“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.
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.
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.