Renu Khator stays humble

President Renu Khator

President Renu Khator

To celebrate President Renu Khator’s five-year anniversary at UH, The Daily Cougar got a chance to interview her while she is away in San Francisco. Among University-related topics, the Cougar and Khator discussed her most defining learning moment from a student, favorite dishes, style secrets and blog.

The Daily Cougar: You were instrumental to UH becoming a Tier-One-recognized university; what goals do you have for the next five years?

Renu Khator: First of all, getting to Tier One was a team effort. It took all of us to focus and create the synergy required to accomplish the task. As for the next five years, our goal remains the same: to be nationally competitive in everything we do, from student success to research productivity to athletics. We will grow our Health Science Center, strengthen the Energy Research Park, enhance our arts connections, but above all, be relevant to the community.

TDC: Is there anything you would have done differently in the five years you have spent in Houston?

RK: You always look back and say, “I could have done this earlier, faster or better,” but that is a necessary part of learning. Overall, I am grateful for all the opportunities that were presented to me personally and professionally, and I feel blessed to have been at UH. But, yes, there is one thing. I adopted a dog last year. I should have done it five years ago.

TDC: You’ve said, “If it’s crucial to Houston, it’s crucial to UH.” The University has seen the addition of several health-related buildings and course offerings; what else do you believe is crucial to our city and campus that has yet to be addressed?

RK: A university is a reflection of its community. We have to work hard to stay relevant to our community and our nation in these changing times. We have several strong economies in the region: energy, health, port, NASA and the arts. We have an obligation to prepare our diverse students to play transformational roles in all of these sectors.

TDC: If I understood your Texas Monthly interview correctly, Indian students don’t have the choice to graduate if it takes more than four years. Do you think a “four-year-degree plan” is realistic considering the economy, job availability related major changes and working students?

RK: Let’s talk about four-year degree completion. It is neither feasible nor desirable for everyone, but for those who wish to do it, there must be every tool in their toolkit to get it done. If a student joins the University as a full-time freshman, it is clear that the student has every intention of graduating in four years. As an institution, our focus should be doing what we can to help with that journey.

TDC: I enjoyed watching the inspirational speech about “bold dreams” you gave at the International Conference of Academic Institutes earlier this year (it’s posted to YouTube). When you were in college and graduate school, what did you have to find courage to go after?

RK: My dream was to get the highest degree possible, which I knew was a doctorate. It was illogical for a girl growing up in a small town in India and in a community where there were no role models. Bold dreams often are illogical. That dream kept the fire burning in my belly. Then, of course, I got lucky and came to the land of opportunities, the United States of America.

TDC: Tell me about a student you have met, other than those you’ve introduced in your blog, who taught you a lesson you never expected.

RK: My most defining learning moment from a student occurred more than 10 years ago. I had just become the provost (at the University of South Florida), and I was telling a group of freshmen why it was important for the university to become a nationally ranked university. A 17-year old student with the most innocent eyes raised his hand and asked, “Will it help me?” I was speechless for a few seconds. Since then, I have never been able to think of any university plan or strategy without asking myself, “Will it help my students?” That question changed my paradigm forever.

TDC: I love the idea that you have your own blog and actually write your own posts; how has publishing your personal reflections online been rewarding?

RK: In my very first blog, I said that I had decided to blog to highlight the unsung heroes around me. It has been extremely rewarding for two reasons: One, it has made me more observant of people around me and my interactions with them. Two, it makes me feel less guilty when people give me more credit than I deserve. It is my way of sharing the joy of our success and giving credit where it belongs. Above all, it keeps me humble.

TDC: How has the birth of your two grandchildren affected you and your outlook on life?

RK: I am starting to think long-term and also optimistically. For instance, as a university president, any disruptive change seems like a hurdle. When I think of the learning opportunities it will create for my grandchildren, I find it exciting and inviting. I am more willing to deal with tomorrow’s challenges today and more eager to get them right for the sake of Kai and Anya.

TDC: Everyone knows that you travel the world and advocate for UH and what it stands for; tell me about the most surprisingly inspirational experience on your travels. And where are you currently?

RK: Currently, I am in San Francisco, giving a presentation to a conference for board trustees from all over the nation. My best moments are the times when I am able to leave the audience dazzled by the accomplishments of the University of Houston. I rarely ever get up to speak without wearing red and without bringing at least four examples from UH regardless of the topic.

TDC: Houston has a very diverse collection of culinary options because of the “melting pot” of cultures that have settled here; do you have any favorite dishes or restaurants that you’ve discovered or been introduced to?

RK: I am discovering culinary delights every day. I do not eat meat, therefore, my list may not be fair to the Houston landscape. I have many favorites from food trucks to dog-friendly patios to the fanciest nooks. When I have had a rough day, I like to go to Pappasito’s for a cold beer at the bar. When I have had a good day, I may head to Uchi for the chef’s new selection.

TDC: You are always so immaculately dressed; do you have any secrets to your style? Have you always been a fan of red or did that come after starting at UH?

RK: Red has always been my color. In fact, I used to joke that if I ever became president of a school where the school color was not red, I would change it. As for my dressing style, I like to mix-and-match — skirt from J. Crew, jewelry from Delhi, shirt from a Chinese street vendor, jacket from a Paris boutique, shoes from Brazilian leather market and a Cougar bracelet from eBay — anything goes.

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