When leaders lead with personal power: A tribute to my friend, Roth Bose!

Today, the University of Houston gathered together to celebrate the life and achievements of Dr. Rathindra Bose, or “Roth” as we called him. Roth served as our Vice Chancellor of Research and Technology Transfer and in this role he was an integral part of my cabinet for the last four years. The memorial ceremony was a reminder of Roth’s personal power.

Roth Bose as a scientist

Roth Bose, a brilliant scientist

Interestingly, “power” was not the adjective used by anyone during the memorial service. Roth was recalled as a brilliant researcher, passionate teacher, dynamic administrator and, above all, a wonderful person.

But the truth is that Roth was a powerful leader, not because of what position he held but because of who he was as a person.

Come to think of it, all people in position enjoy a particular kind of power, the power that comes from holding that particular position. People may love you or hate you as a person, but they are forced to respect you as the holder of the position. But some leaders are different because they are able to expand their power beyond their position and thus command respect by the sheer weight of their inner strength. This kind of “personal power” has no contractual term limit and is not bound by an organization. The source of this power is a person’s own integrity and commitment. It is also his passion for the common cause. No organization can give personal power to a leader and no organization can take it away. Leaders cannot seize it and they cannot relinquish it; they have to earn it and have to live with it. Standing at the podium in that room today, I was acutely aware how much Roth enjoyed that personal power.

I recalled one of my meetings with Roth. It was to evaluate his annual performance. As always, we opened charts and tables and looked at various indicators. We talked about the challenges ahead and discussed strategies. Toward the end of the meeting, I asked Roth, “Have you thought of becoming a university presidency?”

He laughed lightheartedly and said, “Oh no, Chancellor, that is not for me. I know what I want to do.” (He made it a point to call me “chancellor” because he said coming from South Asia, he was so proud of me.) Then he confided that he would like to retire in two or three years and start a foundation that could, among many other things, enable people to get their DNA tested at an affordable cost. This is how he wanted to serve the people in his homeland of Bangladesh and also in America. I know that somewhere, someone will fulfill his dream, and when I see it in action, I will know Roth is at work in heaven.

Roth Bose

Roth Bose

Roth’s illness came fast and took him away quickly. None of us had time to say a proper good-bye and, even though I had come to know of this eventuality few days prior to his final departure, the news of his passing away came as an incomprehensible shock. When I had visited him in hospital, even though his voice was feeble, he was still telling me about two ongoing projects and what needed to happen for them as next steps. I told him that I needed his leadership to move the University forward and assured him we would open a bottle of Champagne when he returned. To this, he smiled brightly even though he was in serious pain.

Roth was a brilliant researcher and a serious inventor. During his time at the University of Houston, nine of our faculty members were named into the National Academy of Inventors.  I learned about eight of them from Roth, but I found out about the ninth one from the official announcement.  Yes, you guessed it…the ninth one was Roth himself.  He was too modest to tell me about his own achievement. I remember one day he walked into my office saying that he had two pieces of news – a big one and a small one.

“Give me the big one first,” I said.

“UH is now a finalist in XXXXX,” he said, naming a specific proposal. “People have worked really hard on this, and we are going to get it!” He was so excited.

“Great! Good job! And the small news?”

“You remember my cancer drug? Well, it has just moved to the second phase of clinical trials.” He said it modestly, never wanting to toot his own horn.

“Roth. Congratulations! You call this small? This is huge! This is really a big deal!” I had to repeat it because Roth was not going to. The drug was the centerpiece of his life’s work and dream and it was very big news!Roth Bose  as a proud team member

But that is who Roth was, always putting others before his own interests. He was a proud man … proud of his children and grandchildren first of all. We often shared stories about our families and his eyes twinkled every time he mentioned his family.

Today at the celebration, all of us said good-bye to Roth in our own ways and I said mine. The loss still feels no less, but the sharing of the memories with others helps me understand him even better.

Good-bye, my friend. Rest in peace!

In search of a leader…

It was late in the afternoon, and I was feeling the weight of the day when I heard a soft knock on my door. I glanced at my calendar and realized I still had three more meetings, and all three were interviews for a senior leadership position.

I quickly pulled out the file and before I could say anything, the door opened and Candidate #1 walked in holding a big stack of files and papers. She sat down, anxious, fiddling her pen and rearranging her stack of clipped papers. After getting pleasantries out of the way, we got into the specifics of the position.

I asked the usual questions about vision, philosophy, experiences and leadership style. I heard all the right words – “visionary, loyal, full of integrity, strategic, collaborative, consensus-builder, and decisive.” Throughout the interview, she kept writing down parts of my questions as if afraid to forget something critical. Several times, she searched through her files and pulled out brochures to show them to me as proof of her experience. Clearly, she had methodically prepared for this interview.

At that point, I threw her a curve ball. Handing her a piece of paper with a very short paragraph describing a project, I said, “I have this great idea. Would you be able to implement it for me?”

She read it eagerly and said, “You are my role model. I believe in your vision. It will be an honor to do whatever you tell me to do. I will gather more information on the idea, talk to whoever I need to talk to and will get it done ASAP.” I smiled. The interview was over.

Next came Candidate #2. In contrast to the first candidate, he walked in empty-handed, sat down comfortably and leaned back. He must have had a pen and paper in the inner pocket of his jacket, but made no attempt to take them out. I asked him the same usual questions and got the same usual answers using the same usual words. I challenged one of his facts, hoping to see if his posture or attitude changed. But he stayed casual and confident.

Then came the time to throw my curve ball. He read the paragraph, put the sheet back in front of me (as if he had already memorized it but I might need to refer to it) and said, “I have implemented a very similar idea before, and it should be possible to do it here as long as I can get the needed resources.” I smiled. This interview was also over.

By the time, Candidate #3 walked in, I was getting disheartened. He rested his briefcase near the chair and sat down on the edge of the chair, engaged and alert. I asked the same usual questions fully expecting the same usual answers. But that was not the case. His answers stretched the conversation to a whole new level. For instance, when I asked about his leadership style, instead of describing it theoretically, he started with a description of where my organization was and what kind of leadership style was best suited for it at this point in time and then concluded by saying he was sure he had those traits. Pretty clever, I thought! He had done his homework and knew how to show it.

Toward the end, I threw my curve ball again, but unlike the other two, he took longer than usual to read the paragraph (as if reading it twice). Then he put the paper down, still facing toward him, looked up and said, “May I ask if it is really your idea?”

“Excuse me?” I hardly expected this line of questioning.

“I am sorry but from everything I have read about you, it does not sound like you would want it this way. I realize this is an interview, but in order to be successful, you need my expertise more than my yes-manship. Would you be willing to reconsider a different strategy?” he said, turning the paper around so now it was facing me. Before I knew it, he was drawing lines and circles and developing his idea. Then he looked up and said, “The goal that you have in mind can be accomplished, but I will need some flexibility to come up with the right strategy.”

I nodded. The interview was over.

During my 15 years in central administration, I have had the privilege of hiring many who were leaders and meeting many others who thought they were. In this case, all three candidates could manage the job, but not all three could move the needle.

Candidate #1 was blindly loyal and because of it, she would be the easiest one to work with. She would gladly do whatever she was told to do.

Candidate #2 was calm and content and because of these traits, he would be the safest one to have around. He would only do whatever he could safely undertake and complete.

Candidate #3, on other hand, was hungry and even arrogant. But it was what I consider positive arrogance. He believed in his ability to find the right solution, showed courage to question a given decision, and he put his brain to work to find an alternate solution. It was clear that he would care for the organization, but most importantly, it was clear that he would prevent me from making mistakes.

In the end, I knew that life could be easy (with Candidate #1) or safe (with Candidate #2), but if I wanted it to be rewarding, I had only one choice: Candidate #3.

Uniquely American: College Athletics

Many foreign delegations visit our university each year and almost always, the topic of college sports, particularly, American football, comes up.  They walk in to my office, notice signed footballs and basketballs, helmets and trophies and bring up the topic before leaving the office.  Our friends are intrigued, amazed and confused about our obsession with college sports. Many have studied in America and have experienced the craze first-hand, but they want to know my views as an administrator. They ask:

Don’t you find it difficult to manage sports?

Do your faculty support it?

It has to be distracting. Isn’t it?

They know that I studied in India and therefore would understand where they are coming from.  I always smile and tell them the truth. Yes, it does take a lot of my time. And yes, it can have a life of its own. And yes, it can feel distracting sometimes.  But, no, I will not have it any other way.

Then I go on and explain to them two fundamental points.  One, student athletes do get an opportunity to get a great education, but more importantly, they get an opportunity to learn life skills, like leadership and teamwork.  I have personally seen the transformation in young athletes.  When done right, the experience of being a student athlete can be one of the most transformative experiences in life.

Secondly, I tell them that college sports engage students, alumni, and communities like very few things can. When we search for coach or athletic director, everyone knows about it and has an opinion about who should be hired.  During the football season, I cannot go anywhere in town without people stopping me and giving me an expert analysis of our performance.

If teams are doing well, I get all the undeserved credit as if I am the one coaching them.  And if the season is rough, I get bombarded with email and social media advice.  Over the years, I have received some interesting suggestions, of which my favorite ones are:

“Fire the coach, fire the AD, and while you are at it, fire yourself.”

If you don’t fire the coach, I will never give another dime again.” (We are still searching our database for the first dime he claims to have given.)

“If you don’t fire the coach, you will be personally responsible for my death.”

These are not the usual feelings, but I will take negative feelings over no feelings at all. As long as alumni are engaged, they care, and as long as they care, there is a chance that they will find positive engagement with some part of the university.

I know that the world of college sports is getting financially and administratively challenging.  Many institutions are questioning the value of having a major sports program at all. Some of them may decide not to have one in future.

Phi Slama Jama

Phi Slama Jama

For the University of Houston, we find a historical need and a valuable impact of college sports on educational experience. Our alumni are still inspired by the magic of Phi Slama Jama, the glitter of Olympic gold decorating Carl Lewis, and the weight of Heisman Trophy in the hands of Andre Ware. They are part of our tradition but they are also part of our identity and pride.

Legendary Coach Lewis

Legendary Coach Lewis

 

We cherish our student athletes and will keep on working hard to make it a positive learning environment for them. We also treasure our alumni and will continue to find ways to make them proud of their university.

 

 

Oooops…I lost track of time. It is time for me to take our delegation members to the baseball game. Go Coogs!

 

Let’s change our attitude…

[Below is a piece by me recently published in the most recent issue of Presidential Perspectives]

Although it has been nearly a half century since Alvin Toffler’s seminal book Future Shock warned us about being under-prepared and overwhelmed by “too much change in too short a period of time,” that cautionary advice remains useful and instructional, especially in our field of higher education. To revise philosopher George Santayana’s famous observation about the past, those who do not create the future are doomed to resent it.

Clearly, disruptive transformations are already underway or looming on the near horizon – a few seem to be fairly predictable, but many (by their very nature) are not. Our academic journals and scholarly publications have been filled with the challenges that currently confront higher education. There is no need to belabor them in detail. It is a litany that most of us know too well:

  • Rising tuition costs, significant student debt and declining government support
  • The growing impact of MOOCs and other technological advances on traditional educational models, offering the apparent advantages of low-cost delivery but (so far) lacking any widespread validation through measurement of learning
  • Increased scrutiny and demands from the public and policymakers about graduation rates, economic outcomes of our students and the mismatch of degrees and actual skill sets needed for employment
  • Expanding globalization that exacerbates the market demand for intellectual resources (faculty and researchers) while the supply side is lagging

As we grapple with these transformational factors, it is difficult to know how best to react. Race ahead and confront them aggressively? Wait for the smoke to clear and proceed cautiously? Succumb to paralysis by analysis?

While we are optimistically reminded that the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of the two ideograms “danger” and “opportunity,” it is the positive side of human nature that encourages us to focus on the latter and downplay the former. But, in truth, they are equally pertinent when it comes to the future of higher education. These are exciting times, but they are also unsettling times. I cannot casually declare that every one of these problems before us can be solved at our respective institutions by keen analysis, dedicated leadership and a slew of highly paid outside consultants.

Some – possibly many – of these gathering clouds are going to rain down on us and most of us will be getting wet, to one degree or another. Clayton Christensen, the noted Harvard Business School professor credited with popularizing the notion of “disruptive innovation/technologies,” has dramatically projected that in the next five years higher education will be in “real trouble” and within the next 15 years, more than half of our American universities will be facing bankruptcy.

Unduly pessimistic? Even alarmist? Quite possibly. And there is always the possibility that we may be placing too much emphasis on Professor Christensen’s “disruptive” predictions. Then again, it is difficult for anyone to present a convincing case that higher education is well positioned to face the disruptive challenges that are at its gates. Many of us in leadership have, I suspect, quietly wondered in our darker moments if we are now selling the educational equivalent of buggy whips?

I would like to offer a modest shift in our mindset that can serve us well during this period of higher anxiety in higher education. If it is not a solution, but it can serve as a remedy and help insulate us from that future shock of mounting challenges, escalating changes and sweeping transformations.

No, it is not a novel way to generate additional revenues, or a startling procedure to improve graduation rates by 20 percent in a single semester. It is an adjustment in attitude.

Can we adjust our attitude in a way that will help us become more innovative?

I sincerely believe that we can. Further, I would suggest that attitude may be one of the most valuable tools with which we have to work. Our attitude plays a significant role in determining how we react, how we respond and, ultimately, whether we prevail.

Let me begin by pointing out what our attitude should NOT be – that is, four possible reactions that I have observed in too many of my colleagues (and, occasionally, in myself) when it comes to these challenges:

  1. Ignorance – This is exemplified in the phrase “When did that happen!?” It is rooted in the premise that everything is moving too fast now, and it’s all too complicated to deal with. Yes, it is fast and complicated. But we are smart and resourceful. If we are unaware of these things, it is because we choose to be. Let’s keep up
  2. Arrogance – “We have been doing this our way a long time, and we know best.” It is the very nature of disruptive innovation that not only do we NOT know best, we likely don’t know at all until it happens. Let’s keep that in mind.
  3. Victimization – “Why are they doing this to us?” This is not paranoia – these transformations are not imagined – but they are not personal and hand-wringing won’t change them. Let’s keep our perspective.
  4. Panic – “We HAVE to do something! Anything! And quickly!” Unfortunately, the “something” often turns out to be building another climbing wall in the Rec Center or adding a degree in Game of Thrones that students can earn on their smart phones. Let’s keep calm.

Those are exaggerations, of course. But they do reflect the potential pitfalls awaiting us when we under- or over-react.

Instead, we must move toward a higher-education version of Reinhold Niebuhr’s celebrated “Serenity Prayer.” In our case, the revised mantra might be:

Grant us the serenity to accept the disruptions we cannot change,
The courage to improve the things that we can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

That will provide the stability to endure what must be endured and, when necessary, the impetus to move ahead with conviction and creativity.

The good news underlying all this apprehension about changes and transformation is that none of these issues – current or predicted – appears to find serious fault with the intrinsic value of higher education. Instead, these are shortcomings of the delivery system, cost of the business model, pedagogical method, output and outcomes. In that respect, it is not the noun higher education that is under fire but the verb – how we are educating.

So, as we confidently recite our Serenity Prayer and move forward, what direction do we head?
I believe our core mission should serve as the guiding light.

Make no mistake, the core mission is not what we would like to do or even what we hope to become. The core mission is what we are obligated to do to remain relevant to the community and our stakeholders, whether that is developing a workforce, creating intellectual capital, engaging with the community directly or any of the various combinations of those enterprises.

Today, we have about 5,000 institutions of higher learning and, in my experience, far too many of them are ambitiously envisioning a different future than their current reality. Two-year community colleges want to become degree-granting four-year schools. Four-year schools want to add graduate programs. Teaching-based colleges want to expand into research institutions. Research institutions are striving to achieve Tier One status. Basically, who we want to be appears to be different than who we are. This continuing and widespread drift away from the core mission is troubling. Clearly, a university cannot be all things to all people, but many continue to try.

We must always take a long, hard look at what we are doing and evaluate what our real-world options are, but we must do so while remaining totally committed to the core mission. That commitment is not an excuse to avoid changing. The core mission remains constant, but the manner and methods we use to achieve it may change.

Change is the one constant in this equation. No one is entirely sure what these changes will be and what they will bring. But one thing feels certain – higher education tomorrow will not look like it does today. As educators and leaders, we have an obligation to be as effective as we can be right now, but we have an even greater responsibility to look ahead and be prepared. So, it is absolutely crucial for an institution to know, first, what its core mission is and, second, what its particular value is within the overall educational framework. Those who do will persevere. But if the answer to either question is not crystal clear, it will take much more than an attitude change to help.

Dogs, donkeys and leadership lessons

Many years ago, I read a story.  It was a silly story, but one that left an impression on me.  I still remember it, although I have forgotten the author or where I read it.  It goes like this…

There was once a poor farmer who had a donkey and a dog.  One night, when the whole world was sleeping, a thief broke into the farmer’s hut. The farmer was fast asleep, but the donkey and the dog were awake.  The dog decided not to bark and teach the farmer a lesson, since he thought the farmer did not take good care of him.

The donkey, however, got worried, and told the dog that if he didn’t bark to warn the farmer, that he, the donkey, would have to warn the farmer himself. The dog did not change his mind, so the donkey started braying loudly. Hearing the donkey bray, the thief ran away.  The farmer woke up and started beating the donkey for braying in the middle of the night for no reason.  The donkey felt hurt and started thinking about looking for a new job.

[Lesson 1: Trust and respect donkeys]

The next morning, the farmer did some fact finding and figured out that a thief had broken in and that the donkey had brayed only to alert him about it.  Looking at the donkey’s willingness to go over and beyond the call of duty, he rewarded him with lots of hay and other perks, and made him his favorite pet.  The donkey was very happy and decided to stay around.

[Lesson 2: Recognize and reward donkeys]

Meanwhile, the dog’s life did not change much, except that now the donkey was motivated to do the dog’s duties in addition to his own.  Soon, the dog realized that the donkey was doing both of their jobs, so he felt freer to sleep, hang out, and be lazy. In their “annual appraisal” by the farmer, the dog barely managed to get a “satisfactory.”   The donkey, on the other hand, was rated a “star performer” and given the maximum raise.

Soon, however, the donkey found himself over-burdened with work and over-stressed with pressure.  In order for the unit to do well, he was always doing the job of two, so he quit.

[Lesson 3: In order to keep your donkeys, deal with the dogs]

I would love to hear what you think of the story and its lessons.  Do you think every organization has donkeys and dogs?  How would you have dealt with the situation if you were the farmer?

Let small things remain small…

It was one of those mornings. Nothing was going right. The house alarm went off at 4 a.m. It was a false alarm, of course, but enough to disrupt my sleep. After tossing and turning for some time, I decided to get up and start my yoga instead.

I was locked in a shoulder stand – a routine pose – when I felt the sudden snap. Oh no, I had pulled a muscle! I tried to nurse it, but could feel the tension rising in the upper back, so I popped two Advils in my mouth and started to get ready for office.

Sitting in my car, I tilted my mug to take the first sip and … too late! The lid was loose and the boiling hot tea came pouring down my suit without mercy. I had no choice but to go back in the house and change the suit (which, as other women can understand, meant changing the jewelry and shoes as well).

I arrived late in office only to learn that $20 million of our University’s funding had disappeared in the proposed state budget. “This can’t be true?” I asked in despair.

Within hours came more bad news – the campus had experienced two separate cases of robbery. Thank goodness no one was seriously injured, and the losses were limited to a couple of cell phones, a lap top and a book bag.  Although police later arrested suspects, initial news of the robberies spread alarm across campus.

It was only 11:30 a.m., and I had just about had it. The day was turning out to be bad. Since this was Monday, the rest of the week was not looking promising either.  I was found myself deep in the feeling of “Oh, poor me!”

Little did I know that the most crucial hour of the day was yet to unfold.

The next event on my schedule was a luncheon in honor of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which gives out more than 200 scholarships to our qualified students each year. The lunch was our way of thanking the Rodeo Board for their generosity and giving them an opportunity to meet with these Rodeo scholars.

After I gave my greetings (the usual stuff) and guests finished their meal, Veronica, a scholarship recipient, took the stage to express her gratitude on behalf of all the recipients. She began her story…

“My name is Veronica, and I am honored to share my story today. I had a mother who didn’t care and a father who cared but had his own problems. When I was in the 3rd grade, my father was sent to prison for two years. When I was in the 4th grade, my mother left me and my siblings. The two older children were sent to their own father, my youngest sister went to live with our godparents, my younger brother was left with our mother, and my little sister and me were sent to Houston to live with my dad’s brother and his wife.

“My aunt and uncle would take us to see our father, and each time the tears fell. Every letter we read, tears poured down and every letter we wrote, we cried a river. Over the next year, my life changed many times.

“I was back living with my father. We lived in an abandoned trailer full of holes. We had to watch our feet because nails were everywhere, and the roof leaked all the time. But it did not matter to me because I believed my dad would never leave us like mom did.

“We all knew our dad wasn’t in the best of health – he was overweight, had high blood pressure, and one main concern: epilepsy. We never had enough money to buy medications, but we were lucky that his seizures seem to happen while he was already laying down in bed. But everything changed on June 10, 2008.

“Dad was taking me and my two sisters to our very first dentist appointment. Everything was normal until I woke up in a hospital not knowing why the nurse was stitching my arm and putting a bandage on it, why I had staples in the back of my head or how my back was paralyzed from shock.

“You see, when we were going home from our dentist appointment, our dad had a seizure less than a mile from our home, which took his life immediately. Even today I do not remember what happened. 

“After the car accident I couldn’t bear riding in a car. I would grip on to the handle at only 30 mph.”

Veronica was still speaking, but the room had fallen silent. No one was moving, and no eyes were dry. As incredible as the story was, what was more incredible was to watch Veronica tell her story … no quivering of lips, no tearing of eyes, and no breaking of voice! She was calm and confident. Years of turmoil and emotional havoc had made her mature beyond her age.

We learned that the care of Veronica was permanently handed over to her father’s brother who lived in Houston when she was in the 10th grade. Two years later, she graduated in the top three percent of her class. Her achievements won her a Rodeo scholarship, and that is how she landed at the University of Houston, majoring in accounting.

Veronica concluded her story…

“Today I wanted to share my story about all the possibilities in this world.  I know some people may have it harder than me, but I believe that bad times are temporary. My advice is – don’t drown in your emotions. You are supposed to kick your feet and keep swimming toward the horizon. Reach for the stars and build a constellation. Many times I wanted to give up, but with a little hope, I chose to be happy with my life and my choices.”

As everyone clapped, I did too … but my head hung low.

Bad day?  What bad day? What Poor Me?

Veronica had a choice. I have a choice. We all have a choice…The choice to kick our feet…to swim toward the horizon…to reach for the stars.

But we can do that only if we let small things in life remain small.

Dreaming on the Coast of Caspian Sea…

The Caspian Sea is an enigma. Technically, it should be called a lake because it is an inland body of water, but then it is not really a lake because the water is saline, and the size is much too large for a lake.

As a political scientist, I am fascinated by the Caspian Sea because of its geopolitical importance. Inhabitants of its shores – Russians, Azerbaijanis, Iranians, Kazakhstanis and Turkmenistanis—make it an intriguing yet complex region to grasp.

Meeting in Baku

Meeting in Baku

When I received an invitation from the Baku Higher Oil School, a subsidiary of SOCAR (State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic), to establish a partnership in petroleum training, I accepted it. My university colleagues and I arrived in Baku in the middle of the night (1:40 a.m. to be precise), we were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a welcoming committee led by the Vice Rector of the University. I knew immediately that this trip was going to be anything but ordinary. Sure enough, for the next four days we were escorted, educated and entertained by the University Rector himself, who took great pride in his institution and even greater pride in his country.

Our busy days began at 8 a.m. (we were supposed to have already had breakfast by then) and lasted until midnight. We visited five universities, hundreds of students, dozens of faculty, countless administrators and quite a few civic and political leaders. In between our scheduled visits, we found time to visit four museums, an ancient temple, a mosque, Hayder Aliyev Hall, Martyrs Lane, old town and a modern day marvel, the Flame Towers. Of course, we did not have to make any effort to see oil rigs; they were everywhere.

A view from street in Baku

A view from street in Baku

As interesting and enlightening as all that was, it was enough to tell only half of the Azerbaijani story.  I put together the other half by wandering aimlessly around town and having casual conversations with natives, even if mostly by hand gestures (I realized that my Urdu vocabulary gave me at least 100 words of local language).

My eyes constantly searched for the real Baku, the real Azerbaijan. And in this search, I noticed many things.

I noticed elderly couples holding hands and walking in the tranquility of a very cold night, their faces showing traces of life lived but also anticipation for the life yet to be lived.  I noticed young couples completely oblivious of the world around them walking in piazzas when the clock signaled midnight. I noticed groups of women laughing openly and telling tales under the moonlit sky in public parks. And I noticed young men humming American pop tunes walking out of an Italian restaurant.

Life was just what it is supposed to be – jubilant, progressive and upbeat. Baku could have been any city in Europe.

Our hosts took great pains in telling us how free and strong Azeri women were, and I listened politely. But, I had to see it myself. And I saw women—young and not-so-young—flashing latest Western fashions in clothes, shoes and hair styles. To see traditional Azeri dresses, I was advised to head to a museum. I also noticed male colleagues giving due respect to their female counterparts, not only in universities but also in private companies. In the largest and oldest university, Baku State University, more than 60 percent of the students are women. The young woman who asked the first question after my remarks at Baku Higher Oil School left me speechless.  She said, “Obviously you are not stopping where you are, so what is next in your life?” Her question was more telling of her own horizons than of mine.

Knowing that 93 percent of the people in Azerbaijan are Muslims, I purposefully searched for mosque towers. However, there were more temples of knowledge—colleges and universities – than mosques. While people talked openly about the oppressions of the Soviet era, I was also proudly shown the new campus of Moscow State University, which had only recently opened (2008!). One of my colleagues asked an administrator, “You decry the Soviet domination, and yet you have a new university that could be a reminder of that history. Why?” The response from her came without pause:  “Moscow State University has been a home to world’s greatest scholars…that is what we see in this name, not the memories of oppression.”

Cougars in Baku

Cougars in Baku

Baku became a sister city of Houston in 1976. I am convinced that it was not a coincident. The two share the same spirit of entrepreneurship and optimism. At night, Baku felt like another Dubai in the making – glitzy, vibrant and bold! During the day, it was obsessed with turning its black gold (oil) into human gold while it can. Baku understands that oil won’t last forever, but people’s spirit will.

Anyone keeping up with the news in the Caspian region knows that there are serious challenges there and uneasy issues in Azerbaijan.  But that is a subject for a different debate, a different discussion.

For now, let us acknowledge that beyond all political conflicts, economic systems, social preferences and religious doctrines, Azerbaijanis are dreaming their future and, just like the enigmatic Caspian Sea, they are not allowing their aspirations to be minimized by the categories and definitions imposed on them by others.

So, I offer a toast to the people of Azerbaijan and to their dreams in the making!

[PS: We signed two bilateral agreements and one trilateral agreement with universities in Baku, Azerbaijan.)

MOU Signing

MOU Signing

In humility lies the real strength…

I was traveling back from Austin on Southwest Airlines.  Since I had to change my flight at the last minute, it was clear I would have to settle for a seat in the middle.  So, as soon as I saw one empty in the front row, I claimed it.

I was still searching for my seat belt when the passenger to my left (let’s call him Mr. Left) complained, “Don’t you just hate traveling like this? I always travel Business Class.”

“At least, it is a short flight,” I said, trying to dismiss his negativity.

“I am CEO of my company.  How am I supposed to explain this to my staff?”  He was fidgeting in his seat. I looked out the window. Now I noticed the passenger to my right (Let’s call him Mr. Right) who was happily settled in his seat reading a newspaper.

In a few minutes, Mr. Left started again. “Do you live in Houston?  I live in Santa Barbara. I would rather be there.”

“Yes, I live in Houston – and I love it.” I had to defend my city.

“What else can you say if you have to live here?”  He mocked me.  Helplessly, I glanced to my right.  Mr. Right smiled politely, bent toward me and said very softly, “Do you want to switch seats?”

“Thank you, but I am OK.” I was surprised Mr. Right was willing to trade his window seat with me.

Three minutes passed and Mr. Left started again. “What do you do? Do you work?”

“I work at the University of Houston.”  I was irritated that he didn’t notice my bold UH pin.

“Don’t know much about it… I was admitted to Stanford.” I wanted to punch him, but kept my hands in my lap.

“What did you study at Stanford?” I was curious because I know they don’t offer a degree in stupidity.

“Well, I went to a community college, but Stanford really wanted me. I make so much money now anyway—who cares about Stanford?”  I sighed and thought to myself, “Oh, this is going to be a long flight!”

“Do you know how much money I made last year?  I can buy a Ferrari if I want to.” He was trying to impress a total stranger.

At this time, Mr. Right got up from his seat and said to me, “I insist you take this window seat.  You can use some rest.”

The force in his voice made me get up and do as told.  The rest of the journey was uneventful, at least for me.  While leaving the plane, I thanked Mr. Right. It was then that he handed me his business card and said, “It was the least I could do, Dr. Khator. Thank you for all that you do for our state.”

Do I know him?  I read the card, blinked my eyes and read it again carefully.  Then I realized I was sitting next to a real success story! I wanted to say something, but he was already 10 steps ahead of me.  Obviously, he did not need any affirmation of his success from anyone.

“What a difference!” I thought to myself.  Are these two individuals different because how successful (or unsuccessful) they are or because of who they are as individuals? One was clearly in desperate need of recognition from others, and the other was solid as a rock, full of inner strength. One so arrogant, the other so humble!

Humility is, I believe, a reflection of an inner strength that is neither an art nor an acquired skill.  It is a deposit, built up layer by layer over time. Only genuinely successful people can afford to develop this deposit because they don’t have to spend their time and energy pretending to be who they are not and protecting the thing they don’t have.

Humility is a precious thing, and I see it in action every day on my campus: faculty members engaging a class of 500 students with as much ease as talking with a friend over lunch; vice presidents serving pancakes at 11 p.m. to students during Finals week;  managers picking up dirty plates to ensure seats are available for students waiting in line;  staff members standing under the blazing sun offering water bottles to students on the first day of classes; and students with perfect GPAs helping their peers who have panicked just before the major exam.

On the drive from airport, I was reminded of a verse from an Urdu poem, one of my all-time favorites.

“Khuda humko aisi khudai na de

Ki khud ke bina kuchh dikhai na de.”

Simply put, that means: “God, give me success, but never let success make me forget the existence of others around me.”

As you begin the New Year, may you be blessed with the gift of humility!

Dreams have power…hang on to them!

During the first week of Fall Semester, I visited 17 classes in the hope of reaching out to freshmen in a more personal way, welcoming them and letting them know the university is vested in their success. I gave them the reasons why students drop out and why it is important to adopt good learning habits now.

Since all the visits took place over a two-day period, naturally I was exhausted.

But then I started to receive emails from students, some pledging to persevere and complete college and others simply saying how inspired they felt. With each one, I felt less and less tired. And then I received an email from LeeAnne Beckham Carlson (produced verbatim below), which dissolved all my exhaustion.

A dream in the making

“Yesterday you spoke for a few minutes to the students in PHAR 2362, Principles of Drug Action. I was in the audience and I would like to share my story with you.

You spoke about the factors that contribute to academic success. Thirty years ago to the very day that you spoke to my class, I was starting at UH as a freshman straight out of high school. I did not have much in the way of family support, and I was largely unfocused and without direction as well as not yet having been diagnosed as having ADHD. I did become involved on campus, joining the Cougar Guard and taking care of Shasta V. I met my husband in the Cougar Guard, and we married at the end of my freshman year.

I was also under academic suspension at the end of my freshman year.

I did plan to return, but as you noted yesterday, one semester turns into two, which turns into years.

My husband finished his degree at UH. We had children – twelve of them. We have homeschooled all of them. I had a career as a midwife, delivering hundreds of babies. We built a successful family business. I have, by no means, lived a life of failure.

One thing, however, was unfinished – my degree. In April of this year, a family decision was made that I would return to school. Although we now live closer to Texas A&M and Sam Houston State University, there was never a doubt in my mind that I wanted to finish where I began – at the University of Houston.

Going through the process to be readmitted took several months. I have met with my academic advisor as well as with the CLASS Dean’s Office. I was given a series of required steps, including meeting with a counselor at Learning Support Services as well as with a career counselor, which I have completed. I have several more required workshops and counseling meetings to attend as well as meeting with the Dean’s Office again in October. Technically, thanks to the three courses that I took over the summer at the local community college (getting an A in each one of them), I will no longer be on Academic Probation by the end of this semester. I will continue to utilize the support services available to me as a student. I firmly believe that had these services been available to me thirty years ago, I might not have failed in my first attempt as a college student.

This time, I will succeed. My sights are set on graduate school, also at UH, in Creative Writing. My children (ages 4 to 26) are watching. My husband is my biggest supporter. This family support combined with the support systems now available at the University leave me with no doubt that this time I will finish what I began thirty years ago. A thirty-three year graduation plan may be unorthodox, but it is my plan and I am proud to be making the plan as a Cougar.”

LeeAnne, we are proud of you. I know you will succeed and because of you, the University of Houston will succeed.

Dreams have power. They can make us do things we don’t think possible. Hang on to them!

What keeps me up at night?

Almost every time I speak at any workshop on higher education leadership, I am asked, “What keeps you awake at night?”

While the question is anticipated, I always pause before answering. I could easily say that finding a way to prepare the underserved population for tomorrow’s social and economic needs worries me the most. We have yet to close the achievement gaps of our Hispanic and African American students and, without their full participation in the workforce, we have no hope of keeping America competitive.

Or I could point to the financial model of higher education, which, to say the least, is unsustainable. According to a Chronicle of Higher Education survey, 400 small private colleges and regional public colleges failed to meet their financial bottom line last year as their enrollment dropped or tuition collection declined.

I could call attention to the various disruptive technologies, like MOOCS, that are knocking loudly on our universities’ doors and demanding serious consideration. While no single force has offered a viable alternative to the traditional university model, their collective impact is surely about to change the higher education landscape forever. Preparing my institution for the turbulent waters ahead is certainly something worth losing a night’s sleep over.

Or, finally, I could cite the increasing burden of federal regulations or court rulings that, as well intentioned as they may be, are reshaping the scope of our mission.

In reality, each one of these issues is more than sufficient to keep any university president up at night. But there is one that worries me the most – and it concerns losing our ability to assemble the world’s best talent.

Generally speaking, there are two types of universities. One has as its primary purpose providing access to higher education at an affordable cost. These institutions are fundamental to our survival. But then there are also those universities that are the repositories of the world’s best talent – people who are obsessed with breaking boundaries, expanding horizons and seeking knowledge. No, I am not talking about sponsored research or writing books. I am talking about those academic Olympians for whom research and discovery are as natural as breathing. They are motivated by their passion and rewarded by their own work. They live for the “Eureka!” moment.

Today, America is the breeding ground for these passionate innovators from all around the world. They come here because American universities provide them the best environment in which to practice their discipline and satisfy their craving for inquiry and examination. To these people, the most important thing is the supportive system, one which provides the tools of exploration and the teams of similar-minded people. They will travel far and live where little is familiar to them just as long as they get the opportunity to pursue their passion.

When Asian universities were at their pinnacle several centuries ago, it was because they had succeeded in creating that magical environment and assembling that talent. Indian Vedic scriptures written thousands of years ago include the mention of such scholars and disciples travelling from all around the world to gather in scholarly communities. Similarly, European universities reached their zenith because they were able to attract the best talent from every continent.

For decades now, America has enjoyed that coveted position in the world. People leave the comfort of their language and food and family to cast their lot with American universities, first as graduate students and then as professors. The fire of intellectual curiosity burns in their bellies. They have given America the edge that at one point in time Asia and Europe previously enjoyed.

Are we at risk of losing that preeminence? What would it take for these Olympian academics from other countries to pack their bags and move on in search of another place that provides that enabling environment? What might turn the tide?

Facilities? No, because many countries today have far better laboratories than any university in America can provide.

Money? No, because many countries can provide far more discretionary funding than we can.

In reality, it is primarily the guarantee of having similar-minded, similarly-dedicated people that keeps these exceptional scholars and researchers here in America. If any other nation becomes able to attract enough of these gifted and driven people – to provide a similar guarantee, as it were – the trend could reverse. These dedicated discoverers of knowledge will move on to wherever they find the best tools and teams to quench their thirst.

All research is not same. All researchers are not same. All discoveries are not same. So, you ask, what keeps me up at night? Thinking about how we can continue to nurture those who are so productively consumed by intellectual curiosity. As long as we have the best talent here, I am convinced we can find solutions to everything else. Holding on to that talent is crucial … and we better not doze off.