Can a teenage immigrant girl in an arranged marriage with no knowledge of English rise up to become president of a major American university? The answer is yes, in the case of Renu Khator. As chancellor of University of Houston System and president of University of Houston (UH) since 2008, Indian-born Khator oversees an organisation that serves more than 70,000 students, an annual budget of nearly $1.3 billion, and has a $3.8 billion-plus economic impact on the Greater Houston Area each year.
The 58-year-old is the CEO of the largest and oldest of the four UH System universities. UH enrols 40,000-plus students, offers more than 300 undergraduate and graduate programmes and awards 8,000 degrees each year. The university enrols about 700 Indian students every year. Starting as Director of Graduate Programmes, Department of Government and International Affairs, University of South Florida, USA (1990-1993), Khator, step by step, rose to the university’s provost and senior vice-president before Houston happened.
“Perhaps the biggest asset and special characteristic of UH is what I like to call its ‘locational endowment’ — we enjoy the unique advantage of being located in the fourth largest city in America, a metropolis with a robust economy and a diverse, enlightened community that clearly appreciates and supports higher education. We became a Tier One university faster than anyone expected, in large part, because of the enthusiasm, energy and generosity of our community. The university is committed to providing skilled workers, knowledgeable leaders and expert researchers who enhance the core strengths of the city — the energy sector, the health industry and the arts,” says Khator. “We deliver a first-rate and accessible education to students who are academically prepared and motivated to succeed. We are a Hispanic-serving institution, and there are only two other universities in the country that are Tier One institutions and also Hispanic-serving (a federal designation). This tells me that we’re proving that serving an underserved population and being nationally competitive are not mutually exclusive goals.”
American higher education system is one of the most emulated systems the world over. But is it without challenges? “We are now in a growing global competition for top faculty, researchers and graduate students. India is building 14 new world-class universities. China is trying to bring 1,000 of their best Chinese-American professors back home. So we must not take our preeminence for granted. We must do whatever’s required to remain on top, forming multiple partnerships and strategic collaborations. UH, for example, has MOUs with nearly three dozen institutions in India. If American higher education wants to remain relevant and globally competitive, then it must broaden its perspective and transform itself into a truly global enterprise,” says Khator, who holds a BA in liberal arts from Kanpur University (1973), MA in political science from Purdue University (1975), USA and PhD in political science/public administration.
Khator is also worried about student debts. “Though it is a challenge, there are many things about debts and loans that are fixable. We have to start focusing on the right benchmarks, the right funding, the right incentives, and the right accountability.” At this juncture, we can’t help but ask her if American education is still a big lure for students? “Yes. Simply put, our system of higher education is the envy of the world. In this knowledge-based, ‘flat world’ economy, there are few products as highly prized as an education from an American university.”
On her plans for the university, she says, “Our number one, and a no-excuse priority, will continue to be student success. In the coming year, we will focus on improving graduation rates across the board: four-year, six-year and transfers. The latest retention trends give us hope; nonetheless, we will have to stay committed. Our graduation rates are still below state and national averages, and we cannot hide behind excuses until we reach and surpass those averages. I know it is a huge undertaking and that it will require every single one of us to work and change the paradigm, but anything is possible if we want it bad enough. And we do want our students to succeed bad enough! Our second priority is to keep marching toward national and global competitiveness, improve our rankings and solidify our Tier One position. This year, we maintained our national rankings and grew the number of programs ranked nationally. Ten of our graduate programmes are now ranked in the Top 50. For the first time, our Law Centre as a whole is ranked in the Top 50, and four of the law programmes are ranked in the Top 20! Going forward, we will continue to build our big rocks in energy, health, and the arts and will continue to give boost to our nationally recognised star programmes. If we want to be relevant to our city, we must build a research enterprise that advances the quality of life.” Khator lives with her husband, Suresh, and two daughters in Houston.