Khator Addresses Post-Ike Reopening During Assembly

September 25, 2008

While Hurricane Ike is now history, its aftermath will long be felt by the communities of Houston and Galveston.

The University of Houston weathered the storm, but was not totally immune to its impact.  Some tree debris remains on campus, and a few buildings (most notably the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture) suffered damage. Ike’s overall impact on faculty, staff and students, however, remains a chief concern for UH President Renu Khator.

Khator attended her first Faculty Senate Fall Assembly, but not to deliver the traditional State of the University address. Instead, she met with a packed house at the Elizabeth Rockwell Pavilion to discuss concerns regarding her decision to open the university and offer classes three days following Ike’s landfall.

The university reopened Sept. 16 allowing students to use UH’s numerous resources (air conditioned facilities, showers at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center, computers in labs and offices). Faculty, staff and students were advised to use their own judgment about returning to campus, and that classes were to resume with the understanding that there would be no tests, homework or projects.

Khator accepted responsibility for the decision to reopen the campus Sept. 16 and said that it was based on several factors, including direct input from the UH Emergency Management Team and other administrators. First, the campus was assessed to determine whether it was safe. Then, the university’s academic resources were determined to be intact, allowing UH to continue its educational mission. And the status of other Houston institutions and organizations, such as the City of Houston, the Texas Medical Center and Harris County, was taken into account to determine when the campus community should be allowed to return to UH.

One of the biggest challenges, Khator said, was making sure the campus community was informed how and when the campus was going to reopen. With many faculty, staff and students without power, phone service or Internet access, it was hard to inform them about the specifics of UH’s reopening.

“The message that the university community was welcome to come to the campus and use its facilities did not always get to people,” she said. “It also was not communicated effectively that people had ‘flexibility’ in deciding whether to come. I regret that people who were struggling after the storm felt that they were required to be here. That was never my intention.”

Khator acknowledged receiving negative feedback after UH reopened last week, but had positive news to report regarding UH’s physical infrastructure remaining intact, the many past and on-going volunteer efforts to aid Ike victims and the campus serving as a haven for students needing a break from not having electricity, food or water.

Going forward, she said, UH will develop new guidelines for closing and reopening in emergencies.  She said a task force is being created to work with the Emergency Management Team to establish emergency protocols and procedures to ensure essential personnel are present for critical decisions.

Following her presentation, Khator and her senior administrators took questions and listened to comments from members of the Faculty Senate and others in attendance.

Peter Linzer, professor of law, asked why the university could not have opened without conducting classes. He pointed out that the university is open during certain periods in which classes are not in session.

“Maybe we can do that,” Khator responded. “We will look at other universities and see how they handled reopening during similar situations. If it is an option to reopen the campus and put our educational mission on hiatus very briefly, that might work.”

Seth Chandler, professor of law, said that waiting another day to open the university might have been in everyone’s best interest. He added, however, that the Ike-related problems (loss of power, insurance snafus) reflect a lack of preparation from the city, and that UH can play a prominent role in mitigating such dilemmas.

“It is my belief that there are things that could have been done with city infrastructure, insurance finance and material science, that would have made this a manageable problem rather than a catastrophe,” he said. “I would like UH to take a leadership role on a statewide and even national level in examining how the forces of nature can become less of a problem for people. There is a wealth of talent at this university that can be harnessed in that direction.”  

While taking questions and listening to feedback, Khator emphasized the positive impact UH made by opening the campus. Serving as a Point of Distribution (POD) site for FEMA, UH  hosted 1,600 volunteers who delivered 144,000 liters of water, 480,000 pounds of ice and 65,000 ready-to-eat meals to more than 35,000 recipients in a two-day period.   

Hurricane Ike may have presented challenges for the university, but Khator said she is more resolved than ever to lead UH. She might still be without power in her home, but she is prepared to lead the campus community and listen to all concerns regarding the post-storm recovery efforts.

“I feel even stronger about this university than when I arrived eight months ago,” she said. “This is our university, and I am thankful for your support.”

Mike Emery