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Newsmakers: UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski III

Daniel Leaderman//Daily Record Business Writer//August 7, 2016

Newsmakers: UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski III

By Daniel Leaderman

//Daily Record Business Writer

//August 7, 2016

One key to increasing students’ success in higher education is to publicize and promote community colleges, according to UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski III. ‘The beauty of the American higher education system is there are all types of institutions that can provide a fine education,’ he says. ‘But the American public doesn’t know that.’ (Maximilian Franz / The Daily Record)
One key to increasing students’ success in higher education is to publicize and promote community colleges, according to UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski III. ‘The beauty of the American higher education system is there are all types of institutions that can provide a fine education,’ he says. ‘But the American public doesn’t know that.’ (Maximilian Franz / The Daily Record)

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County has more than 11,000 undergraduates, but President Freeman Hrabowski III doesn’t want it to feel that way.

Though it has some advantages of a large research university, Hrabowski wants the school to have the feel of a small liberal-arts college.

“The question for any institution has to be, ‘How do you help students feel that they are special?’” Hrabowski asked recently. “If a student can have a sense of self and connect to [a community] … the student has a much better chance of succeeding and doing really well,”.

UMBC will celebrate its 50th anniversary later this year, and Hrabowski, 65, has been at the helm for 24 of those years.

During that time, the school has become a hub for cybersecurity and STEM education; built a research park to house startups and connect existing companies with university research; and become a major source of employees for the National Security Administration. Some felt Hrabowski was the natural choice to replace former University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. “Brit” Kirwan, who stepped down last year, but he wasn’t interested in the job.

A native of Birmingham, Alabama and former child-leader in the civil rights movement, Hrabowski was trained as a mathematician and has continued his own education at UMBC. He proudly notes that he’s studying French, reading Proust and Sartre, and texts with students “en français.”

In an interview with The Daily Record last month, edited below for clarity and length, Hrabowski addressed the current state of higher education, things that make his campus unique and the importance of considering the opposite view when talking about race relations and policing.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing higher education today?

Everybody would say the issues of access, affordability and success. Years ago, the message was, “We’ve got to get people into college.” Well, that just doesn’t [cut] it now. Why? Because many students end up not succeeding.  Almost half don’t succeed in higher education. That’s the big issue.

Why not?

For many reasons. Large percentages of students don’t have the reading and math backgrounds to succeed, large numbers start off in developmental courses. People don’t understand the complexity of higher education.

One of the challenges in America is that we confuse social prestige and academic quality all the time.  Many families think, “Oh, I must send my [child] to this school because of the name, because he or she will get a better education.”

Now, what most people don’t know is that almost half of Americans start at two-year institutions.  That’s very different from people who grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They still think, “Well, you always start in a four-year unless you just can’t do any better.” It’s just not the case. In many parts of the country, very high-achieving students decide to get a strong education and pay less money by starting in two-year institutions. And Maryland is fortunate to have some very strong two-year institutions, where large numbers of the faculty have Ph.D.s. It’s very impressive, it really is.  And [the students] come to UMBC and do quite well.

And so one of the challenges in higher education is to have the public understand. When I talk about people confusing social prestige and academic quality, it is to understand that you can find first-rate education in all those types of institutions.

The beauty of the American higher education system is there are all types of institutions that can provide a fine education. But the American public doesn’t know that.

In America, the biggest issue we face…is that the vast majority of Americans who begin with a major in STEM don’t succeed. The vast majority of students of all races.

Why is that?

Several reasons … quantitative work is unpredictable. I say that as a mathematician. You can get a least a “B” in the humanities and social sciences if you do the work. But you can work really hard in math and science and get a “C” or a “D.” And it happens all the time. And what is the result? Only 5 percent of Americans over the age of 25 have degrees in natural sciences and engineering compared to twice that in Europe.

So is the problem one of the way it’s taught? Or the way it’s evaluated?

The fact is … we [as a society] don’t expect most students to succeed in math and science. We tend to think that math and science are for a few people. At UMBC, we have been rethinking the teaching and learning process across disciplines, from science and engineering to the arts and humanities and social sciences.

We’ve also redesigned such courses as chemistry, first and second-year chemistry, to focus on group work. In other words, not having students sit back and passively write down notes — that just doesn’t work anymore for so many students.

Math and science tend to be cutthroat. If I grade on a curve, you’re not going to tell him what you know, because he may not tell you what he knows, so nobody wants to work together because you’re scared. One score’s higher than the other, somebody gets an “A” someone else gets a “B,” it does not suggest people should be working together so that everybody can come up to a certain standard. It doesn’t give you that feeling at all, and that’s a big part of the problem.

Can you measure whether [the group work] is making a difference?

Oh, yeah, yeah. You measure, first of all, by the increased percentage of those getting B’s and better and then the retention rate. A big challenge for us is more and more students who are becoming and remaining chemistry and biochemistry majors…it’s a pleasant problem to have.

I think what makes us innovative is that we are saying to the country, “it’s not about who’s smart … it’s about grit.” Even my young scholars who can finish the calculus sequence before they are 13, work really hard.

We have to teach American children and others that people who succeed work really hard. The most exciting people will be creative and work really hard. And we also say, “It’s not enough to be good in STEM.” You do need the humanities and the arts for that creativity and to be able to do the ethical reflection, it has to be the combination.

[We’re] a school where STEM is important, but arts and humanities are just as important. Maybe even more important.

During this year’s legislative session there was a lot of focus on strengthening the partnership between the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland, Baltimore. How does UMBC fit into that discussion?

People don’t realize how strong our relationship is to UMB. We have a major [collaboration] involving research from both campuses and the leaders of that campus and the leaders of UMBC are very close, from [UMB President] Jay Perman to all of the deans. All of us. We work very well together… the state doesn’t realize just how powerful that research collaboration is between the two campuses and how good it is for Baltimore, quite frankly.

What about College Park?

We have respect for them and we have many colleagues there with whom we work. We have millions of dollars involved in research collaboration with College Park. But our very strong relationship is with UMB — you can see them from the roof of this building — and we are respectful of the relationship UMB has with College Park.

Have you thought about how much longer your tenure here might last?

I want to keep building the endowment and supporting my colleagues as we build this image of UMBC [but] I don’t know how long I’ll be here. I’ll be here a number of years.

You’ve had a connection to the civil rights movement your whole life. What’s your take on what’s been happening recently [in Dallas, Minnesota and Baton Rouge]?

What I would say right now is that what the most enlightened leaders have been saying is that it is a time for us to first to grieve; second to understand the other’s perspective; third to understand that we can understand the fear that people would feel – whether it is the family of a police officer or the family of a child of color.

We as human beings have so much in common. When we work with our young people in our Choice Program [focusing on delinquency prevention for at-risk youth], we have seen young men and boys hearing a police officer explain that he can be afraid. People don’t understand that human dimension from the point of view of a police officer.

It is a time when we need to understand both the flaws in our society involving prejudice and at the same time, the need to focus on supporting law enforcement professionals who are really there to protect us where the vast majority of them are doing exactly what they should be doing. And that we should not, as I’ve heard somebody say, allow the exceptions to shape our thinking and actions for the majority. These are outliers.


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