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President’s Fall Address


President Renu Khator
October 10, 2018

Download the 2018 Fall Address slides (PDF)

Fall Address 2018: The Journey Continues

Thank you all for taking the time from your busy schedules to be here today as we celebrate our past success and affirm our future aspirations.

The Fall Address is not my address.  It is not my story. It is your story… it is our story… it is a small window into our journey together.  Please know that no matter what your defined role in the university is, you individually and collectively make this journey possible.

One year ago, we were recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.  Many students were at risk of losing their dream of a college degree.  Thanks to the generosity of our donors – faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends– $1.2 million was raised to help 582 students.  Of these, 44 have already graduated, and almost all of the rest are back in school this year.

On behalf of these students, I would like to express my gratitude to the Cougar family for coming together and setting an example of being “Cougar Strong.”

Student Success

Let’s start with the biggest splash of the year.  The University of Houston jumped 21 places in a single year on the U.S. News & World Report rankings, the biggest jump in the University’s history.  As you know, we have been intentionally and strategically focused on student success, and the jump in the rankings is partially in response to this effort. 

It is rewarding that both 6- and 4-year graduation rates have gone up.  But it is even more gratifying that the achievement gap because of race, income or family education has been reduced and even eliminated in some cases.       

  • The 4-year graduation rate for African-American students was 10% lower last year in comparison to their Caucasian counterparts, but this gap is only 2% this year.
  • The impact of family education measured by those who are first in their family to go to college versus others has also been reduced by one-third.
  • The difference between those who receive Pell Grant and those who do not – an indicator of socioeconomic divide – now stands at zero for those graduating in six years.

Many initiatives have contributed to the lowering of the achievement gap, but none more than the UH-in-4 program whose first cohort graduated this year and where a large number of underserved students are enrolled.  Just as a reminder, the UH-in-4 program offers fixed tuition, intensive advising and aggressive support to ensure student success.

Another factor contributing to our jump in the U.S. News & World Report rankings is the University’s enhanced reputation, captured by two surveys conducted by the rating agency – the first to presidents, provosts and student deans of other universities, and the second one to high school counselors from across the nation.  People say change in perception is a painfully slow process, but the University of Houston gained ground in both surveys this year.

How?  Everything we do makes a difference in changing the perception.  When we represent UH on national boards and committees, we make a statement about the University. When we publish, perform and win, we make a statement about the University.  When we wear red and stand tall, we make a statement about the University. When our Board of Regents chairman buys the Houston Rockets that makes a statement. Bringing the Phi Beta Kappa chapter, recruiting National Academy members, hosting national events like the presidential debate, bringing recognized speakers, strengthening alumni engagement, and I will add, winning games…  they all add to changing people’s perception about the University.

In the coming years, we need to continue on our path of student success with even more focus and determination because our journey is not yet complete.  Our next milestone is to reach the ranking of 150.

Before student success comes student access.  I am proud to say that we, as a university, remain committed to our mission of providing affordable access to higher education. Regarding that access to the University, a record 46,355 students have enrolled this year.

Correspondingly, a record number of dollars – $364 million – in financial aid have been awarded this year to keep education affordable.  This aid comes from various sources – federal funds through Pell Grants, state funds through Texas Grants, philanthropy through scholarships and institutional funds through budget priorities.  In addition, tuition has been waived for qualified students whose annual family income is $45,000 or less. Starting next year, this cap has been raised to $50,000.

On average, students are taking 10 fewer credit hours to graduate than 10 years ago, which has resulted in an aggregate saving of $6.8 million to students.

To allow students flexibility and convenience, more than 1,200 courses are taught online by our faculty.  You will be surprised to learn that 45% of all students take at least one online course to balance their work-and-learn schedule every semester.  In addition, the University, of course, offers 28 completely online degrees.

The class of 2022 stands at 5,204, larger and prouder than ever.  These freshmen are more diverse, have higher SAT scores, attend more football games and are more likely to stay on campus. 

Filled with Cougar confidence, students are winning awards and recognitions at every level.  Jevh Maravilla is one such Cougar.  Jevh is a communication media production senior, minoring in marketing.  He, along with a friend, masterminded a bold plan to bring ethnic diversity to McDonald’s marketing strategy.

The duo created a poster by inserting their photo along with McDonald’s logos and entered a Pearland store to hang the poster.  They wore McDonald’s uniforms purchased from a Goodwill store for $6, and no one noticed what they were doing!  The poster went unnoticed for 51 days, at which point they decided to post their prank on social media.  The video went viral and even McDonald’s rewarded each of them with $25,000.  McDonald’s also pledged to be more inclusive in their advertising depicting Asian Americans.  Talk about Cougar courage and creativity! 

Our commitment to students spreads beyond the boundaries of our physical campus.  The University of Houston launched Houston Guided Pathways to Success (Houston GPS) focused on connecting six community colleges and five public universities in Greater Houston to allow students one seamless pathway to complete their college education.  This program potentially impacts 350,000 students in our region and is the largest of its kind in the nation.

Research

Beyond student success, being a nationally competitive research powerhouse is our destiny.  To that end, we have started to track our progress toward AAU membership.  I admit that it is a long shot and a long journey – and possible only with a lot of investment from the state – but I think it still offers us the right guideposts for the next part of our journey.

As you can see, the University of Houston is on the chart on most of the measures, and we are ahead of a few AAU universities on some others.  Our task now is to continue to make steady progress on all measures.

One of the most important and competitive areas for us is research expenditures.  Even though the expenditures have grown steadily from year to year, it is clear that if we want to leapfrog, we need a different strategy, particularly in times of diminishing federal and state resources and increasing competition for them.

With that in mind, I, along with Provost Short and Vice President Elnashai, have launched an initiative called “50-in-5.” This initiative calls for 50% growth in all research and scholarly outputs, from research expenditures… to publications in top journals… to cited performances.  It also calls for doubling the number of national centers on campus.  We are introducing targeted planning grants to prepare multidisciplinary, multi-investigator and multi-institution proposals that can make the faculty better equipped and thus more competitive in winning major national awards and recognitions.

Working with college deans, we have identified four areas where there is a good match between our research capabilities and national needs.  These include cyber security, drug discovery, sustainable communities and accessible health care.  We are launching world-class research institutes in each of the four areas.

Innovation continues to be our competitive edge.  When it comes to licensing revenue, the University of Houston remains nationally at the top of the list among all universities without a medical school.  We are also ranked No. 67 globally for U.S. patents, and we have among us 11 members of the National Academy of Inventors.

In order to move the needle further, we have relaunched our Energy Research Park as the UH Technology Bridge.  It has been home to 42 start-ups so far. Today, I am pleased to announce a $2 million technology commercialization fund to help our faculty create innovative products in the UH Technology Bridge. By launching this new fund, we will increase the chances of success of our faculty in taking their research products to the marketplace, where they will address challenges faced by society.

A natural by-product of the strong research and scholarship agenda is the strength of our graduate programs. Currently, nine of our programs are ranked among the top 50 by U.S. New & World Report and another 23 are close to reaching that milestone.  I want to single out the Graduate College of Social Work for moving up 14 places in one year to finish among the Top 25 in the nation for the very first time. 

Continuing on our journey of reflecting diversity and embracing inclusion, we are increasing the number of faculty from under-served minorities.  Our University has been recognized for three years in a row as the higher education leader in diversity.

We are cognizant that innovation and leadership will come from within, and it will come from those among us.  To that effect, Chairs Academy and Propel have been launched in recent years to target faculty and staff, respectively, and equip them with the tools that allow them to become change agents.  Chairs Academy has graduated two groups, and the first group of Propel participants graduated this year.

Facilities

We continue to expand and improve our physical environment.  Today, instead of telling you about our new building projects – of which there are many – I would like to mention four initiatives that are unconventional and yet are very important for our campus.

First is the bike share program.  While walking is good and driving is convenient, we need other alternatives. Realizing this, we launched a bike-share program this year by inviting B-Cycle to locate four stations across campus.  Considering that 300 rides were logged in the first week alone, we think the program will be a huge success.  

Second, for walkers and bikers, the campus is now connected to Houston’s 300-mile-long, all-weather, hike and bike trail system, made possible by the expansion of the Tiger Trail along our neighboring bayou.

Third, the Farmer’s Market and the Campus Community Garden both add sustainable vibrancy to our campus.  Managed by students, the community garden has already produced and donated over 900 pounds of food to the community.

Finally, we have started to restore and showcase public art pieces in such a way that we, the public, can enjoy them. A third-party appraisal indicates that several pieces in our collection are of national importance.  We have started offering regular tours of public art, and will also be hosting temporary public art exhibits in the Arts District.  The idea is to transform the University of Houston into an arts destination for the enjoyment of all.  

Thanks to these and other initiatives, the University of Houston has now been designated as a Gold Star sustainable campus.  Our goal is to reach the Platinum Star level, which requires us to embrace sustainability in all aspects of campus life, including academic courses, student engagement and general operations.

Of course, we have not slowed down on our construction and renovation projects because the space deficit, as per the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s Report, still continues to exist.  We look forward to the completion of several buildings in 2019. Among them:

  • The highly anticipated, completely renovated basketball facility, the Fertitta Center! It will open on December 1 with the men’s basketball game against Oregon. 
  • Renovation of the Science Building, the second-oldest structure on campus.
  • The new 80,000-square-foot academic building in Sugar Land.
  • And the new campus in Katy! The Katy campus will be used by both UH and UHV to serve this fastest growing region of the state.

Looking beyond, on the drawing board are the renovation of seven core buildings across campus, start-up space for the College of Medicine, and another garage to keep up with our growing population.

Several projects are in the advanced phases of bidding, designing, planning or fundraising.  Among them are repurposing of the indoor Melcher Pool and our building in the Texas Medical Center, expansion of the Graduate College of Social Work and Hilton College and construction of College of Medicine and Law Center buildings.

Donors and Alumni

Our $1 billion “Here, We Go” campaign continues to move ahead of its target.  Thanks to our generous donors – and many of you are here – we have crossed the $900-million mark.  We are at $934.9 million as of this morning. Yet another proof that when it comes to moving the big rocks, it may take a village, but it can be done. 

Just a few days ago, we announced a $15 million gift from Humana to create the Humana Integrated Health System Sciences Institute, which will bring together our Colleges of Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Optometry and Social Work. 

Unlike other billion-dollar-plus campaigns, ours has been a grassroots effort, where nearly 176,000 donors have invested in the University’s future.  Each and every one of these 176,000 donors has brought us closer to the $1 billion mark, and each one has made a difference in the lives of our students, faculty and community.

The campaign is also supported by several large, transformational gifts.  In comparison to 2011, three times as many donors are giving a million dollars or more now.

The campaign has funded many scholarships, professorships, and academic programs, but it has also funded – partially or fully – eight of our building projects. 

One of those buildings is the Engineering Research Building, which has been called just that, the Engineering Research Building.  But no more… and this brings me to a surprise announcement of a large gift to name the building.  Thanks to Regent Durga Agrawal and his wife, Sushila, this building will now be called… the Dr. Durga and Sushila Agrawal Engineering Research Building.  Their son and daughter are also with us today so they can see how their inheritance is being spent. 

Today, we have a record number of alumni engaged with the University, and if we stay on this path, I am sure we will soon be calling Houston the Red Town!

With everything going on, it is no surprise that the University of Houston is getting more national and global visibility.  In fact, last year, the University of Houston was mentioned in the news 80,000 times, in all kinds of media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today, Bloomberg, Forbes, the Washington Post, Texas Monthly and, of course, the Houston Chronicle. 

The University of Houston is also among the top 20 universities in the number of Twitter followers.

Athletics  

“It is great to be a Cougar,” I hear it often around campus and from the alumni who have seen Cougars perform, whether academically or athletically.  Speaking of athletics, Houston is once again on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Ed Oliver, our defensive tackle, is the second Cougar in three years to grace the cover of the magazine.  He is also ESPN’s No. 1 player in the nation.

The excitement generated by football continues, as Cougars boast a 4-1 record for the season.  The most precious memory of the season, of course, is the decisive win against Pac-12 opponent Arizona!

I feel that in order to be relevant we have to dominate our conference in every single sport.  Last year, six conference championship trophies came home – from Women’s Swimming and Diving… Men’s Indoor Track & Field… Women’s Golf…  Men’s Outdoor Track & Field… Women’s Outdoor Track & Field… and Baseball.

Two of our student-athletes, Cameron Burrell and Kahmari Montgomery, also won gold medals in the Athletics World Cup as members of Team USA.  And Elijah Hall set a new American indoor record in the 200-meter dash.

There were many other lasting memories from the last season, like the Cougars winning their first NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament game since 1984.   

Thanks to our donors and boosters, many of our Athletics facilities have seen a facelift, but I would like to highlight the Dominic and Ellen Ng Academic Center for Excellence, built to consolidate academic services and support for student athletes.  Dominic, a UH alumnus, graduated in 1980 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, and went on to become the Chairman, President, and CEO of East West Bank. Why is Dominic interested in the academic success of our student-athletes?  During his years as a student he was hired by Hall of Fame Coach Bill Yeoman to tutor football students and his passion for supporting student-athletes remains strong even today.

Future Directions

As we move forward, we have to remain focused on the big rocks that we have already started to move.  Our first and foremost priority is to ensure that our students – regardless of the backgrounds they come from, and the risk or reward they bring with them – are successful.  While we graduate over 10,000 students every year, we still have several who leave us without fulfilling their dream of a college education.  We must always keep asking, what can we do more to help them be successful?  And then do it.

As a research university, we also have an obligation to create knowledge, and not just to disseminate it.  To fulfill this mission, we have to invest in the research enterprise – our faculty, graduate students and facilities.  I have already highlighted some initiatives, including the 50-in-5 and the Tech Bridge Fund, but we will need to do much more in coming years to accelerate research.

I applaud the Board of Regents and the faculty for dreaming big and thinking forward, and for launching the UH College of Medicine to fill the shortage of 6,000-plus primary care physicians in Houston and Texas.

With a strong portfolio of health care disciplines in the University, it is possible for us to introduce a program in medicine and help do what this university has always done – serving the people and the community!

Clearly, there is the need, and clearly there is also the ability.  However, just to be sure, I want to share one more statistics to convince you why it makes sense to have another medical school in Houston.  When the last medical school in Houston was built, 2.2 million people lived here.  Today, 6.5 million people, nearly three times as many, call Houston their home.  The city and the state need to ensure their health and well-being. But Houston is not the only place in need of individuals who can serve as primary care physicians – many rural communities in the state are also struggling with the same issue – and we hope that our initiative can put a dent in meeting this demand. 

In order to accomplish this task, we have partnered with the HCA Hospital System with 18 hospitals in Houston alone.  Our other clinical partners include Harris Health System, MD Anderson Cancer Center and a number of local FQHCs (Federally Qualified Health Centers).  Together with HCA Hospital System, we have developed a sustainable public-private partnership focused on population health, primary care, prevention and mental health.

Of the $450 million start-up cost, we are raising $410 million ourselves and are asking the state legislature to put in the last $40 million. 

For each medical school student, we bring to the table more than one new residency position so the doctors we train also have an opportunity to do residency in the area and subsequently stay in Texas. 

Our application to offer the M.D. program is with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, due for action later this month.  In addition, a group of 35 faculty-administrators are busy preparing the application for national accreditation due to be submitted in December.

Our plan is to offer residencies in Fall of 2019 and to admit the first class of medical students soon thereafter.

The landscape of higher education is forever changing, but the pace of change and the disruptions it faces now come with higher stakes than ever.  As educators, we have an obligation to the next generation and to fulfill this obligation, we must stay grounded in our values. I would like to highlight two core values today.

Core value number one:

Education is a public good. It is neither an item of consumption nor of possession whose benefits are limited to the individual consuming or possessing it.  An educated citizen is one brick in the foundation of a prosperous society.  When a student graduates, she becomes an asset not just to herself or her family, but also to everyone in the society.  Therefore, college education has been viewed – and should be viewed – as a societal good where access, success, inclusion and affordability are essential. We will continue to do our best in staying true to our core mission and also urging the state to help us in achieving our goals by investing in higher education in the state of Texas.

Core value number two:

Our mission, vision, value and outcome all start and end with one functionality – and that is “learning.”  Our task is to help students learn.  Our challenge is that the learners who we had on our campus 10 or even five years ago are no longer here.  The learners of today are very different in their thinking, their behavior, their values and their preferences. They are not Millennials, whose learning preferences we thought we knew and could claim to have mastered.  

Who are they?  Seventy five percent of our undergraduates were born after 1995 and make up what is called the new generation, Generation Z, known as Gen Z.

Gen Zs are highly connected.  They are not just multi-taskers… they are multi, multi, multi taskers.  They can work on five devices at the same time.  They have enormous tolerance for background noises and they are not deterred by constant upgrades and reboots in their devices and their lives. They are more independent, less brand conscious, and highly motivated to find their own solutions.

On the other hand, they want everything individualized, customized, and immediately available.  We can’t blame them – after all, they are growing up in the age of Siri, Instagram and Amazon.  They use technology, but don’t talk about it because technology is as natural to them as breathing.  To sum it up, they are the most connected generation, and yet, also the most isolated.  They are connected – in cyberspace – to thousands of friends, and yet all of these friends think and behave like them.  They can block out anyone who they don’t agree with.

Once admitted, these Gen Zs are our students.  If we want them to learn – which is our mission – expose them to different ideas, and sharpen their tools, then we have to figure out how to use their love for devices, their expectation for immediate customized information, their independence, and their entrepreneurial spirit toward our goal of helping them learn.

Clearly, we cannot convert them into Millennials or Baby Boomers, no matter how hard we try.  So we have to make an attempt to understand them.  This proposition, however simple, poses a serious challenge for all of us.  We have to assume that our goal of making learning possible is non-negotiable.  Then we have to think about all the different ways – both substantive and trivial – to accomplish the goal.  Since we cannot take the Internet or social media away from them, we need to find ways to teach them how to use them properly… how to separate credible information from the rest, to test others’ theories with their own experiences, and to build their internal strength amid all the external noise.

This is what our challenge is, and this is what I am asking you to think about and pledge today.  Because if we fail to retain our core values, and we fail to fulfill our mission, like any other industry or business, we will become irrelevant. 

I applaud you for what you have done, and what you will do.  Let’s continue our journey to the next milestone of excellence together! I appreciate you very much.

Thank you and Go, Coogs!