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Her dream grows past expectation as provost

Growing up in India, Renu Khator just wanted an advanced degree. Monday at USF, she got so much more.

Published February 10, 2004

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Renu Khator, 48, is now the school's chief academic officer and number two administrator.

TAMPA - When Renu Khator was 18, her parents told her she would be married in 10 days. To a stranger.

Khator, then living in her native India, burst into tears and went on a hunger strike. She was convinced she would never be able to fulfill her dream of getting a master's degree.

"I didn't know anything," said Khator, who went ahead with the arranged marriage. "I didn't know what dreaming was."

On Monday, the woman whose only ambition was an advanced degree was named provost at the University of South Florida. Khator, 48, is now the school's chief academic officer and number two administrator.

Khator has been interim provost since July. She now assumes the permanent job after almost 19 years of working her way through USF's ranks.

"We did have excellent, excellent candidates but Provost Khator, you won the day," USF president Judy Genshaft said as she announced her decision at a reception filled with administrators and faculty.

Genshaft and Khator are the only all-female team running a Florida university, and one of a handful in the nation. Khator said she has been told she is the only Indian-born provost at a major metropolitan school.

"I can visualize it. I can see it," Khator said from an office festooned with ballons. "We're going to be a different university in three years."

Khator, who serves as acting president in Genshaft's absence, said she plans to increase faculty salaries, admit more doctoral students, raise the caliber and diverity of undergraduate students, and guarantee each student a seat in the classes they need for a degree.

But her primary goal, she said, is empowering the faculty.

"It's a perfect position for her," said Michael Knox, a medical professor who encouraged her in the 1990s to get involved in the Faculty Senate, a role that led to her move into administration.

Khator said she never envisioned being a professor, let alone a top-ranking administrator.

She was born to a family of lawyers and lived in India her first 18 years. Her father didn't think she needed to pursue a career in law, which was viewed as a male profession. But Khator had a passion for learning instilled by her mother.

She came to the United States in 1974, after marrying her husband, Suresh Khator, then a doctoral student at Purdue University. He got his doctorate while she earned a master's in political science. The couple then moved back to India to settle down and raise a family.

But they returned to Purdue five years later when a former professor invited her to complete her doctorate. They moved to Florida after her husband received a job offer from USF. She initially told him to turn it down because she had never heard of the school.

She changed her mind after a visit.

"It just seemed like a university ready to go places," she said.

Khator stopped teaching full time four years ago but still does research. She is working on her fifth book about environmental policy.

On Monday, Genshaft presented Khator with a USF license plate and a green USF polo shirt with provost printed on the front. The president then e-mailed the university community about her selection.

Mohsen Milani, chairman of USF's department of government and international affairs, has known Khator for 17 years. When she was dean of the college of arts and sciences, he said, she made a point of consulting faculty before making decisions.

"She never really ordered me to do anything," said Trevor Purcell, who became chairman of the Africana Studies department in 2000.

Colleagues describe Khator as someone who prioritizes, then sticks by her decisions. When she first started as interim provost, she replaced both senior administrators in her office.

Once a month, Khator meets with faculty and administrators 20 at a time for coffee. She likes to interact with students.

"She has students in her life," said Omar Khan, USF's student body president. "That's what's special about her."

Khator is active in the Tampa Bay Indian community and returns to India once a year to visit her parents and younger brother and sister. She wears traditional Indian saris instead of evening gowns to special functions and cooks Indian food at home.

She has two daughters. Both are studying to be ophthalmologists.

Genshaft picked Khator over three outside candidates: Anthony Garro, provost at Lehman College of the City University of New York; Stephen Lehmkuhle, vice president for academic affairs for the University of Missouri system; and Laura F. Lindsay, an executive assistant to the chancellor at Louisiana State University.

"I know Dr. Khator's vision and leadership, coupled with her energy and enthusiasm, will enable her to develop and sustain the nationally prominent academic programs that we have," Genshaft said.

Khator replaces David Stamps, who stepped down in July for health reasons. She earns $207,400 as interim provost. She and Genshaft have not settled on her new salary.

Even before the announcement, Khator had become a bit of celebrity in Indian circles.

A newspaper catering to Indians in the United States wanted to write an article about her, but she declined an interview. She can't think about that - not now.

"Gosh, I have so much work to do. Now I have to deliver."

- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

[Last modified February 10, 2004, 01:00:27]

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