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Renu Khator

BA 1973, Kanpur University (India)
MA 1975, Political Science
PhD 1985, Political Science/Public Administration

President, University of Houston, Houston, TX

Leading the University of Houston to Tier One status as a top research university is just one of the recent achievements of Chancellor and President Renu Khator—so it’s no surprise that the chair of the university’s Board of Regents recently dubbed her a “rock star” of higher education in the Houston Chronicle. But it’s students, not accolades, who motivate Khator. “I love what I do, and every time I see students with hopes and dreams in their eyes, I know that I am in the right place,” she says. One particular moment on campus brought home just how much her success can have an impact on the students she interacts with. She had been president for just over five months and was on her way to a faculty senate meeting when three female students stopped her.

“Their heads were covered in beautiful scarves,” describes Khator. “They were quick to stop me but slow in saying anything. After much hesitation, one of them asked if she could get a photo with me. I obliged and had a photo taken with each of them. ‘Is it for Facebook?’ I joked casually. They all became very serious and one of them said, ‘No, I want to show it to my mom and tell her that I can be like her and I, too, can do anything I want.’ I had not realized until then that I have no choice but to succeed in this new chapter of my professional life. Other people’s dreams are riding on my doing well.”

Purdue Memories

My favorite memory is drinking hot chocolate at 2 a.m. in the Purdue Memorial Union cafeteria while it was below zero outside.

Purdue Influences

I loved everything about Purdue, but there is one person without whom I would not be where I am today. Professor Frank L. Wilson was the graduate advisor in the Department of Political Science when I showed up in his office in July of 1974, requesting admission. I was 18 years old and new to the United States, but worse, I had no functional knowledge of English. What I had was a bachelor’s degree in my hand and determination in my eyes. I pleaded for a chance and he gave me one by allowing me to sit in on two graduate classes. I worked harder during that first semester than ever in my life, trying to learn English while also surviving in a class on the American presidency after Watergate. Thanks to him and thanks to Purdue, I got a chance, I took it, I survived, and the rest is history.

Greatest Achievement

Getting an A in those first two classes—a struggle like that can build lifelong confidence in anyone. It also gave me empathy to understand what students may be going through today, and why it takes an entire village to educate someone.

Living Person I Admire

I admire my mom. She raised me believing that I can do anything. She did so especially in a time and culture where women were not necessarily encouraged to think of themselves as professionals.

Idea of Perfect Happiness

A book in hand, blue ocean in front of me, white Florida sand under my feet, and anticipation of having dinner with my family in the evening.

What I’m Reading

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo, and The Oleander Girl, by Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, a member of the University of Houston faculty

Profession I’d Like to Try

Owner of a bed-and-breakfast in a remote beach town