August 8, 2019 | George Mattingly II
For Ira K. Blake, education is a game-changer.
“All my life, my parents taught me that education was important and that it could change my life if I applied myself, worked hard and remained a decent, honest person and accepted support.”
Her parents attended school up to elementary. They worked as sharecroppers, and later, as blue collar laborers who taught all nine of their children to value education.
While they could not help her solve algebra equations or navigate through college, they served as her biggest supporters, inspiring her to go coast to coast and around the world in pursuit of her goals. And in just one generation, Blake achieved a family milestone by earning her doctorate.
“They told me not to let location interfere with opportunity, so I’ve not only followed that educationally, but also throughout my career,” she said.
Blake’s life trajectory, education and career culminated in 2017 when she was named the fifth president of University of Houston-Clear Lake—the first woman and first African-American to serve in that role.
“I’m passionate about education because of what my parents taught me. Education is broader than the classroom. It is about learning to respect others, listening to issues, challenges and opportunities that are important to others and to see a way in which you can support them,” Blake said.
UH-Clear Lake opened in 1974 at the request of NASA Johnson Space Center to develop and train employees, including engineers, astronauts and scientists in order to find innovative solutions to the world’s leading challenges.
“The university was placed to provide tools and knowledge to tackle challenges,” Blake said. “Many of our charter faculty started out as engineers and scientists. They brought with them applied knowledge to create innovation and discover a better way to tackle a problem. It’s really our legacy.”
Over its 45-year history, the university has expanded its reach to Pearland and the Texas Medical Center, and has grown from a two-year institution to a comprehensive, four-year university. Since Blake’s arrival, the university has undergone a greater transformation. From opening two buildings at the Clear Lake campus, another at UHCL Pearland and the first on-campus residence hall in August, to establishing a new executive leadership team, she says all of it is crucial to advancing the legacy of the university.
“All of these changes provide an updated context for students to learn that is more aligned with what’s happening in the real world. Our students are not just learning theories, they’re learning how to apply them using tools, facilities and spaces that will help them make a smooth transition into the real world.”
Despite all the changes, Blake says the core purpose of UH-Clear Lake remains the same.
“We have distinct areas of impact that are improving the quality of life in the community and creating opportunities for students who are educated here.”
The work of faculty and students on autism research is one example, she said, speaking of graduate student Karlie Hinkle, who is developing a training protocol to educate police officers how to change their approach to people with autism.
For a person with autism, flashing lights, sirens and the approach of a uniformed stranger could be frightening. As a result, a police officer could easily misunderstand that person’s reactions. With the training, Hinkle aims to teach officers how to recognize some of the characteristics of persons with autism and how to respond appropriately to create more positive interactions.
“We take our responsibilities to be problem-solvers very seriously. We do not simply acquire knowledge and skills, but our purpose is reality-oriented to create solutions,” she said.
UH-Clear Lake's impact is not limited to one area, she continued, but extends to education, healthcare, business and science.
With more growth expected, Blake and the university community are preparing for the future with a new strategic plan.
“The previous two years were about getting to know the space, the team members and assessing our resources for how we were going to move forward,” she said. “This new strategic plan is the marker for the next era of the university under my leadership.”
The plan serves as a blueprint for the next phase of the university that guides leadership on assessing performance, identifying goals for the future and prioritizing resources needed to achieve them.
For Blake, that means more than improving classroom learning, but empowering students through educational experiences.
“Every student who graduates from UHCL should learn from professors who have experience in their fields, be technologically literate for their career, experience different cultures and participate in career-related experiences throughout their education here. All of these things move students outside of their own perspectives and push them to speak and think intentionally to make better decisions.”
“Continuing the legacy of educating problem-solvers at UHCL is the key to transforming lives, communities and the world”, Blake said. “The best part is, we’re just getting started. We’re only 45 years young and what we’ve seen so far is extraordinary potential to make a big difference in the world. We’re going to leverage that and show how much more of a contributor we are,” she said.
Learn more about President Blake and the UHCL Strategic Planing Process online.