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’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.
In Part 2 of our conversation, Dr. Khator shares the exciting things happening at UH, tells us what motivates her and lets us in on how she stays connected to her beloved family.
Enjoy the interview above or read the full transcript below.
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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 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 welcome you to part two of our TEACH Talks conversation with 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 open for her and how she opens educational doors for thousands of students. Having received my master’s at UH, 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. If you happen to miss part one of our conversation, you can watch it online at toeducateallchildren.org. Now, in her second decade of service, Dr. Khator assumed her post at UH in 2008 and under her leadership, the university has experienced record-breaking, research funding and private support, soaring enrollment, and an expansion of its curriculum and campuses.
As if that success weren’t enough, Dr. Khator has also published five books, been inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame and received an award bestowed by the President of India, among numerous other honors. In part two of our conversation, Dr. Khator shares more about what’s happening at the university, what motivates her and how she stays connected to her beloved family. We hope you enjoy part two of our conversation with the remarkable Dr. Khator. As a nonprofit leader, I love to learn from other fundraising successes. You’ve, of course, you guys are a powerhouse fundraising organization. As you just shared, you recently raised over $1.2 billion as you finished your Here We Go campaign. To what do you credit that success?
Dr. Renu Khator: I think several things. One is, you definitely got to have infrastructure to be able to do something. We didn’t have any infrastructure here. It meant building from the very beginning, the people, the team, that can actually take out your story. Second thing, you got to have a very compelling story. You got to have urgency with it too, because otherwise, “We want to get there. We want to get there sometime.” Well, that doesn’t create urgency. People are very generous in Houston. People want to build a better Houston. This is something so unique about Houston. People have wealth, but they’re also very generous. The thing is we have to give them the comfort that their money, if invested, will do something good. So the first few years was tough because we don’t have the track record of, first of all, raising money.
And then saying that, “Look, this is how we invested.” The more we did, the better it got. But finally it came with, I guess, making ourselves wonderful. Because generally when you do a fundraising campaign, you will hire a consultant who will talk to the people and then come back and saying, “Here is the number that we think you can do the capital campaign for.” Well, I didn’t want to go through all of that because I said the number has to be with the B, because anything with an M is not going to inspire me at least as a leader. So we didn’t do any of the feasibility study, we didn’t hire any consultant. We simply say, “It’s going to be a billion dollars campaign.” So I got the leader who had done a billion dollar campaign before, because you have to know, because of pretty much science and art together, both ways, but science is there.
Eloise Brice, who’s my Vice Chancellor for Advancement, she came there. We built her case. And then we took our appeal out and it meant not just focusing on the people who were connected to the university, but appealing to those who could have been and should have been connected with the university. But one thing you realize, we lost literally two generations for sure of alumni who were not engaged. Since the days of Phi Slama Jama, I would say once the University of Houston was kicked out of the Southwestern conference, I think something broke in the spirit of the university. The academics went plateaued and athletics, and we just felt like, “We are where we are.”
But, well, you can be happy and content with where you are. One thing, what we had to do with the Houston is, I mean, I went to meet with lots of leaders of Houston. And I simply said, “The University of Houston is where it is because you haven’t expected more from it. You should expect more. If you expect more, we’ll rise up to the occasion and deliver that.” I would say, you need to have a case that is appealing. That’s relevant. That is urgent. I would say, you need to have infrastructure, then you need to have a leader. And finally, I would say, you just got to have the boldness to say, “We’re doing it.”
AA: We’re going after a billion dollars. That’s it. Yes.
Dr. Renu Khator: We’re just doing it. Right now, I mean, nobody knows because we haven’t put out any figure, but we are currently in the middle of $600 million campaign type of thing anyway, but we just are not talking about it because our next campaign should be $2 billion whenever we announce. But we are raising because we need money for our student to scholarships. I mean, our students can most definitely use money and then via medical school. We’re going to Big 12. I mean, there are very specific projects and things that we want to do. But one thing is there, our next goal is to be a Top 50 public university in the country. We are 87th right now, but we used to be 125th when I came, so we have made a lot of move.
We can get to 75, slow and struggling and haggling the way we are. But if we want to be 50, we really do need help from the legislature. I mean, there are two institutions flagships in Texas who are AAU universities because of the investments that are there. University of Houston has come this far proving that we are a worth investment. I mean, this is the time if the community invests, if the legislature invests, I guarantee you, Houston can have an institution that’s just parallel to the great institutions all around.
AA: Well, congratulations on such a phenomenal success. I know that was not done easily, so congratulations to you and the entire team.
Dr. Renu Khator: Thank you.
AA: You’re welcome.
Dr. Renu Khator: Well, I would say congratulations to our alumni.
Dr. Renu Khator: As well as whole city, we worked for the city. I love that slogan you must have seen for the city. We used to say, in our sports things, whenever it will be sports team and it will be on television, it will say, “UH.” And I said, “No, we should put Houston.” The same time recognition for city also be there because we are University of Houston. Now, you will see, for several years now, whenever they’re showing basketball game, football game. It never says UH, it always says Houston, because I take lot of pride and lot of gratitude in the fact that we are in Houston. Houston supports us. But I take lot of energy from the fact that we are not there where we can be, and it is that potential that keeps me in Houston because once you are part of an organization that’s moving forward, it creates some kind of intoxication of that success. I want to see that further. We have got big dreams. We are going to do it, and I’m just excited.
AA: I have no doubt you’ll be successful. With all that’s going on in the world today, students in the K-12 system need not just great teaching and learning every day, but they need lots of outside of the classroom, additional supports. I know the same is for students working on postsecondary degrees. Talk to us a little bit, outside of phenomenal teaching, of course, what does the university do to support students as they move towards graduation?
Dr. Renu Khator: If our goal is not just that students come into the university, but they graduate. Once you make that goal as a student’s success and you define your success with the success of the students, now you have to figure it out, what’s preventing them from progressing? Then you help in any way possible. Things we didn’t do before, we do now. But first of all, we have created a beautiful residential environment now.
AA: I’ve stayed in the old Moody Towers before, so I know that the new Moody Towers, state of the art.
Dr. Renu Khator: It’s different now, but the fact that how many students are living on campus, roughly the same size as University of Texas at Austin, and Texas A&M has more students living on campus, but then they are not in a big metropolis, understandable, but otherwise, you can think of any public or private institution in Texas. We have more students who are residential.
Dr. Renu Khator: That creates its own energy.
Dr. Renu Khator: That’s important. But then, we have Cougar pantry. Why? Because we know the hunger is an issue among our students. So if that is an issue, that’s preventing them. Well, we now have a Cougar pantry. You can walk in there and you can take the food items that you think you need. We have program where we don’t charge any tuition for students whose family income is 65,000 or less.
They come to school for free where you should be able to get admission, but there’s no extra hoop to be done. We give out about $170 million in financial aid to students every year. I mean, we had to just tackle every kind of problems. Mental health has become a big issue. We have increased our counselors so many and still we can’t meet the need, but there are also things that you have to do to reach out in the community. Students enjoy, they are idealistic. They enjoy being a part of something that’s bigger than their own identity or their own journey. Because right now at that age, you can remember, you think you can change the world, right? Connecting them with the community projects, sending them in the community to help people, I think that we have found another great way of engaging them.
Our students are out in the Third Ward. They are out in the East End. They are out in different localities, doing all kinds of great things and having project, making an impact. I think that also gives them that sense of pride and belonging they want to stay there, so we’ve increased that. We will also increase lot of internships because we have so many businesses in Houston, they don’t have to travel for anywhere. The more we can do those kinds of things, I think the better we can serve our students, give them the experience, but also give them the sense of pride and belonging. You will not quit your journey if you are proud of it. You will not quit your journey if you think that it’s making an impact. That’s what we are hoping. We are not where we should be, but I think we are on the right path.
AA: Thank you. Someone with your numerous accomplishments, including being the first female chancellor of the UH system and the first Indian immigrant to head a comprehensive research university, what would you say to a young person today who’s seeking advice on what to do next with their life?
Dr. Renu Khator: I think it’s interesting to note that for the state of Texas, I was the first female chancellor ever appointed also, not just for UH system. What I would say to a young person, first thing is to-
AA: That was in 2008, which is crazy.
Dr. Renu Khator: That was in 2008.
Dr. Renu Khator: Yes. I didn’t realize it until later that they haven’t really had any woman chancellor up to that point. I think the important thing is to have your dreams. I think own your dreams, I always tell them. First, you have to have dreams. Second, you got to put it with the passion. And third, you got to have the humility to know that whatever road you are traveling, you are not traveling it alone. That means every step you win, you have an obligation to help somebody else with you.
There will always be challenges in life. Life is never easy, and that’s what I’ve taught my daughters saying, “Don’t ask life to be easy, ask it to be rewarding.” There have been many times and turns in my life when I just felt it wasn’t fair, that it wasn’t right. But like Maya Angelou said that anytime unfair thing happens to you, you have two choices. One is, you can feel you are a victim and you can victimize yourself all over again. Second thing is, that you shake it off and say, “I’m still going to move forward. I’m still going to achieve something,” but never forget the system that victimize you and try to change it when you have power. I think that has been kind of my motto. I would say, because a lot of these things people forget so I try to give to graduates. I said, “If you forget everything else I say, just remember one thing, that there’s something special in you. Everybody has something special in them. So when life gives you lemon and everybody else is busy making lemonade, you remember that you can make margaritas.”
AA: Cheers to that. I love that.
Dr. Renu Khator: They remember that. Somehow, it works.
AA: Especially college students, yes, they absolutely will. You talked a lot about your love for athletics at the university. And since your tenure, there’s been lots of phenomenal successes. What does athletics represent at the university for you?
Dr. Renu Khator: I have always seen athletics and academics as being intertwined. When I came here, I know the programs were not doing very well in 2008. At that point, I was told that, “You had to seriously think about killing athletics because it doesn’t do anything.” And I said, “As long as I’m president, that’s not happening, period.” Right question to ask is not, “Are we wasting money with athletics?” The right question to ask is, “Is athletics giving us return for our investment?” And if we look at it that way, then the question becomes, “What is a potential athletics brings? What can it do to the university?”
And I have seen what it can do. I have seen it at University of South Florida, where I was before. I have seen it here. You can ask Baylor, you can ask DCU, you can ask many schools. If you have a powerhouse athletics, it helps bring attention. It becomes your branding. You can spend millions of dollars in branding your university. This automatically becomes a very important tool of branding. At the same time we have seen, you have Final Four or when we went to Peach Bowl, the applications shoot up.
Dr. Renu Khator: But then you also have to figure it out, how do you get your students also engaged, your alumni get engaged? I can tell you, we never would’ve been able to raise $1.2 billion if it wasn’t for the success of the athletics. Some of the biggest gifts that we have had, I remember sitting down with those donors and first 20 minutes, we will only talk about football and then we’ll talk about academics and then their investment comes for millions of dollars in academics. Every $1 we have raised, 17 cents have gone to athletics, but think about it, how much more has gone to academics. I see a connection and I think it’s important. Other thing is, you have to realize where you are. We are in Texas. Either you believe in football or pack up, otherwise. That’s just the way it is. Anyway, I love athletics. I love football. I think the day or game is, I can’t eat anything because I am so nervous, and that tells you, that it’s important.
AA: I know you religiously attend every football game, both home and away, similarly basketball, both home and away, follow of course all the other sports. Is there a moment that you remember often that still just gives you lots of pride or energy from one of the games?
Dr. Renu Khator: Well, every time you have a bad loss, that stays in your memory. I still remember the loss we had when we thought, when people had made their reservations, we were going to New Orleans for Cotton Bowl and we just did not. That’s a bad loss. When we opened TDECU and we lost the very first game, and it is just the butterflies, and I get that. These are 18 years old playing, but those are the memories. But then there are many, many, many more pleasant memories of the wins that we had with just a few points or the last second. I mean, last one has been beating Auburn. I mean, how special to watch that?
Dr. Renu Khator: I was there and it was really fun. I was in San Antonio for the Elite Eight, the Final Four, as we went last year. Athletics has created so many beautiful memories. I tell everybody, especially international students, I tell them, “Even though you don’t understand the game, just go there, just go for this spirit of it.” Everybody wants to be part of a winning team. I haven’t heard anybody saying, “I like to lose.” So let’s just make a winning program and give everybody a feeling that you’re part of a winning team.
AA: It’s fantastic. You’re obviously an incredibly busy person. You’re probably packed from the moment you get up to way late in the evening and on the weekends, too. I know your family is such an important part of your life. When you do get time together, how do you spend your time together?
Dr. Renu Khator: First of all, you have to make time for family. I mean, I would say shamelessly, I love everything I do, but there’s nothing more precious than your family. When I leave Houston, I think it takes me maybe half a day, but I am off after that. I just say, “The people there have delegated and I’m on vacation and I’m not going to think about it.” And it takes me half a day, but then I get there. We meet quite often as such. In summertime, we’ll have program, we’ll just take a house somewhere. We also have a property in near Atlanta so everybody gathers there. But whatever we do, I love to cook then for family grandkids, particularly ones, the whole list of all Indian complicated cooking things. We love to do that. We love to play cards and games. We love to go out on boat. We just love to sit around fire pit and just talk and laugh. It’s always very special time and we take every time that we get any opportunity to be with the family, we take advantage of that.
AA: You mentioned that you cook some favorite Indian dishes for the grandkids. What’s one of your favorites to cook?
Dr. Renu Khator: Well, what they like very much is chole bhature, that’s their favorite dish. But I mean, I cook almost all kinds of things, but mostly I like to cook vegan curries of all type. Indian curries, and I like to do some fusion of taking Indian spices and taking other dishes and just mix the two and create something totally different.
AA: I love it. In addition to cooking and spending time with your family, what’s another pastime that you’ve taken up in the last few years to enjoy sort of time outside of the day-to-day busyness of the job?
Dr. Renu Khator: I always loved yoga and meditation. They have been my constant for many years, but something interesting happened and I think everybody picked up something during COVID time when we were all sheltered in, in March. Everybody got in their holes and by April it became really stressful to be in front of screen and doing eight hours, 10 hours of Zoom and trying to just do all of those meetings. I needed a break in between so in April, which is a month after everything was shut down, only thing open was Amazon at that time. I ordered my very first canvas and very first acrylic tubes and paint brushes. Since that, I’ve been painting and now there’s a whole studio next to my office. If I get 15 minutes, I’ll go paint every kind of thing from abstract to realism, to all kinds of different things. Two days ago at the Alumni Gala, two of my paintings for auctioned off to raise thousands of dollars for scholarships.
AA: I love that you turned a hobby into a way to raise money for the university.
Dr. Renu Khator: Always.
AA: Fantastic. Yes. That’s really exciting and really, really fun. Imagine a long time from now, let’s say you’re spending time with even your great grandkids. As you look back on your life, what do you think you’re going to be most proud of?
Dr. Renu Khator: I would say that the relationship with children and the grandchildren, I think, at the end of the day, that is what fills your heart. It just so happens. It feels like 47,000 of them are my children now, but I think it’s the relationships. No matter with whom you build, if it gives pleasure to your heart, I think that is probably the most important thing. If I could make an impact, if there are lives that get changed just because you help in some very small way, I think that’s just so much more joyful than trying to go shopping or do something for yourself. I think I’m at that stage now that seeing a smile on somebody else’s faces is way more pleasurable than putting a smile on your own face.
AA: That’s wonderful. Thank you for sharing that. Now, it’s our last question of our time together, and this is what we call our Five Fast Favorites.
Dr. Renu Khator: Okay.
AA: Just responses with no explanation and just sort of lightning responses, so quick questions. What is your motto?
Dr. Renu Khator: I would say, don’t ask life to be easy, ask it to be rewarding.
AA: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Dr. Renu Khator: I would say being on the beach, sanding my toes, and just looking out at the ocean.
AA: Margarita in hand?
Dr. Renu Khator: That would be good, too.
AA: With those lemons. What would you say is at the top of your travel bucket list?
Dr. Renu Khator: I’m just planning a trip to Antarctic.
AA: Wow. Are you bringing the grandkids?
Dr. Renu Khator: No. It’s just going to be me and my husband. We love backpacking, too.
AA: Wow. Fantastic. Name a couple of your favorite writers.
Dr. Renu Khator: I would say Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson, and I would say one of our faculty, Chitra Divakaruni, who I have admired even before I came here to University of Houston.
AA: Last question, what do you value most in your friends?
Dr. Renu Khator: I would say honesty. Your friends have to be where you can let your guards down and say things that you know are going to be taken in the same context. It gets harder and harder to have that kind of friendship with your position, but I always been fortunate to have some friends who are like soulmates.
AA: That’s fantastic. Well, Chancellor Khator, I’m so honored to have had this time with you. It’s been such a delight learning about you and hearing so many wonderful things about the university. We really appreciate your time today.
Dr. Renu Khator: Thank you so much. You were fabulous. I really enjoyed the conversation. Didn’t even realize it was interview.
AA: Great. Thank you.
Dr. Renu Khator: Thank you and Go Coogs!
AA: Go Coogs! 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.