An ardent supporter of the University of Houston — his alma mater — and of higher education, Gerald McElvy has held high posts in the corporate and philanthropic worlds, but says he is most honored to have been appointed to the University of Houston System Board of Regents.
McElvy holds a UH bachelor’s degree in economics and accounting and a Master of Business Administration from UCLA. He worked for the Exxon Mobil Corporation for 33 years, capping his career as president of the ExxonMobil Foundation.
When you were a UH undergraduate, did you ever imagine that one day you would be on the Board of Regents?
I was fortunate to attend UH at a time of significant change in our society, and I made lifelong friends who had big dreams. One has been elected Mayor of Houston, another flew space shuttle missions and a third is a major distributor of South African wine. I dreamed of a successful business career, a great family and a life of service to my community. I believe my appointment is the outcome of the excellent education I received here.
One of ExxonMobil Foundation’s priorities during your tenure was to support math and science education. Is that still a passion for you?
Yes. Math and science remain foundational elements of a great education. I serve on two advisory boards — Reasoning Mind, a nonprofit focused on improving early- and middle-grade math education, and the Texas Academy of Math and Science, an early college program for bright high school juniors and seniors. When you see these young people, you become hopeful and optimistic about the future.
What do you hope your legacy on the Board of Regents will be?
I believe my goals are in broad alignment with those of my fellow Regents and Chancellor Khator — to continue the present trajectory toward excellence. At UH, I’d like to see more students living on or around campus, a stronger community presence, more commercial development along Scott Street, an increased endowment and a more geographically diverse student body from across Texas. We should continue progress toward meeting the Association of American Universities membership requirements and increase the number of nationally competitive academic programs. Like many Cougars, I want us to seek an enhanced conference affiliation, compete for national championships in football, basketball and baseball and produce more Olympic athletes.
Recently, many universities have seen demonstrations on social issues, including discrimination. Why do you think similar demonstrations haven’t happened here?
Diversity is not simply represented by the presence of various individuals and groups but by a welcoming and belonging attitude. I entered UH in the early 1970s, when there were relatively few African-American, Hispanic and Asian students. We have had a long time to get to know each other, work together and see that there can be real strength in diversity. We also have a strong policy framework against discrimination and a caring administration that will not tolerate abuse. You can see diversity across campus, among the Board of Regents, and among Student Government Association and Alumni Association leaders.
You grew up in Fort Worth and came to Houston — the “big city” — as you described before, to go to college. What words of wisdom do you have for students who see a college education as a difficult dream to attain?
Well, that was four decades ago. And, I do love great cities and have been privileged to work or live in many of them, from New York to London to Melbourne. But Houston has always had a special attraction for me. It started when I was in high school, when I visited relatives or played high school football games on the road. Also, I started my professional career in Houston and met my wife here. Today, pursuing higher education in Houston can make a difficult dream achievable, given costs and the abundance of employment opportunities. So, the dream is attainable if you stay focused on your goals and use the resources available to you in this great city.