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9 Questions for the Remarkable Dr. Renu Khator

In conversation with the President of the University of Houston - Dr. Renu Khator, about life, work, and education.
BY Skendha Singh |   31-07-2015

Dr. Renu Khator, President of the University of Houston, cuts an astonishing figure. She arrived in USA, a newly wed girl from Uttar Pradesh, single minded about continuing her education. In fact, she had even made it a condition of her marriage. A condition which her husband, Dr. Suresh Khator, fulfilled most beautifully. Not only did Renu Khator go on to receive the highest academic qualification – a PhD, and teach other students; but today her passion for education has put her in a position to greatly influence the sector. She is the first foreign born, and the second woman, President of the University of Houston.

Dr. Khator is also a member of the Indian Prime Minister’s Global Advisory Council, and an Outstanding American by Choice Awardee. She serves on several boards including the American Council of Education.

BrainGain magazine asked Dr. Khator nine questions on diverse topics, such as her choice of academic discipline, her idea of leadership, and her vision for education. She also talked to us about her close knit family, and life in Houston.

Read edited excerpts below. Dr. Renu Khator

  1. STEM is the main draw for Indian students in the US. As a student, however, you chose Political Science. What do you love about the subject?

    I have always been fascinated by leaders who have been able to change the course of history despite the odds. That's what got me interested in Political Science. I did not come to America for higher studies, but I landed here by marriage. Since I was already pursuing my master's degree in Political Science in India, I continued the work here. To this day, I remain fascinated by political leaders on the world stage.

  2. What qualities define a leader?

    To me, leadership is defined by how one uses power. There are two types of power: positional power and motivational power. When I tell you what to do or not do based on my authority over you, I am using my positional power.  On the other hand, I am using my motivational power when I create the environment in which you feel compelled to do what I want, I am using motivational power.  Effective leaders use motivational power to lead, and they do so by building a compelling vision for their organizations.  In my position as university president I am leading people who are exceptionally intelligent, so the power of the vision is the only true power.

  3. Academics are in general supposed to be averse to administration. You have balanced both academic and administrative careers. Do you like one better?

    Early in my academic career, I dismissed any desire to be in administration and assume a leadership role. But a dean encouraged me to explore that possibility and, after working with a mentor and serving an administrative internship, I realized I genuinely enjoyed it. I rose from department chair to dean to provost to president. Academics will always be important to me, but the opportunity to make a real difference in higher education as a successful administrator has been tremendously gratifying.

  4. What did it feel like, becoming President of the University of Houston?

    It was both thrilling and somewhat daunting.  Before my arrival, there was a good deal of untapped potential at UH. With the support of the community, the combined efforts of talented faculty and staff, and the dedication of our student body, we were able to make great progress in determining what UH should be – a nationally recognized research university with a focus on vital Houston-related disciplines like energy, health care and the arts along with an overall goal of Student Success.  With that as a defining vision, we all started working very hard to make it a reality.  I felt confident we could achieve Tier One status within eight to 10 years, but was wonderfully surprised that we did so in about half that time.

  5. What is your vision for higher education, in terms of increased mobility, diversity and reach?

    First of all, we should all realize America’s higher education is still the most emulated, the most highly prized throughout the world.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t areas that need to improvement. Student debt continues to be a serious issue.  We also need to expand access, but not just access – we must focus on a pathway to completion and increase the graduation rate of our students.  We also need to recognize the importance of being a global institution – not just as a concept but as a practical matter. Do you have a robust group of international students at your university? Do you recruit international faculty? Do you encourage study abroad?  And, perhaps most importantly, are you establishing mutually beneficial partnerships with international universities?

  6. Do you believe in education ‘brands’? How far should a student be guided by them in making informed choices?

    It is crucial students are academically prepared to succeed at the particular university they choose to attend – and universities must take responsibility for making sure the students they choose to enroll are, in fact, capable of succeeding. The best-known university may not necessarily be the best university for a certain student.  Each student should understand what is really offered and what is really required.

  7. What keeps you going?

    What inspires me to go to work every day has to be the noble cause of education.  It is knowing that you are making it possible for young people to find their potential and to look for bigger horizons.  Sometimes, you are changing one life, but sometimes, you are changing an entire generation! Being with young people keeps you young and keeps you honest.

    On a personal level, I am doing yoga every single day. And I love to walk — long walks, because I can be by myself. I can have my dog and just be out there. From time to time, I do like to get away from it all – feel sand under my toes, a book in my hand, a vast ocean in front of me and the anticipation of having dinner with my family. There is so much to do in Houston that claiming boredom isn’t allowed. I’m still discovering new communities and attractions, intriguing restaurants and shopping options. Every time I think I’ve figured it all out, Houston surprises me!

  8. Do you think that a happy family life plays any role in a fulfilling career?

    Yes, it can be incredibly important.  For example, my husband Suresh (who is now associate dean in the UH Cullen College of Engineering) has been the dreamer and architect of my career.  He does whatever is necessary to help me succeed, from fixing a last-minute dinner to graciously dressing up in a tux to accompany me to an event for the fourth time in one week.

    My daughters Pooja and Parul, who are both ophthalmologists, have been a big part of my life, both personally and professionally. It has always felt like we were all part of a team with each of us pushing others to achieve their maximum potential.  Today, they are my soul mates and brainstorming buddies when it comes to difficult situations.  They have certainly helped me grow socially and culturally.  They truly have been my eyes when it comes to seeing the world of today’s youth.

  9. Any words of inspiration for our readers?

    If you are going to dream – and everyone should! – then why not dream big? If a teenage immigrant girl from India, just married and with no knowledge of English, can come to America and enjoy the opportunities and success that I have, that speaks volumes about the importance of following your dreams, doesn’t it? If you truly want something, you can work hard and have a good chance of getting it.



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