University of Houston Embraces Diversity as an Inherent Aspect of its Identity

Highlights from the first institution to receive three INSIGHT Into Diversity Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Awards in one year: University of Houston, University of Houston Law Center, and University of Houston School of Nursing

In a city as diverse as Houston, where minorities make up more than 50 percent of the population, diversity is never an afterthought; it’s an integral and inseparable component of the community. The same can be said for the University of Houston (UH), which boasts a diverse student population and is noted as the second most ethnically diverse research institution in the U.S. — in part, an organic result of the surrounding community.

[Above: Dean of UH Law Center Leonard M. Baynes and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and UH Provost Paula Myrick Short with law students]

“Diversity is as important to us as breathing. It is just part of who we are as a community,” says UH President and Chancellor of the UH System Renu Khator, PhD.

With a student population that is 27.5 percent Hispanic, 20.4 percent Asian American, 10 percent African American, and 9.6 percent international, the university increasingly reflects the diversity of the U.S. at large. UH is also a federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institution and Asian American-Serving Institution, and its students come from more than 137 countries.

UH President Renu Khator takes a selfie with a group of students.
UH President Renu Khator takes a selfie with a group of students.

Because of its unique makeup, Khator says that UH is the “prototype of the future American university.”

“We look like what most, or maybe all, universities will look like in 25 years,” Khator says. “We have a special obligation to make sure this experiment we are in — which is making sure that diversity and excellence are not mutually exclusive — [does not] fail, because it will become the inspiration for many other universities. If we fail, then we are failing not just in our obligation to [ourselves], but in our obligation to the country as well.”

At UH, all members of the campus community, in every department and college, take this responsibility seriously. Khator takes a personal approach to diversity and inclusion — influenced by her own experiences — that emphasizes caring for and seeing the potential in every student.

Born in Uttar Pradesh, India, Khator came to America as a teenager with no functional knowledge of English. She says she has been able to get where she is today because of the opportunities afforded to her. She is the first Indian immigrant to lead a major U.S. research university and the first woman to become chancellor of UH.

“My own experience of coming to this country and having to struggle to make it makes me believe that, if given the right opportunity, everyone can excel,” she says. “It’s not about what a person has — it’s really about whether we are able to give opportunities to that person to help [him or her] thrive. We have to believe in the potential of every student.”

With this belief in mind, Khator has focused on the retention and success of students. Since coming to UH in 2008, she has helped raise the university’s overall graduation rate by increasing supports for students to help close what she calls “the achievement gap.”

UH’s diversity efforts, however, have centered not just on racial and ethnic diversity, but also on diversity of background, thought, sexual and gender identity, religion, socioeconomic status, and beyond. Khator says this enlarged focus has led to greater appreciation for all groups on campus.

“UH’s intent is to be a very diverse and inclusive university,” says Paula Myrick Short, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at UH. “We are working hard to create an environment in which our faculty, staff, and students are supported and encouraged to succeed.”

Faculty Recruitment
While diversifying the faculty has proved more challenging for UH — most universities struggle in this area — it is taking steps to improve the recruitment and retention of those from underrepresented groups. “We are very desirous to move the needle,” says Erika Henderson, EdD, assistant provost for faculty recruitment, retention, equity, and diversity.

Henderson says retention efforts have included mentoring opportunities for faculty; informative symposiums, forums, and workshops on topics such as the tenure process; faculty resource groups for minorities; and other resources, including those provided by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, of which UH is a member. Furthermore, the university has invested heavily in the recruitment process with the development of a recruitment tool kit, mandatory training for all search committee and department chairs and deans, and other resources to aid them in the search and hiring processes.

“We talk openly about [implicit bias],” Henderson says. “We provide faculty search committees with rubrics with which they can evaluate all of the candidates in an equitable manner, we provide them resources on how to write job announcements [to] attract more diverse candidates, we give them information on where they could post jobs in order to reach more diverse candidates, and we encourage them to utilize their networks — very practical information to aid them in their recruitment of faculty.”

Henderson says that UH is already beginning to see progress, with 11 underrepresented faculty members hired in the last year alone, and she predicts greater results in the near future.

The Law Center
At the University of Houston Law Center, 40.7 percent of the incoming class is minorities, which Dean Leonard M. Baynes, JD, says is the result of establishing diversity and inclusion as key values in the school. While Baynes says he has the ability as dean to “set the tone” when it comes to diversity efforts, he can only do so much himself.

“I think that diversity and inclusion takes time,” he says. “What I can do as dean is plant the seeds and let them grow … because the more people are talking about it, the more it’s happening regularly in a wide range of places and circumstances, the more likely it is that those seeds are going to grow into strong plants.”

With Baynes’ guidance, the school approaches this work with a focus on inclusion and engagement. Beyond making a point to recognize different religious holidays, he leads efforts to bring diverse speakers to campus to discuss a variety of topics for a range of events. Past speakers have included Eva Guzman, the first Latina Texas Supreme Court Justice, and Paulette Brown, the first female president of the American Bar Association, among others.

The Law Center also provides Continuing Legal Education (CLE) programs on topics such as race and law, race and policing, hate speech, racial healing, and LGBTQ issues.

“It is important to make sure that as a leading law school we present a forum for people to talk about a lot of these issues,” he says. “… It’s very important for me that we have socially relevant topics.”

Regarding student recruitment, the law school developed a pipeline program for undergraduate juniors and seniors from underrepresented backgrounds who are interested in becoming lawyers. Students from any college or university can apply.

Held in the summer, each program — one for juniors, one for seniors — is offered as an eight-week experience that gives participants a good grounding in law and better prepares them for the law school application process. Juniors take truncated law classes, do an LSAT review, and participate in an internship with a law firm or public interest organization. Seniors, on the other hand, prepare for the LSAT for “eight weeks, five days a week, eight hours a day,” Baynes says. They also receive general assistance with the law school application process, including writing a personal statement.

Baynes says the program helps participants become much better law school applicants and makes them feel less intimidated when they go to apply.

“[It is] designed for students who are from underrepresented backgrounds or low-income families who are very talented but don’t know what they don’t know in terms of the law school application process,” he says. “It gives them information so they can succeed.”

The School of Nursing
Employing a blind admissions process, the University of Houston School of Nursing has been able to maintain a similar level of diversity as the university’s undergraduate population, specifically with large Hispanic and Asian student populations. The underrepresented group in nursing, however — both at UH and in the field overall — is men.

With only 17 percent male students, the nursing school works to retain these men in several ways. Faculty make a special effort to support them via office hours and mentoring, and throughout the academic year, the school hosts male speakers who are leaders in nursing. In addition, a male faculty member leads a men’s group where these students can discuss any issues.

Lenore Pearlstein, co-publisher of INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine, presents Kathryn Tart, dean of the UH School of Nursing, with the 2016 HEED Award.
Lenore Pearlstein, co-publisher of INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine, presents Kathryn Tart, dean of the UH School of Nursing, with the 2016 HEED Award.

According to founding Dean of the UH School of Nursing Kathryn Tart, EdD, the school takes a similar approach with all of its students. By focusing on engagement, nursing faculty and staff help facilitate connections among students as well as between students and faculty.

“When we do information sessions with our students — which we hold monthly — we ask questions like, ‘How many of you live within five miles of the campus? How many of you live within 10 miles?’; ‘How many of you have families with young children at home?’; ‘How many of you speak another language besides English?’ And people are raising their hands and [saying], ‘Oh, they are like me, and I’m like them,’” Tart says. “… It’s a very engaging kind of educational process, and we know that with our diverse students, that is very important.”

When it comes to preparing students for a diverse world, the nursing school places great emphasis on cultural competence. Because of the intimate nature of the profession, Tart says that knowledge of cultural norms is critical to assessing patients. For this reason, the curriculum is supplemented with hands-on experience in clinical settings.

Nursing students participate in a simulation with a mannequin in UH School of Nursing’s 27-bed lab.
Nursing students participate in a simulation with a mannequin in UH School of Nursing’s 27-bed lab.

“We have a 27-bed lab where we do high-fidelity simulations [with] mannequins,” says Tart. “We can create a whole scenario around, say, someone who has a hemorrhage and is from a certain ethnic or religious background — that can all be part of the story of how we are taking care of this patient. We do that purposefully. [Our students] learn about it in the books, practice it in the lab, and then experience it in the hospital.”

UH School of Nursing is also doing its part to increase the number of nurses with a bachelor’s degree or higher, per the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation. As part of a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant, UH is working with community colleges in the area to place all incoming nursing students on the path to earning a bachelor’s degree. Via agreements between four-year universities and community colleges, also referred to as CABNET articulation agreements, community college students can select where they’d like to transfer to complete their degree.

Tart, who is the principal investigator on the grant in Texas, says CABNET agreements have helped increase the percentage of nurses in the state with a bachelor’s degree, as well as improve the diversity of nursing students.

“We know that our community colleges have much more diversity than many of our universities in the state of Texas,” Tart says, “so by creating these consortiums for advancing baccalaureate nursing education, we are able to provide people pathways they may never have thought were available to them.”

While many factors coalesce to make UH’s diversity and inclusion efforts successful, let alone possible, Baynes and Tart both credit university leadership with making this important work happen. Yet, they don’t underestimate the integral role faculty and staff play as well.

“For the president of the university and the provost, these are issues that are very important to them,” says Baynes. “That’s how I’m able to do what I’m able to do — [and with] the support of the faculty. Many faculty members are very interested in these issues and want to work on them.”

With visionary leadership and campus-wide buy-in, UH is proving through this “experiment” that in fact diversity and excellence are not mutually exclusive, but are instead complementary attributes that lead to success.●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.