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President’s Fall Address

President Renu Khator
October 5, 2016

Fall Address 2016: Expecting the Unexpected

Thank you … all of you … for being here this morning to celebrate yet another year of achievements on many fronts.

The Fall Address was designed to give us a break from our daily routine, to reflect on what we have achieved together, and to reaffirm our commitment to the journey on which we continue to travel … the journey toward excellence … the journey toward national competitiveness!

Just as we must save seeds from a fruit and plant them back in the soil to get a new crop, it is necessary for us to gather the energy generated by our successes and feed it back into our current efforts to fuel the momentum.    

If one word could characterize this past year, it would be boldness … boldness of our expectations but more importantly, boldness of our actions. In fact, we have raised the bar on our expectations to the point that we are now in the habit of “expecting the unexpected.”

Student Success

Let’s begin with our core mission … preparing future leaders, teachers, businesspeople, artists and innovators.

We welcomed 43,777 students to our campus this year, among them the largest number of brand new Cougars—9,803! 

Corresponding to our growth in enrollment, the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty has also grown appreciably during this period and, as of 2015, stands at 1,025.  

This year’s freshmen class of 4,469 is the largest in the university’s history. What is equally important is that 95% of the class is enrolled full-time, and 70% of them have signed up for UHin4!  In other words, forget about 6 years; these students are on track to graduate in 4!

There is no doubt that the University of Houston has become the “University of First Choice” for the most talented and the most committed students.

Emboldened by the new expectation of graduating on-time and supported by many new programs, more and more of our students are taking 30 credit hours per year.

Even if nothing else changed … even if retention rates did not increase … and they are increasing steadily … the predictive model tells us that the fast accumulation of credit hours alone will push the graduation rate to above state and national averages by 2020 to 62%.  

Our consistent focus has been to help every single student succeed.  Let me repeat … to help every single student succeed.  Since aggregate data can often hide finer details, let’s break it down a little.

In 2013, a significant disparity existed in the graduation rate of our students, depending upon their socio-economic background. Students who received federal need-based assistance or Pell Grant were less likely to graduate than those not on Pell Grant. Thanks to your relentless focus on student success, this disparity has now been cut in half, from 7% to 3%.

A similar improvement can be seen on the racial front.  Among full-time freshmen entering in 2004 and graduating in 2008, an African American student was only 57% as likely to graduate as a white student. Roll the time to 8 years later. 

The 4-year graduation rate for our African American students went up 180%!  An African American student entering in 2012 and graduating early this year was 85% as likely to graduate as his white counterpart.

Some improvement can be seen for our Hispanic students as well.  Their 4-year graduation rate has gone up 140% for the same time period and their odds of graduating compared to their white counterparts went up from 58% to 75%. 

While we can celebrate the success … and yes, our success has been recognized nationally as we received three “Excellence in Diversity” awards this year ... the achievement gap, whether based on socioeconomic or racial lines, is still significant.  If our goal is to care about every student … every single one … then we must continue our efforts to close the gap.

Let’s now turn our attention to the journey we embarked upon many years ago … the journey to build a nationally competitive university.

We continue to strengthen our position as a Carnegie Tier One university.  It was in 2011 when we made the list, and since then our position has become stronger with each report. 

Similarly, our rank has advanced significantly on the measures reviewed by the Top American Research University or TARU, rising as high as 103 positions in one area – the average SAT of the entering freshmen class.

Now it is time that we set our eyes on the next destination, i.e., membership in the Association of American Universities or AAU.  The requirements for AAU are both quantitative and qualitative. 

The good news is that we meet or exceed the minimum threshold held by the current members in all of the categories.

The bad news is that the minimum threshold is no longer sufficient.  AAU expects new institutions to enter at a much higher level of performance than those grandfathered in.

While we have a significant distance to travel in each of these areas, we have achieved the entry level threshold in one category, number of National Academy Members, and are close to achieving it in two areas – number of doctoral degrees awarded and number of post-doctoral appointments.    

Our productivity on doctoral degrees has grown consistently each year.  This year, we awarded 366 degrees in 45 disciplines. The number of post-doctoral appointments now stands at an impressive 258!  

Research

The rise in doctoral and post-doctoral activity is directly connected with the rise in research activity, which has also doubled during the same time period.  And the growing strength of the faculty has been key to achieving this growth.

Among the current faculty who are members of the National Academy of Engineering or of Sciences, four were recruited before 2008.  Fourteen have been recruited since then, bringing the total number to 18!  Five members were added this year alone, three of them thanks to Governor’s University Research Initiative.

Also noteworthy is the appointment of Rick Lowe, who won a 2014 MacArthur Genius Award.  Rick, whose work in the Third Ward has been nationally acclaimed as impactful and inspiring, has joined the faculty in the new College of the Arts.

It is not possible to leave the topic of UH faculty without celebrating the lasting impact and legacy of Edward Albee, America’s preeminent playwright, who passed away last month after shaping many generations of talent right here at the University of Houston.

Last year, we were delighted to receive seed funding to establish three national research centers.  This year, we built massive nationwide consortia of universities and industry and submitted two proposals to receive $70 million of federal funding for each.

The first proposal was for the Advanced Superconductor Manufacturing Institute.  The proposal required a one-to-one match, or $70 million, of industry support.  Our team of researchers received $180 million in industry support to put forward a strong proposal that, as of today, continues its way in the review process.

The second proposal, in collaborative partnership with LSU, was submitted to the Department of Energy for the Process Intensification Innovation Institute, again requiring $70 million in match.  This team of researchers also put together a consortium of 80 partners and $175 million in industry support.  I applaud the PIs for these two projects, Dr. Venkat Selvamanickam and Dr. Mike Harold, respectively.  

These kinds of proposals and this magnitude of support are unprecedented in our history, and they undoubtedly reflect our bold expectations, but they also indicate the confidence placed by industry in our boldness.

While external funding is helpful, it does not define the scope of research being done at the University of Houston. Discoveries in social sciences, the humanities and the arts are breaking new barriers and receiving national recognition.

Professor Ken Brown’s discoveries are displayed in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., while Professor Nicolás Kanellos was awarded the highest honor conferred by the Spanish Government for his scholarship that promotes the appreciation of Hispanic language and culture.

Fundraising

This success reflects the success of our alumni … our supporters … and our city. I have always believed that great universities are built by great communities. 

Nearly 69,000 donors are writing today’s chapter of greatness at the University of Houston every year – an increase of 188% during the past five years! Some have quietly given $20 to be part of the dream…while some have made national news, like Board of Regents chairman Tilman Fertitta, by giving $20 million and thus making our dream even bigger and bolder! 

Overall, this year’s gifts totaled $147 million! No matter at what level, every gift is important and every donor is part of our unfolding legacy. As you may know, we are in the quiet phase of a billion-dollar campaign and, as with any great initiative, its success depends on its leadership.

So I am pleased to announce four outstanding leaders of our community who have agreed to serve as chairs of this very bold campaign: Mr. John Nau, Ms. Beth Madison, Mr. Marvin Odum and Chairman Fertitta. They deserve our deepest appreciation.

While we will publicly announce the launch of the campaign on January 18, I am very excited to tell you that 60% of the funds have already been raised.

Physical Campus

Thanks to the generous support from so many people, the face of our campus continues to be transformed with construction and renovation projects. 

This year, among all the projects completed, the most visible was the Basketball Development Facility, named in honor of our legendary coach, Guy V. Lewis.

As a sign of our bold vision, we also opened a “Wet Labs” facility, providing a much needed space for the University of Houston but also for the city of Houston. This 13,000 sq. ft. of wet lab space is soon to become home to 10 or more start-up companies, with half of them run by our faculty or students.

The University of Houston continues to be ranked #1 in the nation on intellectual property revenue among all public universities that do not have a medical school.

This year, we are also ranked among the top 100 university systems in the world for number of patents issued. I applaud our researchers, for they have achieved this status without having the benefit of a medical school.

Two mega projects—the Multidisciplinary Research and Engineering Building and the Health and Biomedical Science Building 2 — are currently under construction and will be completed  later this month and in November 2017, respectively.

Many projects are currently on the drawing board. Among them a new Quad, which will add an additional 200 beds and include housing alternatives for international students.

The basketball arena will be closed right after this coming season for a total make over, both inside and outside, thanks once again to the naming gift by our chairman. We all look forward to the opening of the Fertitta Center.

Also starting this year are the baseball clubhouse as well as, a new indoor practice facility for the #1 football team in Texas!

A new 8,000-student campus in Katy—4,000 from UH and 4,000 from UHV—should also break ground this year.

While all of these projects are special, the most gratifying project to me is the Core Renovation Project. Thanks to the visionary thinking of our Board of Regents, we are able to set aside $100 million to renovate 6 buildings that form the core of our campus. These are the buildings that house classrooms and labs where most undergraduates will go at some point in time for their required general education courses.  They are also home to 26 academic departments and provide invaluable learning spaces to a large number of students. The oldest of these buildings was built 77 years ago…yes, their renovation was long overdue!

If construction signals progress, then sustainability signals responsible progress. And you may be surprised to learn that the University of Houston has become a nationally recognized leader in sustainability.  Hundreds of our students, staff and faculty volunteer their time in learning and teaching sustainable practices.  An example is the Campus Community Garden where organic food is grown and harvested and then donated to various organizations in the Third Ward.

Our combined efforts have led the Sierra Club to name the University of Houston as one of the Cool Schools. Princeton Review recognized us, for the 6th year in a row, as the Greenest Campus, and the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education awarded us its highest rating of gold, the first such rating for any university in Texas. I applaud Melissa Halstead and the student volunteers who work with her.

Now let’s turn to …

Athletics

It was an unforgettable Saturday morning when our Cougars showed up in front of a packed NRG stadium and showed their own shade of red color with a rousing 33-23 victory over highly ranked Oklahoma. Houston’s quarterback Greg Ward Jr. was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated … And we became a part of the national conversation. Our boldness was applauded … our transformation was touted … and our rightful position in the college landscape was debated.  No, football is not everything, but … right now … it surely seems to be the beginning point of every conversation.

The expectation of winning championships is taking root. Last year, 4 UH teams finished in the top 20 nationally and 4 won conference championships.  Today, I have chosen to recognize the Women’s Golf team that in its infancy … only its 2nd year of existence … won the conference title. So we salute Women’s Golf Team and Coach Gerrod Chadwell.

But athletics is about students first and athletes later, and it is heartening to see that the graduation rate for our student athletes is higher than that of the university as a whole.

None of these successes would have been possible without the support of our city. We continue to celebrate the city, and the city continues to cheer for us.  Yes, we truly are “Houston’s University.”

You may have seen our Powerhouse campaign on billboards, at airports, on television and in magazines. Yes, we have become a powerhouse!

Concluding Remarks

Now that we have raised the bar on our expectations, where do we go from here?  All these years, our goal has been consistent—pursuit of excellence by building a nationally competitive, Tier One University! Our strategy has been the same – synchronize our strengths with the strength of the city in energy, health, and the arts. Our mission has been unwavering—preparing the next generation of leaders for Houston, Texas, the nation and beyond.

Within this context, let me outline four major efforts in the coming year.

The first one relates to the empowerment and revitalization of our neighborhood, the beautiful and historic Third Ward. 

Eighteen months ago, with the help of community leaders, we established a UH and Neighborhood Partnership Forum and recommitted ourselves to helping the community. I must acknowledge that the University of Houston has always been an engaged and community-serving institution.  Our students, staff and faculty have been volunteering their time and talent to support many organizations in the community. So, the purpose of this initiative is not to add more, but to be focused, strategic and impactful so that the needle can move.

This initiative covers four major areas – education, economic empowerment, health and the arts – each one with clear objectives and operational measures. In education, for instance, the objective is to work with HISD and help 6 public schools to first reach, and then beat, the average on academic measures used by the Texas Education Agency.

Similarly, the objective for economic empowerment is to help 25 new businesses grow in the neighborhood in the next 5 years. A faculty-led small business boot camp in the Bauer College of Business is already training 15 individuals recommended by Third Ward organizations this year.     

I want to stress that our engagement in Third Ward is not purely academic; it is being undertaken with the purpose of empowering the community to transform itself.  I urge you to learn about these and many other projects currently underway and get involved. 

The second effort is to eliminate or reduce health disparity in the region. This effort includes many initiatives, including the establishment of a center for population health and a medical school...a medical school that commits itself to serving the community by excelling in primary care, and in research related to eliminating health disparities. We hope to finalize the academic, business, and clinical plans shortly and then seek necessary approval during this legislative session.

Our third effort will be to enhance the faculty talent, and in the process, to place more of our graduate programs in the top 50 nationwide. Our continued efforts to grow the newly established College of the Arts and the Hobby School of Public Affairs will be essential parts of our future growth.

Fourth, we will continue our efforts to build a nationally competitive athletics program. We come from a glorious tradition of having produced talents like the Phi Slama Jama teams, Andre Ware, Carl Lewis and Jim Nantz.  There is no reason why our future dreams should not include the repeat of the same glory.

While all of these efforts are exciting, let’s remember that none of these would mean anything if we fail in fulfilling our core mission—student success!  Let’s also remember that the reason we are a university is because we have students.  Their success defines our success, and we can never, ever fail them.

In the context of student success, please allow me to address a challenge that has been sweeping college campuses across America—how to go beyond diversity and create a culture of inclusion? Yes, diversity is a necessary condition of inclusion, but inclusion is not an automatic outcome of diversity.  Inclusion is a conscious effort that necessarily involves dialog, conversation, listening and learning.  It is respecting the differences among people because of their race and gender, but also because of their experiences and beliefs.

University is a place of learning and learning involves facing the unknown … the unpredictable … and often times, the uncomfortable!  It is the expression of our differences, not of our similarities, that challenges our assumptions and helps us to grow.  For this reason, we cannot shy away from diversity, we cannot shy away from inclusion, and we surely cannot shy away from freedom of expression because it is this freedom that allows diversity to evolve into inclusion. 

As one of the most diverse universities in the nation, we have an opportunity … and an obligation … to lead the country in building an inclusive campus. And you can play a part in doing so regardless of what tasks you perform on a daily basis.  Your conscious and subconscious efforts are the pieces that complete the campus landscape. In the words of Maya Angelou:

“A bird does not sing because it has an answer; it sings because it has a song.

Don’t wait for someone to give you the answer. Listen to your heart and sing your song.

May God bless our university and God bless us all!