Durga Agrawal was appointed to the UH System Board of Regents in 2013 and will serve through Aug. 31, 2019. Currently, he is vice chair of the Academic and Student Success Committee and a member of the Endowment Management Committee. He earned his Ph.D. in industrial engineering from the University of Houston.
Agrawal is president & CEO of Piping Technology & Products Inc., a company providing products and services for industrial and construction needs. He is a director of the Agrawal Association of America and a member of the India Cultural Community and Industry Trade Advisory Committee (ITAC, U.S. Dept. of Commerce/USTR). He is also a member of the National and Texas Societies of Professional Engineers and is an adviser to the UH Department of Industrial Engineering. He serves on the Cullen College of Engineering Leadership board and is also a past member of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. He serves on the board of directors of Asia Society Texas and on the Board of Visitors at MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Q. You were raised in a village in central India with no electricity and attended a high school many miles away, occasionally staying overnight. Can you share a little more about that?
I grew up in a large family with three brothers and three sisters. My parents played a major role in teaching me the values of giving and being a kind person. Also, I learned business skills by working in our family business. I am very thankful to my parents for their vision in sending me abroad for studies.
My high school was 13 miles away from home. There were times in the rainy season when we would have to cross the rivers by boat because of flooding. Sometimes the level would be so high, we had to spend the night nearby until the water went down for the boats to cross.
Q. You began attending UH during the late 1960s. What are your strongest memories of the campus then?
The professors at UH were very courteous, friendly and had a lot of respect for foreign students. Dr. Rhodes, Dr. Donaghey, Dr. Dawkins and Dr. Elrod were amazing professors, totally dedicated to teaching.
They put their hearts and souls into educating every student, including foreign students with strong language barriers. They made it a wonderful experience for me.
UH was a unique place where I was able to continue my studies and support my family. UH makes this possible — to go to school and have a part-time job. UH creates hardworking, critical thinkers with a ‘can do’ attitude. I had no idea Houston would become my home when I arrived from India in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Delhi College of Engineering. My eldest daughter, Anu, continued the family legacy and also received her engineering degree from UH and is now on the Engineering Leadership Board at the Cullen College of Engineering.
Q. Drawing on your experience serving four years on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), what are the greatest challenges facing higher education?
At THECB, I learned a lot about Texas higher education goals and the impact higher education has on the economy. There is a huge shortage of engineers in the country, and it’s vital to stay aggressively focused on STEM education. I do believe that higher graduation rates and advanced degrees have a direct impact on improving local economies.
The goal of THECB is to promote access to higher quality education across the state with the conviction that access without quality is mediocrity, and that quality without access is unacceptable.
I believe that online education is going to be a very important and efficient tool for educating students; most of the degree programs can be designed to have a major component of online courses in conjunction with the traditional curriculum.
I feel I played a pivotal role in improving the nursing program for students seeking their Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) in Texas. We approved the DNP at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) and UT Health Science Center in Houston.
Current challenges faced by THECB are getting tuition revenue bonds (TRB) approved and establishing an acceptable performance-based funding program that would create an incentive fund for universities to improve their graduation rates and keep all universities and educational institutions in Texas satisfied.
Q. You were a significant donor to the Multidisciplinary Research and Engineering Building (MREB), which will be completed in 2016. What prompted that donation?
My wife, Sushila, has played a critical role in supporting me in every aspect of my life. Without her incredible hard work, patience and support I could not have completed my degrees and started our business. Sushila and I have been very fortunate and encouraged by our passionate and supportive family and friends to make this gift — we simply want to give back to the University that has given us so much. UH has a very special place in my heart, and I have been providing endowments, scholarships and internships for new generations of UH students for many years. I hope our gift for the new building will encourage additional donors and attract high-caliber students, especially since many UH students are from the Houston area and will most likely stay here upon graduation to pursue their careers. Research has shown that bachelor degrees in engineering have more economic impact than bachelor degrees in any other discipline. The College of Engineering has seen an increase in enrollment over the past several years. So, the MREB will help secure more research funding, graduate programs and other student opportunities. The MREB will put UH on the map as an engineering center for education and research in Texas.
My own message to the students is to always be optimistic; one can achieve any goal with hard work, persistence and determination. As alumni, we must keep the torch of knowledge, excellence and innovation growing and glowing.
Q. You’ve played a key role in Houston’s growing Indo-American community, helping direct such organizations as India House and the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce. How would you characterize that community, and how does it fit into the overall makeup of our city?
I am happy to see how India House Inc. and the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Houston have been serving the community at large in the Houston area.
The India House medical health clinic’s recent partnership with Harris Health System has been a big success serving the community. Other services offered at India House are a yoga and meditation program, dance classes, urban youth program, cricket, craft classes, computer classes etc. The Indo-American community in Houston is very innovative, hardworking, generous and business-minded. Our community has helped create a richer culture in Houston by supporting projects with MD Anderson, Museum of Fine Arts, Rice University, Asia Society and many religious projects.
In the past 15 years, the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce has taken many business delegations to India, and provided support and advice for individuals, businesses and governments in the United States and India. The chamber has helped the leaders in medicine, the arts, education, energy, commerce, IT, social services and finance.
Q. Then-President George W. Bush once introduced you to the Indian Prime Minister as “my good friend from Texas.” Have you remained in touch with the former president?
That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for both me and my wife. I was delighted to see that President Bush introduced me to the Prime Minister of India as his good friend from Texas.
Q. What is one thing people might be surprised to learn about you?
I have been practicing yoga for the last 15 years. As a result, I have more energy today than I had five years ago. My family and I have benefited a lot from Pranayam — that is, focusing mind on body during the deep breathing exercises. I have found that a daily yoga regimen stretches muscles and joints and massages organs. It also promotes optimum blood supply, flushing out toxins and providing nourishment. The best part is the relaxing posture, also known as the body scanning or “Shavasana” meditation (a meditation lying down) at the end of class. For those who do not already practice yoga, I highly recommend it — yoga promotes delayed aging and increased energy. Dr. Lorenzo Cohen at MD Anderson Cancer Center is doing research funded by National Institutes of Health on cancer patients using “Yogic,” deep breathing exercises with the mind focused on body from ancient Indian Scriptures.