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Changing the Collegiate Climate

Speaking at NC State, Freeman Hrabowski shared his thoughts on how schools can spur academic and cultural innovation.

By Jesse Saffron

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February 03, 2014

Growing up in the 1960s, Freeman Hrabowski was an unlikely candidate for protesting at a civil rights march. The chunky “nerd”—as he now describes his childhood demeanorwas more interested in solving math problems and eating M&Ms than in effecting social change. 

One day, while attending a church service in Birmingham, Alabama, the 12-year-old became deeply inspired by the oration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King had told the all-black congregation that by having their children participate in an upcoming protest, all of America would see that their children, too, valued education and knew the difference between right and wrong. Hrabowski’s parents were initially hesitant, but after much debate and prayer, they acquiesced to King’s call and young Freeman’s pleadings. The parental concern proved to be well founded: their son was arrested at the protest and spent five days in jail. 

Last Thursday, Hrabowski, now president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, (UMBC) reflected on his incarceration during a lecture at NC State University titled “Institutional Culture Change: Fostering Inclusive Excellence and Academic Innovation.” The higher education leader, who in 2012 was named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People,” used his personal anecdote as a springboard for a broader discussion about how colleges and universities can enhance academic outcomes and create a campus culture that addresses the needs and concerns of a diverse student body and faculty. 

Hrabowski told an attentive crowd of students, faculty, and administrators that jail taught him that people can be “empowered” to love learning and that there is “no time to be a victim.” 

At 19, he earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics from the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), a historically black college in Virginia. At 24, he earned a Ph.D. in higher education/statistics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The rest of his resume is voluminous; he’s co-authored several books, served on prestigious boards, been named one of “America’s Best Leaders” by U.S. News, and President Obama recently tapped him to chair the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans. 

The biggest successes of Dr. Hrabowski’s career have resulted from his work at UMBC. When his presidency began in 1992, Hrabowski told the NC State audience, “Large numbers of minority students were not succeeding. We couldn’t figure it out.” After listening to students’ stories and participating in focus groups, Hrabowski realized that the minority students’ problems were shared by white students, too. The focus groups had revealed a lack of academic “intensity” among American students, unlike international students, who tended to have more of a drive to succeed and perform at a high clip. 

A Jamaican student once told Hrabowski, “I don’t mean to insult my American friends, but it almost seems that for many American students, college is the next step, it’s grade 13, it’s what you do next. But if I don’t excel, my brothers and sisters won’t eat. For me, it’s the bread of life.” 

“In our country,” Hrablowski said, “we have a culture that says big public colleges mean big sports, but how do we help people understand that we’re also about brain power? [UMBC] wanted to be a public school known as a place where students can feel really good about being smart.”

And Hrabowski set out to make UMBC meet that goal—to “celebrate the best thinking and best academic performance on campus in the same way that we [would] celebrate basketball championships.” After delving into the available data, talking with students, and gauging the campus atmosphere, several initiatives and programs designed to boost camaraderie and learning outcomes were created.  

For decades, no African-American student at UMBC had been able to earn a grade higher than a “C” in an upper-level science course. In a recent TED talk that hit on many of the points from his NC State lecture, Hrabowski says that he and his colleagues turned things around by instilling “high expectations,” “building community,” expanding research opportunities for students and having them participate in frequent lab exercises, and by encouraging faculty to become more involved with students. 

The school now boasts two undergraduate journals—one in the arts and humanities, and one in social sciences. The school is also a world-renowned chess powerhouse. Top high school chess geniuses are given scholarships to participate on the school’s chess team, which has won multiple intercollegiate championships. “The key in all of these cases is that we wanted to rethink our approach to supporting students, to give them incentives to be even better,” said Hrabowski.

UMBC then expanded its Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which helps top minority students pursue advanced degrees in science and engineering. In 1998, the school created the Center for Women in Information Technology in order to increase “the representation of women in the creation of technology in the engineering and information technology fields.” UMBC also initiated the Sherman STEM Teacher Scholars Program, which aims to increase the number of STEM graduates teaching at underperforming, troubled K-12 schools. 

According to Hrabowski, these efforts have made UMBC “the leading white institution in the country for sending blacks on to Ph.Ds.” UMBC averages about five per year; for perspective, NC State averages fewer than two per year. The school has received a number of national and regional accolades for those and related achievements. 

During the Q&A session following the lecture, someone asked how much of a financial investment was required for UMBC to produce these results. While Hrabowski wasn’t specific, he did suggest that the project is fairly costly. He replied, “It’s a combination of fundraising, national money, and some university money.” Hrabowski appears to be doing well on the fundraising front. He said that, over the course of his presidency, he’s received more than $15 million from Baltimore philanthropists Robert and Jane Meyerhoff. And grants from the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy have been substantial. He also said that UMBC is one of the biggest recipients of NASA’s higher education funding. 

Hrabowski also boasted that more than 1,000 UMBC students have gone on to work at the National Security Agency, and that many undergraduates get internships there and have received various security clearances. Given some of the recent revelations regarding the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs, I looked around the conference room to see if there were any signs of disapproval from faculty or students, but I found none, and in fact saw several heads nodding with reverential approval. 

Hrabowski’s lecture was the inaugural lecture in a new series titled “Contemporary Issues in Higher Education.” It was sponsored by NC State’s office of the provost, college of humanities and social sciences, Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity, and colleges of education, sciences, and engineering. Warwick A. Arden, NC State’s provost and executive vice chancellor, said that the school hopes to host one or two “high profile” guest lectures per semester.

President Hrabowski praised NC State University, which hosted his lecture, but he tried to communicate that there is always room for even top institutions to improve. His intensity and enthusiasm, along with his jovial laugh and elevated rhetoric, helped to sugarcoat some of his criticisms and recommendations. 

He thinks that all institutions should seek to improve faculty communication and address issues related to women, race, and income to ensure that the campus culture is steeped in openness and kindness, so that people “feel like more than just a number.” He also said that American colleges should “support bringing the best brain power from around the world” because it provides a “sense of hope that all things are possible through hard work.”

Then, in a slight jab at UNC-Chapel Hill’s ongoing athletics department scandals, Hrabowski asked the crowd to clap if they believed, as he does, that college athletes should also be top students. People in the crowd laughed and began clapping. 

Ultimately, said Hrabowski, changing the culture of a campus requires an extensive dialogue. “You cannot make anybody on campus do anything. The only way change occurs is through persuasion.”  Based on the warm reception he received during and after his lecture, Hrabowski certainly won over hearts and minds at NC State. 

 


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