Houston floods and the saga of 200 stranded Indian students…

On August 25, 2017, Hurricane Harvey made a landfall about 160 miles south of Houston. The storm traveled to Houston and stalled over the city for the next three days, pouring 50 inches of water on an anxious community. By August 27, city’s bayous broke their limits, water entered homes and roads turned into deadly waterways. No city could be prepared for such a downpour, and Houston fell victim to this natural calamity.

As Chancellor of the University of Houston, I was faced with decisions that impacted the well-being of more than 71,000 students and 10,000 staff. My Emergency Management Team worked around the clock, sent out alerts, warnings, and information preparing our apprehensive students, faculty and staff. I closed the University in time to allow people to secure supplies, harden homes and find shelter if they so chose. Houston was not evacuated, mandatory or voluntarily. Nearly 2,500 students living in campus dorms chose to stay with us. I joined my communications team in reaching out to students and staff using social media and email.

On August 27 at 10:30pm, I was glancing over my Facebook page when my eye caught a post by the Consul General of India-Houston, Dr. Anupam Ray, reposting an entry from Ravi Shankar and asking for help for stranded Indian students at the University of Houston. Understandably concerned, I immediately entered a comment to the post asking Ravi to call our police. I posted a similar message to Ravi on Twitter, which I use for official communications. I also called the University of Houston Police Chief Moore, who established contact with Ravi within 5 minutes. Ravi also reached out to me – and all of this within 10 minutes!

Ravi serves as president of GISO (Graduate Indian Student Organization) and was not staying with the students at the time. He involved Riken Pandya, an alumnus of the University of Houston, who was with the stranded students. The two of them exhibited extraordinary leadership in organizing students and handling all the logistics. Our Police Chief asked them the names and numbers of all stranded students and contacted them to identify the level of emergency.

I spoke with Ravi and Riken personally. Not all of them were University students. Despite media reports to the contrary, they were not living in university housing. They were tenants at a private apartment complex approximately 3 miles from the University.

Police Chief Moore reported back to me with additional information: (1) students were safe and dry on the second floor of the building. They had food and water but no electricity. (2) Streets were flooded and water was at the doorstep of some apartments on the first floor. And (3) students were scared (which was natural) but were in no imminent danger. With this information in hand, the police and the Coast Guard decided that a night-time water evacuation was not warranted. They put students on the list for morning evacuation and turned toward attending to calls from those who had life-threatening and medical emergencies.

Students remained in direct contact with the Consul General, the UH police chief, and myself for the remainder of their stay at the stranded property. I spoke with students personally at night and again in the morning. They were concerned but calm, worried but comforted.

Meanwhile, a Houston leader, Jiten Agrawal, also heeded Consul General Ray’s call. He established contact with students and arranged food and water delivery. At the time, Jiten was evacuating an American family with a child on a ventilator that was about to shut down because of a low battery.  Jiten’s heart was big enough to handle both types of crises, attending to meeting the immediate needs of the Indian students while also saving an American family.

The morning of August 28 was a different story. Bayou water receded and roads approaching the apartment complex were cleared. Power was back in the apartment complex and a water rescue no longer seemed necessary.

Harvey6

With students

In the morning, the stranded students were visited by Ravi and then by Consul General Ray. I made calls to Ravi, Riken, the Police Chief and then headed to the University of Houston campus to check on 2,500 students in the university housing. From there, I proceeded to the apartment complex where Indian students were stranded. It was 2:30 p.m. by now.

It was heartwarming to see the students sitting in a circle feasting on the hot meal sent by BAPS Swami Narayan Temple under the decoration of blinking Christmas lights. Since

I had not eaten anything, the aroma of vegetable biryani lifted my mood and made me long for India. In the spirit of true Indian hospitality, the students offered me food and one of them even said, “I can make you some fresh coffee.” Of course, I declined, for I was too overwhelmed to eat. Students were together, strong, comforted, cared for and in no panic.

I learned that 15 of the students had cars and could transport 60 students to a safer location immediately. While most wanted to relocate, with hot food in front and power back, they appeared to be in no hurry to do so. I had a police escort and offered to guide the cars using dry roads to the new location, but they needed more time to pack and get ready. Only one car was able to follow me.

I made a call to Dr. Durga Agarwal, a prominent Houston leader and also a regent of the University of Houston System for further assistance. Within 30 minutes, Dr. Agarwal, his son, daughter, neighbors and friends showed up with additional vans to transport students to other locations. They took many students home.

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Students being relocated

As I look at this in the rearview mirror, I am inspired by what happened on that one night. Consul General Ray set an example of how a well-functioning government takes care of its citizens by deploying resources from the local community. Ravi and Riken set good examples of how volunteer leadership organizes itself in times of crisis. UH Police and Coast Guard demonstrated how first responders manage multiple calls for help assessing each one in its own context and providing each what is needed. Indian Americans in Houston set a good example of generosity by opening their homes and hearts to strangers.

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With Anil Agrawal’s family

And finally, the stranded Indian students set an example of maturity way beyond their age and experience. Some had been in the USA for only two weeks. They took care of one another and, once safe, turned around to help others in shelters. They went door-to-door, called 911, transferred elderly to their apartment on the 2nd floor and helped the rescue of a cancer patient.

I, for one, am humbled beyond words. Hurricane Harvey is leaving us with many memories and this one will be sketched forever in my heart. Thank you everyone for a job well done!

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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.

 

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!!

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.

Daisy

Daisy

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.

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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.

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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!

In search of a leader…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded. The interview was over.

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

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

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

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

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

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?