Leaders are tested before being accepted

“Seriously? Two hours before commencement?? Again this year???” I posted on Twitter last Saturday, airing my frustration with the sudden turn of the weather. It was thundering hard with constant bolts of lightning striking even harder.

A similar downpour had dampened the first university-wide commencement ceremony last year featuring the actor Matthew McConaughey as our graduation speaker.

Hoping for the best, I took my fancy academic regalia and headed to the campus. I stood at the balcony of the football stadium admiring the pristine lines of white chairs ready for the graduates. But all were empty. I could see that some guests had already started to assemble under the covered areas of the stadium. Nearly 20,000 tickets had been claimed for the event!

It was 40 minutes to starting time when the UH Emergency Team called me to recommend that the ceremony be cancelled. “It was too dangerous for people to be on the road,” the team had concluded based on the countless weather briefings.

“But what about the hundreds of people who are already here?” I challenged the recommendation. I mulled it over for a few minutes and then decided to over-rule it.

“UH commencement moved from TDECU to basketball arena to respect those who are already here or in transit. Scott Kelly will speak.” I sent out another tweet.

The basketball arena was not ready. There was no PA system, no flowers and no music. With utmost urgency, the staff heroically relocated the event to its new venue. In the end, the event turned out beautifully with more than 5,000 in attendance. Our commencement speaker, the former astronaut Captain Scott Kelly, was genuine and inspiring. No one could tell that we pulled it off without a backup plan. After all, until that morning the weather was predicted to be “beautiful with light afternoon showers.”

I’m thankful my decision turned out to be the right one. I recalled a time eight years ago when a similar decision was not so accurate. I was in my first year of the presidency, in 2008, and we were facing the harrowing arrival of Hurricane Ike. The UH Emergency Team recommended campus closure, and I accepted that decision without hesitation.

Wortham House after Hurricane Ike

Wortham House after Hurricane Ike

Even though Houston was spared the worst of the hurricane, the impact of high winds and rains crippled the city for weeks. A few days later, upon the recommendation of the UH Emergency Team, I reopened the campus but only partially. While campus buildings were open, the decision to hold classes was left to the discretion of individual faculty members. It seemed like the right decision at the time.

However, the coming days would prove otherwise. I had come from Florida having weathered four hurricanes and had assumed that the stormy situation would be the same in Houston. But two cultural contexts are never the same. Our routine emergency systems in place for automatic calls and texts did not work, for less than one-third of the people had subscribed to it. Even if they had, there was no electricity for them to charge their phones or laptops to receive texts or emails anyway. Roads had been cleared, but people were unable to travel because stations could not pump gas without electricity.

Wortham House after Hurricane Ike

Wortham House after Hurricane Ike

My communications team was scattered and mostly immobilized. Many team members had suffered serious damage to their homes and cars. I moved my operations into the garage, the only room in the house with a small generator. It was also a challenging time at the personal level. Several members of my family were traveling from India to attend my investiture, unfortunately scheduled during the same week, and were now stranded in several cities across America.

During the day, I was on the campus checking up on residential students and helping faculty/staff organize the delivery of food to people in need. During the night, I was up feverishly answering emails from frustrated faculty and students.

It was a tough week. The only silver lining was that our campus was relatively functional with electricity and running water and therefore, we, the University of Houston, could serve as the largest point of food distribution for the city, helping thousands of people every day.

The following week proved to be as difficult albeit in a different way. Classes resumed and staff returned, but by now the “premature opening of the campus” had become the magnet drawing all the negative attention. Amid all this, the Faculty Senate called for an open meeting to discuss the decision. An agenda had been carefully crafted with the help of the provost to lay out the questions and expected answers.

I recall the hall being packed for the meeting. My cabinet members were seated in front, directly facing the audience. The agenda required each one of them to explain his or her role in the emergency management process in general, but also in the decision to reopen the campus in particular.

When called to speak, I took the microphone and, on the spur of the moment, decided to abandon my prepared remarks and open the meeting instead by saying, “I am the president and as president, I take full responsibility for the decision to reopen the campus irrespective of who advised me what, how and why.” Instead of following the agenda and asking my vice presidents to explain their respective roles, I turned to the audience and invited them to share their feelings and frustrations. To me, honoring their presence by listening to them seemed more important than defending our position and reliving a decision of the past.

After one or two angry speeches, the meeting turned reflective and introspective. Many people spoke about the wonderful ways in which people had helped the community, their neighbors and each other. Some even expressed their gratitude for opening the campus early, for they were able to get hot meals and cool off in air-conditioned rooms. The meeting turned out to be a good healing point.

Even though my investiture was postponed until six weeks later, I feel that I was tested and accepted as a leader during that one week. It was the turning point where “Khator, the president appointed by the Board of Regents” became “Khator, the colleague we could share with and have respect for.”

Very often, newly appointed university presidents ask me how long does it take to become one of “them.” And in return I always ask, “Have you passed your leadership test yet?” Because I know that such a test, even though unpredictable, is inevitable.

It is one thing to be appointed as a leader; it is quite another to be accepted as one after going through a shared experience, exposing your flaws, accepting your failures, coming out holding hands, and ultimately earning your colleagues’ trust.


As if someone had just opened a window…

Earlier this month while going through the daily ritual of reading my mail, I found a brown campus envelope. Inside was a book titled Before We Visit the Goddess, by Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni. As I held the book in my hands, I felt the sudden gush of cool air, as if someone had just opened a window. The feeling was familiar, for I have known it since my childhood.

Growing up in a small town in India without television or the Internet, I had limited opportunities for exposure to the outside world. Books and magazines, carefully selected and mail-ordered by my parents, were the only introduction to the magical world that lay outside 3-mile radius of our town. Each month, I waited eagerly for the arrival of the postman who brought these books neatly wrapped in brown envelopes. The time between these deliveries was filled in by magazines, unceremoniously slipped through the crack in the door by the newspaper delivery man.

As much as I loved magazines, the books brought me the most joy. Stories, poems, novels—I read them all and then reread them until the characters became a part of my world. I remember tearing open the envelopes, holding the books in my hands, staring at the covers and feeling lost in anticipation of what lay inside. The sensation was … exhilarating. Every time, it was like the gush of cool air as if someone had just opened a window.

Those books were my window to the world, a world that was outside of my reach, a world that was more a mystery than reality to me, but a world I very much wanted to be a part of.

Now, standing in my office and holding the proof copy of Chitra’s latest novel, I was feeling the same exhilaration. As an avid reader of fiction written by Indian-American authors, I have followed Chitra’s writings since 1995 when her first collection of short stories, Arranged Marriages, was published. I knew Chitra before she ever knew me.

Almost nine years ago, I received my first correspondence from Chitra. I had just been appointed president of the University of Houston and was taking a few weeks off before formally undertaking the new position. In preparation for the impending leisure travel, I stopped by at the neighborhood bookstore and picked up two of Chitra’s novels. What better time to indulge in some good literature.

The next morning when I turned on my computer, the name “Divakaruni” flashed in my email inbox. I stared in disbelief. I knew no other Divakaruni and Chitra had no reason to know me. So who is this email from? I eagerly opened it.  

It was indeed from the one and only Chitra Divakaruni, congratulating me on my new position. She introduced herself as one of the professors in the famous Creative Writing program at the University of Houston. I remember calling my husband and telling him that it looks like the job has come with more perks than I had negotiated for.

For the past eight years, I have enjoyed Chitra’s writings with additional familiarity. Chitra’s characters either live in India or have migrated from India and have the power to take me on journeys that are familiar and unpredictable at the same time. Her characters are easy to like—they are Indians…they are women…and they are strong!  

Before We Visit the Goddess is a multigenerational story of women in an Indian family. Sabitri, the grandmother, lives in India keenly aware of the many miles that separate her from her family in America. Bela, the mother, migrates to America under dubious circumstances and experiences the hardships most Indians coming to America to study or work are unfamiliar with. Tara, the daughter, is born and brought up in America and faces all the confusion that can surround the first generation of Indian-Americans. All three experience the complex emotions of “falling in love” and “falling out of love” with equal intensity and pain. All three lean on someone – someone outside the family – during tough times, but in the end each one discovers her own unique identity, an identity that is hers and hers alone.

What a powerful piece of literature from a wonderfully humble author! And she is part of our family, a member of the University of Houston faculty! Our Creative Writing Program is one of the best in the nation, and we know why.

Chitra has won multiple awards for her work and each one is a tribute to her extraordinary talent. But for me, she is a friend and an author whose books continue to open a window to the world, except now the world I see is the world that I have left behind, a world that remains as real as my own identity. And that sense of exhilaration remains as strong as ever.

The best diamond necklace I ever had…

…was the one I never saw.

Last month, my husband, Suresh, and I found ourselves at a fundraising charity gala. As the keynote speaker, I was particularly busy exchanging greetings, shaking hands and returning smiles – so I never made it to the auction table. I do so many of these galas that they often become just one more night to support a good cause.

But not this one!

As the announcer pleaded for people to purchase raffle tickets, I nudged Suresh to buy one. He made some small talk to the woman selling the tickets, took a look at the diamond necklace up for raffle, and handed her money for five tickets (obviously, he became enamored either with the seller or the necklace).

When the raffle time came, I saw Suresh in somewhat of a panic.

“Oh, where did I put those tickets?” he said, mumbling and searching frantically in his pockets. He pulled out my lipstick from one pocket and my cellphone from the other but no sign of tickets. Finally, he gave up, “I think I lost them. Well, I have never won anything anyway.” But at the last minute as the winning ticket was being drawn out of the jar, Suresh found his tickets neatly tucked inside his program.

2…1…8…7…6…9…9”…came the announcement followed by the loudest gasp I ever heard.

Suresh was instantly up on his feet, “It is me…my number…I never win anything.” Amid all the applause, he walked proudly to the stage to receive his sparkling prize. With the winning grin, he held the box containing the diamond necklace in his hands, admired it for a few seconds and then turned his head and looked at me. I was shaking my head in disbelief.

The next thing the audience heard on the microphone was Suresh’s voice, “My wife does not need diamonds so I would like to auction it off to raise more funds for the gala.” (While his statement about my not needing diamonds was certainly true, it would have been a lie had he declared, “My wife does not LIKE diamonds!”)

Suresh’s offer brought long, loud applause then the announcer turned into an impromptu auctioneer. Hands went up quickly, for there were a number of really generous people in the audience. At the end, the necklace raised more funds than its stated value. Suresh graciously handed over the necklace to the highest bidder and returned to his seat so incredibly happy.

He bent over and said softly in my ear, “You like to wear that UH championship pendant anyway, and I like you in that.” We both smiled.

This was another example why I believe that “Behind every successful woman is a SECURE man!” It may be her father, brother, husband, son or friend…but whoever he is, he has the inner strength to believe in her, to support her dreams with rock-solid confidence and to lift her spirits with just the right words. Here is to those men in our lives!!

Behind the Scene: The Republican Primary Debate

On Thursday, the Republican presidential candidates’ debate will air from the beautiful campus of the University of Houston. And yes, we are excited. The campus is already buzzing with excitement and activity. As I walked around the campus Monday, visiting the debate hall, the media center and the operations room, it reminded me of Indian weddings. With trucks pulling in, boxes lined up the walls, people rushing from one room to another and temporary tents getting secured on lawns, it felt festive and chaotic at the same time.

I kept checking nervously with my staff as well as those from CNN and RNC, “Is everything under control?” And yet, I knew that like all Indian weddings, everything will pull in at the last minute making it a perfect production.

It was less than three weeks ago that we got the final go ahead from our partners—RNC, CNN and Telemundo. Yes, just three weeks ago! But kudos to our UH team who took the challenge and are now driving it to a new level. Our faculty and staff are busy coordinating the logistics and supporting the event, but most importantly, they are busy ensuring that this event and everything surrounding it turns out to be a rich learning experience for our students.

We knew that tickets will be limited, but “25” was a much lower number than I was ready to hear. Even though we gave a portion to the tickets to students/faculty/staff for random drawing, it barely made a dent in the demand. So we had to think of every possible way to get people engaged and involved.

Yesterday, our faculty participated in multiple academic panels and debated a wide variety of topics from political philosophies to the United States Justice System to civic engagement. On Thursday, there will be a forum with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and a watch party for students. Another watch party is planned by the Faculty Senate. I know that many professors have integrated the debate into their classrooms as part of their research or learning assignment.

More than 400 media outlets have set up their desks in the media center, which looks as impressive as central command offices you see in movies. More than 70 students are working as volunteers hoping to rub shoulders with journalists or get selfies with the candidates. One told me he can’t wait to put the debate volunteerism on his resume.

Dr. Temple Northrup, Chair of Valenti School of Communication, made my day on Monday as he summed up the opportunity the debate has offered to his students in an email on Monday:

First, journalism students will be live tweeting the debate, providing student insights into the event. Second, our students will be creating a live poll that will be shown to the students at the watch party. The students at the Student Center will get to text votes in throughout the evening as our students question them about what they’re seeing. Lastly, all of this will be done with a live streamed broadcast using our talented broadcast journalism students. During commercial breaks at the Student Center, they will hear from our students, who will be broadcasting live from our building.”

It is not to say that bringing the debate to campus has been without challenges or controversies. Many faculty members had to adjust their classes, many staff members had to give up their offices, many administrators had to divert their time from other pressing projects, and many students have had to search even longer for parking. I also wonder if I have personally made more enemies than friends by denying them tickets and instead letting those tickets go to random drawing for students.

In the end, however, we hope that the opportunity for our students to learn, for our community to engage and for our university to be showcased to one of the largest national audiences ever will outweigh whatever challenges and controversies we faced. All things considered, I must say that our faculty, staff and students have been awesome!

So, even if you are not politically inclined, you may want to tune in for the debate because it is coming from one of America’s most beautiful urban campuses! At UH, we place a premium on community engagement. Often, that means our own neighborhood or city. But Thursday night, the community we are engaging is the entire country, and UH is especially proud and excited to play an important role in our national political conversation.

Think, act and play like a winner

If there is one lesson that Year 2015 taught me, it was to “think, act and play like a winner.” Don’t wait to be declared a winner … just be one!

Winning is an attitude. Have it!

Last year, I witnessed this attitude in three very different areas of the university. I saw it among a group of faculty who found 50 industry partners to establish a consortium in order to compete for a national research center. Those of us in the field know that it is hard to find even one industry partner, let alone 50! But these faculty did not care.

I also experienced the same winning attitude played out among a group of dedicated administrators and faculty as they coordinated efforts to bring a chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa (PBK) honor society to campus. The 30-month evaluation process is as rigorous as one can imagine. I was told that the first attempt to bring PBK by the University of Houston was made 30 years ago! But these people did not care.

Finally, I saw this attitude among our football players as they toppled the higher-ranked former national champion Florida State University team to win the Peach Bowl in front of a national audience who were scratching their heads and asking, “Who are these Cougars again?” I was told that the last time our team played in a major bowl game was 31 years ago! But our players did not care.

In each case, we, as an institution, dreamed bigger than ourselves. People undertook challenges with all the odds stacked against them.  They were shooting for the stars despite being told repeatedly that the stars were made for others.  Facing historical odds, they chose to become their own stars, make their own tracks and write their own history.

In each case, people—faculty, administrators, students—knew that they were winners long time before they actually won anything. They held no doubts and asked no questions. They never whined, they never complained, and they never paused.

How befitting it was that such a special year ended with the Peach Bowl win on December 31, when the Cougars, led by a first-year head coach, won by 14 points while they were projected to lose by 7! From the first play, they dominated the game as if they did this kind of thing every day.

I followed the national media throughout the season as they put one team after another on the pedestal and as they predicted “anyone but Houston” to win it all. Every single time, I said to myself, “They just don’t know Houston Cougars.”

I had the honor and the pleasure to be in Atlanta the day Houston won the 2015 Peach Bowl Championship. I will never forget the colorful rain of confetti, the deafening sound of the band, the joyous screams of players, but most of all, the sight of an elderly couple in embrace with tears streaming down their faces at the end of the game. I nearly cried as I heard the husband say softly to his wife, “I never thought I would see this day again.”

As memorable as the day was, it was the day of rewards, not the day of winning. The day our players became winners was the day when Coach Tom Herman first made them believe that they could be champions. Since that day, they thought like winners, acted like winners and played like winners.

I have noticed that very often we are too focused on what we don’t have rather than focusing on what we do have. If we cannot even see, feel and touch what we have, how can we build on it?

I am inspired by people around me who think, act and play like winners. It may seem fearlessness, foolishness or naïveté, but I believe anything is possible in the “Land of the Red.”  We have done it before, and we will do it again.  Happy Winning Year to You!


Blessed are those who give…

Like every other university president, I spend countless hours raising funds for my university. People often ask me if I like doing so. I smile and reply, “I love it!” Born and brought up in a privileged family, I found asking for anything, let alone money, was difficult at first, but it became easy once I figured out that I was helping two individuals – one who has the means and wishes to make a difference and one who has the dream but needs someone to believe in her.



The connections that we, as fundraisers, make have transformational impact. No, it is not about transforming an organization. It is about transforming a life, a family and even a generation. Here is an account from Daisy, one of our students, who stood up to thank a group of donors recently.

“Hello, my name is Daisy and I am currently a sophomore at the University of Houston where I am working on a dual degree in psychology and nursing. I think we are all aware about the allegations a presidential candidate made about illegal immigrants, specifically those who come across the Mexican border. He said they brought drugs and crime. He also said, ‘I assume some are good people.’ I promise I am not going to get into politics. I just want to say that he is right… kind of!

My parents, both immigrants, represent both sides of his spectrum. My dad was the drug- dealing criminal one. My mom was the most hard-working and caring person I know. When I was in Pre-K, my dad decided to buy some property. Soon after the contract was made, he got arrested and eventually deported. So my mom was the one who had to carry that huge responsibility of fixing the property so we could live in it. She literally started from zero.

My mom raised us on her own and gave us a place to live. She was always so loving. She would wake up each morning to walk us to the bus stop, made sure we left, then walked to work. Monday through Sunday, rain or shine. Growing up with a single, immigrant parent was so hard. I mean, the struggles were so real.

I really never thought I was poor; I actually thought I was rich because we didn’t ask for much, yet we had a lot. Now that I look back, I can’t believe we survived. I know it kind of sounds like I’m just talking about my mom, but really, I can’t imagine being here without her. I always worked so hard in school to make my mom proud. They told me in high school that if I worked hard enough, others would help me pay for college.

Today, I am here to thank you personally. The amount of gratitude I feel inside can’t be expressed. I can stand here and thank you all night and it still won’t be enough. I don’t know if you all are aware of how much difference you are making in our lives.

I remember when I first met my sponsor, I felt so blessed. He told me how he put his grandchildren through college and how he was glad he had the opportunity to help someone else. I felt truly humbled that he was willing to invest his money in complete strangers just so they could have a chance at their dreams. We hear about people investing in stocks, markets, and various industries, but rarely strangers.

I remember how many things were going wrong my senior year in high school. A week before the deadline, I heard about the Rodeo Scholarship. I hadn’t done ANYTHING and there was so much mailing and paperwork to do. I remember having a hopeless feeling deep inside of me, but I then had a Bible verse in mind which states, ‘For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you, and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ I look back and I feel silly for feeling hopeless knowing that God is always with me and everything is possible through him.

Months after my application submission, I received an email notifying me that I was the only one in my school to be awarded this scholarship. And we’ll, here I am today.

This scholarship is not a gift. It is a loan, because just like you all are making this happen for me, sometime in the near future it will be my turn to pass this loan along to someone who needs it just as much as I did. So again, thank you so much and don’t ever think that your time and efforts are pointless, because every second and even the smallest task has a great significance for people like me.”

Daisy finished her story to find that everyone was up on their feet, every eye was wet with tears of pride, and every heart was touched by her humility.

Personally, I have been at both ends of this give-and-take relationship. I still remember the day when I signed the withdrawal application and took it to my department advisor because I lacked the funds to pay tuition. (My husband was too proud to take money from my father, and no loans were available for international students). But a scholarship from Purdue University kept me in school. The bittersweet memory of that difficult time was very much on our minds as my husband and I made an endowment donation to the University of Houston to fund scholarships. As Daisy suggested, a scholarship is not a gift, it is a loan and we take great satisfaction in being able to repay it in our own way.

I am blessed to be a connector of those in need and those with means. Over the years, I have also learned that blessed are those who receive, but even more blessed are those who give!

When she asked me about my “typical” day?

I was wrapping up my speech to a group of young professionals when a woman raised her hand but quickly brought it down as if unsure. I prompted her to ask the question anyway. She said, “What does your typical day at work look like?”

“Typical? There is nothing typical,” I said casually, but realized that it is one of my most frequently asked questions, so I should answer. After a longer than usual pause, I said, “Would you allow me to tell you about two typical days?” Her face lit up and I began…

A Day in October

It is a beautiful fall morning. I do my daily yoga routine and get ready to leave for office, having ignored the pleading eyes of my dog to accompany me. I arrive for a 7:45 meeting at the university restaurant with a potential donor. Everything on the menu tempts me, but I end up ordering a bowl of berries – they are easy to eat when you have to listen carefully for the words that arent being said. Finding out about a donor’s true passion is the key to successful fundraising.

I arrive in my office by 9 a.m. for an audit briefing and then two more meetings after that – one to sign off on a $62 million construction project and the other to discuss system level issues with university presidents. I walk up to the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea and when I come back, one of my vice president’s is awaiting at the door to update me on something “real quick.” That two-minute “real quick” meeting ends up lasting for 45 minutes!

Meanwhile, two calls have come in, one of which seems rather urgent so I dial it on my cellphone while walking toward the library for the next meeting. The call is a complaint about the quality of food at our stadium’s concession stand. “You have got to be kidding me!” I say to myself, but because the call is from a very important person, I listen patiently and promise over and over again to take care of it right away.

All too soon, it is 12:15 p.m. and the Faculty Senate is in session. I am on the agenda to give a report, which I do, followed by a couple of questions from the floor. I stay for a while and enjoy listening to passionate arguments against an issue that has already been decided by the state legislature. But I am grateful for their insight because I know it will help us frame the implementation.

Back in the office, I grab a cup of soup and stick it in the microwave. During those few minutes while the microwave clock is winding down, I chat with whoever is in the kitchen. I am back in office for a meeting with the leaders of Student Government Association. Their agenda is long, but superbly organized and efficient. It is a joy to watch the next generation of leadership in the making.

I am eager to spend an hour of desk time, as clearly noted on my calendar from 3 to 4 p.m. But after only five minutes, one of the university attorneys walks in with a “for your information only” matter that turns into a 30-minute detailed discussion about how, why and what. I am grateful for the early alert.

I return the second phone call from the morning and make another one to a Board of Regents member on a pending issue. It is almost time to head to the academic building to offer greetings to 500 people assembled for a talk on energy. I quickly scan through the bio of the speaker, take a deep breath, and walk toward the podium to do my part.

At 5:30 p.m., I get in car to go home where 80-plus athletics boosters have been invited. Thanks to our wonderful staff, I can just walk in and play hostess. I give an update about the university, turn the program over to my vice president then hop in the car again for one final stop, a fund-raising dinner for one of our colleges where I need to make a few remarks before I can have my dinner.

I come back home around 10 p.m. and review the agenda for the next day before hitting the bed at 11:30 p.m. to fall asleep instantly.

If the day sounds like one made for the Energizer Bunny, it probably is. From September to May, with our university operating at full speed, it is all about stamina. There is precious little time for long-term, strategic thinking because the day is carved out in 30-minute slots. But then there’s …

A day in June

It is a hot and humid summer day. Now that the sun rises early, I am able to let my dog take me for a walk before getting to the office. I arrive at 8:15 a.m. and spend 30 minutes organizing papers and then walk in to the board room. Two flip charts are arranged on both sides of the table for this brainstorming session with vice presidents. The question of the day is, “What is a game changer for the University of Houston?” There are no passes. Everyone is forced to chime in and offer his or her best, brightest, and often crazy ideas. Once the list is exhaustive, we begin to pick apart each idea by looking at its feasibility, desirability and transformative impact. Finally, we vote and settle on our top three ideas before ending the meeting at noon.

I decide to have lunch in the student dining hall and then take an unscheduled tour of engineering building under construction. It is terribly hot, but I need to get out and feel the air. On my way back, I stop at the bookstore and casually chat with students enrolled in the summer session.

At 1:30 p.m., I leave for home where my long dining table is cluttered with papers left from the previous night with a warning sign, Do not touch. These papers include budget requests, performance numbers, tables and charts. Among them are also stacks of white papers and proposals. I make a cup of hot tea (yes, I survive on tea!) and pick up highlighters in yellow and pink colors.

I walk around the table and search for answers, but there are none to be found. “Why is the retention not better for low income students who are on full tuition waiver?” The figures puzzle me, so I make two calls to my contacts in other universities hoping to get to the bottom of the issue. One of my colleagues gives me the name of an industry expert, and I immediately call her. She promises to send me some material, and I offer to host her at a football game if she visits Houston.

I pick up a book from the small table nearby and for the next two hours, read the case study from a university where retention rates have dramatically jumped in recent years. I make a list of questions I should be asking our staff.

It is 6 p.m. and I feel like I should cook a good Indian dinner for my husband tonight, but the phone rings and our friends want to know if we care to try this new “hole-in-the-wall” ethnic restaurant. We agree and take our own bottle of wine that costs three times as much as the dinner itself.

Even though I want to go to bed early, I decide to check my email just one last time. I see that a colleague of mine has sent me several articles on university-led innovation centers and their impact on a city’s economy. I get engrossed and before I realize, it is midnight.

If that sounds like a day made for a graduate student, it probably is. Trained as a policy analyst, I relish delving into issues myself and coming up with strategies. This day has been all about strategy and such days last from June through August.

Two days, two lives! One is about strategy, the other about stamina. One feeds my scholarly spirit; the other keeps me close to the people I serve. I cherish both, and I have come to know that both are needed to lead the institution effectively.

Inside the locker room…

Coach Tom Herman invited me to join him in the locker room after the first football game of the season, University of Houston against Tennessee Tech.

“Locker room? Me? Are you sure?” I had never been inside a locker room so I was surprised, but also curious at the same time. I paused at the door until the voices of alert, “Stay dressed! The president is here,” subsided. I walked in behind the coach.

This was not the locker room scene that I had seen in the movies. There were no high fives, no victory chants, and no hearty embraces. Even though they had just played their hearts out and had won their very first game of the season, all the young student-athletes were crouched calmly on their knees.  

Coach walked to the front and stood before the players. His voice was still hoarse from coaching the first game of his head coaching career. I was sure he would start out by saying, “We did it! …yeah! …we won! …now, go out and celebrate!”

Instead everyone bowed their heads as one of the student athletes led a prayer of thanks. Then Coach Herman began, “I am proud of you…you did well today, but now, I want you to think about how blessed you are to be in Houston, a city that supports you. I want you to think how blessed you are to be at the University of Houston, a university that gives you the opportunity to be educated…” Silence settled over the room, and everyone was tuned into the coach.  

“…Think how blessed you are to have a brother playing next to you and giving you everything he has got… for you…so that you could do what you need to do…so that you could win,” Coach continued and then paused for few seconds. There were just the murmurs of “Yes sir, yes sir!”

Coach then called out his assistants who, in turn, called out the best performers of the game. Each player stood and received rousing cheers and applause as he walked to the front of the room. Then each one expressed his gratitude for his football brothers who helped him and the coaches who guided him. Many thanked God, and many thanked their families. Everyone seemed to be competing to give credit to others, and there was no “me and my win” attitude in the room.

During the next 15 minutes, I witnessed what is often rare from anyone, let alone from younger people: the courage to show gratitude! Gratitude is a virtue that only the strong can have. A weak person is busy basking in the glory of his success because doing so makes him feel stronger than he is. But a strong person does not have the need to feel strong because he knows the depth of his inner strength. The source of his strength is not external validation, but his own belief. Because he has no need for the credit himself, his natural reaction is to share it liberally with others.

I had heard that a coach is more than a skills instructor; he is a father figure, a leader, a guide and a role model. I witnessed it first hand in the locker room that night.

To my surprise, Coach also called out my name, handed me a football and expressed his gratitude for my support. I was overwhelmed and fumbled for words – but not the football! – though I do recall telling the team that with this kind of attitude, they can take on any Power Five team and even beat them on their home field. Seven days later, they did exactly that in Louisville.

Coach concluded the session by congratulating the team again and said, “Now, go and enjoy with your family, but remember that tomorrow is a work day. We all need to be here, working!”

I cringed slightly at this order because I had planned to take the day off and do nothing. I thought I deserved it after nearly five hours of walking, shaking hands, cheering, and screaming during the game.

The next morning when I woke up, I saw the football resting proudly on my dining table, and it reminded me of a night full of blessings, brotherhood and gratitude. But most of all, it reminded me of the potential that was being unlocked in that locker room. These student athletes will win games on the field, but more importantly, they will win the game of life.

From avoiding to dancing in one week…

I met her at Cougar Village, one of the residence halls at the University of Houston, four days prior to the beginning of the new academic year. Accompanied by her mother, sister and a cousin, she seemed unusually shy for an 18-year old freshman. I had gone to Cougar Village to help students move in, a ritual hundreds of staff and faculty members do at the beginning of each year.

As I got out of my car, I saw several volunteers, all dressed in red, waiting outside the residence hall under a temporary white tent in the late morning drizzle. The place was filled with luggage carts and water coolers. A rickshaw carrying two people pedaled by with a sign offering a “Free Ride.” Welcome banners were hanging everywhere, and some upbeat pop music was filling the air with excitement.

Overall, it felt festive and fun.

I shook hands with the volunteers, thanked them for their service, commented on their rain ponchos and stood by the doorway. “It is a little slow because of the rain, but you should have seen it yesterday,” said one of the many volunteers who were understandably full of pride for their contribution. Two cars and an SUV drove in. Driver of the first car popped open the trunk. Before the driver could even walk around to the trunk, volunteers had cleared the trunk and loaded the luggage in a moving cart—a bean bag, a suitcase, a guitar, a bag full of shoes, a cube filled with wires and CDs, a pillow, a wooden bookcase, a large picture frame and two dozen hangers with clothes. One volunteer shook hands with the student, another one handed every family member bottles of cold water and with the greetings of “Welcome to the University of Houston! Welcome to Cougar Village!” everyone proceeded toward the entrance.

Welcome Party

Welcoming Team of RAs from Cougar Village II

At that point, one of the volunteers shouted, “Here comes Erin” and a chorus of cheers and claps erupted from the welcome team standing just inside the door with banners and posters. Blushing, Erin’s face turned red – and not to match all the Cougar red around her. Within minutes, Erin was checked in and her luggage was delivered to her room. Half an hour later, Erin’s family came down the elevator and her mom walked straight up to me saying, “This is not the UH I remember. Wow! This is amazing.” We talked for about five minutes, and I said a few things directly to Erin to which she shook her head, but did not say anything. She was even avoiding an eye contact. She was either shy or uncomfortable – possibly both.


The Cat’s Back organized by Student Affairs

I happened to run into Erin again on Monday, the first day of classes. Our Staff Council organizes Cougar First Impression (CFI) on the first two days of classes, providing cool water and much needed help to students. Erin was standing under one of our temporary CFI tents in front of the library asking directions. I had come to thank the volunteers for standing under the hot afternoon sun with the temperature feeling like 106 degrees. After answering her question, the CFI volunteer handed Erin some UH goodies. At the very next tent, someone handed her an ice cream that melted away the anxieties. I saw Erin give a polite smile.


Simon Bott’s Chemistry, one of the classrooms I visited

What a coincidence that I spotted Erin again two days later in the hallway of a classroom building. She was late and rushed in to find a seat. I had come to the class to personally greet students and tell them that the university was committed to one and only one goal, i.e., their learning. At the beginning of my remarks, I tossed some personalized t-shirts to the students. Most raised their hands eagerly to grab a shirt, as did Erin although there was hesitation in her movement. She was still feeling the strangeness of the new environment. At the end of my remarks, I offered students my email address and told them they could write to me if they ever had an issue that they could not resolve on their own. In all, I made 28 classroom visits in two days to make sure that I reached out to every new student in an intimate setting.

The next day was our big event, The Cat’s Back, a celebration filled with fun, food, free t-shirts and lots of prizes. More than 500 student clubs set up booths with information to inform new students of their activities. Although I was not looking for Erin, my eyes spotted her again in front of Women in Business table. By now, she was with two other students and they were chatting away, eating hot dogs.

On Friday, I was coming out of a lunch meeting when I saw a long line of waiting students across the street in front of the Student Center. Out of curiosity, I decided to walk over. “What’s up?” I asked the waiting students.

“Free t-shirts and Ice Cones!” The student at the front of line said with excitement.

“The line is too long. How long have you been waiting?”

“Half an hour, but I don’t mind. Can I get a photo with you?” She asked as if she knew the answer would be yes.

“Of course, you can.” I posed for her selfie, which she posted on Instagram instantly. Others followed suit. Thirty photos later, I started to leave when I saw Erin again. She was a little behind in line, but was waving her phone. I walked over and asked, “Is everything all right? How was the first week?”

“Oh, my God… Oh my God,” she said, “this is the best school ever. I love everything here. My dad wanted me to go to ____ but I wanted to come to UH. I knew I was right, I knew I was right. Thank you for everything. I love my classes, and I love you too.” This was our first real conversation, and she was literally dancing with excitement.

What a transformation in one week! Erin was over her apparent anxieties and ready to learn. This is what Making a Good First Impression is all about, I believe. It can be critical in defining the success of a project or partnership. First impression, however unintentional or seemingly benign, gets imprinted in our memory. It becomes a screen through which later information gets filtered and used. Yes, it may take some effort on our part to create one, but creating a bad one has a much bigger cost.

I thank our faculty, staff, and students for volunteering their time and giving our 42,000 students—12,000 of them new—a good first impression so they could take pride in their school, in their learning, and consequently, in their own potential.

[Name and some circumstances have been changed to protect identity.  All photos are from my IPhone]

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!