Renu Khator: To see that we are now joining the Power Five conference with Big 12. I think that is of great satisfaction. It will pay dividends. It just changes the trajectory of the institution, going forward.
AA: Absolutely. That’s amazing. There’s so much to be proud of. And Houston has so much to be proud of, with having the University of Houston embedded into its fabric. How has being in Houston impacted the university?
Dr. Renu Khator: Location of the University of Houston in Houston, I say, is our biggest endowment. Yes, of course we can create a $40 billion endowment. It would be nice to have that. But we can cry over things we don’t have, look at the things we have. And Houston is that endowment for us, which is if we connect with the industry then we can do things that are not otherwise possible.
To give you an example. When I came here, we didn’t even have a program in petroleum engineering.
Dr. Renu Khator: Now, this is the oil and gas capital of the world. Why don’t we have a program that is producing the workforce that our industry needs? And the answer was because the students are going to Oklahoma or they are going to UT and A&M. I said, “So what? You want to have the steakhouses here? You want to have opera here? You don’t want to go to other places. Why would you not want to have the greatest educational institution here as well?”
So I think syncing with the Houston has been truly our reason for our great journey so far. And I’ll give you an example. We just finished $1.28 billion of endowment. We said it was $1 billion. We’d raised $1.28 billion.
AA: That’s phenomenal.
Dr. Renu Khator: But only 42% of the money has come from alumni, which is very different statistics than any other institution. So where did the 58% money come from? It came from people who believe in the value of University of Houston for Houston.
Dr. Renu Khator: Which meant that we had to connect with everybody, we had to appeal to everybody, and we have to prove to everybody that their investment is good for the place where they do their business or they live. So, I mean, this is the story I tell everybody in the country, that if you want to go towards success you got to sync yourself with the people of the region, with the economy of the region, with the community where you are.
AA: Thank you for joining us for Teach talks. As a graduate of the University of Houston myself, I left my conversation with Dr. Khator feeling inspired to expect more of myself. And I hope you do too. We are honored to have such a tireless advocate for public education, right here in our community.
Dr. Khator’s passion for education is striking. From her own dedication as a young scholar to now setting the course for thousands of students at UH, her decades of service had been nothing short of exemplary. And of course I appreciated Dr. Khator’s refreshing outlook on family time and her advice for the next generation of leaders. On behalf of our entire Teach team, a big thank you to Dr. Khator for her time and candor.
And thank you for tuning in to Teach Talks. Be sure to share this video through your social channels and stay tuned for our next episode. As always, thank you for supporting public education.