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.

 

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.

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.

IMG_0065

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.

IMG_0064

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]

Uniquely American: College Athletics

Many foreign delegations visit our university each year and almost always, the topic of college sports, particularly, American football, comes up.  They walk in to my office, notice signed footballs and basketballs, helmets and trophies and bring up the topic before leaving the office.  Our friends are intrigued, amazed and confused about our obsession with college sports. Many have studied in America and have experienced the craze first-hand, but they want to know my views as an administrator. They ask:

Don’t you find it difficult to manage sports?

Do your faculty support it?

It has to be distracting. Isn’t it?

They know that I studied in India and therefore would understand where they are coming from.  I always smile and tell them the truth. Yes, it does take a lot of my time. And yes, it can have a life of its own. And yes, it can feel distracting sometimes.  But, no, I will not have it any other way.

Then I go on and explain to them two fundamental points.  One, student athletes do get an opportunity to get a great education, but more importantly, they get an opportunity to learn life skills, like leadership and teamwork.  I have personally seen the transformation in young athletes.  When done right, the experience of being a student athlete can be one of the most transformative experiences in life.

Secondly, I tell them that college sports engage students, alumni, and communities like very few things can. When we search for coach or athletic director, everyone knows about it and has an opinion about who should be hired.  During the football season, I cannot go anywhere in town without people stopping me and giving me an expert analysis of our performance.

If teams are doing well, I get all the undeserved credit as if I am the one coaching them.  And if the season is rough, I get bombarded with email and social media advice.  Over the years, I have received some interesting suggestions, of which my favorite ones are:

“Fire the coach, fire the AD, and while you are at it, fire yourself.”

If you don’t fire the coach, I will never give another dime again.” (We are still searching our database for the first dime he claims to have given.)

“If you don’t fire the coach, you will be personally responsible for my death.”

These are not the usual feelings, but I will take negative feelings over no feelings at all. As long as alumni are engaged, they care, and as long as they care, there is a chance that they will find positive engagement with some part of the university.

I know that the world of college sports is getting financially and administratively challenging.  Many institutions are questioning the value of having a major sports program at all. Some of them may decide not to have one in future.

Phi Slama Jama

Phi Slama Jama

For the University of Houston, we find a historical need and a valuable impact of college sports on educational experience. Our alumni are still inspired by the magic of Phi Slama Jama, the glitter of Olympic gold decorating Carl Lewis, and the weight of Heisman Trophy in the hands of Andre Ware. They are part of our tradition but they are also part of our identity and pride.

Legendary Coach Lewis

Legendary Coach Lewis

 

We cherish our student athletes and will keep on working hard to make it a positive learning environment for them. We also treasure our alumni and will continue to find ways to make them proud of their university.

 

 

Oooops…I lost track of time. It is time for me to take our delegation members to the baseball game. Go Coogs!

 

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.

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.

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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A Gourmet Night to Remember…

I am invited to many black tie events every year. Houston loves to dress up and raise funds! But my favorite black tie event every year is the Gourmet Night organized by the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management here at the University of Houston. Nearly 400 students make this a night to remember.

Student Manager Team

Student Manager Team

Let me take you to this year’s Gourmet Night with me.

The theme is Route 66. The invitation itself takes you back in time – very retro, very nostalgic! You are requested to dress in theme-appropriate attire or black tie. I was raised in India, and therefore have nothing in my closet that could be called “theme-appropriate,” so I opt for a red gown. One can never go wrong with red!

Upon arrival, you notice that there are no professionals running around because no event planning companies or outside vendors are involved. Every little detail has been planned, and is now being executed, by the college’s students as part of their training.

We are offered a glass of Champagne and are given a number that we can use to bid on hundreds of items displayed in the silent auction. I am drawn to the section on vacation packages and restaurants – too many to count and each one under fierce bidding. What else would you expect from a hospitality college? I stop in front of an item, called “A Collection of Wines by the Faculty.” Before I can place a bid, I hear someone calling my name and asking if he may introduce himself. I turn around and greet him and forget the bidding.

With Martina Bahr, sous chef

With Martina Bahr, sous chef

In few minutes, the sound of the dinner bell invites us to the ballroom which has been transformed into Diner 41 in celebration of the 41st year of the Gourmet Night. Women in poodle skirts and men in 1960s hair style greet us in the hallway. We stop for a quick photo, one being taken with an IPhone and one with an old-style camera. We find our table, decorated with records and candy jars. A loud band plays familiar songs and I can see people moving in their chairs to the beat of the music.

With Katie Proctor and Diego Cardenas

With Katie Proctor and Diego Cardenas

Now we are ready for the gourmet part of the night. Five courses accompanied by five wines please our eyes and taste buds. Hundreds of students offer synchronized wait service on multiple tables in an expertly choreographed fashion. They are eager to explain any wine or food item in front of us.

Here is the part that I always wait for. The student general manager takes the microphone and introduces all of her managers – the food manager, the beverage manager, the service manager, the marketing director, and on and on. Then she calls on all the volunteers and a parade of 400 students enters from one side of the ballroom and marches across to the other side.

We all sit in amazement as this night comes to an end. Students start to plan this event as a part of their curriculum almost a year earlier. They compete and audition for leadership positions. They take responsibility, form teams, delegate tasks, hold each other responsible, manage conflicts, and finally produce an evening that is unparalleled in experience and elegance.

In order to pass, students are judged by a really tough group, because the room is full of big names in the industry, from people who manage their own restaurant to those who are the owners of the largest franchises in the world!

As we walk out of the ballroom, we are handed a Coke bottle reminiscent of the good old days. We thank the students and walk to our car, proud and happy in the knowledge that all of the managers will get job offers – if they don’t have one already! Because, after all, they are the best of the best!

 

 

Balancing personal and professional lives…

After a long silence, I am back blogging.  The silence was not because I had nothing to say, but simply because I got involved in a project that consumed any and all of my spare time — our daughter’s wedding!

Often, I speak on the theme of leadership and one of the most frequently asked questions is, “Did you have to sacrifice your family life in order to reach where you are today?” I always start out by saying, “I hope not,” and then complete the response by giving some mundane examples.  I know in my heart that it is not a fair question.

It is not a fair question because I have had more flexibility during the early years of my career than allowed to others.  Yes, I had to put in 60 and 80 hours of work weeks, but I had the luxury of setting my own schedule.  I cannot recall ever having to make a choice that would have made me feel deprived of my family life.

Last year, when our daughter got engaged and the question of planning the wedding came up, I knew that my job would never allow me to be the one to plan it, even though I had planned her wedding many times in my imagination.  You have to understand the complexity of Indian weddings in order to appreciate  my hesitation.  But when our daughter said that she wanted a traditional wedding, I knew that I had to find a way to plan it.

During the course of the year, my “what if” ideas made a complex project even more complicated.  A typical discussion would go like this…

I would ask my husband, Suresh, “What if we were to have five horses in the groom’s procession?”

“Five? Why five?  I have seen hundreds of weddings with one horse.  What’s wrong with one horse?”

“Nothing, but, I want five.  Five would be awesome.”

“If you know what you want, then why ask me?”

“Because I want you to want what I want.”

And next day, Suresh would call and arrange for five horses! In the end, it took one French château, two dance companies, three bands, four events, five horses, 21 desserts, 32 vendors, 105 henna hands, and 300 guests to make it just the way I wanted it.  I stayed up many nights and lost a few pounds.  But, the joy of giving our daughter the wedding of her dreams (perhaps, I should say the wedding of my dreams) was worth every sleepless night and every lost pound.
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I had a lot of help in the planning of the wedding, but in the end, it was solely my responsibility. I got it done, and am most proud of the fact that I never canceled any university meetings or events – during the day or the evening – in order to plan the wedding.ParulGreg_preview_0008_medNext time, when someone asks me if I had to sacrifice my family life for my professional life, I will smile and say, “No, I could have, but did not.”

Please don’t sacrifice your family life.  Don’t let go of the precious moments, because they will not return.  Don’t skip those recitals or soccer trips.  And most certainly, don’t miss weddings.  Try…at least try your best.