Not If, but When – Renu Khator and the Evolution of the University of Houston

By Samantha de León

President Khator reacts to being inducted into the UH Athletics Hall of Honor in 2018. Leading up to this recognition, UH had reached the American Athletic Conference Championships in football and basketball, the Elite Eight and Final Four in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and consistently ranked in Top-25 polls in both sports. All photos courtesy of the University of Houston.

As the University of Houston (UH) inches closer to its centennial in 2027, the anniversary offers the perfect opportunity to reflect on the school’s past and its growth. UH has blossomed from its early days as a junior college to a research institution with record-breaking enrollment, national rankings for multiple academic programs, over a billion dollars donated to its recent fundraising campaign, and admission to the Big 12 Conference. These recent milestones are owed largely to Dr. Renu Khator, who became president of the University of Houston and chancellor of the University of Houston System in 2008, making her the first female chancellor in Texas and the first Indian immigrant to lead a comprehensive U.S. research university. She has elevated UH onto the national stage, making it one of the top schools in Texas and the nation. Her ambitions and vision for the campus remain evident with the creation of the new Tilman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine and impressive improvements to campus infrastructure. Achieving this level of success did not come easy, however, and the journey began on the other side of the world.

Dr. Renu Khator and her husband Dr. Suresh Khator.

As a young girl, Renu was keen on education. Growing up in Uttar Pradesh, India, she had few female role models to follow, however. “I grew up in a family, in a town, where I just did not see any woman, after being married, have any kind of career or even going to school,” Khator said candidly. “But one thing for sure … I had passion for education. … I wanted to get the highest degree possible.” The government did not guarantee women an education during her youth in the sixties and seventies; by 1991, less than 40 percent of India’s 330 million girls and women aged seven and older were literate.

Driven by her passion, Renu earned her bachelor’s degree at Kanpur University and then, in 1973, persuaded her parents to allow her to pursue her master’s in education at Allahabad University, all by the age of eighteen. “I loved being in school … that was my dream,” she recalled. Renu held on to that dream, even after her father arranged for her to marry Dr. Suresh Khator that same year and ended her master’s degree pursuits at Allahabad University. Suresh was a Purdue University student who lived in the United States at the time. Recalling her wedding day, she said, “I was crying a lot … [saying] ‘My life is over.’ [Suresh] asked me why, and I said, ‘Because now I cannot study and that was my only dream.’ So, he promised me that he will make sure I do get my dream.”

True to his word, Suresh secured a meeting with Purdue University’s graduate office. Although initially skeptical, Purdue officials allowed Renu to sit in on two classes as an unenrolled student to prove herself. Not yet fluent in English, she watched eight hours of television a day to solidify her grammar. After Purdue admitted her, Renu received her master’s in political science just a year and a half later, in 1975. By 1985, she had earned her Ph.D. in political science and public administration.

Renu Khator’s education opened the door to teaching at the University of South Florida (USF), where Suresh also worked. She held a variety of different positions over twenty-two years at USF, where she eventually worked her way up to provost and senior vice president. In 2007, a UH search committee selected her as the sole finalist for the dual position of UH President and University of Houston System Chancellor. Her decision to leave USF was not one she made lightly. “I always believed that great universities are built by great communities. So, I had to make sure that I was going to a place where I would be a good fit,” Khator admitted. “Houston, it was amazing—not just the absolutely fabulous diversity of the city but the can-do attitude where I felt like, ‘Okay, maybe new things are possible.’”

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Watch the videos that follow to learn more about President Renu Khator.

Watch Houston Public Media’s tenth episode of 100 Years of Houston about Dr. Renu Khator
President Khator challenges the idea of resting on past accomplishments and talks about her drive to strive for excellence going forward.
President Khator details the ways in which the UH Third Ward Initiative has made a difference in neighborhood schools.

Houston Chronicle article over University of Houston’s Renu Khator starting 16th year as president

Watch UH current and former board members celebrate Renu Khator’s Hall of Honor induction.

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