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.

 

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. 

Venice with an architectural twist

What do I know about architecture? Practically nothing. What do I know about students? A lot … because they are my passion. Here I am in Venice, Italy, witnessing the extraordinary transformation of five students from the College of Architecture.

Eight months ago, Patricia Oliver, Dean of the College of Architecture, cornered me at a University event to tell me that her students were planning to enter a competition of the highest international prestige – Venice Biennale, the granddaddy of them all!
“It will be the first time in college’s 50-year history that we are dreaming this big,'” she said. I like big dreams so I encouraged her, wished her good luck and told her that if you are successful, I will join you.

Two months ago, I got a message from the dean informing me that they had indeed made it to the Venice Biennale. I congratulated her and told her that I would try my best to be with the team.

Recently, Dean Oliver revealed that the exhibition is so prestigious that the renowned developer Gerald D. Hines, whose name our College of Architecture bears, had decided to attend. Now, I had no choice but to reshuffle my schedule and attend.

I arrived in Venice on June 5, my fifth visit to this dreamy city. During my previous visits, I had seen every tourist site worth seeing – from San Marco Plaza to the Rialto Bridge – many times over. I had taken photos of every church and villa from every angle and had paid ridiculous amounts to take short rides in those storybook gondolas. So, this time my attention in Venice was completely focused on my students and Mr. Hines.

First of all, Mr. Hines didn’t just attend the opening, but he was on hand for every event. I felt 6 inches taller just walking next to him because everyone, including the curator of the exhibition, stopped by to pay him tribute. I did not know these people, but the constant clicking of cameras that surrounded them was more than enough to confirm their importance in the world of architecture.

The exhibition included a Who’s Who of architecture. Twenty three venues were part of the Biennale and displayed the works of the masters. I could not believe that our students were here. Not only were they here, they were given one of the most prominent places on the Grand Canal next to Rialto Bridge to display their ambitious project. Thousands of people visited their exhibit every day…they stayed, asked questions and admired the work of our dedicated architecture students!

Our students’ project was truly masterful – taking Houston’s Buffalo Bayou and developing it so that every negative (pollution, abandoned land, and toxic brown fields) is converted into a positive (a school for the blind, farm land for inmates, a green manufacturing facility). In their proposed plan, Buffalo Bayou becomes not only an example of sustainable development, but also a place where people want to gather to eat and watch boats and ships glide by.

It goes without saying that this experience will transform forever the five students who are here. I was told that some had never travelled abroad before this trip, and that a few of them had barely been outside of Houston. And here they are, rubbing shoulders with the best in the world and getting undivided attention from Mr. Hines himself!

I am leaving from Venice with immense gratitude for the faculty who made this possible for our students. I also commend Dean Oliver for thinking big and aiming high.

As for myself, I have learned more about the discipline of architecture in these three days than I ever thought possible. My travels will no longer be the same. I will always be thinking about how spaces affect our behavior and how buildings have the power to transform us all in one way or another. It took one more visit to this lovely city – and the inspired efforts of our students – to teach me that.
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What makes graduation special…

Imagine a place with 40,000 people and every single one of them absolutely happy. Now imagine the sound of applause that keeps on lasting, only to be interrupted by occasional screams of joy. You can feel the air which is filled with thousands of hopes and dreams!

It is graduation day at the University of Houston, or at any college campus for that matter. No other experience in life can ever match the consistency and predictability of this day.

I had the honor of shaking hands with every one of 4,438 graduates who walked across the graduation stage! Among them a 19-year old completing his bachelor’s degree in Biology and a 68-year old receiving his master’s degree in Construction Management. Also among them a student whose physical challenges did not allow him to even move his hands or feet, and another student whose near fatal injury had left him with only a 5% chance of survival.

The day was filled with many special memories. Among them, the moment when actor Dennis Quaid held up his President’s Medallion high and told the graduates, “This university gave me the best gift…it helped me discover my passion.” And the moment when Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil, tightened his grip on his Medallion and said, “My education here was so good that I have sent my daughter here as well.” And then there was the moment when Welcome Wilson, Sr. (a 1949 graduate) stood up to receive his honorary degree from his son who now serves as a member of the University of Houston System Board of Regents.

And then to top it all, Emma, a 107-year old lady, graced the occasion. Born in 1906, Emma always wanted to attend college but segregation robbed her off her dream. Nonetheless, she did what she could at the time and became the first African American woman streetcar driver in San Fransisco to support her family. Later in life, Emma moved back to Houston. She drove her own car and went fishing on her own boat until the age of 100.

She encouraged her great grand daughter, Kimberly, to attend college. Kimberly was admitted to Columbia but life got in the way. Kimberly left Houston for the West Coast, where she met a man and married him. But one day, their townhouse caught fire and they lost everything. With three children in tow, the couple moved back to Houston where, once again, she started to be nudged by her great grandmother, who wanted her to go to college.

Finally, Kimberly enrolled in a community college and then transferred to the University of Houston. Four years later, at age 44, Kimberly was ready to graduate and her great grand mother came to see her walk. How special on a Mother’s Day weekend!

All of us have had people like Emma in our own lives, people who refused to give in even when we did. All of us remember some place special, like Dennis Quaid did, where we discovered our passion.

What better day than today to remember them and tell them how truly special their role has been in our lives. Congratulations, graduates!

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