New York, New York! What Can This Great, Diverse City Teach Us About Health Care?
Creating a Magnet for Minorities in Math and Science

Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski, III
President, University of Maryland,
Baltimore County (UMBC)

The United Nations. Its location in NYC strenghtens the city's claim to be the diversity capital of the world.

NYC is home to the second-largest Indian population in the US.

Dr. Hrabowski, a mathematician, received his MA (mathematics) and PhD (higher education administration/statistics) from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign at age 24. His research and publications focus on science and mathematics education, and he is coauthor of Beating the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African-American Males and Overcoming the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African-American Young Women. He serves as a consultant to the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and universities and school systems nationally. He is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the first US Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. He has been President of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), since 1992.

Global Health Nexus (GHN): US News & World Report has credited you with transforming UMBC from a struggling commuter school a decade ago to what it calls an educational "powerhouse," with UMBC recognized today as the leading producer of African Americans going on to earn PhDs in science and engineering. What is the secret to this transformation?

Dr. Hrabowski: The most important factor in our success has been the role of the faculty, particularly the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) faculty (supported, of course, by academic administrators). It has been critical that tenured faculty have taken ownership of this issue. What we see on our campus are students of color in labs across the disciplines. Keep in mind that most of our faculty members are not of color, and that we are still trying to identify African-American and Hispanic faculty in most disciplines, with particular specialties, as we have openings for faculty positions. What we understand is that the academic performance of students of color in science and engineering is not a minority issue, but rather an American issue that we all must tackle.

GHN: Are other schools of science and engineering studying UMBC's example as a model for improving their own educational programs?

Dr. Hrabowski: Yes, we have been working with a variety of institutions, agencies, and foundations in reflecting on lessons learned and best practices. Colleagues from a wide range of colleges and universities - from Williams and Harvard to LSU and the University of Michigan - have been working with us on these issues over the years.

GHN: Does UMBC prepare African Americans to pursue careers in the healthcare professions as well as in science and engineering?

Dr. Hrabowski: As you might expect, many of the students who come to UMBC with an interest in science also have an interest in becoming physicians and, in some cases, dentists. Because our funding comes primarily from NIH and NSF with the understanding that we are working to produce researchers, our top priority is to produce people who go on to earn PhDs, in addition to medical and dental degrees. A number of our graduates have completed MD/PhDs. Of course, some students decide that they are much more interested in clinical work than in research. The most important point is that helping students excel in science and engineering helps them to consider a variety of options in the healthcare professions because success in those programs requires strong scientific preparation.

GHN: You have been described as the "Pied Piper of smart students" because of your ability to cultivate and communicate an expectation of excellence. It would seem that the expectation of excellence would be a given in any higher education environment. Why is this not necessarily true?

Dr. Hrabowski: We in higher education are not accustomed to seeing large numbers of well-prepared students of color. It takes some success in this area to convince large numbers of people that we can have many of these students excelling. People have been accustomed to students of color earning Cs or below and therefore expect to see that happen. It takes a few determined people to focus on high expectations and strategies for giving students support for reaching those expectations.

GHN: You have emphasized the importance of mentorship and role modeling in enabling aspiring African-American scientists to excel academically, saying, "each group of students is responsible for the next." How does this strategy play out on your campus?

Dr. Hrabowski: First and foremost, it takes researchers to produce researchers. What's important to remember is that most of my colleagues who have inspired these students to become researchers have been white faculty (male and female) who care about the students and are excited about their own research. Beyond the faculty, we have created a culture within the Meyerhoff Program* and in the STEM community generally at UMBC that includes group study and collaboration among students.

Too often, STEM classes have an overly competitive environment in which people believe that one student's success may mean another student's failure. What we have learned from the Meyerhoff Program is that we can create a broad culture for students of all races in which they support each other, learn from each other, critique each other, and build on each other's success.

GHN: What is the racial and ethnic composition of your faculty?

Dr. Hrabowski: Our faculty is primarily white, with a number of Asian faculty in engineering and computer science. We have been working to create a presence (meaning at least one faculty member) from underrepresented groups in each department. We have succeeded in biological sciences, physics, and in several other departments, but we still have a way to go. In fact, we are learning a great deal from our work being funded by an NSF ADVANCE grant for women scientists. I am serving as the Principal Investigator on that grant, which sends the message that we need more women faculty in STEM fields, and it's encouraging that several of the faculty we have hired recently have been women of color.

GHN: How does this compare to the faculty composition at other schools of science and engineering?

Dr. Hrabowski: We probably are somewhere in the middle. Most research universities have very few underrepresented minority faculty in STEM areas. Unlike at professional schools, science and engineering faculties at research universities have very few people of color at present. Again, this is one of the areas in which we know we need to continue to make progress. The real strength of our story is that our faculty, in general, has become passionate about producing researchers of color in science, engineering, and the health professions.

GHN: Just as New York City is a magnet for people with ideas, energy, and entrepreneurship, is UMBC, because of its commitment to diversity, a similar kind of beacon for people of all races and ethnicities who wish to pursue careers in math and science?

Dr. Hrabowski: When you walk around our campus, you get the impression that you are at the Plaza of Nations at the UN. We have students from more than 140 countries, with almost half of the undergraduates completing degrees in science and engineering, and two-thirds of our PhDs in those disciplines. In fact, we have become such a hotbed for science and engineering that we now have more than 40 biotech and IT companies located on the campus in our Research and Technology Park (bwtech@umbc). Hundreds of our faculty and students have been working in these companies, and often we see applications from the companies used in our classrooms, including, for example, in our Chemistry Discovery Center.

While approximately one-third of our students are of color, students of all races are attracted to UMBC, and not only in science and engineering, but also across the arts, humanities, and social sciences because many students have interdisciplinary majors involving, for example, biology and philosophy, chemistry and ancient studies, biochemistry and computer science, visual arts and computer science. We are strong believers in encouraging students to connect science to other disciplines as they develop problem-solving skills and prepare for graduate and professional schools and ultimately, research careers.

*The Meyerhoff Scholarship Program was established at UMBC in 1988 with an initial gift from the Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Foundation to address the shortage of African Americans, especially males, who successfully pursue careers in science and engineering. The program is open to all high-achieving students interested in pursuing advanced degrees and research careers in science and engineering and are also committed to the advancement of underrepresented minorities in these fields.