At the University of Houston, Perception is a Challenge

University of Houston System Chancellor Renu Khator
University of Houston System Chancellor Renu Khator

HOUSTON — In her annual fall address last week, University of Houston President Renu Khator touted the many metrics in which the University of Houston has experienced dramatic improvement since 2008, when she arrived on campus. But in an interview in her office last week prior to her speech, Khator said that despite significant changes, the persistent problem of the university's public perception remains.

“From the day I arrived here, I said that this is one of those universities where the substance is ahead of the reputation,” Khator said. “We were known as a university of last choice. Students want bragging rights. We didn’t give them any bragging rights. But now, people are choosing us over other very good universities, and they love to tell me that.”

Still, despite an increasingly accomplished student body, some long-held assumptions about the university are proving hard to shed, the president said.

For example, the campus has been dogged by a reputation for being unsafe. So Khator recently had federal crime statistics compiled for the city’s major universities to see just how UH stacked up.

In both incidents of property crime and serious crime per 1,000 students, she found, UH has the second fewest when compared with Rice University, Texas Southern University, Houston Baptist University and the University of St. Thomas. While it’s not the “zero-crime campus” Khator envisions — on the eve of her major address, a student was robbed by men wielding what was later determined to be an Airsoft gun — she asserted that the numbers indicate a safe campus.

“But the perception just continues,” she said. “Just like the perception that we are primarily a commuter school.”

In fact, UH now boasts more than 8,000 beds in its university housing. Only six years ago, it had just slightly more than 4,300 beds. Compared with other Texas institutions, its capacity is now second only to Texas A&M University. 

A significant impetus for the growth was the statewide "tier one" race. In 2009, the Texas Legislature approved incentive funding to encourage the state's "emerging research universities," among them UH, to grow into top-tier research universities like the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M. 

In 2012, UH was one of the first two universities in the race to meet the Texas Legislature’s criteria to receive money from the National Research University Fund, which was essentially the prize money for the competition. The other institution to reach the top threshold was Texas Tech University.

Along the way, in 2011, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, a national education organization, moved UH into its highest tier of research universities. This put the university into an elite group whose only other public university members from Texas are UT-Austin and A&M.

Those two flagship institutions are also members of the Association of American Universities, the most exclusive club of elite universities, one that UH has yet to crack and is not expected to join anytime soon.

Still, Khator said their claim to “tier one” status has helped both in securing grants and fundraising — UH fundraising totals only recently reached nine digits, racking up more than $100 million in gifts and pledges in three of the last four years — and attracting and retaining students and faculty.

Compared to the two public Texas universities traditionally considered in the top tier, though, UH has a significantly more diverse student body. In her speech and in the interview, Khator was eager to point out that UH has more black students than A&M, UT-Austin, and UT-El Paso combined.

“We are the prototype of what America will look like 25 years from now,” Khator said. “You have to have very inclusive excellence.”

Given the school's growing research activity and academic standards, it is perhaps unsurprising that the school has taken a more statewide approach to attracting students. It now has recruiters in each of the state’s largest cities. Earlier this year, UH opened a recruitment office in McAllen.

A weak point for the university, though, is the performance of transfer students, who make up a significant portion of the student body.

The retention rates, grade point averages and four-year graduation rates of transfer students are all lower at UH than they are at UT, A&M and Texas Tech. Fewer than half of students who transfer into UH manage to graduate in four years, and many drop out in their final year.

“I am not happy with those statistics,” Khator said. In her address, she announced that transfer student success was a new institutional priority. She said the administration was launching two new programs that will emphasize the value of graduating in a timely fashion and doing what it takes in the final stretch to get to graduation.

"We are changing the culture, changing the expectations," she said, "and changing the way we work as faculty and staff, the way we look at things. That's a hard thing to do."

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