President Renu Khator
October 11, 2023
2023 State of the University
Well, good morning, everyone. Thank you so much, Dr. Gronseth. You are amazing. I mean, I should just bag this introduction and just listen to it every morning when I feel a little down. But you are yourself such an accomplished leader, a fabulous teacher, researcher. And I have absolutely no doubt that during your presidency of the faculty senate we’re going to achieve great heights. So, thank you very much.
And to our Concert chorale, you were wonderful, just as usual. Thank you, Dr. Betsy Cook Weber, and thank you, students, you stole my heart and I know that you stole so many hearts of so many here. Let us give another round of applause to our internationally recognized Concert Chorale!
It is my sincere honor to personally welcome you to the annual State of the University, which we have been calling Fall Address. It is important that we find time from our daily routine to reflect and celebrate the road we have traveled. Equally important is to remind ourselves of the journey that lies ahead. The State of the University is meant to reflect, celebrate and recommit. Thank you for joining me in the audience today, and also, thank you to those of you joining us virtually from all over the United States, but I also know from many parts of the world.
It takes a village to raise a child. When that child arrives on a college campus as an adult, the same village is needed once again to turn his or her dream into reality.
At the helm of our village are the members of the UH System Board of Regents, some of whom are present today. Please welcome…
--The Honorable Durga Agrawal, Board Secretary
--The Honorable Tammy Murphy from Victoria, our newest regent. Welcome.
--And, of course, our very important voice, our student regent, the Honorable Mielad Ziaee.
We are also blessed to have the engagement and support of many leaders in the community who have served us as board members in the past. If you are in the audience, may I ask you to please stand and be recognized, the former board members?
Also joining us in the audience are the presidents of our three sister universities. Please welcome…
--President Loren Blanchard from UH-Downtown,
--President Richard Walker from UH-Clear Lake. You know that we groomed him here at UH.
--And President Robert Glenn from UH-Victoria.
Thank you for your support and thank you for your friendship.
This year’s address has to begin with the most exciting news of the year: our U.S. News & World Report Ranking. If you recall, our strategic plan calls for the University of Houston to be ranked among the top 50 public universities in America! Last year, our ranking was #91. This year, we are ranked #70, a rise of 21 positions in one year!
And among all universities … not just public … but public and private, our ranking is #133 against the target of #125! Let us remember we were not even listed among the recognized national universities just a few years ago.
Because of your efforts … the efforts of the entire village … we are at this milestone, and we are surpassing some of the very well-recognized universities in the nation. You are the driver of this transformation, and you have made it happen. For this address, I typically keep the limelight on our faculty and staff but given the new rankings and given their hard work I will take the liberty to acknowledge my hardworking and very passionate leadership team. Please give a hand to the vice presidents of the University. Would you please rise?
And of course, the academic leaders that make it all happen. Our academic leaders of the University, our wonderful deans who do not get recognized. Will you please rise, deans? Would you give them a hand?
OK, back to the rankings, 18 graduate programs are also ranked in the top 50, including 10 programs in the UH Law Center, 3 in the Cullen College of Engineering, and others in the Department of Political Science, my home department, the Graduate College of Social Work, and the College of Education. And, of course, our Entrepreneurship program continues to be ranked #1 in the nation … how appropriate that is for our entrepreneurial city.
Education is still the best guarantee of upward social mobility. U.S. News & World Report ranks colleges based on their ability to enroll and graduate students from at-risk backgrounds, including low-income and first-generation students. Our ranking on this index rose from #45 last year to #31 this year. I believe this is exactly what the mission of our founders was in 1927 and this is exactly what the mission of public universities should be.
Now that we know that we are doing well with rankings and recognitions, let us shift our attention from what we do to why we do what we do. Like every year, I will present you with data and analysis — thanks to our wonderful Institutional Research [office] and our video production team — but what I would also like to also include is this question of “why?” … why we do what we do. Because this is the foundation of passion, and it is this passion that will continue to propel us forward.
University of Houston is home to nearly 47,000 students, and they come to us from all over the nation and from over 140 countries. Why do they come to us? Let us hear directly from some of our students.
Students explain why they chose UH.
Student success has always been our top priority, and this challenge begins from the day our students arrive on campus.
Historically, we have seen a dropout rate of 15% in the very first year and it happens due to a variety of reasons, most notably students’ inability to adjust to college life, academic rigor, and/or financial difficulty. After several years of stagnation, we have finally begun to see this trend shift. A 2 percentage point increase in the retention rate is encouraging, however we have to do much better. Our goal is to retain above 90% of our first-year students.
A bachelor’s degree is designed as a 4-year degree. The sooner students graduate, the sooner they enjoy the benefits of a college degree. However, less than half of our students who join us as freshmen graduate in 4 years. We have made good strides in the last few years, but we need to work harder to increase the 4-year graduation rate. The experience of other universities with similar student demographics demonstrates that if we set the expectations high and if we provide them with the necessary support, students can graduate on time.
65% of our first-year students are taking up to 6 years to graduate, an increase of 2% from last year. Again, our progress is noteworthy as it has made us one of the nation’s most transformed universities, but we cannot rest here. Our goal is to ensure that at least 75% of our freshmen are graduating within 6 years.
The chart on your screen is a fascinating one because it compares our performance against the performance of those universities whose freshmen profile is similar to ours. As you can see, we do better than others by 2 percentage points; however, if we want to be ranked among the top 50 public universities, then we have to outperform others by at least 5%.
So, here is another goal. I just said, “…those universities whose first-year student profile is similar to ours.” Just to remind ourselves, the University of Houston is one of the most diverse universities in America, we also have 40% of our students receiving Pell grants and 45% being the first one in their family to go to college.
We have made student success our no-excuse priority, which means we aim to see all students, regardless of their financial or family background, graduate from college. We had a 6% graduation gap between Pell Grant recipients and their counterparts in 2016. Today, this gap has nearly disappeared, which means that we have successfully cleared the roadblocks built by socioeconomic disparities.
Similarly, the graduation gap of 8% in 2016 among our first-generation students and the rest has also decreased but we still have a lot work to do in that area. Reducing this gap is critical to our progress and rankings.
We have worked diligently to break down the barriers that students face. First and foremost is the financial hardship, which we tried to address by increasing scholarship funds, reducing wasted credit hours and freezing tuition rates. The result is that despite inflationary pressure, the average debt carried by our students at the time of graduation has decreased. We also have a textbook program to help them. And this program allows students to pay one set fee per semester to access all course materials. Generally, this fee is equal to two textbooks and the program is totally voluntary but 77% of our students have opted to enroll in it, and this program is saving millions of dollars to students each semester.
To strengthen support for students, we have continued to increase the academic and instructional budget. Last year, we spent over $23,000 per student, but certainly I know it’s not enough to be ranked among the top 50. So, we have to increase the educational budget behind each student.
While SAT or ACT scores are no longer required for admission, it is still one of the optional pathways to admission. Many students submit these scores, and the data shows that the median SAT score continues to rise at UH.
I am so proud of our student body. They continue to excel and defy the odds. But the demands of success and modern-day stressors can cause distress and fatigue.
So, we must talk about mental health and wellness. Nationwide, colleges report an alarming trend in rising stress levels among young learners leading to anxiety, depression and even suicide. Sadly, we lost two of our own to suicide last spring. The experience was heartbreaking and traumatic for the entire UH community. We immediately took measures and further strengthened our efforts by initiating a $38 million plan, which included renovation of Agnes Arnold, creating a culture of care and enhancing our medical services. Our aim is to build a resilient campus that focuses on not just treatment but also support and, most importantly, prevention.
At times, it feels like an uphill battle, and you may feel that your individual efforts do not matter. I would like to assure you that what you do matters … it matters deeply to those touched by you.
Let me share with you the contents of a letter I received from a mother in Colombia telling me how her daughter had lost all hope and was harboring suicidal thoughts when a member of the catering team found her crying bitterly in a bathroom. This member, as the mother said, kept a vigil on her daughter and gave her company until she was in professional hands. She continued to keep in touch with her for the rest of her time at UH. This mother concluded her letter by saying “Because of your staff, my daughter has graduated and is with me today. My daughter would not be alive if it were not for your staff member, Ms. Evelin.”
Evelin works for UH through a 3rd party vendor, and yet her passion and commitment for students is exemplary. She is proof of the power of compassion, and how each one of us has a role to play.
May I ask Evelin to please stand?
And by the way the letter was in Spanish and the mother wrote, “Please have someone read it for you,” but you know that I read it myself.
Dedication and passion are hallmarks of a student-centered campus culture, and a culture of community care. While rankings only focus on students who start in their freshmen year, a culture controls and encompasses every student … freshmen, transfers and graduates and our mission includes helping every student to succeed — academically and also in life.
Research and Faculty
People often ask me about my first impressions of the University of Houston when I arrived here in 2008. I said then and I still say sometimes that UH’s substance is far stronger than its reputation. So, let us talk about reputation. Each year, U.S. News & World Report conducts a peer survey of presidents and provosts of all universities, asking them to rate the reputation of various universities in America. As strange as it may sound, the score on this survey carries more weight than any other factor when calculating university rankings, and what that means is that brand equity plays in favor of those who are already on the top.
On this survey, UH’s average score is 2.9, however, it is higher … I know it’s higher than what it was 15 years ago, however it’s not enough. But every time we have done something big and bold, anything big and bold, that brought national attention, I know our rankings inched up. Among these big things are hiring a big-name researcher, starting a medical school, branding UH as the Energy University, and, of course, dominating on the basketball court. It goes without saying that if we want to change the academic reputation, we need to do bigger and bolder things … things that are impactful like path-breaking discoveries. This is where our faculty and the quality of their work play a critical role. One of the measures of quality is our faculty’s ability to successfully compete for federal research dollars.
A few years ago, we unveiled an ambitious plan to expand our research footprint by getting laser focused and strategic. We identified areas of strength where we already were strong and then started investing in them by recruiting additional researchers and giving them the tools to collaborate. This strategy was quickly embraced by a visionary donor who wished to remain anonymous but donated $50 million to help us raise another $50 million to endow chairs and professorships. In subsequent years, other donors answered the call and at this point, we have 21 endowments to attract the best of the best to the University of Houston. Our efforts are paying off, and we have seen a 53% growth in federal research expenditures by our faculty in the last five years alone.
Most of the increased funding has come in the areas of health and energy, reaffirming our attention to our key initiatives or what I like to call our “big rocks.” In addition, our researchers have always performed very well in the area of education, securing big grants from the Department of Education, and they continue to do so. We will also continue to see increased funding from NIH, as our medical school matures and starts to establish its own research agenda.
It is a new and bold era of research for the University of Houston. For the first time, the Department of Defense has signed a contract totaling $63.5 million with the University of Houston to support the Army’s decision-making. Dr. Craig Glennie from the Cullen College of Engineering and his team will work with the army to build realistic modeling using artificial intelligence and machine learning. We are excited and take this responsibility seriously because not only will this lead to important work for the country, but it will also help us hone our research capabilities for the future.
If Professor Glennie is here, I’d like him to stand. Let’s give Professor Glennie a big round of applause for all of his work.
Another first for the University of Houston … a foreign government has trusted to put data about its sedimentary basins and fields in America, more specifically at the University of Houston, to expand collaborative opportunities with energy companies. The new UH-DGH Data Center, supported by the Indian Ministry of Petroleum and Gas, is located at the UH Technology Bridge, and operated by the University of Houston to benefit bilateral collaboration in energy exploration between India and the United States
We are now partnering with some of the biggest names in the industry like Humana, Shell, HP and national labs like Oakridge and Argon. Our researchers engage in translational research, but they are also very strongly conducting basic research. Basic research is the foundation for tomorrow’s innovation.
Take for instance, the work of Haleh Ardebili of Mechanical Engineering. We already know and appreciate the wonders of smart phones. Now imagine folding or bending your phone or laptop in your pocket or wearing it like a piece of clothing. It is possible. It is totally possible if we had a battery that was stretchable and bendable. This brings us to the work of Dr. Ardebili. She and her team have developed a stretchable lithium-ion battery prototype that looks and stretches like fabric. In due course, we may see our exercise clothes, uniforms or spacesuits equipped with electronic devices using these stretchable batteries to help monitor our health. And this is all thanks to the great work at the University of Houston.
I must also mention the incredible work of Dr. Colin Haile of TIMES. He and his team are developing the first vaccine to fight against synthetic opioids, including fentanyl. I am sure you know that fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine and it cannot be seen with the naked eye. Consumption of fentanyl in the amount as little as a single grain of rice is enough to kill a person. Thanks to Dr. Haile and his team’s work, fentanyl does not have to be fatal … lives can be saved.
Our discoveries cover almost all disciplines and spread as far as the ancient times. Take the work of the dynamic duo, Arlen and Diane Chase whose work in Belize is unlocking the mysteries of Mayan cities. Recently featured on CBS Morning News, they are proving that Mayan cities can provide significant clues to solving problems faced by modern cities. And I will proudly say that Diane Chase serves as our provost and I’m letting her go to Belize to do her research.
May I ask Professors Ardebili, Haile, Arlen and Diane Chase to please stand and be recognized?
To continue our climb, we realize that we will need a permanent fund to build facilities and recruit research leaders. Thus, we took our request to the state leaders during this 2023 session. Thanks to the great advocacy by our Board of Regents, alumni, Greater Houston Partnership, and of course, our own Government Relations team, we succeeded in getting the Texas University Fund created. Texas University Fund or TUF. The University of Houston will get $1.3 billion from this fund to support our research plan. The distribution of money from this fund now requires voters’ approval of Proposition 5 on the November ballot. I cannot tell you, because I’m a state employee, I cannot tell you how you should vote. I can tell you how I would vote, and that is “yes” on Proposition 5. I can tell you that the passage of Proposition 5, which by the way requires no new taxes or bonds, is critical for the University of Houston and the City of Houston. It is also necessary to build another top 50 university in Texas.
In addition to sponsored research, academic reputation is also built by faculty’s publications in all disciplines … yes, engineering, biology and physics … but also social sciences, humanities, law and creative works in the arts.
Our faculty continue to excel in publishing their work. Let us remember that some journals publish only 10% or some as few as 5% of the articles they receive from authors. The work must be meaningful, relevant and cutting-edge in order to get published.
Let us hear from the faculty why is that they are passionate about their research. Why they do it.
Faculty explain the unique value of conducting research at UH.
Four UH scientists, I mean we have hundreds that have ranked at the top of the top, but four scientists who have been recognized among the world’s elite researchers for the significant and broad influence of their scientific work. They are among the world’s top 1% of researchers whose work is followed by other scientists.
May I ask Professors Bao, Chen, Han and Ren to please stand?
To build an academic powerhouse, it is necessary to have cutting-edge labs and state-of-the-art classrooms that facilitate impactful teaching.
This year, we completed the new tower of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership with a grand front entry and the addition of 80 guest rooms. The renovated Cougar Grounds, which is located right there, is the new favorite place to hang out, to study with a cup of coffee and cake.
The next project to be completed will be The Food Hall. A brand new 22,000-square-foot dining facility featuring cuisine from budding chefs will open in January. It will be located on top of the hill where the old Student Center Satellite used to be.
We have recently broken ground on a new academic building in Sugar Land. Spanning 75,000 square feet, this modern facility will serve as a new home for the Cullen College of Engineering’s technology programs. It is our hope that this additional space will help us serve the Sugar Land community better.
We have four new construction projects currently in the design and programming phase.
First is the Innovation Hub, an 80,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art complex set to launch in fall 2025. This dynamic facility will be home to a multi-disciplinary maker space, the Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship, the Energy Transition Institute, and a range of specialized labs and innovation programs.
Second, the Hobby School of Public Affairs will also be inaugurating its own 60,000 square-foot building in fall of 2025. This modern structure will provide cutting-edge teaching and collaborative environments, enhancing the academic experience for students, faculty and staff alike.
Third, an $80 million medical research building will be coming soon, thanks to the funding from the 87th legislature. The Tilman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine, by the way, is in its 4th year, it has already enrolled its 4th class and we will be graduating its historic first class in May of 2024.
Last but not least, we are in the planning stages for a new 105,000 square-foot Memorial Hermann Football Operations Center. This center will add 14 suites, a 450-seat club, and a 300-seat roof terrace lounge, but most importantly, it will be the new home for football athletes, and it will be an unmatched experience for them.
Last month we also unveiled a $35 million centennial campus enhancement project aimed at building a more pedestrian-friendly campus by adding tree-lined walkways and outdoor gathering places. Included in this plan is the demolition of Farish Hall and creating a central plaza to commemorate the centennial.
These developments collectively signify our unwavering commitment to academic excellence, research innovation, and community engagement, as we continue our journey towards becoming a top 50 university in America.
Donors and Alumni
None of our research or student successes will be possible without the support from our donors and alumni. They are the energy fueling our fast-running engine.
Their contributions, both financial and through their time and expertise, continue to transform the lives of countless students and propel our institution forward.
We are currently raising funds for 4 mini campaigns totaling $700 million. As of now, against the goal of $100 million, the Fertitta Family College of Medicine stands at $74 million. Against the goal of $150 million for endowed professorships, we have hit the mark of $99 million. Fundraising for Athletics stands at $79 million, against the goal of $150 million. And student scholarships stand at $85 million, against the goal of $300 million. I’m making these points here just to make sure that if you know someone who is willing to donate to any of these places, we can go talk to them.
Clearly, it is a big commitment from our donors. So, for this State of the University, we asked our donors why they chose to give to the University of Houston. Here is what they had to say…
UH donors talk about their passion for giving to UH.
We are grateful for our donors for their vision and generosity! Their passion knows no bounds. Take the example of Andy and Barbara Gessner. They did not attend a nursing program, but their mothers were nurses. They had the courage and foresight to see what it would take to improve the health and well-being of Americans and they chose to invest in our College of Nursing. In honor of their generosity, the College has now been named Andy and Barbara Gessner College of Nursing.
May I ask the Gessners to please stand?
Memorial Hermann Health System made a generous commitment to support the health and wellness of our student athletes, and to name our new Football Operations Center, which will open in 2025.
Another generous gift, from Mohammed and Emad Lakhany, supports the creation of the Innovation Hub and establishes an endowment supporting entrepreneurship and economic inclusion. Thank you to all donors. We really thank you. We cannot turn our ideas into reality without you.
Now, let us shift our attention to Athletics. After 27 years of exile, the University of Houston is back in a power conference … exactly where we belong. On my first day at UH, people reminded me of the days of Phi Slama Jama … or the day when the Heisman trophy came to the University of Houston … or the days when UH played in the big league and beat them all. I could hear the anguish and longing in their voices.
So here is to all the fans who saw UH play in the Southwest Conference. We are back on the big stage and in due time, we will rule again!
For an unprecedented eighth year in a row, Athletics made history by securing four Conference championships. This year, the Cougars outdid themselves by clinching titles in Swimming and Diving, Volleyball, Men's Golf and, of course, Men's Basketball.
“A college basketball dynasty” is how Texas Monthly described the Houston Cougars basketball program earlier in the year. For four years in a row, the Cougars have made it to the Sweet 16, often climbing higher to the Elite Eight and Final Four competition. I am counting the days … only 17 more left till the first tip-off!
Student-athletes come to us from all over the world. Let’s listen to why they come here and what they love about UH.
Student-athletes from around the country and world discuss their love for UH.
It is not just on the field or the court where our Cougars excel. This is UH — a place where our student-athletes are students first.
I am incredibly proud to announce that this past year, 216 of our student-athletes were named to the Dean's list, and 178 student-athletes were named to the American Athletic Conference All-Academic Team.
We have been on an incredible journey … a journey full of leaps and bounds, of trials and triumphs, of courage and passion. We took many gambles like starting a medical school, that too during the pandemic, and investing in athletics. We took the hard road and increased student success by focusing on breaking barriers for students and not by changing the profile of the students we enrolled. We are here now ranked #70 among all public universities in America! We have left behind universities that if you hear their name you may say, “Really? “Are you serious?” Well, it is serious. Now is not the time to rest; now is the time to seize the moment and build on our momentum.
So, where do we go from here? Clearly, we have 20 more positions to climb on the rankings to reach our goal. And if we could successfully climb those steps, we will also have a good chance of being eligible for membership in the Association of American Universities, commonly known as the AAU.
What do we need to do in order to become a top 50 public university?
One, we must increase our 6-year graduation rate to 75%. We have to expect students to graduate in a timely manner and we need to build the entire support system around it. If other institutions with similar student profiles can do it, so can we.
Two, we must bring more federal dollars to Houston to tackle big societal challenges, many of which are directly impacting our region like the energy transition, sustainability, resilient infrastructure and health equity. We can do so by increasing our federal research expenditures to $170 million per year. Our research plan provides the roadmap and now it is up to us to secure the funding and execute it.
Third, we must work intentionally to get the recognition we deserve for our substance. We must tell our story and tell it compellingly. We must continue to showcase the achievements of our alumni and highlight the path-breaking discoveries made by our faculty.
I would say that we are getting better at telling our story. Look at our social media platforms…almost a million followers, a 46% increase in video views, and a 31% increase in engagement in last year alone. Do you know that UH ranks #30th, three zero, among all universities on social media presence?
Fourth, we must secure necessary funding. We will need more state funds, but we will also need greater philanthropic support to achieve our goals. The increased funding will allow us to offer more support to students, initiate cutting-edge academic programs, and secure the necessary tools for our students, researchers and faculty.
We are fortunate to be located in Houston. We have great opportunities in Katy and Sugar Land. Business and civic leaders in those communities are ready to partner with us to bring the very best opportunities to students in their hometowns.
While we can acknowledge our challenges, and we have many challenges. We can talk about them, but we cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed by them. We cannot use them as excuses or roadblocks to slow us down. No matter what hand we are dealt with, we have to play our best game. Because I know one thing: People do not invest in whining; they invest in winning. We have to show our winning hand.
Where is our winning hand? You are our winning hand, our biggest asset. This year as I visited first year classes, I was heartened to see students filling our classrooms, every seat was taken. They were excited, eager and attentive.
Many wore red shirts, as you can see, even though it was not a Friday. They want to be on campus, and they want us to be on campus to teach them, to support them and to guide them. We must embrace this excitement. We are fortunate that we do not have to look outside of our work to find a worthy, charitable cause to make a difference. Our job itself — which is helping students succeed and helping faculty find breakthroughs — is in itself is a source of gratification, a true worthy cause.
But we can only help others if we help ourselves first. The global pandemic has left its deep mark on society. Things have changed … people have changed … expectations have changed. These changes … their pace and intensity … have caused significant stress. The best way to combat this stress and fatigue is to build resiliency and to focus on wellness.
I urge you to take care of your health, both physical and mental. Find whatever hobby or activity that brings you equilibrium. For me, it is yoga, gardening and painting. For you it may be something more exotic. Whatever it may be, take care of yourself and take care of those around you.
I can end this address by quoting some poet or author or statesman but today as we’ve joined the Big 12, I want to leave you with the words of a football coach. I had the good fortune of knowing UH Football Coach Bill Yeoman. Whenever he would find me feeling discouraged — and there were many times, especially in my early years — he would say to me, “It’s not easy being a Cougar; but it is worth it … today and every day.”
I thank you for making it a worthwhile journey each and every day for me, but most importantly for thousands of our students whose lives you’re touching! On behalf of myself, but also on behalf of all of those thousands of students whose lives are being transformed by you, I want to say thank you for everything you do and thank you for everything you will continue to do. With that I end and Go Coogs!