April 23, 2009
President, University of Houston
HOUSTON CHRONICLE ARTICLE
SEEKING A BRAIN GAIN
UH Makes a Play, and We Say: Go!
Houston is a big, wildly ambitious city. And we need a big, wildly ambitious university to match. Rice is plenty ambitious. But with only 3,000 undergrads and 2,000 grad students, it’s not big.
It can’t provide nearly enough high-tech workers for Houston’s energy and medical industries. It can’t admit all the kids hungry for a first-rank education. And by itself, it’s too small to spawn the startup businesses that surround bigger universities.
The University of Houston is much bigger: 29,000 undergrads, 7,000 grad students. And since hiring President Renu Khator, it’s begun raising its sights, aiming to become both bigger and better — the kind of university Houston needs.
“We want to attract the best students in the country,” Khator said recently. “A lot of students in the top 10 or 15 percent of their classes leave Houston to go to college. Lots of them leave the state. We want to keep more of that talent here.
“And we want to attract talent. When households in Louisiana or New Jersey or India are discussing colleges, I want them to think ‘Houston.’ We’re a global city. We ought to be a magnet.”
Besides the best students, she wants to attract the best faculty, top researchers in their fields, and lots of them. The problem with UH’s current faculty isn’t their quality, she says. It’s their quantity: There aren’t nearly enough of them. “Our college of engineering has 88 faculty members,” she huffs. “Texas A&M has 425.”
Khator hopes to attract more stars, such as hormone researcher Jan-Ake Gustafsson, who arrived on campus in January. Houston’s relative economic health, she says, makes this a great chance for UH to make its move. Research star power, it seems, is now a buyer’s market: “I can go and steal talent,” she says, “if I’ve got the resources.”
Resources, of course, are the sticking point. State legislators agree that Texas needs more top-rank, “Tier 1” public universities — UT and A&M can’t handle our growing population — and of the contenders, UH is closest to achieving that status.
We hope the Legislature takes note (and we’ll be more specific in later editorials).
But other sources of money — research grants, as well as private donations from alumni and Houston’s business world — are crucial, too. In the coming years, Khator aims to double the $75 million in research grants that UH attracts annually, and to bring private donations from $37 million to $100 million per year.
UH’s giving has grown sharply in the last two years. Perhaps most encouraging is an anonymous donor’s recent gift of $7 million. That donation launches the new UH Tier One Scholarship Fund — money that, if matched by other donors, could cover tuition for as many as 200 high-achieving freshmen in 2010.
Those scholarships would be awarded on the basis of both need and merit. They would, in other words, attract the talented but cash-strapped — the students who most need to be given a chance.
Up to now, giving students a chance is what UH has done best. Its student body is among the most ethnically diverse in the nation. And despite its recent tuition increases, UH remains in reach of most first-generation college students. (For Texas residents, tuition and fees are roughly $8,500.)
We very much want UH to continue to give kids a chance. And if it can do that while aiming higher, our city will be the better for it.