Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Our 'outrageous dream': Bringing diversity to science

By Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, Special to CNN
updated 7:46 AM EDT, Wed May 15, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Freeman Hrabowski, longtime college president, started with an "outrageous dream"
  • Inspired by memories of Martin Luther King, he sought to teach people of all backgrounds
  • University of Maryland, Baltimore County has been recognized for training minority scientists

Editor's note: Freeman Hrabowski has been president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for 20 years. He was named one of the world's 100 most influential people in 2012 by TIME. He spoke at TED2013 in February. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- Fifty years ago this month, I chanced to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. I was a mild-mannered kid with a speech impediment and a love of math. That day, I was focused on solving math problems, not issues of justice and equal rights. But King broke through to me when he said this: If the children of Birmingham march, Americans will see that what they are asking for is a better education. They will see that even the very young know the difference between right and wrong.

I chose to march, and found myself among hundreds of children jailed for five terrifying days. Mind you, I was not a brave child. But even at 12 years old, I believed and hoped that my participation could make a difference.

Twenty-five years later, I had made my way to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. My colleagues and I had an outrageous dream: Perhaps a young research university -- just 20 years old -- could alter the course of minority performance in higher education, particularly in the sciences. Baltimore philanthropists Robert and Jane Meyerhoff shared our vision.

TED.com: How to escape education's death valley

And now people ask: What magic have we hit upon that has enabled us to become a national model for educating students of all races in a wide range of disciplines? How did we -- as a predominantly white university with a strong liberal arts curriculum -- become one of the top producers of minority scientists in the country?

Rather than magic, there are a number of educational principles at work. And what my colleagues and I have found is that they all grow out of one key truth: The world does not always have to be as it is today.

TED.com: Hey science teachers, make it fun

To start, we faced up to some particularly tough questions: Why weren't more students from traditionally underrepresented groups succeeding? In what ways was the university responsible? What questions weren't we even thinking to ask? The lessons we learned took shape in the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which has grown into a national model for producing minority students who earn advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math.

TED.com: Our failing schools -- enough is enough

In fact, a number of campuses across the nation have been replicating the program, including most recently the University of North Carolina and Penn State. Along the way, we discovered that the strategies that helped minority students initially could be just as effective in helping students across racial and economic groups and across the disciplines -- throughout the arts, humanities and social sciences:

Work from strengths and set high expectations. Too often, we focus on deficits. We see poor preparation or lack of family support, rather than seeing underdeveloped talent and tenacity. At UMBC, we look at a student's background as context, not as destiny. We set high expectations, and both challenge and support students to ensure their success.

Build a community of scholars. We help students develop strong peer networks and encourage them to see one another as partners, rather than competitors. It is effective -- and powerful -- when students support and hold one another accountable.

Engage students in meaningful research. When asked who contributed most to their academic success, students will almost always mention a faculty member. Faculty-student connections are critical, and it's especially important that faculty engage students in meaningful research. We like to say: It takes researchers to produce researchers.

Hold yourself to quantifiable progress. We constantly evaluate the outcomes of our work, and that evaluation is data-driven, not anecdotal. For example, we know that the various features of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program -- peer support groups, intensive advising, early research experiences -- work in combination. UMBC's students graduate, and they go on in large numbers to earn Ph.D.s in science and engineering. But which elements of our approach are most critical and cost-effective? We're currently working on a project funded by the National Science Foundation to tease that out. If we don't look critically at what works -- and what does not -- we can't recalibrate and continue to improve.

Keep at it. A graduate recently wrote me to share a quote from Aristotle: "We are what we repeatedly do; excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." To fuel that kind of persistence, hold fast to this one key truth: The world does not always have to be as it is today.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Freeman Hrabowski.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:15 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:28 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT