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The Influentials
Renu Khator

University of Houston's rock star president reveals all: Top challenge, favorite restaurant and a closet secret

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Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com

Since arriving at the helm of the University of Houston System as chancellor and as UH president in 2008, Renu Khator has been steadily transforming the university and enhancing the school's national image. In only four years, she has taken Houston (as she prefers to call it) from somewhat educational obscurity to national recognition including a Carnegie Tier One ranking.

Khator demurs that it has not been her single-handed effort but rather a team that has advanced the university, including achieving that Tier One status in only three years, two years less than what she promised the board of regents at her hiring. Nevertheless, board of regents chair Nelda Blair declared Khator a "rock star" when explaining the 40 percent raise and $150,000 contract renewal bonus that Khator received at the end of last year.

A native of India, Khator arrived in the United States in the mid-70s, following an arranged marriage to Suresh Khator, now a professor of engineering at UH. She earned a master's degree and her Ph.D. in political science from Purdue University and then moved on to the University of South Florida where she served for 22 years as provost and senior vice president.

Khator is noted for her fierce loyalty to UH, which extends beyond the political battlefields of Austin and the boardrooms of Houston all the way to her closet where the majority of her wardrobe is UH Cougar red.  She launched "red Friday" at the university to engender school spirit. And she is seldom, if ever, without some form of wardrobe red.

What is your chief characteristic?

I have always said it from the day I interviewed here, fire in my belly. When they asked me, "Why should we hire you?" that's what I said, "Fire in my belly."

Your idea of happiness?

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.

Your idea of misery?

Just feeling helpless. I don't mind obstacles. I don't mind barriers. But it's the feeling that I can't do anything about it.

Your pet aversion?

What drives me crazy are people who talk from both sides of their mouth. I would rather you be honest, say yes, say no, whatever it is. 

Who do you consider your heroes?

I always go back and first on my list is my mom. It's just because in so many different ways, her inner strength always inspires me. . . . Then the  inspiration I find from the people I meet day to day, the stories, the adversities, all the things, the barriers that they have crossed, they inspire me. I just get recharged every time I talk to them. So I started doing the blog to highlight them.

What do you do to chill?

I love to walk — long walks, an hour, two hours, because I can be by myself. I feel like I'm totally myself because I don't have a phone, I don't have a computer to distract me. I can have my dog and just be out there. And the other thing, of course, I like to write. 

You mentioned a dog, what kind?

I have a German Shepherd. We rescued that dog last March and her name is Sasha because UH has a male mascot, Shasta, and a female mascot, Sasha. I take her with me to work on Fridays. She will sit right next to me . . . She protects me. She stays right next to my feet. Just a super dog.

What is your favorite restaurant in Houston?

I like to experiment with food so it depends on what mood I'm in. But right now I love to go and sit at the bar in Uchi and just tell them to keep serving whatever for me. I don't make a choice and I've never been disappointed. There are a couple of places here. It just depends on the mood I'm in. If I have had a bad night, a Friday night, I want to go to Pappasito's and just have a margarita. If I'm missing my mom then I would go to the Gandhi district on Hillcroft. There is a pure vegetarian place there and I go there and order an Indian plate.

What percentage of your wardrobe is red?

More than half right now. Definitely . . . It is my favorite color and it's my mom's favorite color.

You instituted red Friday's at the University of Houston?

Yes, it's doing very well actually, 60 to 70 percent of the campus is red on Friday. It's all about pride, that's the whole point. That was one of the things that was lacking. In every organization, whatever pieces are the weakest link, that's what you try to work on. And for the University of Houston, substance was always there, I always say that. So it has been two things for us. One is the internal pride that can reflect on everybody and the second thing is its reputation, not just in Houston but nationally.

What's the biggest challenge facing the University of Houston?

I think it is the changing of the culture because at this point we have more students living on campus than all but one university in the state of Texas. So we are not a commuter university the way we were said to be in the past.  But the point is that with that comes a different kind of serving culture. I always said even that if our students are commuting students that doesn't mean we should have a commuting mentality which says OK I'll take care of this one problem which you're asking me.

We have to invest in their whole, what else is going on around them because eventually we want them to graduate. It is a cultural shift from treating students as if graduating is their responsibility versus treating it as their graduation is all of our collective responsibility. We don't define our success until our students are successful.

What is the best thing going for UH?

The biggest asset we have is our locational endowment  — where we are located. We are in Houston. We are in Texas. We have a strong industry base here. We can attract the talent. It's a great place to live. It's a cool city. We have everything that a university would love to have. So it's really up to us to use that, our dividend from that locational endowment to build a university along with the community.

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