It had all the makings of an old-fashioned pep rally.
The University of Houston Cougar Marching Band, cheerleaders and mascot joined students, faculty and important guests at Cullen Hall on the UH campus Friday. There was a balloon drop from the ceiling, along with lapel pins and cookies with the UH logo for the crowd of 1,500, who thrust their hands into the air in unison to make the sign of a Cougar paw. Even football star Case Keenum was there.
But the enthusiastic crowd, alternating chants of "Who's house?" "Coogs house!," weren't celebrating a big football victory.
Instead, they were rejoicing over the news from last week that the Carnegie Foundation has elevated the university to Tier One status, joining a select group of academic institutions noted for "very high research activity." While the university hasn't yet met all the requirements set by the Texas legislature for designation as Tier One and the additional state funds that go with such status, it is a big boost toward that goal.
For a university that has long suffered an inferiority complex, especially in comparison to the University of Texas and Texas A&M University, the Carnegie designation was cause enough for celebration.
"Everybody is a Cougar," UH president Renu Khator triumphantly told the cheering crowd. "The color of your blood is no other color. It's not maroon. It's not orange. It's red."
Khator was dressed in a Cougar red suit with lapel trimmed in silver. Even her smart pumps were trimmed in UH colors of red and white. Much of the audience was also dressed in red, as the university declared every Friday as "Wear Cougar Red" Day on campus.
Keenum wasn't wearing red — guess the quarterback didn't get the memo — but he was caught up in the enthusiasm over the new designation. "If we have half this excitement next fall we'll probably win every game," he said.
Khator was equally enthusiastic about Kennum's contributions to the university, noting that (on Jan. 14) the NCAA approved his request for an additional sixth year of eligibility after a season-ending injury last October. "I want to see you at football games," she told the audience. "No excuses."
The hour-long rally had the makings of a revival. When Carol Robertson Ray, chair of the board of UH regents, said the university "had taken it's rightful place in the major leagues of academia," an audience member shouted, "Amen!"
Ray noted that her grandfather, Hugh Roy Cullen, had financed construction of the first building on campus in 1938. (The university was founded as a two-year junior college in 1927.)
"Is this a great day or what?" a jubilant Welcome Wilson Sr., chairman of UH's "Drive to Tier One" initiative, shouted before introducing Khator, who was greeted like a rock star. Wilson, who has flawless comic timing, noted he and the university are the same age — 84.
"When I was a child, the Dead Sea was sick," he joked.
Also on hand for the celebration: U.S. Rep. Gene Green, Greater Houston Partnership chairman Larry Kellner, Houson city council members James Rodriguez and Mike Sullivan, former Texas Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and former UH football coach Bill Yeoman.
While celebrating the university's new status, Khator, who has been at the helm for a little over three years, said her job isn't done. She marked two areas for improvement: Increasing the graduation rate and sustaining research, with the goal of being ranked as a top medical research university.
She said she plans to spend much of the next few months lobbying the Texas legislature for UH funding. "If you don't see me, tweet me. I'll be camping out in Austin," Khator said.
And she vowed she is undeterred by the state's precarious financial situation and calls for drastic cuts in funding for public education.
"The best universities are built in the worst of times, so I am not afraid," she said. "Our journey toward Tier One will continue whether times are good or bad."
UH alum Jim Nantz took part in a video to celebrate the Carnegie Foundation designation: