Building on the ‘Big Rocks’ at UH

Arts, Energy and Health Initiatives Providing the Pathway to Success

By Eric Gerber

Renu Khator is not a geologist, but she’s certainly interested in Big Rocks. After she accepted the position of president of the University of Houston in 2008, she quickly reached out to the campus community and the general public to share their thoughts about where she should be leading UH. This first “100 Days” campaign generated a wealth of suggestions – all told, more than 12,000 were received. President Khator and her team set about evaluating the responses, using the results to help shape the objectives of her administration. Two mandates became clear: UH should strive to achieve nationally competitive recognition – that is, Tier One status – and it must bolster the city whose name it shares. 

While President Khator embraced this general vision, she realized it was essential to identify specific priorities to accomplish it. These became her Big Rocks – that is, areas of principal concentration. 

“Simply put, there are Big Rocks, which are those things that are very important, and there are Small Rocks,” she explained. “It’s crucial to know the difference. You don’t ignore the Small Rocks, but you always make sure you are taking care of the Big Rocks first. Those are your cornerstones.”

At UH, Khator said, her Big Rocks would be Student Success, Athletics and three areas of academic and research concentration – Arts, Energy and Health.

For some, the president’s ‘Big Rocks’ approach was as novel as it was engaging. But others nodded knowingly, recognizing the source of this innovative organizational concept.

It had been popularized a few years before by Stephen R. Covey, the celebrated business management guru and author of such thought-provoking books as “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and “First Things First.” Covey championed the value of determining what is clearly meaningful then making sure those objectives are always considered first and foremost when assets were allocated.

“Simply put, UH needed to enhance those enterprises that help make Houston vibrant and successful (allowing Houston, in turn, to support its public university).”

That’s not revolutionary thinking — and Covey didn’t claim to have invented the concept. What Covey contributed was trumpeting the importance of truly understanding that approach and adopting it unequivocally.

For Khator and her staff, the key to choosing their “Big Rocks” was the symbiotic nature of UH and Houston. Simply put, UH needed to enhance those enterprises that help make Houston vibrant and successful (allowing Houston, in turn, to support its public university). With that in mind, along with her personal commitment to Student Success and Athletics, Khator zeroed in on three initiatives that would help UH become nationally competitive and support the community: Arts, Energy and Health.


The UH Arts Initiative reflects the University’s realization that a truly successful city requires a vibrant cultural community, where creativity flourishes. As the Center for Houston’s Future “Arts & Cultural Heritage Community Indicator Report” notes, “increasing evidence attests to the integral role that a robust arts-and-culture scene plays in economic competitiveness, community development, quality of life and social cohesion.” To that end, the University is committed to its role as an anchor institution, working to educate and encourage young artists and entrepreneurs, to provide a nurturing environment for performance and inspiration and to share our own artistic resources with the community. UH serves as a work of art in itself, courtesy of a groundbreaking Public Art program that covers our campus with a dazzling array of sculpture, paintings and other media. The impact of UH Arts is felt through numerous live performances, art and design exhibitions, community programs, literary publications and innovative artistic collaborations.


Houston is known as the Energy Capital of the World. Nearly half of our city’s economic base is driven by energy and more than 3,600 energy-related companies are based in Houston, including 150 pipeline transportation businesses and nine major refineries. Houston has almost 40,000 jobs devoted just to oil and gas extraction. The UH Energy Initiative serves as a platform to integrate UH’s various efforts and enable the University to be a strategic partner of the energy industry by producing skilled workforce, leadership, research and development and technology incubation. In addition to supporting conventional, petroleum-based industry, UH is making extensive advancements in the areas of sustainability, solar energy, wind energy, superconductivity and grid issues. The 75-acre Energy Research Park represents UH’s highest profile commitment to the initiative, but just about every inch of campus plays its part in helping Houston keep the “Energy Capital” crown.


Similarly, the UH Health Initiative is born out of a compelling economic reality. Health care is the largest and fastest-growing industry in Texas, and UH serves as a principal supplier of trained personnel and cutting-edge research. Houston’s Texas Medical Center (TMC) alone has a local economic impact of $10 billion annually, with more than 52,000 people working within its facilities. To support the TMC (of which UH is a member) and the city’s numerous other health operations, UH awards one out of every four degrees in health care-related disciplines and more than half of UH research dollars are spent in health-related fields such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, infectious diseases, genomics, proteomics, visual sciences, nanotechnology and drug discovery. As health care issues grow in scope and significance, the UH Health Initiative is prepared to expand accordingly.

These three “Big Rocks” at UH continue to profoundly shape our University’s ambitions and accomplishments, leading the way as it becomes the great university a great city deserves. In the following pages, we offer a snapshot of each one, providing an interesting glimpse into how we are powering forward.

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Transformers: Addressing UH’s Achievements and Aspirations

Each year, President Khator delivers a Fall Address assessing the state of the University of Houston. It provides a wonderful opportunity to acknowledge the University’s collective accomplishments and its common goals. This year’s address – her sixth – celebrated what has been achieved and set a bold course for a future committed to transforming a great University into a greater one.