2021 President’s Fall Address - University of Houston
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2021 President’s Fall Address

President Renu Khator
October 28, 2021

2021 Fall Address

Good morning, colleagues! Welcome to the Annual Fall Address. It is my honor to bring you this year, like every year, highlights of our collective achievements.

Thank you for that gracious welcome, Dr. Das. We are counting on your advice, but since you are coming from our top-ranked College of Optometry, I know that we can all count on your vision.   

To our wonderful Concert Chorale…as always, you were amazing. Thank you, Dr. Charles Hausmann, for that wonderful selection and support of this Fall Address.

Last year, I was here in this empty Moores Opera House while you joined me from your screens. But today, thanks to scientific advancements — the COVID vaccine — we are able to meet in person. In prior years, seating capacity in this room determined the number of invitees but now after Zooming and TEAMING for 19 months, our boundaries have been broken and we can reach you, regardless of where you are.  

So, if you are joining the Fall Address for the first time, I offer you a very special welcome.  This is my 13th Fall Address and, therefore, the 13th celebration of what we have accomplished together. However, we have bigger dreams and cannot just stop here.  Therefore, like each year, I would also like to outline action items for the coming years.  Our obligation to our city, the state and the alumni demands that we build a powerhouse in this fourth largest and one of the most diverse cities in America.

With that, let me begin by thanking our Board of Regents, whose vision, support, and dedication are the starting point of everything we do.

--The Honorable Tilman Fertitta, Board Chairman

--The Honorable Beth Madison, Board Secretary

--The Honorable Durga Agrawal

--The Honorable Doug Brooks

--The Honorable Alonzo Cantu

--The Honorable Steve Chazen

--The Honorable John McCall

--The Honorable Jack Moore

--And our new members, the Honorable Ricky Raven

--And our student regent the Honorable Derek Delgado.

We also owe our gratitude to former regents whose passion and guidance have helped us become the University we are today. I would especially like to thank Gerald McElvy, who is leaving the board, for all his wonderful work.

Also joining me today in the auditorium are President Loren Blanchard from UH-Downtown…Interim President Richard Walker from UH-Clear Lake… and joining us virtually from UH /Victoria is President Robert Glenn. Thank you for taking time from your busy schedules to be with us this morning. 

Let me begin this address by expressing my gratitude for the resilience that you have shown during the last 19 months. We welcomed the Year 2020 riding on the high tide of momentum.  Little did we know that within two months, we would face the unknown enemy, COVID-19.  It was on March 9, 2020 that we pivoted to online operations and remained in that mode in the spring, hoping very much that with the vaccine on the horizon, we can return to somewhat normal in summer.  But the summer months saw the worst of the pandemic.

We have been through crises before…hurricanes, floods, and storms—all of which crippled the city for a few days to a few weeks. This time, however, the crisis seems never-ending. We are 19 months into it and still not sure if we have reached the end. But we keep moving forward and it takes more than resilience to do so. It takes tenacity.  Resiliency is the ability to withstand adversity while tenacity is the motion forward. Resilience makes us stay on our feet while tenacity makes us move forward.

If you recall, we unveiled the new strategic plan, “Together, We Rise; Together, We Soar,” during the pandemic. With that, we made the decision to act. According to Amelia Earhart, “The most difficult thing is the decision to act. The rest is tenacity.” As we review this year’s performance, it is clear that we have been tenacious.

Our strategic goal is to make the University of Houston a top 50 public university in the country…not because attaining this goal will give us some kind of bragging rights but because it forces us to focus on our core mission – our students!

We have traveled 33 spots since 2008 to be at 88 today. We need to jump another 38 spots to become a Top 50 university. While we perform well overall, we still need to make significant improvements in two areas: graduation rate and the university’s national reputation. Both of these areas should continue to be our focus in the coming years. Let’s begin with our core mission, the students.

Student Success

Despite all odds, the University of Houston successfully enrolled over 47,000 students this Fall. Technically it means a flat enrollment from last year, but if we consider the fact that most universities in the nation have been experiencing enrollment decline due to COVID fatigue, this enrollment is a tremendous achievement.  

We received more freshmen applications this year than ever before, crossing the mark of 35,000. Our freshmen enrollment surpassed transfer enrollment in 2018 and has been holding steady since then, indicating that the University of Houston has become a University of first choice for high school graduates.

More students are traveling across state boundaries to come to Houston for college, and we know that once they come to Houston, they tend to stay in Houston, adding to the city’s workforce and intellectual capital.

More students are crossing national borders to attend the University of Houston. Despite the recent difficulties of international travel and visas, we have held on to a 24% increase in the international student population. Currently, students from over 170 countries and territories are enrolled at UH.

While submitting SAT scores was not a requirement this past year, many students did so anyway.  Based on the preliminary data of those who submitted their scores, the average SAT for freshmen entering this Fall is 1240, up from 1215 last year.

Getting students to the university is only the start. Getting them to persist and graduate is what defines a university’s success.

Our 6-year graduation rate stands at 62% and based on the projections drawn from student cohorts, we believe that we can reach 70% in the next 5 years. While 70% is not the ultimate goal, it is the number that we believe can put us in the Top 50 category.

What is particularly exciting is to see the rise in the 4-year graduation rate. From 20% in 2013, this rate now stands at 45%. Every freshman entering the University now thinks about graduating in 4 years.  Of course, some stay longer to take double or triple majors and some delay due to unavoidable circumstances but the fact that nearly half of them graduate in 4 years tells us that the paradigm has shifted.

It is gratifying to see that the University of Houston is ranked as a Top 50 school when it comes to awarding degrees to Hispanics, according to Hispanic Outlook magazine. In four disciplines, UH ranks among the Top 10 in the nation.

Let me go a step further and say that a college education is more than getting a degree; it is about social mobility or helping people to move up on the social ladder.

I am proud to say that the University of Houston ranks 39th in the nation on the social mobility index. No other Texas research university ranks even among the Top 100.

Nationally, the University of Houston beats other competitors like the University of Washington, University of Virginia, and the University of Colorado by a handsome margin.

Achievements like these do not happen on their own.  They require a paradigm shift…a cultural adjustment. For us, this shift started a decade ago when we adopted a holistic approach and declared student success to be our no-excuse priority.

We pledged to remove each and every barrier that stood in the way of students succeeding.  

It is not surprising that the number one barrier for our students was, and continues to be, financial.  Thanks to our donors and legislators, we distribute over $232 million dollars in financial aid every year, representing a 42% increase from 5 years ago.  Last year we added another $93 million dollars on top of the $232 million dollars to the pot, thanks to federal stimulus funds.  In addition, we were able to offer debt relief to nearly 3,000 students. Another 1,300 students attended the University free of tuition, thanks to the Cougar Promise program. These are substantial efforts, but they are not enough. Our students still have an unmet need, and therefore, we must continue our efforts to keep the UH degree affordable.

In addition to direct financial aid, the University has saved millions of dollars for students through textbook programs.  Students are now able to use free textbook material in the public domain, rent textbooks, or get access to classroom material digitally at a reduced price.  This spring, we are introducing a new pilot program whereby students in select courses can pay one set price for digital learning materials, irrespective of the actual cost of the textbook and materials. If successful, we will offer this initiative to all students.

Mental health has been a concern for some time but now with the pandemic, we have seen a demonstrable rise in stress, anxiety and depression among students. To that extent, we are adding more mental health counselors along with more flexible options including online counseling to ensure that students get the help they need.  

It is clear that when we support our students, they reach for the stars and, because of their own grit and determination, often surpass our expectations and touch the moon. 

Take the example of these two outstanding undergraduate students from the Honors College – Gabrielle Olinger, majoring in physics, and Javi Solano, majoring in mechanical engineering who received the Barry Goldwater Scholarship this year. The Goldwater Scholarship is one of the most prestigious and intensely competed undergraduate scholarships in STEM in the nation.

Gabrielle Olinger is unable to join us today, but may I ask Javi and his mother to please stand and be recognized?

Graduate students are the backbone of any research university. Our graduate student enrollment has been consistently increasing, but the most impressive trend is the growth of graduate and professional students from underserved populations.

The University of Houston as a whole and the UH Law Center, in particular, both have been recognized with the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award for the 6th time in a row. UH College of Nursing is not far behind with 5 diversity awards.

The College of Medicine enrolled its second class of 30 students out of a pool of 6,000+ applicants…a class extremely capable, very passionate about the mission, and more diverse than most medical schools in the nation.

Our medical school is unique in its mission and commitment to health equity through value-based care. The centerpiece of the medical school curriculum is a program called, Household-Centered Care, where students from various health professions form interdisciplinary teams. And each team is assigned a family in Third Ward or the East End. As a part of their learning experience, these teams will visit their assigned families at their homes once a month and help them navigate their health issues and stay healthy. We anticipate working with approximately 60 families this year.

UH College of Nursing has also enrolled its first class of DNP or Doctor of Nursing Practice students.

The uniqueness of our medical school, at least in the State of Texas, is that it is not a separate health science center, but an integral part of the university which is allowing us to have easy collaborations with other colleges and disciplines. For instance, two colleges--College of the Arts and College of Medicine—are developing a joint program in Music Therapy aimed at using the power of music to improve an individual’s abilities and facilitate mental and physical health and well-being. We are currently recruiting a faculty member with a joint appointment in both colleges.  

When it comes to uniqueness, let’s consider a new initiative of offering micro courses, not mini but micro courses of just 15 credit hours.  Realizing the need for upskilling or retooling among professionals, particularly for the energy transition, we launched micro-credential programs in areas like subsea engineering, data analytics and cybersecurity.  Each course is only 15 hours long and is fully stackable. Over 500 professionals have completed our micro-credentialing courses, and many more are enrolled currently.

Student success is our core mission, and we are relentlessly passionate about it.

Research and Graduate Programs

Now, let’s turn to the second area needing improvement, the University’s national reputation.  In order to do so, we must engage in cutting-edge research and have top-ranked graduate programs.

Despite COVID 19, the University of Houston faculty received 24% more funding through external research grants this year than the last, making it a record-breaking year in our history.

Research expenditures, as noted by the National Science Foundation’s database, also surpassed the $200 million mark in a very difficult year. 

Based on the NSF reported data, the University of Houston stands at third position in the State of Texas, behind only the two research institutions receiving PUF funding.  This chart illustrates relative positions of research and emerging research universities in Texas since 2012.  As you can see, the University of Houston moved up two positions, from 5th to 3rd, while others either stayed the same or lost positions.

Among the top grant getters in the last two years are Dr. Ezemenari Obasi, Dr. David Francis, and Dr. Ramanan Krishnamoorti, totaling $30 million among themselves. They deserve our applause.  While Dr. Francis is unable to join us today, may I ask Drs. Obasi, and Krishnamoorti to please stand and be recognized?

Research grants are extremely important, not because they are indicators of a university's reputation but because they are critical in solving global and regional problems.

Take the work of Dr. Navin Varadarajan, a professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Professor Xinli Liu of Pharmacy. Their lab has developed an intranasal vaccine that provides durable local immunity against inhaled pathogens that cause COVID.  The vaccine is currently being manufactured by Therapeutics Inc. and will be presented to the FDA later this year for approval. Once approved, the nasal vaccine requiring minimum cost in storage and administration can reach the poorest parts of the globe, helping solve the issue of health inequity. 

Similarly, collaboration among two UH alumni — Andrew Paterson and Bala Raja, co-founders of Clip Health, formerly known as Luminostics, — and UH faculty member Professor Richard Willson--has led to the development of a COVID Rapid Antigen Test called Clip. The test uses a nasal swab, a smartphone, and glow-in-the-dark nanoparticles to detect COVID-19 infection within 30 minutes. The test is currently being distributed across the country.

Let's look at another pressing issue—climate change. Thanks to the University of Houston's Air Quality Forecasting and Modeling lab, ozone levels in the lowest level of the Earth's atmosphere can now be predicted two weeks in advance as opposed to the current system that predicts only three days ahead. This new artificial intelligence system could prove to be an important tool in combating climate change.


Great research is possible only with talented faculty. The University of Houston is now home to 19 members of the National Academies of Engineering and Sciences. Two of them were added to the list this year alone!

Keeping up with the spirit of innovation in Houston and as a tribute to UH being ranked one of the Top 100 institutions in the world for commercialization, UH is also home to 22 members of the National Academy of Inventors – the second-highest number in the state.

Our faculty are receiving the most coveted national awards like MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships. In the last 5 years, our faculty received three Guggenheim and 1 MacArthur Award…a total of 4 of these prestigious honors.  Compare this to a total of 3 awards in the previous three decades from 1980 to 2010. Last year Dr. Pradeep Sharma from Engineering received a Guggenheim fellowship, while Dr. Cristina Rivera Garza received the MacArthur Fellowship commonly known as the "Genius Grant."  This year, I am proud to say that Dr. Roberto Tejada from English and Art History has received the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. I believe Dr. Rivera-Garza is in a writing residency in Switzerland, but may I request Drs. Sharma and Tejada to please stand for recognition?

Nationally competitive faculty are also the reason why many of our programs rank in the Top 50 or even Top 10.  This year, 17 programs are in or around the Top 50, according to the U.S. News & World Report. Law programs have always led the way, but this year, I will take the special privilege to recognize a program that made the Top 50 for the first time.  It happens to be my home department as well.  May I ask the Chair of Political Science, Dr. Jeffrey Church, to please stand and be recognized?

Community Engagement

We take great pride in our faculty and staff having meaningful engagement in the community. I intentionally use the word "meaningful" since engagement is not about counting hours of volunteer work but about making a difference and having an impact. In June of 2020, in the aftermath of George Floyd's tragic and untimely death, the nation awoke to a new era, an era of impactful engagement. I am proud to say that the Racial Equity and Social Justice Committee, under the leadership of Vice President Elwyn Lee and Dean Robert McPherson, devoted many hours to reviewing the university's policies, engaging stakeholders, and encouraging deep dialogues. I would like to take this opportunity to recognize the members of the committee. May I ask all the members present here to please stand?

Thank you for starting this initiative. Clearly, our work has just started, and we have much more to do in this area.


To build an education powerhouse, we need labs that are conducive to research and classrooms that are well equipped for effective teaching. We realize now more than ever that while some populations may need virtual access to class instruction, the University of Houston's true value lies in immersive learning. Our value-added is the campus environment that allows students to engage in collaboration, teamwork, leadership skills, innovation and entrepreneurship. Properly designed and equipped spaces can enhance learning by inviting interactions and encouraging collaborations. Therefore, even during the pandemic, construction cranes were operating, and crews were hard at work.

We completed the new University Drive Parking Garage, the reroofing of Campus Recreation and Wellness, the Graduate College of Social Work renovation, and the renovation of Melcher Gymnasium, the new home of the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

UH also broke ground on three major projects:

  • The John M. O’ Quinn Law Building next to the University Lofts is a 179,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility and new home to our top-ranked law center. It will open for the Fall Semester of 2022.
  • The new home of UH College of Medicine is rapidly progressing at the 43-acre Life Sciences Complex across from Brays Bayou. The construction will be completed for the Fall Semester of 2022. Both buildings will have exclusive previews in the next two weeks, and I invite you to come and be part of the excitement.
  • The second tower of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management is under construction on University Boulevard. Once completed, the hotel will add 70 guest rooms, several meeting rooms, and a renovated Cougar Grounds Coffee venue. Most importantly, it will allow our students to be trained in large-scale hotel management.

In addition, a small but extremely impactful building is under construction in Third Ward on Leek Street adjacent to the University.  As an extension of the University, this building will allow hundreds of graduate and undergraduate students from the College of Education to continue their work in Third Ward schools and the community.
Another very unique project has been approved by the Board of Regents and is currently in the design phase.

Located on top of the existing satellite facility, the new auxiliary retail center called The Hub will open in the summer of 2023.  This first-of-its-kind space will give an opportunity for 9 chefs to display their culinary skills while giving our students, faculty, and staff an excellent venue to experiment with food.

Donors and Alumni

To support our goals and aspirations, we need resources. 

I am very pleased to say that the University of Houston endowment, for the first time, has crossed the magical $1 billion mark. Thanks to our donors and thanks to a solid performance by the stock market, we have succeeded in reaching this milestone. While we celebrated the completion of our capital campaign, our donors continued to invest in high-impact projects.


Take, for example, The Cullen Trust for Health Care gift of a million dollars, which allows the University of Houston College of Medicine to open a low-cost direct primary care clinic on the campus of Memorial Herman Southwest Hospital. This patient-centered clinic will provide critical health services for those living in Houston's underserved communities and will also serve as an important training site for UH health professions students.

Similarly, the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management received a historic gift of $10 million from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. The unrestricted endowment created from this legacy gift will help Hilton College fulfill its mission of training the next generation of hospitality leaders.

A $4.5 million contribution from the Thomas Michael Panos Family Estate— honoring the memory of two generations of this hard-working Houston family— is another transformative gift that includes an endowed lectureship on equity and social justice; a $2 million scholarship endowment; and the Panos Family Endowed Chair in Mechanical Engineering.

The anonymous gift of $50 million, received last year, matched 6 endowed professorships and chairs this past year, a complete game-changer for the research enterprise.

I have often been at events where alumni would tell their stories, and I would think, I wish I had my tape recorder on.  Well, we turned the tape recorder on this year and invited alumni to tell their stories. More than 15,000 alumni have already answered the call and recorded their stories.

Here is what Carol Ann Cavazos, a 1986 graduate, recorded "I took a writing for broadcast class. At the end of the class, Professor William Bryan called me into his office. He said, 'You are not my student, and I do not even know what your major is, but you really need to think about going into TV.  Then I went on and won a bunch of awards.  I won the national Edward R. Murrow Award and won my own Emmy.  Everything started at UH."

Everything started at UH seems to be the primary sentiment expressed by the alumni. You can listen to their stories as a part of the Alumni Oral History Project. We thank our donors and alumni, for without you, we have no power to dream. You allow us to not just dream but dream big, really big.


Talking about big, let’s turn to athletics. Over the years, we have patiently, methodically, and strategically invested in our athletics programs in the hope that when the conferences shifted, we would be a prime candidate for moving up to a power conference.

That time came in September with the departure of two schools from the Big 12. The invitation to become a Power 5 conference member was extended to us, thanks to faculty and staff who have worked tirelessly to elevate the University's academic standing…thanks to coaches and student-athletes who won championships and proved that they could compete against anybody…and thanks to donors and fans who gave their money and time to support the program. 

I am grateful to all of you for your roles; however, please allow me to recognize two individuals whose last-minute efforts got us over the hump—Athletics Director Chris Pezman and Chairman of our Board Tilman Fertitta.

For the sixth straight year, Athletics claimed at least four American Athletic Conference championships — the only school in our league to accomplish that feat. Cougars won conference championships in Swimming and Diving, Women's Outdoor Track and Field, Men's Outdoor Track and Field, and of course, Men's Basketball!  The nation watched as Houston's red uniforms danced on the Final Four stage in Indianapolis.  Coach Sampson and his team-colored not just the city but the nation red. 

Our Women's Basketball, Men's Golf, and Women's Golf programs also qualified for post-season competition. Our student-athletes did all of this while battling the challenges presented by the pandemic and racial injustice. They participated in the national conversation and found ways to make a difference.  And this year, Cougar basketball is starting the season with a pre-season ranking of #15.

Our student-athletes continued their academic success in the classroom, with 240 being named to the Dean's list this past year.  The University of Houston set a school record for the fourth consecutive year with 271 student-athletes named to the American Athletic Conference All-Academic Team.

What about football? Cougars have a winning streak of 6! Rain or shine, on time or delayed, Cougars keep fighting and winning.  The next game is on Saturday against SMU and it goes without saying that Cougars will need your cheers and support.


It has been a difficult year…but a year that has seen our tenacity. Where do we go from here? What is our way forward?

First and foremost, let’s commit to the strategic plan.  We are on a mission to become a top 50 public university in the nation. In order to do so, we have to increase the graduation rate.  So, let’s stay focused on the success of our students.  I anticipate that in the coming years, most of our enrollment growth will come at UH at Sugar Land and UH at Katy.  It is our commitment to ensure that students, no matter where they take classes, get the same, engaging experience. We have to be creative and intentional in our strategies; therefore, we have hired a consultant to develop a master plan for the UH at Sugar Land campus. It is to ensure that we avail every opportunity and start growing those campuses in a strategic and meaningful manner.

We take to heart the lessons learned during the pandemic.  We are making a commitment to continue to build UH Extend, a program that offers complete online degrees in critical fields. We are prepared to equip a set number of classrooms with cutting-edge immersive technology so the experience for our students is engaging and of the highest quality.

In addition to increasing financial aid, we are also committing to raising $300 million dollars in support of scholarships and fellowships to help our students.

On the research side, our goal is to build an infrastructure that could lead us to the next milestone.  In order to do so, we are moving forward with the following:

  • Recruiting 100 research faculty in four areas of strength—energy, sustainability, security and health.
  • Building cutting-edge research labs to support these hires.
  • Building 5 university level, core facilities to support the most efficient use of resources, and
  • Increasing research support for faculty in humanities, social sciences and the arts.

We are hiring 25 faculty under the plan this year. I am pleased to announce that UH has received $200 million in state support to build additional facilities.  We are also grateful to our statewide leadership and the Legislature for $50 million per biennium in institutional enhancement to support our strategic vision.

The facilities for which we have received support include:

  • The Idea Lab, a facility to bring all activities related to innovation and entrepreneurship under one roof, which will include a maker space that all students can use.
  • A medical research facility in the Texas Medical Center or in the Life Sciences Complex next to the College of Medicine.
  • New space for the Hobby School for Public Affairs
  • A College of Technology building at UH at Sugar Land

Other than research, athletics can also assist in enhancing a university’s reputation. We will be joining the Big 12 soon, which means that we have an opportunity to raise the level of our game both in athletics and academics. I have challenged all vice presidents to see how this new platform can be used to enhance their division’s performance whether it is recruiting students, building research consortiums or raising funds.  It will take a village for us to go to the next level of excellence.

Now that we have completed the $1-billion campaign, we are in the process of raising funds for targeted needs.  Among them are:

  • $300 million for scholarships
  • $100 million for faculty endowments
  • $100 million for the College of Medicine
  • $100 million for Athletics which, by the way, includes a football locker room and student-athlete support center.

Our dream is to build the University of Houston into a powerhouse and all of us are part of this dream. All of us are part of the team that will get it done.

No matter what your role is, you are a member of the team and we need you. Your resilience and your tenacity are our strengths.  If you want to eliminate social injustice…if you want to help fulfill a student’s dream…if you want to make a generational impact… if you want to uplift your community…if you want to be part of the solution, then this is your chance…this is our chance.  Let’s rise together. Let’s soar together to new heights.

Every day, I come to work, I come with optimism and pride. I certainly hope you feel the same.  Our best days are yet to come.  Thank you for your commitment and thank you for your support.

Go Coogs!