Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Our 'outrageous dream': Bringing diversity to science

By Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, Special to CNN
May 15, 2013 -- Updated 1146 GMT (1946 HKT)
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
September 20, 2014 -- Updated 1624 GMT (0024 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT