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President’s Fall Address

President Renu Khator
October 18, 2017

Fall Address 2017: A Decade of Transformation

Thank you all for being here today for the 9th Annual Fall Address. It was exactly 10 years ago this week that the Board of Regents of the University of Houston System, announced me as the sole finalist for the position of Chancellor and President. Since that day, I have gotten up every morning, and have gone to bed every night, being a Cougar, wearing red, and thinking about the University of Houston.

Since we ‒ you and I together ‒ stand at the 10-year milepost, it is appropriate to review the performance of the past decade. I am sure you have heard people ‒ locally and nationally ‒ describe the University of Houston either as a transformed university or a university under major transformation. Rarely a day goes by when someone does not express his or her astonishment at the magnitude of this transformation. And if he or she has not been on campus in a few years, the words typically are, “I can’t believe my eyes.” So, what is this transformation? Can it be captured in words or images? And what does this past transformation mean for our future?

My presentation today is an attempt to answer these questions with the utmost humility and with the knowledge that no one person, no one group, or no one effort ever brings organizational transformation. It is always a collective effort and it has been so here, where you and I, and each one of us regardless of what role we play, have been equal partners in giving our best and moving the needle. The story of the past ten years is the story of our progress, our success and our determination.

As always, let’s begin with student access and success, which has been the priority of our Board of Regents and the Texas Legislature.

We are now a campus of 45,364 students, growing on an average 3.1% each year during the past decade. In the previous three decades – or since 1977 – the average growth was less than half a percent per year.

With increased enrollment, the number of degrees granted each year has also gone up and, to our gratification, at a much faster pace. During this decade, we helped 87,781 students realize their dream of obtaining a college degree from the University of Houston and, we’re proud to say, a considerable number of them were the first ones in their family to attend college and often came from under-privileged and low-income backgrounds.

You raised the bar for them and now, with their own success in their hands, they are raising the bar for others in their family and community, and by doing so, they are transplanting the dream of college education to many young hearts.

We have expanded our reach in Houston by doubling our offerings in Sugar Land, building a new teaching center in Katy, and finally, dramatically increasing our online presence. Today, nearly one-fourth of all our credit hours are generated either online or in majority-online courses.

Of course, our best story remains the story of 4-, 5- and 6- year graduation rates that have risen steadily each year. And I am certain that they will continue to rise even faster in the future. This year’s 5-year graduation rate is higher than last year’s 6-year graduation rate. My advice to you is… don’t tell any freshman that UH is a school for part-timers because the puzzled look you get may make you feel as if you are coming from Outer Space.

Nearly all freshmen are full-time students taking 24 credit hours per year, and three-fourths of them are taking 30 credit hours, allowing them to graduate in 4 years.

Early graduation is not just good for the graduates; it is also good for the economy and the taxpayers. Our research shows that those recent additional graduates are adding $44 million just in their salary differential to the state’s economy each year. And faster graduation means a more efficient use of taxpayer money going to higher education.

The U.S. Department of Education’s latest scorecard shows that we beat the national average in boosting the social mobility of our students. The average cost of attendance of $13,000 at the University of Houston is much lower than $19,000, the average cost of attendance nationally. Similarly the average debt of $19,700 carried by our students is much lower than the national average of $24,200. And most important, on average, UH students earn nearly $50,000 during the early career years. This is much higher than the nationwide average of $41,500.

The University of Houston is proud to serve Houston and Texas, but given our global recognition, it is no surprise that in recent years we have been an education destination for students from more than 150 countries.

The University of Houston campus continues to be in a state of constant transformation. Here are three of our features added this year.

The largest dining hall, the Moody Towers Dining Commons, is now open 24/7 serving freshly-cooked pizza at 2 a.m. or pasta at 4! And if you want to grab an apple before your class and then have a full breakfast after your class, we understand. You have the option of unlimited meals so feel free to visit the dining hall 10 times in a day – though a workout at the Campus Wellness and Recreation Center might be a good idea after that!

Whether you commute to campus or live on campus, a car is not required. The University of Houston is offering a free METRO card to anyone living inside the loop, thanks to our partnership with METRO.

Finally, our freshman advisers are now equipped with a tool that allows them to receive signals ‒ red, yellow, or green ‒depending on a student’s progress toward a degree or lack thereof. So… there’s no point in missing too many classes, or failing in coursework or enrolling in a wrong course because your adviser will find you and get you back on track. The bottom line is that we are using our expertise in data analytics to help our students succeed.

Whether by improving student services or by offering new advising tools, our goal is one and the same: we want our students to succeed.

Research

Similar to student success, the decade-long progress in the area of research and scholarship has been noticeable.

Research expenditures show a doubling trend during the past decade from $76 million to $142 million per year. Hundreds of grants make up this number, but some researchers have been the leaders in receiving grant funding. Our top ten researchers have brought in just under $164 million dollars to the University of Houston.

Not all our research activity is reflected in sponsored research. Publications in refereed journals is a significant measure which has also nearly doubled.

I would be remiss if I did not recognize the work of Zachary Turpin who, as a graduate student in English Department, discovered a long-forgotten novel written by 19th-century author Walt Whitman. Zachary is now an assistant professor at the University of Idaho, but I would like to recognize his dissertation advisor, Dr. Michael Snediker for fanning Zachary’s curiosity.

As impressive as our research is, the real differentiator for us is the licensing revenue which has gone up in the past decade from $1.2 million to $28.3 million per year. No, that is not an error… on a chart, the previous decade’s circle is so small in comparison that it is practically invisible.

Our researchers collaborate with researchers from all over Houston but also all over the world. In last five years, 487 articles were published by University of Houston researchers with scholars from Baylor College of Medicine, 350 with M.D. Anderson, 276 with UT Health Science Center, and 232 with Rice University.

They also collaborated in hundreds of projects with professors from other Texas universities as well as with many across the nation and the globe.

A total of 118 countries were our collaborating partners. Problems do not know sovereign borders; neither do they know disciplinary boundaries. Our scholars know and honor this fundamental truth.

Our faculty all across ‒ in all disciplines ‒ are stronger and come with national visibility. Thanks to our deans and faculty, we successfully added 19 members of the National Academies of Engineering and Sciences to our roster in the past decade.

With the expanding research and higher student success, we have tripled the number of nationally ranked programs. During this time, 64 new degree programs were also launched to ensure that our students have the latest cutting-edge and most relevant skill sets.

Facilities

To do what we wanted to do required space … good quality, functional space. Therefore, we invested $1.2 billion in facilities during the last decade. This is one billion dollars more than the total investment dollars spent in the previous decade! If I add the projects already committed for and in the design phase, this number will jump to $1.46 billion.

We have built academic spaces like classrooms, teaching labs, research labs, and academic offices, but we have also doubled campus housing, and added parking garages, student service areas, athletics facilities and infrastructure support like power plants.

This year, we are celebrating the grand opening of 3 major projects: the Multidisciplinary Research and Engineering Building, the Health and Biomedical Building II, and the Indoor Football Practice Facility.

Three major projects are currently under construction: the Fertitta Center renovation, the Academic Building in Sugar Land, and the Quadrangle Housing Project which will have 1,200 beds, including an International Hall with 200 beds. And the $100 million renovation of 6 core buildings will transform the core of the campus where a vast majority of students take their very first class.

We are also initiating a $160 million Life Sciences Project to enhance and expand our life sciences footprint on campus. This will include re-purposing our building in the Texas Medical Center, renovating Science & Research II, re-purposing the Student Health Service Center, and $80 million of new construction in the Health District.

But I know what you are thinking… and what about that parking on campus? Indeed, another parking garage is underway in the Arts District to reduce the stress on parking.

On parking, it is interesting to note that while the enrollment has grown by 31%, parking spaces on campus have grown by 33%, and if we consider that 23% of all credit hours are now taken online, the parking situation should be better, not worse, than a decade ago unless, of course, some of you are driving two cars to campus every day.

Fundraising

Such a bold transformation requires a team that is boundless in its energy and endless in its optimism. There is no doubt that our alumni, donors and the city are our companions in this transformational journey.

During the past decade, they have embraced the University of Houston and have shown their support by increasing their philanthropy, from $50 million per year to $138 million per year.

“Here, We Go” is the one-billion-dollar campaign we publicly launched in January of this year with $684 million in hand. After adding $96 million to this fund in the last 8 months, we are now at the $780 million mark.

Needless to say, we are ahead of our goal, thanks to the generosity of many… but most important, Ms. Kathrine G. McGovern, who gave $20 million to name the College of the Arts. Ms. McGovern, our alumna, could not be here today but let’s give her a round of thunderous applause.

If you recall, we acknowledged Chairman Fertitta’s $20 million gift to name the basketball arena during last year’s Fall Address.

We have been fortunate to get many big gifts, but fundamentally, our campaign has been a grassroots campaign. So far, over 160,000 donors have contributed to the goal, and 85% of the donors have given $1,000 or less. Each and every gift is precious, as it is a vote of confidence in the direction and potential of the University.

I am proud to say that under the leadership of Drs. Tina Reyes and Michael Olivas, our faculty and staff have pledged $1.7 million toward the campaign, which reflects a 32% participation rate.

Our strength is our expanding alumni base. Today, we have 160,000 alumni in Houston alone, 189,000 in Texas, and over 255,000 worldwide! It goes without saying that our students now have the largest network right here in Houston, the nation’s 4th largest city, with one of the fastest growing job markets.

Athletics

The last chapter in this story is the chapter on athletics. Yes, I was not here for the days when Phi Slama Jama was the talk of the nation or André Ware brought the Heisman Trophy to Houston or when Carl Lewis was decorated with 9 Olympic gold medals. Nonetheless, I am excited to see Coach Burrell’s and Carl Lewis’ team winning a national championship, or to see the Houston Cougars beat a PAC-12 team on the road, or to see the Women’s Golf team winning the conference championship in its 2nd year of existence.

It has been a year of championships for the Cougars ‒ from men’s outdoor and indoor track and field, to women’s swimming, to men’s baseball. Each and every victory is worth celebrating, but let me take this opportunity to recognize a team that has won their first championship in 42 years! May I ask the Women’s Swimming Team, along with Head Coach Ryan Wochomurka to please stand?

In every aspect of athletics, from earned revenue to facilities improvement to the fan base, Cougar Athletics has made huge strides. Football attendance and ticket sales are up significantly, and the investment in facilities is up 7,000 percent… yes, you cannot see the previous circle on this graph because in comparison to $3 million a decade prior we have invested $230 million during this past decade and all of this money has been raised from non-state, non-tuition funds. It does include very generous funding from students to help build TDECU stadium and the Fertitta Center.

Winning is good, but student athletes are students before they are athletes. I say with pride that the academic performance of our athletes in terms of graduation rate, grade point average, and persistence rate is higher than ever before in the history of the program.

The Road Ahead

Having completed this book of transformation over the last decade, the question is where do we go from here? As I listen to you ‒ our students, faculty, staff, alumni and donors ‒ I feel that you are determined to write an even bigger and bolder sequel to the first book.

Going forward, our first and foremost commitment to student success ‒ embedded in our mission and demonstrated through higher graduation rates ‒ must continue without failure. No pauses and no excuses… we have done a lot, but we must do even more because average is not good enough for the University of Houston.

Second, the 85th Legislature asked us to conduct a study on the need for an additional medical school in Houston, a school that prepares students for primary care, including mental health care, in urban and rural communities. We will complete this study and hope to present the findings to the Board of Regents at their next meeting in November. Should the need be determined and the Board accepts it, we will begin the formal application process. This initiative will not only fill a void in Texas by serving currently un-served communities, but it will also strengthen teaching and research throughout the University, particularly in health-related fields.

Third, we remain steadfast in our commitment toward improving the quality of life in our neighborhood, the Third Ward.

Kudos to our faculty, who with more than $10 million worth of research grants, are currently focused on community-based research. They are helping the community find solutions to improving health, increasing financial literacy, strengthening public education, and building partnerships in the arts.

Finally, I would like for us to build a comprehensive culture of support and care. If we are to move Big Rocks… if we are to have bolder dreams… and if we are to offer support and care to those we serve, then we need to feel supported and valued ourselves by the institution and by one another. This has been a University of Houston value, but I would like to see a more intentional and assertive attempt to bring it to the forefront in coming years. We should be a campus where support, care, compassion, and accountability go hand in hand.

Conclusion

As I reach the end of my presentation, I would be remiss if I did not talk about the first week of 2017 Fall Semester… a week that started with a once-in-a hundred-year solar eclipse and ended with a once-in-five-hundred-year hurricane.

During the week that followed, we saw the worst of desperation and the best of human spirit among Houstonians and among Cougars.

Many of our students and staff, like the rest of the city, watched helplessly as their homes and cars flooded. The extent of their trauma was intense, and yet we had to get back on our feet and help the campus and the city to regain their sense of normalcy.

And so, the University of Houston decided to fight back. The ride-out teams stayed on campus for the duration of the storm knowing that their own homes and families could be in harm’s way. Members of the UH Emergency Management Team ignored their personal losses, joined the meetings and helped me make critical decisions. Staff in the residence and dining halls went above and beyond the call of duty in caring for 2,400 students who chose to stay on campus. First responders risked their own lives and rescued or comforted people around the clock.

The Communications Team remained relentless in its efforts to reach out to people. They used social media, launched an informational website, sent multiple emails and even personally answered every one of more than a thousand email inquiries from the campus community.

As the clouds parted, students organized themselves and marched out to help in shelters, churches, and private homes. The Faculty Senate, under the leadership of Dr. Cathy Horn, launched a Facebook Group Chat to mobilize faculty to help one another, and within minutes faculty were offering spare bedrooms, extra cars, child care, storage place and even boxes and supplies.

True Furrh, an enterprising student, launched another Facebook Page inviting students to connect with one another and help out without waiting for an institutional response. Meanwhile, The Student Government Association, under the leadership of Winni Zhang was instrumental in coordinating supplies of personal items for displaced students from Bayou Oaks and from UH-Victoria, who were temporarily relocated in campus housing.

The University also launched new platforms, UHCares and CougarsCare, to connect people. After learning that public schools would be closed for another week, staff offered child care and day camps.

Basketball Coach Kelvin Sampson’s call to other universities to send shirts and shoes led to UPS delivering 1,000 boxes from all over the nation and Canada containing 200,000 shirts and 50,000 pairs of shoes.

Assisting community recovery efforts, we invited the flooded-out Alley Theatre to present their productions on campus, and provided a temporary home for KHOU Channel 11.

Our call for help to alumni raised over $880,000. Their timely generosity helped us assist more than 220 students so they could continue their studies, and the calls for assistance continue to come.

The University of Houston was able to resume classes within a week. Two more weeks into the semester, when the date to withdraw from the university passed, we realized that we had won the war against Harvey. Our enrollment remained intact… our students were back… our hurricane heroes succeeded. Many of the heroes who went above and beyond the call of duty are in attendance today.

Thank you! Culture is nothing but an aggregate reflection of individually held values. I would like to share with you an email exchange between a student and a faculty member that, I feel, exemplifies the best of the academy… a student true to her values, and a professor true to hers.

Shortly after Harvey hit Houston, a student emails her professor, “I still do not have power at my house and the bayou is right at my first floor. I don’t know what I can do about my assignments that will be due September 5 because there is no saying when power will return. PS: if there’s any way possible for you to get a hold of anyone that can help please let me know.”

The Professor responds, “I just called 911. They do not take 3rd party calls. They said you must call. I called the Fire Department, but they said the same thing. I will just stay in touch via email to determine if you have been rescued.”

A short email from the student: “Thank you so much. It is so considerate of you.”

Nine minutes later, the Professor writes again, “Just called the Coast Guard. They said put a white sheet in your window or white towel. Call them at 202-372-2100. Go on roof, not in the attic. Give a specific address.”

Five minutes later, the Professor writes again and says, “I contacted the Coast Guard again. Call on any of the 5 numbers below or email them and do exactly as they say. Good Luck.”

A few tense hours later, the message of relief finally comes, “Thank you, professor. We called the Coast Guard and got rescued by boat. We are safe now.”

Final message from the professor, “I am so relieved. You stay safe and don’t be concerned about your graded assignments. They have all been postponed. Of the utmost importance is that you are out of harm’s way. Please let me know if I can assist you further.”

I asked the student in this exchange, Amana Waheed, and her professor, Dr. Polly Hardee from Economics, to join us today. Will you both please stand?

This is the spirit and the character of the University of Houston. Let’s celebrate our past successes and let’s make even bigger plans for the future, but let’s not forget that plans and programs do not bring transformation, people do. It will be up to us… each one of us… together… to launch the next great decade for the University of Houston.

Thank you, and Go Coogs!