Regarding her own philosophy of higher education, Khator says, "I look at it as a pyramid. You need to have a strong base with enough affordable, accessible college education for your population to fuel your economy. But at the same time, you must also have the pinnacle of the pyramid, which means the very best in innovation, in research, in scholarship, in the world. At UH, we are committed to those dual goals. We must always take a long, hard look at what we are doing and evaluate our real-world options. But we must always do so while remaining totally committed to the core mission."
During her first decade of leadership, Renu Khator guided the remarkable transformation of the University of Houston into a top-tier institution that has become nationally recognized for its unique blend of academic accomplishment, research innovation, athletic achievement and dedication to the success of a significantly diverse, determined student body.
Today, UH enjoys an enrollment of more than 46,000 students, awards nearly 11,000 degrees annually and has a $6.4 billion economic impact on the Greater Houston area each year.
Since assuming the position of president (and chancellor of the UH System) in 2008, Khator has concentrated on making sure the University reinforces the economic and cultural strengths of the city of Houston. To that end, UH has focused on energy, the arts and health care while maintaining an overall pursuit of excellence in the higher education arena. Recognizing that a great city deserves a great public university, Khator launched an ambitious program shortly after her arrival to elevate UH's standing in the academic community. In 2011, in approximately half the predicted time, UH earned Tier One status from the Carnegie Foundation.
That unprecedented success, which both inspired the city of Houston and further motivated the UH community, has been followed by a string of similar achievements, including the opening of Houston’s first medical school in nearly 50 years, being awarded a Phi Beta Kappa honor society chapter, more than tripling the number of National Academy members on the faculty, dramatically improving the graduation rates and a bold strategic plan to become a top 50 public university. The University consistently earns accolades for its students' achievements, such as Princeton Review's "50 Colleges That Create Futures." It has also received Princeton Review’s “Best Value Colleges” for 2021 and ranks 31st in the nation on U.S. News & World Report’s 2024 social mobility index ranking and among the top 100 universities in the world for utility patents.
Staying prepared for the future, Khator has overseen the growth of the campus to nearly 600 acres, including the Technology Bridge site, and over 300 acres for the UH at Sugar Land and UH at Katy instructional sites. A $1.9 billion construction program added and renovated numerous facilities, including the 40,000-seat TDECU football stadium, the Student Center, two Health and Biomedical Sciences buildings, five multi-story parking garages, the 78-acre Technology Bridge research park and an unparalleled expansion of residence halls to accommodate 8,000-plus students – among the largest in the state. In 2022, construction was completed for a replacement UH Law Center building, a second tower at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and a new Tilman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine building. In addition, new buildings are planned for an Innovation Hub, the Hobby School of Public Affairs and a medical research facility in the Texas Medical Center, among others.
Essential to Khator's overall objectives has been gaining the financial and civic support of the community for the University, reflected by the steady increase of private donations during her administration. Most notably is the "Here, We Go" campaign which raised more than $1 billion, surpassing its goal in February 2019, eighteen months ahead of the campaign’s scheduled completion.
Answering Khator's call for increased community engagement and responsibility, the University has launched several key initiatives during her tenure. Its Third Ward Initiatives program includes an extensive plan to help UH’s neighboring Third Ward upgrade its economic, educational and health care resources. In the summer of 2023, the University’s Judy Cook Building will open in Third Ward, connecting students, faculty and community partners to help improve residents’ academic outcomes. The College of Medicine has opened affordable, primary care clinics in under-resourced communities, while its centerpiece Household-Centered Care Program helps Third Ward and East End families navigate critical health issues. The College of Nursing opened a free clinic in Midtown to serve people experiencing homelessness.
Reflecting her keen appreciation of the importance and complexity of college athletics, UH Athletics has experienced historic milestones under Khator’s leadership. New training facilities and venues have been launched including the Fertitta Center, the Guy V. Lewis Basketball Training Complex and the Houston Baseball Player Development Center. Most impressively, the Cougars consistently compete at the highest levels, earning conference championships, bowl game invitations and NCAA Final Four (2021), Elite Eight (2022), and Sweet 16 (2019, 2023) appearances. In 2023, UH joined the Big 12 Conference — a Power Five conference. Khator has served in numerous athletic leadership roles including the Board of Governors of the NCAA (2019-2021), Board of Directors of the NCAA Division I (2019-2021), chair of the Board of Directors of the American Athletic Conference (2017-2019) and as a member of the NCAA Division I Presidential Forum (2016-2019).
Khator, who was born in India, came to the United States to study at Purdue University without being fluent in English. An adept learner, she became an articulate English speaker by watching American TV sitcoms and earned a master's degree (1975) and a Ph.D. (1985) in political science. Her alma mater has bestowed a Doctor of Social Sciences, honoris causa, upon her as has Swansea University. She has been named Houstonian of the year, inducted into the Texas Women's Hall of Fame and been awarded the Excellence in Leadership Award by the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. In 2014, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee presented her with the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award, the highest distinction bestowed upon a non-resident Indian. Additionally, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services honored her with its Outstanding American By Choice Award, which recognizes the achievements of naturalized American citizens.
Her growing reputation as one of higher education's most accomplished leaders led to her being named to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2020), a Global Education and Institutional Leadership Honoree by the World Affairs Council of Greater Houston (2023), a Houston Business Journal Women Who Mean Business Lifetime Achievement Award (2023), Chair of the American Council on Education (2015-2016) and member of the Council of Presidents of the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities (2016 to present). Additionally, she drew on her academic training as a policy analyst to serve as Chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas (2014-2016).
Prior to her appointment at UH, she was provost and senior vice president at the University of South Florida, capping a 22-year career at that institution. Khator is the first Indian immigrant to lead a comprehensive research university in the United States and the first female chancellor of a Texas higher education system. She is married to Suresh Khator, associate dean of the UH Cullen College of Engineering, and they have two daughters and three grandchildren.