The demographics of America are profoundly changing, including significant shifts in higher education.
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) is at the forefront of efforts to create a more inclusive and supportive educational environment for students of all racial and ethnic identities and walks of life.
Dan LeDuc, host of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ “After the Fact” podcast, spoke recently with Freeman Hrabowski, president of UMBC, and Katharine H. Cole, the university’s vice provost and dean of undergraduate academic affairs, as part of “After the Fact’s” latest season, “Race and Research.”
Hrabowski is a leader in trying to build equity and diversity in higher education—particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), a passion that Cole shares with him.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Dr. Hrabowski, you’ve spoken of growing up in segregated schools in Birmingham, Alabama. But you also spent a summer attending classes with White children in Massachusetts. What was that like, and how did it prepare you for today’s work at UMBC?
HRABOWSKI I grew up in Birmingham and was a part of the civil rights movement as a child leader in that group. I went to jail with Dr. Martin Luther King and was inspired when he said that we could have an impact on our own future. And it taught me the notion of the empowerment of young people, what that could do. But interestingly, my parents sent me to Massachusetts to have the experience in the summer of being in class with White children. And so I was allowed to do that. The challenge then was, nobody would speak to me. The teacher wouldn’t even call on me. I could be the only one with my hand up, and they would look right through me. They were not mean, but it was as if I wasn’t there. And that said a great deal to me about our country and about how children are treated. And, so, I wanted to study that question: How do we get more people of color, more Black people, into math and science and engineering?
Q: According to a recent Pew Research Center report, only 33% of the STEM workforce consists of people of color. This troubling data point doesn’t just happen—it’s a combination of socioeconomics, culture, and educational opportunities. What can you do to change some of these numbers?
COLE: We look at STEM education as well as education in the arts and humanities and social sciences as interconnected, as we are all interconnected. And what we found is … that success, certainly in STEM but in any discipline, is really dependent on three things. One is an inclusive community that helps support a student. Second is that student’s resilience, to be able to take a D in a general chemistry exam and move past that. And then the third is learning strategies.
And all of those things are really, really important. We have more STEM majors than graduates. And so it’s critical to really look at the resilience of our students—because it’s absolutely essential for success. You can teach resilience, and you can encourage it, so we’re focused on teaching resilience strategies to support students in achieving their goals.
Q: Well, one of the narratives that you’re going up against is that some of these freshman-year science classes and math classes are designed to be overly difficult. But that’s not your approach.
HRABOWSKI: Most people don’t realize that literally two-thirds of all Americans who start in science and engineering leave it within the first year. And the more prestigious the university, the greater the chance that the student will leave science. We were seeing that too, but it was just more obvious among Black students because the base of students was a much smaller group from the beginning. That led us to question the narrative about what we need to do not only to help those students to make sure they’re prepared, but what we need to do to change the culture of the university.
So we began redesigning courses over a decade ago. At the UMBC Chemistry Discovery Center, we’ve moved from just lecturing to having a great emphasis on active collaborative learning, working in groups, and using the technology so that every person has a role. We place four or five students at each table, and they all have to be engaged.
Q: And another way that you’re working to help students succeed in STEM fields is through your Meyerhoff Scholars Program for undergraduate and graduate students. Can you tell us more?
HRABOWSKI: The program originated over 30 years ago through a conversation with Bob Meyerhoff, a wonderful philanthropist, who asked me the question, “What can we do to help Black men?” at a time when people didn’t want to talk particularly about that group. We developed the program with young men the first year and brought women in the following year. Today, the Meyerhoff program has students of all races. But the criterion for selection, in addition to high achievement in science and engineering from high school and a passion for research, is an interest in addressing the issue of underrepresentation in science. These will be people who may eventually become doctors, physicians, scientists, or research engineers who want to pull more people into the work. And that’s the notion of the Meyerhoff program.
Q: What’s another way that you try to help students who might be struggling?
COLE: We try to find the point in time that they need the help and give them the right help. And regardless of who, there will be a point at which their resilience is tested because of other things—anything from taking care of a sick parent to having food insecurity. There’s a whole host of factors that affect a student’s ability to be resilient, and so that’s where we have academic advocates. This is a new program we started in 2019, which helps students navigate those obstacles at the institution.
Students from our Academic Success Center serve as a support system for all students, so that if a student has an issue, regardless of what it is, they have someone to go to who genuinely cares about them and about their success. And that’s huge.
Q: So, what’s the future of higher education look like? What are the challenges that need to be addressed when it comes to equity and diversity?
HRABOWSKI: The future of higher education, I think, is inextricably linked to the future of our society. And right now, we’re in a period of great division. My students have said, “Oh, it’s never been like this.” No, we’ve had times like this before—the ’60s, both the 1860s and 1960s.
And so when we talk about the issue of structural racism, the first challenge is that most people don’t understand that the term refers to all the ways in which people are discriminated against in our society—from health care to education to criminal justice.
While I’m encouraged that we have so much light shining on these issues, it will take major transformation of our culture to address systemic issues that go back hundreds of years. And few people understand what that requires. It’s not just money. It will take a change in attitudes and values, given how divided our society is right now.
We’re challenged as universities to help society understand the importance of evidence, science, truth, and of finding common ground that can pull us together. Science can be helpful, but certainly, the humanities and the social sciences will be very important for students of any race, in any major, as we teach students to think critically and to care about other people.