How Renu Khator has vitalized the University of Houston to a Tier One institution— and more—in a single decade

University of Houston President Renu Khator barely got beyond the door of Moody Towers dining hall last spring when a student asked her to stop for a selfie. Khator, wearing UH red, smiled, then posed again with the next student who asked.

Similar scenes play out in classrooms and at sporting events regularly.

“Everyone wants to meet her,” said Jenna Done, a 2017 graduate who reached out to Khator via Twitter before commencement and received a personal invitation to her office.

Off campus, Khator has befriended politicians from both parties. Her office includes photos of her with four U.S. presidents (two Republicans, two Democrats), Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D), not to mention Beyoncé.

In the local Indian community, Khator is so admired that she receives dozens of wedding invitations a year.

A rookie president when she took the helm of UH, Khator remains popular—and passionate—as she approaches her 10-year job anniversary on Jan. 1, 2018. She is the longest-serving UH president in four decades and has surpassed the typical tenure of college or university presidents by three years. “She’s one of the great educators in the world today,” said Kent Hance, chancellor emeritus of Texas Tech University. “I don’t think there’s anyone better at doing what she does. She knows how to handle academics, she’s got great rapport with the alumni and is well respected by members of the Legislature.”

Hance, a former U.S. congressman and state senator who retired as chancellor in 2014, recalls introducing Khator to local legislators when she started on the job.

“Within two years she knew them all—their spouse’s names, their children,” Hance said. “She was the right person at the right time for the University of Houston. The University’s improving and becoming nationally and internationally known.”

Based on data alone, UH has made significant gains over the last decade, with student enrollment, freshmen SAT scores, graduation rates, faculty research grants and private donations all rising.

UH also has become only the third public university in Texas to earn Tier One status from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Nine UH graduate programs now are ranked in the top 50 by U.S. News & World Report, up from four.

Yet, Khator continues to dream bigger. She’s pushing for more students to graduate in four years, leading a $1 billion fundraising campaign, encouraging strong partnerships to help neighboring Third Ward thrive, planning a greater role for the University in the health field and continuing to tie UH to the city’s workforce needs.

“Am I happy where we are? Yes, I am,” Khator said during a recent interview. “Am I totally satisfied with it? Well, no. You should never be totally satisfied. You’ve got to still have that drive that more things are possible.”

Khator, born and raised in northern India, initially found motivation reading fiction with strong female characters. Women in her hometown didn’t have careers. Families preferred boys, she said, though her mother treated her brother and her equally.

Khator’s father, a successful attorney, allowed her to pursue a bachelor’s degree at Kanpur University, a nearby liberal arts college. However, as she tried to obtain a master’s in India, her father decided to arrange for her to get married.

Suresh and Renu Khator wed in an arranged marriage 10 days after meeting.

She married Suresh Khator 10 days after they met.

Suresh, then a graduate student in engineering at Purdue University, translated for Khator as she negotiated admission into the master’s program in political science there. Watching hours of “I Love Lucy” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show” to learn English, Khator ended up earning her master’s plus a Ph.D. in political science and public administration.

She then followed Suresh to the University of South Florida, where he got a job as a professor, and she worked her way up to provost. He’s now an associate dean at UH’s Cullen College of Engineering.

“My husband promised me that he would give me as much education as I wanted, after I stopped crying,” Khator said. “He’s lived up to that. He’s my biggest cheerleader.”

On June 1, she tweeted about celebrating their 43rd anniversary.

University of Houston System Chancellor and UH President Renu Khator presents at a meeting during her first 100 days in 2008.

Khator had been to Houston only once, for a wedding, before she interviewed for the top job at UH. These days, as the first Indian immigrant to lead a major public research university, in a city where about one in four are foreign born, Khator wasn’t shy about donning a cowboy hat in her Twitter profile photo.

“I think I have become a Houstonian by now,” she said from her office, where a bronze Cougar stretches across her desk. “The first three years, it was a job. Sometime during that third year, I ended up giving my heart to the institution.”

“If you want to make a difference, this is the place to be,” she added. “You have all the people here, not just inside the institution but also outside. I feel very blessed.”

Khator talks often about the success of UH and the nation’s fourth-largest city being intertwined.

“I always try to see, ‘What is it we need to do to contribute to the city of Houston’s future growth?’” she said.

In 2012, for example, UH began offering the nation’s first graduate degree program in subsea engineering, giving students and the city a competitive edge as the offshore oil industry expanded.

To better align with the city’s thriving cultural scene, UH opened a separate college centered on the arts—now named the Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts—in 2016.

Khator announced the launch of a new institute for data sciences in fall 2017 and continues to explore starting a medical college, focused on preventative and primary care in underserved communities. “It’s all about adding value,” she said.

Cathy Horn, a professor of higher education and president of the UH Faculty Senate, said Khator has pushed UH forward by staying focused on key areas such as student success and research while being willing to listen.

“Change is always a struggle, even when it’s change for good,” Horn said. “I appreciate that the president doesn’t back away from challenging discussions. Even when we occasionally agree to disagree on particulars, I know she shares our commitment to the success of the University.”

When it comes to academic achievement, Khator speaks bluntly.

“The graduation rate has got to go up to the national average,” Khator said. “Until that time, we are not resting.”

UH’s six-year graduation rate has increased 10 points to 53 percent during her tenure. The national average is 59 percent.

“If you set higher expectations, people will rise up to those expectations,” Khator said.

Student enrollment 34,663 43,774
Median SAT score (freshmen) 1,055 1,146
Course completion rate 88% 97%
Six-year graduation rate 43% 51%
Total research expenditures $73.5 million $151.5 million
Average attendance (football) 19,627 33,980

UH has made significant gains during President Renu Khator’s tenure.

houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he always was a “proud graduate” of UH, where he earned his bachelor’s in 1977.

“But now, thanks to the decade-long leadership of Dr. Khator, every Houstonian, regardless of their educational background, beholds a Tier One institution that is a leading light around the nation for the transformation of public higher education,” Turner said in a statement.

“Through its student body diversity and high-quality educational opportunities, UH is a destination school,” Turner added. “It’s an engine that drives the future of Houston because it not only readies its students to enter our growing workforce but also because it helps develop an enlightened citizenry that is eager to interact with our community at large.”

Khator has prioritized continued collaboration with UH’s neighbors in Third Ward—to improve schools and health care, to fuel business opportunities, and to promote art and cultural exchanges. More than 40 percent of residents in the historically African-American area fall below the poverty line.

Elwyn Lee, UH’s vice president for neighborhood and strategic initiatives and a product of Third Ward, recalled Khator’s passion during a tour he led. They stopped by the historic Jack Yates High School, named for the reverend and former slave; Emancipation Park, purchased by freed slaves in 1872; and transformative places such as SHAPE Community Center and Project Row Houses.

“We got to two hours, and she said, ‘Keep going,’” Lee said. “It is wonderful to see her real commitment to UH, the city and Third Ward.”

Molly Corbett Broad, past president of the American Council on Education, said Khator’s influence extends nationally, particularly as a mentor to future leaders. The two worked together when Khator served as chair of the ACE board.

“She is prepared, diligent, committed and not willing to settle, qualities that make her an excellent leader,” Broad said.

Only 30 percent of college presidents are women, with far fewer leading research institutions.

Khator, reflecting on her mom’s death this year, wrote on her blog: “There is a trail to blaze no matter where you are and what you do.” Her mom, she wrote, broke tradition marrying without a veil, became a table tennis champ and formed a women’s organization.

In 2016, Khator was inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame.

“I always tell students, ‘You’ve got to have a dream,’” she said. “It’s going to put that fire in your belly. And if you have that, then you will not quit.”

UH President Renu Khator regularly visits classes to meet with students and field questions.