HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- She's been the head of our city's largest public university for fourteen years now, but how did Renu Khator, who was born and raised in a village in North India, get here?
Khator recently got vaccinated for COVID19, and agreed to an extended interview. We're featuring her story as part of our Women's History Month celebration of the inspiring women around us.
When you walk into Renu Khator's office, you notice the photos first. Actor Matthew McConaughey, President Joe Biden, Former President Donald Trump are just a few faces you'll recognize. She even has a photo with Beyonce!
But when asked about it, her response as always, is humble: "Life has many twists and turns and here I am and I feel extremely blessed."
Renu Khator was born and raised in what she calls a "small village" in northern India. She was an exceptional student, but like many women in her village, she struggled to pursue a career.
"When I graduated with my bachelor's degree, I was 17 years old and that's the time we had a little bit of a family rift over where I could go to college to do my masters," she explained. "In my hometown, there wasn't any all-girls college that I could attend."
So, she followed her parents' wishes and agreed to an arranged marriage to a stranger named Suresh Khator, who happened to be studying in the United States. When she joined him in 1974, she spoke no English, but thanks to hours and hours of "I Love Lucy," reruns, she conquered both the language and a Master's degree before turning 20 years old.
"Now I look back and think that there were so many moments I could have quit, but I didn't and thanks to my husband who actually made my dream as his dream and our dream, worked equally hard, taking second jobs, third jobs, reading my drafts and commenting on them," she said. "Have dreams. You as a young woman, as a young girl, are as much entitled to have dreams as anybody else. Have dreams. Don't let people dissuade you."
Dr. Khator earned PhDs in Political Science and Public Administration at Purdue University. She was Senior Vice Provost of the University of South Florida when she got a call from a number she didn't recognize.
"My first reaction was that I don't know that university, I haven't seen it on any list, so I said, 'No.'" But then the second call came, and the third call came with persistence and I said, 'Okay, I'll take a look at it.'"
In 2008, Khator accepted the job as President and Chancellor of the University of Houston. Her husband followed her, becoming the Associate Dean of the university's engineering program.
"We had 100 students coming to the university as freshmen and only forty were graduating in six years with a four year degree. That to me is not being true to the core mission," she said, before proudly adding, "I told the board of regents who interviewed me that, 'Give me five to seven years and we can absolutely build a tier one university here," Guess how many years it took? Three."
Her strategy has been multifaceted.
First, create partnerships with local industries. Since Khator took over, the university has launched both a petroleum engineering program and a new medical school.
Second, increase school spirit. Students who are involved on campus are more likely to graduate.
"Now, our goal is to really become a top fifty public university in the nation," she explained. "People say, 'Wait a minute, that just doesn't sound possible, that can't be done.' My answer is, 'Guess where we were ten years ago. 125th. We have come up to 87th in ten years. Can we go from 87 to 50? Absolutely."
2020 was supposed to be a big part of that plan. But, COVID19 changed so much. The university, which only had 20% of its classes available online, had to quickly move to a 100% virtual learning system that also addressed student struggles to find laptops and WIFI access.
Student athletes started getting sick, too. The basketball coach said every member of his team has tested positive for the virus last summer and fall. The university had a $80 million dollar shortfall in 2020, and this year, the loss is expected to reach to $100 million.
"I feel like I'm on the balcony trying to give a bigger view and just make sure to make sure to give hope and give calm, but then I'm running down to the ground floor to make sure that immediate issues are resolved," she said. "I feel like four times a day, ten times a day, I'm just up and down and it's exhausting."
More than one year into the pandemic, and campus is nearly empty. There are only about 3500 student currently living in the dorms, which is about half as many as you would normally find.
As more students and faculty get vaccinated, Khator hopes to hold an in-person graduation ceremony this spring, and students are already signing up for in person classes for the fall.
"At the end of the day, you just know that whatever hand you're dealt with, she explained, "you've got to play your best game, and at the end of the day, did you play your best game?"
It's a determination Khator said she first learned from her mother, and continues to pass down to her daughters, both opthamologists.
"I know I have responsibility to help at least ten women succeed and that's the challenge I keep offering to my students as well," she said. "If you're good, in the honors college, you have a responsibility to help ten other people who are not as fortunate to really pull them up. There are a lot of people who pulled me up. I mean, look where I came from."
From a child to who grew up thinking she'd never be allowed to hold a job, to the first Indian American to head a major research university in the United States.
I'd say she's come pretty far.
UH President Dr. Renu Khator on her life and vision for university
WOMEN'S HISTORY MONTH