Best of Houston® 2013: University of Houston's Dr. Renu Khator

A great city, no matter where it is, needs an equally powerful university. That's what Dr. Renu Khator, president and chancellor of the University of Houston System, thinks.

Like so many Houstonians, Khator is not a native. When she accepted her position with UH, she had been to the city only once before, for a wedding. She'd barely seen the place that she would eventually call home. But that didn't bother her. She did her research on Houston and seeing it in person or not, she was thoroughly impressed. Khator says that the city's immense diversity and the growth that it has experienced made it an ideal situation for her.

"Houston has every ingredient to be a great city," says Khator. "I immediately knew it was the destination for me."

Becoming the 13th president of the University of Houston System has been a challenge. Khator developed a laundry list for the direction she wanted the university to go and the type of service she believed it should offer to the community. Khator says she believes that for a city to grow and prosper, it needs a university to mirror that trajectory.

The first check box on her agenda, when she arrived five and a half years ago, was to look at the gaps in the city's workforce and examine what types of new programs would benefit local industries. Houston is thriving in the fields of oil and gas, medicine and energy, and Khator has pushed for partnerships between UH and these sectors. The college now has programs and courses that match the needs of the businesses. Some courses offered here are not available at any other university in the country.

The second item on her agenda was to match the city's spirit of entrepreneurship by turning UH into a Tier One research university.

"How can you have, in a great community, a university that hasn't reached its maximum potential?" Khator asked herself.

And so becoming a Tier One school became the university's second rallying point. And it has been successful.

However, Khator is not putting her feet up because of a job well done just yet. She wants to continue the growth of UH as a service to Houston.

One of her next charges is to keep students in school. The number of students who get their degrees is not ideal; dropout rates are high. Khator calls this her "no-excuse priority." To combat dropouts, the school has built residence halls and changed the student atmosphere and lifestyle, and school pride carries significant weight around the campus. Fridays at UH look as if the entire campus has been doused in red paint. Khator's next mission is to strengthen the university's research facilities so they keep up with the future of Houston's industries. Additionally, Khator emphasizes the need to take the research being done at UH and push it right out into the marketplace. She sees the relationship between research and local business as a synergistic one. They will grow together with encouragement.

It's not just the impact that Khator has had on the university's policies and programs that is so impressive. Khator has also done a service to the community. She made her way to a leadership position by pushing herself and continuously challenging conventions. The fact that she is a woman running the largest university system in the city is nothing to shrug off, but Khator is also foreign-born. English is her second language; she came from a modest background, and she persevered in achieving undeniable success. Khator hopes that young women in similar situations see her as a role model.

"This country is a dreamland, and Houston has an economy like nowhere else," she says. "I think if young people can feel like anything is possible, that would be a great contribution from me."

There is no doubt that Khator has made a mark on the university and the city as a whole. But has the city done anything for her? Khator says enthusiastically that Houston has surprised her, inspired her and kept her on her toes.

"It is the people here, working and doing and striving, that make this city so wonderful," she said.

Khator says that one of the reasons she has fallen in love with the city is that it never gets stale. There is so much to do that claiming boredom would be a fallacy. She is constantly finding new and appealing communities, restaurants and modes of entertainment. Every time she thinks she may have just about consumed it all, something unfamiliar comes into view.

And Khator says that it's not just the great restaurants, first-rate theater and museums, and outstanding destinations that make her love Houston so much. The city has changed a part of her. Every day she learns a lesson in humility.

"One of the reasons that I find it inspiring," she says, "is that I keep meeting people who came from nowhere and have succeeded here."

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Abby Koenig
Contact: Abby Koenig