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UMBC reaches highest classification for research output

Freeman A. Hrabowski III

“What people should appreciate is that much of our research involves seeking the truth and solving problems,” said UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has been granted the prestigious R1 Carnegie Classification just months before the president that lifted the school to national prominence is set to retire. 

The classification indicates a university has “very high research activity” and is widely considered a top indicator of an institution’s research output. UMBC is the third school and second public university in Maryland to receive such a classification, following the University of Maryland, College Park, and Johns Hopkins University.  

President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, who has led the school for 30 years and is retiring in June, said it wasn’t necessarily a goal of his to see the university become an R1 institution before his retirement on June 30.

“The goal has always been looking at what we as a campus had decided was important,” Hrabowski said. “I did not think it was going to happen before I left.”

Still, it was a welcome surprise. Victor M.H. Borden, project director for the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, called the classification a “nice parting gift,” Hrabowski recalled.

The Carnegie Classification system scores universities based on metrics related to doctorate production and research output. To be considered either an R1 or an R2 (which indicates “high research activity”) institution, a university must graduate at least 20 with doctorates per year and have at least $5 million in total research expenditures.

To differentiate between R1 and R2 institutions, the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education uses a formula that takes into consideration how many doctorates are granted, how much research output the university produces, how much staff is hired to complete research and more, according to Borden.

This year, 146 universities — 3.7% of the 3,938 schools the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education evaluates — were designated as R1 universities, while 134 were designated as R2.

UMBC had $80 million in research expenditures this year, according to Karl Steiner, the university’s vice president for research, and its faculty earned $200 million in research awards. Recent major research awards include $38 million from NASA; $20 million from the United States Army to develop artificial intelligence technologies; and $10 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to advance aquaculture. 

Though UMBC is largely seen as a science, technology, engineering and math university, Steiner and Hrabowski both emphasized that the university’s research achievements span the disciplines, from the sciences to the social sciences to the arts and humanities. 

Steiner noted that it can be hard to compare the institution’s humanities research to its STEM research, as funding tends to go further for the humanities than it does for STEM fields. 

“Often, (STEM) disciplines have to pursue larger dollar amounts,” he said. “A (scientific) instrument can cost a million dollars or two.”

The university was also switched from being classified as a “STEM-dominant” program within the Carnegie system to being a “comprehensive” program this year, which means that it awards research doctoral degrees in the humanities, social sciences and STEM fields.

Steiner cited a recent book by Marjoleine Kars, an associate professor of history, as evidence of UMBC’s strong research output in the humanities. The book, “Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast,” has won a number of prestigious awards, including the 2021 Cundill History Prize and the 2021 Frederick Douglass Book Prize. 

The university has also worked to balance its research goals with its focus on providing excellent undergraduate and graduate education to its students. For Hrabowski, those two ideas are not in opposition with each other — rather, they go hand-in-hand, with research opportunities enhancing and expanding upon what students learn in class. 

“We have brought the students into the research. Of course our graduates do research, but large numbers of our undergraduates do research as well,” Hrabowski said. “What people should appreciate is that much of our research involves seeking the truth and solving problems.” 

Steiner and Hrabowski both said that achieving the R1 classification is significant because, hopefully, it will encourage even more top minds to apply to work and study at UMBC. But both noted that this is nowhere near the end of UMBC’s quest to continue increasing and improving its research output.  

“Yesterday, we stopped for a minute, we felt really good about it, we took the moment in,” Steiner said. “And now we’re back and we have a number of proposals going out before the end of the week.”