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.

Anything worth winning is won with passion

Last week, I was waiting for the elevator when I heard someone running toward me, literally screaming, “Oh My Gosh! I can’t believe it is you! Can I please take a selfie with you?”

“Of course, you can. Where is your phone?” I said. She fumbled for it in the backpack, too excited to concentrate. Finally, the student found the phone and took a selfie, still chanting, “Oh My Gosh, Oh My Gosh!”
She was vivacious, happy, full of life and full of spirit. We started talking and within few minutes I realized that Tina was no ordinary person.

During high school, Tina became the sole survivor of a fatal car accident that claimed her mother and sister. She delayed her entrance to college by one year. During her sophomore year, Tina was diagnosed with cancer with not-so-good odds of survival. She took a year off from college, fought the battle successfully and returned. During that time, she managed to complete one online course.

In her senior year, Tina’s father lost the functionality of his legs in a random shooting. Once again, she had to stay home to care for her father and provide support to two younger brothers. But Tina enrolled in several online courses and completed them with good grades. “I love being on campus, but you don’t get everything you want,” she said in an accepting voice, without a note of complaint.

“You will be proud of me, President Khator, but I am graduating within six years. I did not want to let you down.” She had the smile of a winner as she said it.

I hugged Tina and held her a little longer than usual. I did not want her to see tears filling up my eyes.

What kept Tina going against all odds? Life pushed her back again and again and yet she came out victorious every single time. “I am so proud of you,” I said admiringly. “I am so glad you chose to continue your studies.”

“I had no choice,” she replied. “I never thought that way.” Tina waved good-bye and ran in the other direction. She was gone, but her words kept buzzing in my ears throughout the day … and the next and the next.

I never thought that way! That way…

What way?

Did Thomas Edison feel the same way when he failed 999 times before inventing what led to the modern light bulb!
Did Henry Ford feel the same way when he declared five bankruptcies before becoming hugely successful?
Did R.H. Macy feel the same way when he closed down seven stores before finding success in New York?
Did Walt Disney feel the same way when told by his newspaper editor that he lacked imagination?
Did Dr. Seuss feel the same way when rejected by publishers, not once, not twice but 27 times?

What is “that way of thinking” that seemed to give them no other choice? Did passion make them blind to reality and deaf to the voices of reason?

Tina, like these famous people, had passion for her goal, and that passion pushed her forward. In theory, she may have had choices, but she could not see them and that made her succeed despite many setbacks. When people face setbacks, they react in one of two ways: They think from their brain and analyze everything minutely to decide whether it is wise to quit. And then there are those who respond from their heart and look for a different way or a different time or a different setting to reach their goal.

Winners fall in the second category because their eyes are on the goal, not on many ways to reach the goal. They keep trying different tools, because their goals are not negotiable.

I salute Tina for making me see her way, that way… the way of winners!

[To protect her identity, this student’s name and circumstances have been altered.]

To lead, focus on core mission!

Today is the first day of classes. Thousands of students are here with dream in their eyes and hope in their hearts. Walking around campus reminded me of the debate I had with a friend from Florida last year. The issue was, of course, higher education and this friend did not work in the academia.

My friend asked me to imagine a restaurant that offers beautiful decor, glasses of cold sparkling water, and live music, but does not serve food!  He asked me to further imagine a movie theater that offers free popcorn, stadium-style seating, and a video game lounge, but does not show movies!  Then he asked me to imagine a plane that has extra legroom, free meals, and allows us to board early, but never takes off!

My immediate words were, “It is ridiculous! What kind of a restaurant does not serve food?”  My reaction was obvious, because every organization has a core mission which must be fulfilled first, ahead of anything else.  “You see”, he said before I could say anything more, “that is why we have a problem with universities. They do everything but help students succeed!”

“Excuse me!  We are graduating 8,000 students every year from the University of Houston alone.” I protested.

“And letting more than that many go without graduating?” He provoked me further.

“Well, I admit that some do not graduate, but are you putting all the blame on us? Your analogies are irrational.”

Before I could say any more, he yielded and said, “Okay, I am sorry.  I was too harsh.  Let’s assume that our imaginary restaurant serves great meals also, but half the people get up and leave before finishing their meal.  The movie theater shows movies, but only half the people stay to see the end.  And our plane gets to fly, but takes the passengers only halfway where they want to go.  Is everything okay now?”

By now, I knew that I had lost the argument.  I could extend his logic and imagine a university that offered its students everything they desired (yes, including parking!), but allowed half of them to leave without a degree. Of course, I could raise my defensive shield and give many reasons, and they would all be true. Yes, the government is not funding us to the same level as before. Yes, students are not coming to us as well prepared as before. Yes, federal and state regulations have added to the cost of our operations. And yes, students are more easily distracted today than a few years back.

But, will that make everything right? Would the restaurant that lost half of its guests still be in business a week later?  How about the movie theater that lost half of its viewers or the airline that flew its passengers to only half the distance?

Our core mission is to teach students and to prepare them to build a better future for themselves and for our communities.  If they cannot get the needed education, we are failing in our core mission, and thus jeopardizing our own existence and viability as a university, irrespective of whose fault it is.

So, here is my plea to you, my team members.

As you begin the new academic year, please focus and refocus on our core mission — the success of our students!  They just don’t happen to be here. They are here because we consciously recruited them, invited them in, and admitted them to our university.  And now that they are here, we have the obligation to help them succeed. And we need to do that while keeping our expectations high and rigor tough.

I know that there are many things that are outside of our control to fix, but I also know that there are at least as many that we can fix. One of the most important success factors cited by alumni is their feeling that someone on campus cared. No matter where your desk is and no matter what your work is, your interaction with students is guaranteed. Please remember that you can make a difference in their lives.

Today is the day to rededicate ourselves to core mission. 

Fifty Shades of Red

Is red really red, or is it a collection of shades that look like red?

Come and walk the grounds of the University of Houston on any given Friday and chances are that you will be overwhelmed by a sea of red. Nearly 70 percent of the students, staff and faculty will be wearing that distinctive school color. The sight is so compelling that I have had many visitors comment, “Wow…your campus is all red.”

A Friday at UH

A Red Friday at UH

But if you look closely, what people describe as “red” turns out to be more like 50 shades of red, anywhere from almost-orange to maroon-look-alike to pinkish red. Yes, there is an official “Cougar Red” red, but many people still wear all shades of red because they don’t want to repeat the same outfit. I mean, just how many truly red outfits can you really have? (Disclaimer: two-thirds of my own closet is now red.)

Yet, to a visitor, it looks as if everyone is just wearing “red.”

I often wonder how and when shades can lose their individual differences and become a single chromatic phenomenon? Last month, I was wearing a maroon-pink suit to a meeting. The first comment I heard as I walked in the door was, “There is the lady in red!” I was surprised. First of all, it was not Friday. Second, the suit was not red by any stretch of the imagination. And finally, I was not even in Houston. Yet, because I wear red so often, my suit was immediately perceived as “red” before it looked maroon or pink to these people.

To me, the different shades of a color are natural and, in their way, important. They expand our limits and add value in reminding us that we have a common ground. The varying shades also remind us that commonality is not automatic; it has to be built and nurtured.
Every organization is shaped by two opposite forces: those that unify its members and those that divide them. A successful, high-functioning organization strives to strike the right balance because neither is good in its extreme. Too much uniformity may lead to complacency. Too much divisiveness may lead to conflict.

My organization–the University of Houston–continues to flourish with the healthy interplay of forces that simultaneously unite and divide us. We all are the same in many ways – our mission, core values, commitment, logo, color, team and the list can go on and on. But we are also very different– the disciplines that we teach in, or the departments that we work in, or the ideologies that we believe in, or the approaches that we take to fulfill that common mission. And, of course, we are also divided by gender, color, race, socio-economic status, neighborhoods and many more such factors.

The secret of our success is remaining divided and yet united. Our strength comes from recognizing our differences but still relating to one another so naturally that we appear as one. The significance lies in the strength of our unity, and not in the elimination of the differences.
An orange-red looks red if it is surrounded by other reds, but it will be perceived as orange if standing alone. A strong organization is not the one that ignores its divisions but one that builds a compelling sense of unity that transcends its differences.

So, I am proud of our own red and even prouder of the 50 shades that also contribute to our greater sense of “red.” I salute those who unify our cause and mission, and I applaud those who challenge us to be different.

(But, hold on, Cougars. Let me be very clear. I still love it when you wear your Cougar Red on Fridays!)