Dr. Freeman Hrabowski is the embodiment of what he instills in his students. An African American who was a child leader in the civil rights movement, the self-described “math nerd” went on to become the President of the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), an institution that leads the nation in sending students of color to doctoral degrees in the STEM fields.
President since 2002, Hrabowski’s formula for success in science includes four pillars, now made famous by his 2013 TED Talk which gives clear and compelling direction for how higher education can apply academic innovation to achieve “inclusive excellence” (a term often used on campus). Amid examples of alumni successes, he argues that more women, more students of color and more students in general need to become better prepared for graduation and graduate school, particularly in the STEM fields. Not only is our society made better by it, our global competitiveness relies on it.
Hrabowski’s positive, aspirational message is both practical and philosophical. It’s also reciprocal. Students need to have high expectations and acknowledge that excellence takes hard work (pillar number 1); Higher education needs to pursue academic innovation to disrupt a system that keeps many from thriving (pillars 2 through 4). All parties need to abandon unhelpful notions like “math is too hard,” “the sciences are cut-throat,” and the idea that academic quality is defined by “how few can master certain subjects.”
UMBC is a laboratory for all of this work. Begun in 1963 as the only institution in Maryland that accepted students of all races, it is proud of its ongoing diversity (about 50 percent white, 50 percent non-white), and its academic rigor. Signature programs, like the Meyerhoff Scholars, which was created as a pathway for African American undergraduates to enter doctoral programs in STEM, are now being replicated in several schools across the country.
From all accounts, students at UMBC like to work hard and do well. Their mascot, the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, is called “True Grit,” which Hrabrowski says reflects the high-achieving, “underdog” spirit of the college. That spirit was on full display this past March during the NCAA basketball tournament when 16th seeded-UMBC Retrievers beat the Virginia Cavaliers, the number one team in the country.
At every gathering of the Meyerhoff Scholars, Hrabowski reminds students of the importance of persistence, asking them to recite the Langston Hughes poem expressing that sentiment:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Here is an excerpt from our conversation.
Mary Christie Quarterly: How would you define the challenge UMBC is aggressively addressing?
Dr. Freeman Hrabowski: Most people don’t realize that almost half of the students who begin college don’t graduate. And when we talk about first-generation students, students of color, a much higher percentage never graduate. And so it’s important to talk about not just access to higher education, but success at higher education.
Certainly cost is an issue and I think that sometimes people don’t realize how different the cost will be across institutions. It is important we teach families how important it is to consider the cost, even after financial aid and scholarships, and in relationship to their budget.
But the other big issue has to do with reading and math skills and the fact is that so many students don’t have the strength of skills they need if they are to succeed. For minority students, if the students are from a low-income background, the fact is well over half will begin college in developmental math and reading. And the probability of a student graduating from college after beginning in developmental math is under 20 percent. We know that. So that says we need to find ways, in terms of creative strategies, to develop and support stronger math and reading skills, which are more important than ever.
College completion is also the pathway to graduate degrees and I believe that we should be thinking right at the start about the percentage of students who will go on to graduate school. This is something we’ve worked very hard at here at UMBC and I am proud to say that 40 percent of our students in the sciences go immediately to graduate or professional schools.
MCQ: Why have you made that such a prominent goal?
FH: It’s really a national imperative. I had the privilege of chairing the National Academy’s Committee on Underrepresentation in Science. What we found was that only about 5 percent of the Bachelors degrees in our country are in natural sciences and engineering, compared to about 11 percent in Europe. At the same time, we know that a large percentage of the jobs being created will require strong technology backgrounds and other broad STEM areas.
Part of the problem is the rate of incompletion in these majors. It doesn’t surprise people that only 20 percent of Blacks and Hispanics who begin with a major in science will graduate in a six-year period with a major in science.
What is surprising to most is that only 32 percent of whites and 40 percent of Asians who started out in these majors will stay in them, so we have a fundamental problem with the migration from STEM for students of all races.
Countries all over the world are recognizing how important these areas are and are investing heavily in technology education. We are just not producing the numbers we need. Women are far more involved in technology throughout the world than they are in this country. Thirty years ago, almost 36 percent of all the majors in computer science were women. Today, we’re down to under 20 percent, so we have half the population not functionally participating in the global market in terms of technology careers.
Women, people of color, low-income students and first generational students – these are all groups we have to encourage and support to go into science and technology, and to have more of them thinking about graduate programs in those areas.
MCQ: How are you addressing these issues at UMBC?
FH: We are changing the culture of college success and of college science. We have this mindset in this country that only a few people can succeed in science and math and we tend to define quality in terms of exclusivity. We talk about these areas as “weed out courses.” If most people are not succeeding in these courses, we think, “Oh, that’s good. That means it’s really hard.”
At UMBC, we believe we need to have very high standards for the rigor of the work, but we also must have very high standards for the level of support that we give students in order to reach that bar. That’s the difference.
So how do we achieve that? I talk quite a bit about the four “pillars of success”: 1) focusing on great expectations and acknowledging that you need to work hard; 2) building a sense of community among students so they can help one another; 3) evaluating what we’re doing; and 4) understanding that to produce people in science and technology, faculty in the sciences have to take ownership of those students and pour that into the work.
We have focused considerable time and resources on redesigning courses, particularly in the first two years of science and engineering, so we move from “weeding out” students to getting them to achieve their goals. The other point is we need to build community among students so that we get away from the idea of these “cut-throat” science and technology environments but rather understand that people can help each other grasp concepts, problem-solve and succeed.
The Meyerhoff Scholars program is a great example of that. It was started by Robert and Jane Meyerhoff to provide financial assistance, mentoring, advising, and research experience to African American male undergraduate students committed to pursuing Ph.D degrees in math, science, and engineering. It is open to any highly-able student committed to that goal.
Meyerhoff has a proven formula for success that involves an accelerated summer program, highly-collaborative learning groups, hands-on research experiences, and very involved faculty. We currently have over 300 graduates from the Meyerhoff program pursuing graduate and professional degrees in STEM fields.
The success of the program has encouraged other programs like the Sherman Scholars (which teaches education students how to inspire children to take up math and science) and the Center for women in IT. And we are very excited that we have been asked to replicate the model at other schools like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
MCQ: With such a strong focus on STEM, how do you ensure the “well-roundedness” of your students? And is that important?
We have all sorts of majors here. At UMBC, we think it is very important not to separate the education of a student who is in STEM from education broadly. The most effective professionals will be those who are broadly educated, who are able to communicate effectively, to write well, to analyze problems and to work well with other people, and we need to make sure that all of our students are learning and practicing those skills. For example, the students in the Meyerhoff Scholars program are required to take courses in the humanities, the arts and the social science as well.
Overall, we believe a healthy environment is one in which the development of a person is holistically viewed so as you’re developing skills in biochemistry, you are also teaching the person how to handle the challenges of life itself.
MCQ: What do you love about UMBC?
FH: The people here are amazing. I love the faculty – the way they care deeply about the students. I love our culture. We have students from over 100 different countries and we are very proud of our domestic and international diversity. The notion of “inclusive excellence” is in our DNA – we bring people together from different backgrounds who help each other to excel. We are a campus of high achievers. Students are very serious about their work – whether it is biology or theater. We have a name for it here: We call it “grit.” I’ll give you an example.
When we won that game against UVA, I was so proud of our students. We knew we were the underdog, and UVA is one of the most admired universities in the world. The best line of the night was when a reporter asked one of the players what his plans were, and he said, “I have to go back to my room and study for an exam.”
You can’t say it any better than that!
MCQ: What will you do next?
FH: I plan to be right here. I’m not done. I’ve been married 47 years and I’m married to this place. It is my life.