Apart from its early-eighties Phi Slama Jama men’s basketball team and a top-ranked creative writing program, the University of Houston has largely stayed under the national radar as a solid if unexciting commuter school since its founding, in 1927, as Houston Junior College.
The city’s largest public university in the country’s fourth-largest city finally asserted itself in 2008, when Renu Khator was hired as the university president and chancellor of the University of Houston System. Khator, who was born and raised in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, immigrated to the United States in 1974, earning her PhD in political science and public administration at Purdue University before being hired as a professor by the University of South Florida, where, over the next two decades, she worked her way up to provost before being tapped for the top job at UH.
In Houston, Khator immediately set about transforming a school derisively called Cougar High into an academic and athletic powerhouse. To revive campus life, she added several new residence halls, spent $80 million expanding the student center, erected a new football stadium, and renovated the basketball arena. Khator’s relentless fundraising (the university is nearing the end of a $1 billion capital campaign) and faculty recruiting bore fruit in 2011, when UH became the fourth university in Texas to earn Tier One status from the Carnegie Foundation, putting it in the company of Rice and UT-Austin. In 2015 the university was awarded a coveted Phi Beta Kappa chapter.