2019 President’s Fall Address - University of Houston
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2019 President’s Fall Address


President Renu Khator
October 2, 2019

Download the 2019 Fall Address Slides (PDF)

2019 Fall Address: The Story of Momentum

Good morning!  It is my honor to bring to you this year, like I do every year, highlights of our collective achievements.

As I started to prepare for this Fall Address and review all that we have accomplished together, it became clear to me that our story is a story of momentum, not so much of traditions — although we have many — but of momentum. Our story is not the story of the past, but of the present, and how our present leads into the future.

Therefore, today I have decided to present the year’s highlights in the form of stories of momentum.

Speaking of momentum, I must start with the biggest story of the year, because 2019 will always be known as the year when the UH College of Medicine became a reality.

On August 22, Gov. Abbott, Lt. Gov. Patrick, Speaker Bonnen, Mayor Turner, County Judge Hidalgo and 20 other state and city leaders were on campus to witness the ceremonial signing of the bill that created the UH College of Medicine.  But that is not all.

A UH outpatient clinic in partnership with the Lone Star Circle of Care opened its doors to patients early in the year and… the first group of medical residents in partnership with HCA Healthcare System — with their white coats and the UH logo embroidered on them — started their training in August.

Inspired by the College of Medicine’s mission, which is to provide integrated, interdisciplinary training to future primary care physicians who will serve in underserved rural and urban areas of Texas, Humana gave a $15 million gift to establish the Humana Integrated Health System Sciences Institute.

This institute brings together expertise from various UH colleges to solve and meet health care delivery challenges.

Today, 22 faculty and administrators call the UH College of Medicine their home, and are passionately committed to the mission of the College.

It all started with a dream, given shape by a Task Force that spent days and weeks discussing strategies, writing applications and creating necessary relationships to build a case for support.

Four committees consisting of faculty, staff and administrators, worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make this dream a reality.

The College of Medicine will be built on the 43-acre, future Life Sciences Complex across from MacGregor Park and adjoining the campus.

And, according to the strategic master plan done by the Design Lab, it will one day emerge as a center of activity — education, research, partner hospital, housing and retail.

While we are proud of our progress on the medical school, it is the undergraduate students whose success is our first and foremost priority.

Monica Martinez is proof that amazing things can happen if you just stay focused on your dream.  Born and brought up in El Salvador, Monica wanted to be an engineer like her dad.  But she lost him at a very early age.  Then destiny brought her to America along with her mother.  Monica attended HCC and was matched to come to UH to work in Professor Jim Meen’s chemistry lab.

Professor Meen, as Monica says, fueled her passion for research in his lab, and encouraged her to continue her education at UH.  One day while studying the properties of lunar dust brought back by Apollo 17 astronauts, Monica discovered a material, calcium sulfide, which had so far eluded even the best of the scientists.  Her discovery surprised even Monica, and it surely has the potential to lead to a new understanding of the Moon’s surface.  Monica, we share your excitement and are so proud of you.

You heard me mention that Monica transferred from Houston Community College.  This Fall, over 4,600 students entered UH having transferred from two- or four-year institutions, and they form an important part of our mission.  Even though national rankings do not focus on transfer student success, we do.

It is important to note that retention and graduation rates for transfer students have been climbing just as fast as they have been for freshmen.

Speaking of freshmen, they are now the majority of the entering class in any given year at UH.  This year, we enrolled 5,682 freshmen — the largest and the strongest class ever in our history.  Their average SAT stands at 1224 and they are enrolled, on an average, in 14 credit hours!

A typical freshman at UH is 18 years old, lives on campus, plans to graduate in four years, wants to study abroad and looks forward to gaining practical experience while at UH.

Freshmen come to us from many states, but the highest numbers come from California, Louisiana, Florida and, believe it or not, Illinois.

One of the most important benchmarks, used by state and national databases, is the six-year graduation rate.  For the first time, our graduation rate has topped 60%, but since our story is about momentum, we are now moving the target to 70%, which will take us in the top quartile of public universities.

USN&WR recognizes that not all schools enroll freshmen with similar profiles.  Some enroll more first-generation students, some enroll more students from underserved groups, while some enroll more students receiving federal financial aid.

In order to acknowledge the challenges faced by universities who enroll the so-called “high-risk” students, USN&WR predicts each institution’s “expected graduation rate” based upon the makeup of its incoming class.

After many years of performing below our given expected rate, we finally caught up this year.  Now our goal is to perform above expectations, because that is what winning institutions do.  Many initiatives on campus are helping us achieve just that.

The first initiative is related to advising.  An intrusive mobile app, called Navigate, is allowing proactive engagement between students and their advisers.  Students get timely alerts and notifications about what they should do, but they also get warnings if they get off track, like registering for the wrong class, miss too many classes or getting a poor grade at mid-term.  Our data suggests that students who use this app tend to stay the course and do far better than others.

Another successful initiative is Cub Camp, which takes freshmen away for three days and brings them back as red-bleeding Cougars.  Again, data suggests that those who experience the camp eventually undertake leadership positions and do better in their studies.

Residential life on campus is also a driving force behind student success.

While we have 8,300 beds on campus, over 2,700 additional beds are now available to students via private developers, creating a vibrant community of 11,000 students living on campus and in the immediate vicinity.  Needless to say, success rate of these students is higher than of those living elsewhere and commuting.

Let’s not forget the role of parents in getting students to succeed.  Two years ago, five enthusiastic moms founded Coog Moms, and today, they have 680 members and are growing faster than any other organization on campus.  We say thank you to Coog Moms.

The next story is about imagination, or doing things that we don’t even dare to think about.  Imagine if a bridge could report that it is about to break, or an oil well could send alerts that it was about to cave in.  Such a discovery could not only save millions of dollars, but also, more importantly, save hundreds of lives.

This is what Dr. Vipulanandan imagined and built in the form of a UH start-up, called Sensytec.  The product — smart cement — allows structures containing cement, like oil wells, bridges, and high-rise buildings, to self-monitor their health and call for maintenance when needed.  Sensytec was recently recognized as one of the top three start-ups from the Mass Challenge Texas accelerator program, and has received an investment from Houston Angel Network.

It is the excitement created by cutting edge research conducted by our professors that, for the first time, in addition to 23 start-ups, three mature established companies have chosen to make the UH Tech Bridge their home.  The first one, Scaled Solutions, has come from the United Kingdom; the second one, Oleon, has come from France; and the third one, Saratech, has come from California.

Nothing happens overnight, but a lot can happen over time. We have been working on the Tech Bridge for seven to eight years, and it is heartening to see how far it has come.

But we cannot stop here. In order to make the most of our momentum, we have to continue growing our research capabilities. The trend is positive and promising with $195 million in sponsored research expenditures this year.

Our faculty are increasingly successful in receiving multi-million-dollar research awards.  This year’s 25 million plus awards totaled almost $62 million, which is an all-time record.

If new technology is not your thing, then consider the old technology with the amazing work of Dr. Frank Holt.  A professor of history, Dr. Holt uses old coins to learn about ancient civilizations and their migration patterns dating back to 2600 BC.  Indeed, Dr. Holt did not go into history for money, but as he says, he went into money for history.  Dr. Holt, the world expert in this field, could not be here today but is joining us online.  Let’s recognize him for his excellence.

One of our priorities has been to diversify our faculty to reflect the diversity of the student body.

The good news is that in last five years the proportion of minority faulty who are tenured or on tenure track has more than doubled from 12% to 29%.

And this growth has come in all categories — African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans.

The challenging news is that we still have quite a way to go. I applaud our provost, deans and search committees for making a conscious effort in finding the most talented candidates for the job who also happen to be from diverse backgrounds.  Diversity makes us all stronger and better. On that note, I would like to congratulate African American Studies Program on their 50th anniversary!

Graduate programs are directly impacted by the caliber of the faculty.  A steady growth in the number of ranked graduate programs is a tribute to our growing faculty strength.  While 39 programs are now ranked in the top 100, at least as many are on the cusp, and with some effort, can be moved up in the rankings.  One of those programs is Social Work, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary by being ranked No. 22 in the nation!

The next story of momentum can be told in numbers: 48, 11 and 1.9.

That is 48 buildings, 11 million square feet, and $1.9 billion dollars invested!   This is what has happened at the University of Houston during the last 12 years.

Here is the campus in 2008. And here is the campus in 2019.

All the buildings you see in red have been newly constructed, majorly renovated or have been approved by the Board of Regents for construction.

The last building approved by the Board of Regents was for the UH Law Center.  Planned at the lot across the street from University Lofts, the building will break ground in summer and is expected to be completed by Fall of 2022.  Thank you, Law alumni, and thank you Texas Legislature.

Among other significant projects starting this summer are the renovation of the Medical Education and Research Building in the Texas Medical Center, and the expansion of the Hilton Hotel with a second tower — what a great way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management!

While we continue to expand on the central campus, the future growth of the University of Houston is expected to take place at our locations in Katy and Sugar Land.  In their fully mature form, the Sugar Land campus is envisioned to serve 10,000 students and the Katy campus, shared with UHV, to serve 8,000!

Nonetheless, to ease parking stress, we still need one more garage on the central campus.  Garage No. 6 with 2,500 spaces will be built at the corner of Spur 5 and University Drive, and is expected to be completed  next year.

But it is not all about new construction. I am sure you know that our classrooms look tired and worn out and need a refresh. Since I visit many classrooms to greet freshmen, here is what I have encountered. And here is a refreshed classroom with flexible seating for different modes of instruction, equipped with cutting-edge technology and plenty of sunshine.

I am pleased to announce that we will budget $3 million per year to refresh classrooms until we have brought them to an acceptable standard.

These and other major construction projects have been completed within budget and on time so far.  While we appreciate new buildings, we rarely thank those who manage these massive projects.  I would like to recognize the work of Senior Project Manager Trent Williams and his team.

Physical space is not just about functionality.  Think of public art and how it contributes to the campus.  This year we will celebrate 50 years of public art and to make it really special, the UH System Public Arts Committee has launched a temporary arts exhibit program.

The first of the temporary art pieces is being installed in the Arts District — you may have seen it as you walked by this morning — and will open to the public in a few days. Temporary public art experience is meant to augment the way we engage and interact with the arts.

Before I leave the topic of campus environment, let me introduce you to a new feature to come on campus in a few days, so get ready for … the robot! Wait – it’s here already!  (Robotic cart crosses stage to president.) Able to maneuver the crowds and interact with customers, the delivery robot will bring your pre-ordered food to your location.

“Last year, I thought I died and went to heaven.” These are the words said to me by a Cougar sports fan. You guessed it… he was referring to the basketball season.

It surely was a magical time when our Houston Cougars created their own momentum and by the force of it, danced on the national stage. The team showed grit and determination and inspired UH alumni all over the world.  If you were there, you can never forget the energy in the Fertitta Center.  The players could not be here, but Coach Kelvin Sampson and his coaching staff are here today.  Let’s show them our appreciation. Thank you, Coach, for making UH your permanent home.

Overall, Houston Cougars had a banner year and won 33 individual championships, six conference championships, six Coach of the Year Awards, and the 2019 Scholar Athlete of the Year Award.

It is no surprise that Houston Cougars were the top-ranked team in the American Athletic Conference.  The Learfield Cup ranking rated Cougar Athletics as No. 60 in the nation, higher than any other team in our conference.

But the real story is about the academic success of our student athletes.  The average GPA of student athletes in all sports combined is 2.94.  It has been growing consistently but our goal is to cross the 3.0 mark as soon as possible.

Transformation is happening in our neighborhood, the Third Ward, and it is being driven by ambitious, strategic and passionate leaders.

One such leader is Traci Lightfoot, principal of Foster Elementary School. Under her leadership and her team’s hard work, the school achieved the grade of A this year from the Texas Education Agency. It was not long ago when Foster Elementary was struggling to even meet the standards. Traci, your success and transformational leadership are inspiring to us.

If you recall, we are fortunate enough to partner with six public schools in the Third Ward.  Under the College of Education’s leadership, our student teachers gain practical training while working at schools.  Our Board of Visitors members are fully engaged with these schools and are assisting on many levels.

I am glad to see that all of the schools are showing improvements, some rather dramatic.  I acknowledge that we play a small role and that our role is not the game changer for schools, but their transformation is certainly a game changer for us because one day these students will be enrolling as Cougars and if you want to win the race, the best way to do it is to have a strong start.

The last of our momentum stories is perhaps the most inspiring.

A gift of $50 million to recruit the very best faculty talent and given anonymously!  If this is not a vote of confidence in the momentum of the university, then I don’t know what is.  The gift is a match, challenging us to raise another $50 million to have a total impact of $100 million.

Called the “Aspire Fund,” the gift will establish four interdisciplinary institutes in health care, energy, resilient infrastructure, and global engagement. By recruiting 25-30 highest caliber faculty to campus, the Aspire Fund will help build the foundation for university’s excellence as it moves into the second century of its existence.

Thanks to this gift and other transformative gifts like the $15 million from Humana, the $10 million from HPE to name the Data Science Institute, the $10 million anonymous gift to study childhood learning disabilities and the $17 million Diamond Family gift to support previously fostered children, this year’s total fundraising crossed the $200 million milestone. Let me say it again, this year, we raised $200 million in philanthropy.

The $1 billion campaign, in its last year, is $118 million over the goal. Of the $1-billion-plus dollars, $196 million has been raised to support scholarships, $128 million for professorships, $146 million for facilities, and $649 million to support programs such as the launch of new colleges and institutes, student services, research support, libraries, and Houston Public Media.

It is worth noting that out of the billion dollars raised, only 17% was raised to support athletics. So, 83% of the funds were raised to support academics.

Inspire and be inspired… transform and be transformed… this is how we generate momentum.  Momentum is nothing but the force generated by a series of events!  It is not one event or one outcome but a series of events and outcomes.

We have had a good momentum.  However, momentum cannot be taken for granted.  It lasts only until it meets its first resistance.  The landscape of higher education is changing and along with it, our risks and opportunities.  Our ambitions are changing and with it our roles and responsibilities.  Our students are changing and with them our means and methods of teaching them.

Let’s face it: if we want to educate today’s students for tomorrow’s success, we cannot use yesterday’s tools and we surely cannot complain that our cheese is being moved.

Keeping this in mind, we are launching a year-long comprehensive strategic planning process.  After creating three new schools and colleges — College of Medicine, Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts, and Hobby School of Public Policy – after starting 35 new degree programs in last 5 years… and of course, shutting down 30 old ones… after launching campuses in Sugar Land and Katy… after bringing 750 new faculty colleagues into our family, it is time that we ask ourselves: Who are we? What are our strengths and weaknesses?  Are we fulfilling our mission?  What makes us relevant?  Where can we go from here?  What are our goals?

Some goals are mission-critical and therefore non-negotiable.  I highlighted some of them in the presentation today… like moving the six-year graduation rate to 70%, increasing research productivity by 50%, increasing student athlete cumulative GPA to 3.0, modernizing classrooms, and enhancing faculty diversity... but to achieve these and other goals, we will need strategy and resources.

Therefore, we are initiating a new approach to resource allocation and budgeting, known as the Budget Transparency Initiative.

There are two goals of this undertaking: one, to increase accountability and ownership, and two, to nurture a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. This year, with the help of deans, department chairs and faculty, we will review instructional funds and make them transparent for colleges.

We will also introduce incentives and flexibility necessary for colleges to become more innovative and entrepreneurial.  In subsequent years, we will review research and administrative funds and tweak them to meet our strategic planning goals.

While our $1 billion capital campaign is in its last year, fundraising, as a function of the university, will not end.  We cannot do much without the generosity of our donors. The strategic plan resulting from our year-long process will allow us to sharpen our priorities and launch mini-campaigns to bring targeted and transformative gifts to the university.  No matter what else we do, student scholarships and fellowships will always remain our priority because we are committed to keeping higher education affordable.

As the third initiative, let’s remind ourselves that the University of Houston will celebrate its 100th anniversary in seven years.

Along with the strategic plan that will inform us of our academic directions, we should also be thinking about how we want our physical campus to present its new bold self.  I will be appointing a centennial Master Plan Committee to start working on these issues.

But Houston is also a global city.  Our students will need greater exposure to the world and we need to expand our learning abroad program.  But we also need to think what role the University of Houston could play in the global marketplace.

The University of Houston has a $6.4 billion impact on the economy of the region and supports over 61,000 jobs.  Nonetheless, Houston is under transformation.  Other than being strong in oil, gas, medicine, port trade and NASA, Houston vies to be a top destination for innovation and start-ups.

In order to do so, Houston will not only need a larger workforce, but also a workforce that is hungry for innovation and that is not afraid of trying, failing and trying again. The University of Houston must rise to the occasion and be the engine that fuels Houston’s future economy.  We will be looking to establish stronger partnerships and deeper collaborations in the region.

Let me circle back to the topic of momentum that was the opener for today’s presentation.  Momentum does not happen by default or by chance.  Someone creates it and that someone for the University of Houston is you, me, us … each and every one of us! It is said that:

“People who succeed have momentum. The more they succeed, the more they want to succeed, and the more they find a way to succeed.”

They don’t use excuses.  They will find a way.

When we dream of something, we have to believe in it, own it and not let it go.  There will always be resistance creators. There will always be those who will say “no” but remember that “our yes has to be bigger than their no.”

Thank you for your energy… your force… your momentum! Go, Coogs!