The University of Houston Magazine

A Celebration of Excellence
Carnegie and Beyond

UH Achieves Tier One Status! Now What?

By Eric Gerber (’72, M.A. ’78)

If you look closely at the University of Houston’s official seal, you will see a winged hourglass in the center and, above that, an inscription. It says:

“In Tempore”

If your Latin is a bit rusty, that means “In Time.” This is adopted from the family coat of arms of this university’s namesake, General Sam Houston, and traditionally has been regarded as a reference to this school being founded “in time” to meet the city’s critical need for such an institution.

baby giving cougar signOf course, these days, it’s tempting to say that “Ahead of Time” might be a more fitting motto. Despite projections that it was at least five years away from doing so, the University of Houston recently earned Tier One status — catching even its most optimistic leaders and staunchest supporters by surprise. This was a wonderful surprise, but a surprise nonetheless.

“This phenomenal achievement has come more quickly than almost anyone imagined it would,” said Carroll Robertson Ray (J.D. ’02), UH System Board of Regents chair.

This impressive Tier One designation came courtesy of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, moving UH into the “very high research activity” classification — its top tier — in its latest evaluation of more than 4,700 colleges and universities in the United States. That’s the top 2 percent nationwide. Of those, only 108 institutions met Carnegie’s rigorous standards (See ‘The Company We Keep’ for a complete list), which measure data such as the kinds and number of doctorates awarded, the amount of research expenditures and the level of research staffing. Within the academic community, the Carnegie classification is regarded as one of three indicators of an institution’s Tier One rank, along with the Center for Measuring University Performance Top American Research University reports and membership in the elite Association of American Universities. Recognition by any of these three is considered a confirmation of Tier One status.

In Texas, UH joined two other state universities — Texas A&M and The University of Texas at Austin — along with Rice University, a private institution also in Houston, as members in that lofty Carnegie group.

As you might expect, the University of Houston’s early arrival at such an ambitious milestone was cause to celebrate — specifically, “A Celebration of Excellence,” an event that filled UH’s Cullen Performance Hall with rousing music, stirring speeches, vigorous applause, a multitude of red and white balloons and, above all else, a limitless supply of Cougar spirit. It was a chance for the campus and the community to congratulate each other and officially acknowledge a job well done.

“We can celebrate for another hour,” a jubilant President Khator told the cheering crowd, “but then we have more work to do.”

As Greater Houston Partnership chairman, Larry Kellner, declared, “GHP’s objective is to create prosperity, and we all recognize that UH becoming a Tier One university is a major part of that. Great cities need great universities.”

If the event felt more like a pep rally before a big football game, such enthusiasm was certainly understandable. UH has been doggedly pursuing Tier One status for at least a decade and, with President Renu Khator shifting those efforts into high gear, the faculty, staff, students, alumni and supporters — indeed, the entire Cougar community — have been increasingly committed to earning that prestigious designation. Small wonder, then, that accomplishing that goal was greeted with brass fanfare, a New Year’s Eve-style balloon drop and Shasta, the mascot, leading the audience in a rousing call-and-response of Whose House? Coogs House! Even the university’s most studious and sedate academics were not immune to an emotional rush of pride and elation.

“We can celebrate for another hour,” a jubilant President Khator told the cheering crowd, “but then we have more work to do.” And she’s not joking.

While the Carnegie Tier One distinction is most assuredly a major step forward for UH, Khator stressed that this is not the end of a journey. There is still “unfinished business,” as she put it. As tremendously important as UH’s graduate- level, research-related accomplishments may be, Khator is committed to achieving overall excellence.

Take, for example, the matter of “student success,” which Khator has consistently cited as her number one priority since assuming the UH presidency in 2008.

Granted, “student success” is a broad concept, something not easily defined and measured, but one basic component is an institution’s graduation rate — and Khator insists that UH’s must improve. She has targeted 54 percent (the national average). To that end, the university has raised admission standards to focus on properly prepared freshmen and swelled the ranks of academic advisers, who help keep students on track. And Khator has personally challenged UH’s faculty to help meet this challenge in their classrooms, not only educating students but also engaging them in the process.

Clearly, progress is being made — not just in the graduation rate (which has increased 5 percentage points in a single year turnaround) — but in the entire campus experience as well.

That improvement was acknowledged with another recent recognition for the university, perhaps not as officially approving as the Carnegie bona fides but, in its own way, still gratifying. The Princeton Review, the noted educational services organization, selected the University of Houston for the upcoming edition of its popular “best colleges” guidebook, which focuses on undergraduate education and relies heavily on students responding to the surveys about such things as dorms and facilities, financial aid, administrators, food, library, athletics and so on. In other words, just the sort of diverse mix of elements that, when taken as a whole, helps define a university’s overall level of accomplishment.

“Great cities need great universities.”
- Larry Kellner
chairman, Greater Houston Partnership

This is UH’s first time to be included in the Princeton Review, and the significance was not lost on its leader.

“While we still have more we want to accomplish in this area, I am delighted that our commitment to improvement and our actual progress have been noticed in the national arena,” Khator said.

Another important yardstick to help measure UH’s efforts toward achieving excellence has a more regional perspective — the state of Texas’ list of benchmarks for seven Emerging Research Universities to receive financial support to become nationally competitive institutions. The universities are Texas Tech, UT-Arlington, UT-Dallas, UT-San Antonio, UT-El Paso, the University of North Texas and UH. This program to help create more Tier One schools in Texas — called the National Research University Fund (NRUF) — was approved by statewide voters as a constitutional amendment in 2009. Working with the state Legislature, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board developed a set of standards that the universities must meet to qualify for funding from NRUF’s $600 million endowment.

The recently completed standards, which address such things as academic status of the freshman class, caliber of the faculty, quality of graduate education, number of doctorates awarded, membership in the Association of Research Libraries or Phi Beta Kappa, research expenditures and amount of endowment, evaluate a school’s potential to use the NRUF money productively. In other words, are you ready to move up to the next level?

At UH, the answer is yes.

UH has now met the NRUF criteria — apparently the first of the Emerging Research Universities to do so, according to Welcome W. Wilson Sr., UH System Board of Regents member and chairman of the university’s “Drive to Tier One Initiative.” As one enthusiastic UH supporter put it, “We’re no longer Emerging ... we’re Emerged.”

Of course, there are still bureaucratic matters to attend to, officially validating UH’s NRUF status. And the Legislature must determine the exact procedure for distributing the NRUF proceeds. There have been different bills filed during this legislative session detailing how this should happen and what an equitable amount would be. State Rep. Garnet Coleman and State Sen. Rodney Ellis have offered a version that basically asks that this distribution be handled in essentially the same manner that the state uses for similar endowments.

The specific NRUF amount the university receives is certainly significant, particularly in light of the reduced funding that higher education faces during the state’s current budgetary challenges. But even more important is the acknowledgment that the University of Houston continues to move forward in its commitment to success in all its endeavors.

In that respect, every day becomes a Celebration of Excellence.

What People Were Saying ...

Gene Green, Renu Khator conversingCONGRESSMAN GENE GREEN (’71)

“UH does a tremendous job not just educating folks, but also providing important research that the community and the country needs. When I heard about this Carnegie recognition, I was ecstatic. It confirms what many of us have known about the overall quality of this institution. What I learned in the college of business and in law school here can compete with any other school in the country. That is a message we really need to spread. The excellence of UH lifts up our entire community.”


“It’s an understatement to say that I’m thrilled by what President Khator and the rest of the university have been able to accomplish ... ”


“UH is going to be the same great UH no matter what. But this Tier One designation helps everyone recognize what a great program is already in place here. And that’s incredibly exciting ... ”

Carroll Ray and Jeff Moseley conversing


“So much here at UH is clearly top class, but we need to acknowledge that and build on it. A university is an important engine of our economy and that’s certainly no exception with UH. Since so many students settle where they graduate, UH is increasing the educational level of the workforce here — raising the cultural level of the community — and is just improving the whole experience of living in Houston ... ”


“It is clear that a city can’t be better than the citizens in it. So the educational resources of a community play a vital role in determining its overall quality. Internally, we already knew what a valuable resource the University of Houston is. Now, everyone else has been officially informed.”


“One ingredient that Houston was lacking in moving up to the next level was a Tier One public university. That is no longer the case. Surprisingly, some of the people who live right next door don’t realize what a tremendous and dramatic development has taken place here. Strictly from a workplace perspective, UH provides an invaluable supply of highly trained technical and professional support for our economy. But, it also offers much more than that ... ”

Carroll Ray and Bill Hobby conversingFORMER TEXAS LT. GOV. AND

“UH’s Carnegie Tier One designation is a great honor, well-deserved and, I might add, long overdue. The University of Houston’s excellence speaks for itself, but this is a matter of reputation. And, you can’t put a price on that. Chancellor Renu Khator is leading the university to new heights, and I say more strength to her ... ”