Communications From the President - 2009 Fall Address - University of Houston
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2009 Fall Address

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President's Fall Address - November 11, 2009

Good morning! It is an honor to be with you at this very special time. 

On Nov. 3, 2009, Proposition 4 was approved by the voters of the State of Texas. That day was a historic moment for the state of Texas. That day was a defining moment for the city of Houston. That day was a transformational moment for the University of Houston. That day was the day we began the most important stage on our journey toward Tier One.

We have arrived at this moment thanks to Gov. Perry, Lt. Gov.  Dewhurst, Speaker Straus, the Texas Legislature, and especially our Houston delegation, and the chairs of the House and Senate Higher Education Committees.  They have created the pathway for the University of Houston to become a Tier One university.

Let's also thank our county and city leadership, the Greater Houston Partnership, and the entire community for believing in the promise of the University of Houston. And let's thank the voters of this great state of Texas for approving Proposition 4, the constitutional amendment that creates the National Research University Fund.

As you may know, the Proposition 4 statewide campaign was co-chaired by former Lt. Governor, former regent, and former UH System chancellor William P. Hobby Jr., who is with us today.  May I ask Lt. Gov. Hobby to please stand and accept our grateful thanks.

An enormous amount of effort was put in by our Board of Regents, led by Chairman Welcome W. Wilson Sr., supported by Regent Nelda Blair and other members of the board.  May I ask all board members to please stand and be recognized for their efforts in behalf of the University of Houston?

Now, let me thank you - our faculty, students, staff, and alumni - for leading the Tier One charge.  It is you who have made this university what it is today, and it is you who will take us to greater heights.  Now that the constitutional amendment has passed, we must work hard to meet the criteria set by the Legislature to become a nationally competitive research university.  It will require focus, discipline, and dedicated work to accomplish the task, but I know we can do it.

I would like to begin by taking a moment to look at the paradoxical world we live in, and the forces that shape it for us.  Today's world seems to be a hopeless and a hopeful place, all at once.

Global conflicts, wars, and terrorism dominate international affairs, and yet global partnerships are at an all-time high. National economies are in flux, responding to each others' weaknesses, and yet national hunger for higher education is stronger than ever. Governments are faced with escalating costs for social and health services, and yet their race to build world-class universities is more intense than ever.

For decades, America has held a monopoly in the delivery of higher education.  Our universities are still ranked among the best in the world, our scientists still top the list on new disclosures, and our researchers still produce 58 percent of the total world output in the cited published world.  

But as impressive as this may sound, American universities - both public and private - are facing unparalleled hardships.  Most states continue to cut higher education funding; some have cut it by as much as 20 percent this year alone.  So far, we have been safe in Texas and in Houston.  Nonetheless, we can see dark clouds gathering.  It is within the context of these global, national, and state realities that I address you today.

First, let's take a moment to celebrate our collective achievements for the past year:

  • A record-breaking year in enrollment at 37,000 - our student access goal.
  •  A record-breaking year in degrees granted at 7,135 - our student success goal.
  • A record-breaking year in sponsored research awards at $110 million - approaching our goal to become nationally competitive.
  • A record-breaking year in nationally ranked programs.
  • A record-breaking year in community partnerships, ranking us 14th in the nation.
  • A record-breaking year in private fundraising, $73 million in cash.
  • A record-breaking year in alumni participation, 10.1 percent, up from 5.1 percent a year ago.
  • And, of course, a record-breaking year in Cougar football.

This spectacular performance is a good enough reason for us to continue our journey on the path of excellence.  But the reasons for our journey are deeper than these achievements.  

We have a duty to the founders of the university, an obligation to the city of Houston, a responsibility to the state of Texas, and a pact with the community. Our goals are simple - education, innovation, and impact.  In good times or bad, we do not have the luxury of negotiating these goals, because our goals reflect our character-they define who we are and they inspire us to become the best we can be.  

We have an institutional Progress Card with very specific performance measures leading us to our goal of becoming a nationally-competitive university. Let's look at our progress on these measures.

Student Access and Success

Students are our Number One priority.  Student access is a statewide issue because more than 10,000 students leave Texas each year to enroll in doctoral degree-granting universities elsewhere.  Correspondingly, only 4,000 students, less than half of what we export, come to Texas from other states, creating a brain drain of 6,000 young adults.

Student access is also an issue for Houston because Houston, the fourth largest city in the nation, ranks below national average in the college attainment of its population (29 percent nationally and 27 percent in Houston).  As a major university, we have an obligation to provide access to students from Houston and from Texas.  

However, on our quest to become Tier One, we will be judged not just by how many students we enroll, but also by how many we graduate.  Admission standards and graduation rates are important, but they are like two bookends - the real substance lies somewhere in between.  This substance is shaped by many factors, including student retention, student services, academic programs, course completion, financial support, student experience, athletics, and campus life.

Our Progress Card captures many, but not all, data points, and almost all show progress.  Our most significant challenge is the six-year graduation rate.  We must, and I repeat we must, commit to raising the graduation rate, which, no doubt, will require a holistic and focused approach to undergraduate education.  This approach will require us...

  • to work with high schools to prepare as many students as possible to succeed in college.
  • to admit students who are academically prepared to succeed, and establish alternative pathways for others so that everyone can fulfill his or her ultimate dream.
  • to maintain the diversity of our student body.
  • to provide timely and adequate services to support our students.
  • to enhance the college experience through residential life, athletics, the arts and cultural events, and campus activities.
  • to provide relevant and high-demand academic programs.
  • to increase retention rates.
  • to raise private dollars in support of students.
  • to work with our sister universities in the UH System and with community colleges.

Many efforts in this direction have already started, and many will soon begin.  Let me provide some examples:

To enhance first-year retention, every freshman this year has a PAL, or Personal Assistance Liaison.  A PAL is a faculty or senior staff member who communicates with their students at least four times a semester to ensure they are progressing well. And no PAL has more than four students to assist.  This is what I call the personal Cougar touch!  Many of our fabulous staff and faculty have volunteered to be PALS.  May I ask Dr. Simon Bott and all the PALS in the audience to please stand so we can show you how much we appreciate you?

Among upcoming efforts, our Board of Regents are considering new admissions criteria to ensure that we admit students who are academically prepared to succeed in college and then commit to making them succeed. Also, student scholarship will become one of our top fundraising priorities.  In this context, our Tier One Scholarships, backed by $14 million of private support, will become available to competitively recruit students.

I am proud to say that our faculty members are leading the charge on student success, and the Faculty Senate has made it a top priority.  May I ask the members of the Faculty Senate and the Undergraduate Council to please stand? Thank you for your tremendous leadership!

National Competitiveness

Our second but equally important goal is national competitiveness in research and scholarship. Doing so means:

  • a robust and sustained intake of sponsored research funds,
  • a strong graduate and post-graduate training program,
  • a nationally cited and awarded faculty, and
  • a solid list of nationally ranked graduate programs.  

Our Progress Card captures many, but not all, of these criteria.  As you can see, we have made progress in all areas; nonetheless, a long journey lies ahead of us.  

Last year, our faculty members were awarded more than $110 million in grants and contracts.  More importantly, 21 Principal Investigators, up from nine the previous year, received awards of $1 million or more.  Faculty members also submitted 166 proposals requesting $123 million from stimulus funds.  Congratulations on not only getting the number up, but also building a sustainable base in sponsored research.

Faculty awards and honors are also an important measure of national competitiveness.  Each year, many faculty receive numerous awards and while all of them are important - and I am filled with pride when I hear about them - I would like to tell you about five professors who, last year, received those awards that are recognized as a sign of national competitiveness by the Center for University Performance in its yearly "Top American Research University" report.  

Dr. Edgar Gabriel, assistant professor of computer science, earned his Ph.D. from the University of Stuttgart in Germany and joined UH in 2005.  

Dr. Vassiliy Lubchenko, assistant professor of chemistry, earned his doctorate from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and joined UH in 2005.

Dr. Olafs Daugulis, associate professor of chemistry, received his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and joined UH in 2003.

Next, we have Dr. Xiaoping Cong, associate professor of history, who received her doctorate from UCLA and joined UH in 2001.  Dr. Cong is currently in China.

And finally, Dr. Fred Schiff, associate professor of communication, who received his doctorate from UCLA in 1970 and joined UH in 1989.

May I ask the four awardees present to please stand and be recognized?

As you can see we have many Tier One faculty doing Tier One research. The problem is that we just don't have enough of them.  As I continue my departmental visits, I've observed that in many departments the size of the faculty is below the minimum threshold needed for national competitive rankings.  Increasing the number of faculty, and particularly faculty from diverse backgrounds, will continue to be a priority in the coming years.  We hired 68 tenure and tenure-track faculty members this past year, and we will make every effort to continue the trend.  

As an added challenge, our faculty and administration do not reflect the diversity of our student body, nor do they represent Houston's diversity.  True success will come through the efforts of search committees in recruiting diverse faculty, and it will come from departments and colleges creating an environment that allows these faculty members to succeed and stay here. As a very small step to groom our own faculty and expose them to administrative opportunities in higher education, we have started a Presidential Fellows Program.  Each year, the fellow will spend six to nine months in the President's Office participating in administrative duties.  

It is clear that to continue our progress, we will need to hire more faculty and hire them in focused areas of strategic priorities.  We will continue to make "cluster hires" and invest in areas that offer the most promise and return.  

I have often been asked, "Is research important for undergraduate education?"  My emphatic answer is always, "Absolutely."  Today, many of our undergraduate students conduct research and those who do, almost always graduate because the act of researching opens new and exciting possibilities and transforms them into lifelong seekers of knowledge.

This brings me to Thomas Markovich.  Thomas, will you please stand?  Thomas is a sophomore majoring in mathematics and physics, and is the co-author on two major papers, one already in print in the international journal called "The Journal of Physical Chemistry A," and the other one under consideration. An undergraduate student already expanding the frontiers of knowledge!  Please recognize Thomas with your applause.

Campus Infrastructure

Tier One programs will require Tier One support, and one significant component of this support is physical space. We have an enormous space deficit on our campus.  We are bringing several new projects to life, among them SERCC build-out, student lofts, undergraduate housing, Michael J. Cemo Hall, and the East Parking Garage. Today, 5,232 students live on campus. When we finish both phases of Freshmen Housing, 7,300 students will call the UH campus their "home."

Our Board of Regents has approved programming for new and renovated buildings totaling more than $240 million. On the list are: a Health and Biomedical Sciences Center, a classroom building for Bauer, renovations of the UH Hilton Hotel, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and more parking garages.  Several other projects including Blaffer Gallery, new buildings for Engineering and the Law Center, and a football stadium are undergoing a feasibility studies.  


Perhaps the most ambitious of these projects is the UH Energy Research Park. This Park is evolving on the 74 acres that we purchased in August.  The land already has 14 buildings with half-a-million square feet of space.  

Our vision for the Research Energy Park is three-fold: education, innovation, and impact. The Park will provide research and classroom space for programs like petroleum engineering, and be home for UH energy research centers, institutes, and an incubator for start-up companies.  Under the guidance of the Presidential Energy Advisory Board, which consists of the CEOs of top energy companies, the Energy Research Park will become a hub of innovation and discovery.

You may have learned that last month, the Texas Medical Center voted to accept UH as a full member institution.  It is a big step toward our Health Initiative and a well-deserved move, since half of our sponsored research is already in the area of health.

Within the context of our Arts Initiative, the Mitchell Center for the Arts continues to break artistic ground and attract arts patrons from throughout the city and the region.  And our creative and performing arts students continue to garner state, national, and international fame.  

Just last week, First Lady Michelle Obama presented the "Coming Up Taller" award from the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities to Blaffer Gallery in recognition of its Young Artist Apprenticeship Program.   

I hope to see our university not just at the forefront of economic development but also of human development. That is why I hope to see growing activity in our liberal, visual and performing arts, and the humanities.  The next big move for us is to establish a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.  Many grateful thanks to our Phi Beta Kappa faculty for submitting a proposal.  We feel that we have what it takes to host a chapter. Now let's keep our fingers crossed!

We cannot forget about our professional programs, the STAR programs of the university.  Many of the programs are nationally ranked while some are already on top of the list.  We are dedicated to keeping these stars shining and helping them grow in strength.

Let's address another dimension of our progress - our engagement with, and impact on, the community. John Donne famously said some four centuries ago that "no man is an island, entire of itself," and we can say the same for the modern university. Universities in urban areas have a unique mandate to enhance, advance, and support the cultural, economic, educational, and social attainment of their surrounding community.  

Last December, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching bestowed upon us the honor of their top classification.  And last month, we were ranked No. 14 nationally in the Saviors of Our Cities survey that measures the impact universities make on their home city - the only university in Texas to be so honored.  

We are not just a university in a city, but a university of a city - a living, breathing part of our community. UH has 20 programs from many colleges in the neighboring Third Ward. One of these is an educational partnership among UH, Houston Independent School District, and Ryan Middle School.  With support from architecture faculty and students, Ryan Middle School students designed an art gallery for exhibitions and a computer kiosk to record oral histories and stories from Third Ward residents.

We are honored to have with today the principal of Ryan Middle School, Ms. Ruby Andrews, and I ask that she please stand and receive our welcome and recognition.

Even though we surpass other Texas universities in our community outreach, we continue to raise the bar.  We now offer 560 courses with a component of community engagement and have 211 research projects focusing on community advancement.

Part of our work with the Houston community involves not just what we give, but what we receive.  It has been said that people invest in "winners" and not "whiners."  Our generous donors have invested in their winner, the University of Houston.  Despite an uncertain economy, they have come through with their support and trust, investing $73 million in cash contributions to our programs and priorities.

As a part of our evolving relationship with the community, we will be establishing a Board of Visitors with international and national membership to guide us on our path to excellence.   

We will also be working with the UH Alumni Association to double alumni engagement and participation.  It is time to open the "Cougar closet" and let the pride of red come out and spread across the city, the state, and the country.

Tier One Athletics

Finally, let's talk about athletics.  Even though I did not get to play or watch sports when I went to college in India, I am passionate about collegiate sports.  I consider athletics to be an essential component of student learning and campus environment. Athletics is not just about winning games on Saturday, it is about winning the game of life every day.  It is about team-building, confidence-building, and identity-building.  

We are very proud of all our student-athletes, who individually and as team members bring glory to the university with their athletic and academic accomplishments. The graduation rate of our student-athletes continues to move up, reaching an all-time high of 72 percent this past year. Let me mention just one success story in just one sport.

Our quarterback, Case Keenum, exemplifies the model student-athlete.  Leading the Conference USA pack in passing yards, and a viable candidate for the Heisman Trophy, Case has been on the Dean's List and has also been on the Conference USA Commissioner's Honor Roll for the past three years.

And who can forget the Cougar fever following the game against Texas Tech? Alumni are still talking about it and it is hard to start a conversation these days without first exchanging stories about that awe-inspiring win by our Cougar team.  The Cougars are ranked No. 13 in the AP Poll. I invite all of you to attend the two remaining home games because we must have sold-out games to honor our athletes.

I would like to see nothing short of a nationally competitive athletics program, a program that builds champions not only on the running track, the football field or the basketball court, but also in the everyday lives of our student-athletes.

Economic Climate

Before concluding, let me comment on the state's economic projections and our plans to deal with the worst.  State's revenue projections are down, and the unemployment rate is at 8 percent. This is lower than the national average, but nonetheless, a 28-year high for Texas.  Many of our academic endowments are under water and the auxiliary revenue is lower than desired.  All of these trends indicate a serious economic challenge.  

In dealing with this problem, we have two choices - either lower our goals, or operate in a more focused, intelligent, and informed manner. Our goals are non-negotiable because they are fundamental to our mission, including increasing the six-year graduation rate, becoming nationally competitive, and making a difference in the community. So the only choice left is to sharpen our focus.  To do that, we will follow two fundamental principles. One, we will take a holistic, three-prong approach - increase efficiency, cut costs, and enhance revenue; and two, we will be strategic and not make across-the-board cuts.  And we will invest in priorities.

Last year, we invested significantly in: start-up funds, child care, the build-out of SERCC, campus safety, advisers, and of course new faculty and staff lines, to name a few.  This coming year, we will have to invest in salaries to keep them nationally competitive while continuing to invest in the infrastructure. None of this will be easy, but together we will make hard choices and together we will continue to move forward.

Let me conclude by thanking each and every one of you for your hard work, your willingness to find solutions to our challenges, your passion for what you do - the fire in your belly - and most of all, for your friendship.  

Whether you are faculty or staff, the work each and every one of you does on a daily basis is important.  Whether teaching in the classroom, advising a student, maintaining our beautiful grounds and facilities, processing an admissions request, or conducting research, each and every one of you is an integral part of our university.

The University of Houston will become stronger, it will excel, and it will become Tier One because you - each and every one of you - will excel and make it happen.  You may say, as I often find myself saying - "In the big scheme of things, my work is insignificant."

Mahatma Gandhi answered that question for all of us when he said, "Whatever you do may seem insignificant, but it is important that you do it anyway."  And that is because when thousands of people dream together and work together, they can turn any dream into reality.  The future of the University of Houston is our reality, and we can make it happen, as individuals and as a community!

Thank you!