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Khator prepares for provost challenge

When life hands you a lemon, sometimes the best thing to do is make margaritas. This is the analogy Renu Khator uses to describe how to defeat a challenge. The mindset seems to make sense, coming from someone who managed the deepest of budget cuts, overcame a language barrier at the age of 18 and earned her Ph.D. while a mother of two.

Now, the former College of Arts and Sciences dean is preparing for her latest challenge — interim provost of USF. Khator was appointed to the position when health concerns prompted S. David Stamps to resign.

Khator’s transition means more financial management, more university engagement and more meetings. But Khator remains confident her background will guide her through the responsibilities.

Financial management: She’s led USF’s largest college through a $4.3 million budget reduction.

University engagement: Khator was the Faculty Senate president and a faculty assistant to former USF president Betty Castor. Not to mention she can hold a conversation about almost any subject: environmental policy, political science, poetry, research, the Devil Rays and Lord of The Rings.

Meetings: Khator has attended faculty union meetings addressing the renewal of a collective bargaining agreement and Board of Trustee meetings regarding the Sami Al-Arian situation.

But already, Khator knows the toughest obstacle as interim provost will be the Florida Legislature’s sequel to budget cuts.

“The challenge is going to be we have so many unfunded students who we have admitted, who we want to serve. However, we have not received the funds to serve them,” Khator said. “So our biggest challenge is going to be balancing what our commitment is to students and what our passion is.”

The Legislature came to a consensus on a $40-million budget cut last month that was originally supposed to be $100 million.

“It is still quite big,” she said.

Still, USF will not receive money for enrollment growth, which reduces the funds the university could have received from hundreds of incoming students.

“We just have to do the very best because we cannot take shortcuts when it comes to student learning; we cannot take shortcuts, when it comes to advancing the research either,” Khator said.

How USF students will survive next summer with class offerings is yet to be determined, Khator said. But in April, before the legislative session, it seemed that the College of Arts and Sciences would be a victim to the cuts once again with a projected 7 percent reduction in the school’s funds.

“It might show its impact as soon as the spring also,” Khator said. “But we’ll do our best to try to see how we can minimize any kind of pain on students.”

Khator said USF officials will begin having discussions in September and October about how the summer will be funded. But communication between departments will be crucial in order to find a way to minimize the outcome.

“I believe that we’ll be able to give them budgets; we’ll be able to have a dialogue about what’s important and what are the priorities to reach the strategic plan. And after that, I’m going to trust the colleges and departments to accomplish the very best that they can,” Khator said.

USF President Judy Genshaft said part of the reason she appointed Khator was because of her organizational skills in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“She’s done quite well. The way she handles her budget cuts is to show the budget to all of the departments,” Genshaft said. “Nothing is a secret. She tells people what the situation is and what we have to deal with, and does so in such an organized fashion so the people understand the kind of situation (they) are facing.”

One of Khator’s main concerns as interim provost is assisting faculty members in their goals.

“I really do believe that the academia is about what the faculty is doing, whether it’s in the classroom, in the research labs, or whether it’s in the community,” Khator said.

Throughout her 18-year career at USF, she has identified most with being a faculty member.

“Being able to call myself a faculty member — that’s a far more important identification,” she said. “I define my year as Faculty Senate president as truly my defining year in terms of learning the administrative side of my personality. When I became the president, all of a sudden I was involved in issues and decisions that were at a university level. But the most important thing I learned during that time period was how faculty are at the center at everything that goes on at the university.”

That proved to be true in 2001-02, when the faculty held numerous meetings in response to the suspension of Al-Arian. Many faculty were upset with the BOT’s recommendation that Genshaft fire Al-Arian. Faculty argued that Al-Arian was entitled to academic freedom after his appearance on the Fox News show The O’Reilly Factor. Genshaft argued that he was a threat to security.

In the mix of it all, there was Khator, attending both administration and faculty meetings.

“It was difficult; there’s no doubt about that,” Khator said. “Nonetheless, I think you have to allow people to express their views, and you have to allow people to disagree with you. You have to respect people in order to talk with them, and that is what my goal was.

“There’s nobody judging the wrong or the rightness of it. People had different views, and they had the forums to express those views.”

As part of her new position, Khator wants to have several regular forums of her own with faculty, deans and chairman. Khator said she wants to earn the trust of faculty members during her leadership.

But already Genshaft said the faculty has a lot of confidence in her.

“She is a friend of the faculty and a terrific leader and enjoys administration,” Genshaft said.

Faculty will be part of the provost search committee, once it is fully formed by Stuart Silverman, dean of the Honors College.

Michael Reich, media relations director, said the committee plans to meet before the fall semester at the Faculty Senate’s request. After the meeting, an application will be advertised to accept applications and select a list of potential candidates.

Khator said she was nervous about accepting the job as interim provost at first. But Khator’s husband Suresh, a professor in the College of Engineering, gave her confidence.

“He’s always been my biggest supporter,” Khator said.

Khator said her family has always been her support and inspiration through her accomplishments. When Khator was 18, she and her husband moved from New Dehli, India to the United States. Khator already had a B.A. in liberal arts but had to adjust to the language and culture.

“There were tremendous struggles,” Khator said. “When I came to this country, I could not speak English. I enrolled in the graduate program. … My first lecture, I did not understand 95 percent of it.”

Nearly two years later, she earned her masters in political science at Purdue University and continued to earn her Ph.D. while raising her daughters Parul and Pooja.

“My parents never thought in their wildest dreams that their daughter would be in a leadership position in the U.S.,” Khator said. “But this country has provided me with all the opportunities that I could never have even imagined.”

Q & A with Khator

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear ‘budget cuts?’

Challenge. When life gives you a lemon, everybody else is busy making lemonade. You should think of making margaritas. Life always gives you challenges; you just can’t get discouraged.

Do you still write and plan to publish any poetry or fiction?

I write my fiction and poetry in Hindi. They are published in India, and the poetry I like to write is more a social type of humor that I can use all the time in parties in the Indian community. The other kind is more literary and environmental issues. My fiction deals with issues on women like myself trying to adjust to a different culture.

If USF’s administration could have done anything differently with the Al-Arian situation prior to his arrest, what would it be?

Get the faculty engaged early on.

What movie sequel are you looking forward to seeing?

I like more cultural movies. The last movie I saw was Bend it like Beckham. … If they made a sequel of that, I would go see it. Lord of the Rings would be good; I enjoyed that so I would definitely go see that sequel.

What can the Devil Rays do to win more games?

They already tried coloring hair, and that doesn’t work. How about taking some lessons from USF’s baseball program? They do better.

Grace Agostin