By NATHAN GREGORY
University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman A. Hrabowski III identified several areas where effort can lead to more diversity in academia in his Mississippi State University Diversity Conference keynote speech Thursday.
The theme for the second annual conference is “Enhancing Diversity in Higher Education: Undergraduate Retention and Recruitment of Graduate Students, Faculty and Staff.”
Hrabowski’s message in particular focused on minority retention in disciplines falling under the umbrellas of mathematics and science.
“When you look at the challenges minority students are facing,” Hrabowski said, “the big issue is this: Are we making progress with kids of color — black and others — in succeeding, and what other challenges do we face?”
Under his tenure as president, UMBC has made strides in having race and gender minority students graduate and has hired more minorities in faculty positions. Where formerly 12 percent of faculty in UMBC’s science and engineering programs were female, there are now 39 percent, he said, adding that 51 percent of the assistant professors at the university are women.
“With my campus, one of the reasons my kids of all race and gender are working hard is because they see how hard these other people work. It makes all the difference in the world,” he said. “A group that’s homogenous, you’ve got to really push and make sure they understand how hard other people work.”
He cited the need for continued increase in minority graduation rates from four-year universities but also emphasized the importance of having more people earning degrees from community colleges.
“For some people, a liberal arts education is just not what they need right now. They need some hands-on experience. I spoke to 1,000 biotech programs for community colleges in the last couple of years. People don’t know all the great jobs you can get with two-year degrees, let alone four-year degrees,” he said. “For some people, hands-on experience first might be better. When I was working with a green construction group out in (Los Angeles) recently, I was amazed at how these adults learned not only developmental math, but went through ... algebra and geometry using hands-on experiences without even realizing how much math they were doing.”
He said one of the key facets in getting more minorities to engage in math and science-related academic disciplines is to make sure they are getting the foundation in high school necessary to get off to a good start in college.
“If you’re in math and science, you know one thing builds on another. Everything builds on the next thing, so that (is part of the) honest robust conversation we have to have. What happens at universities is we tend to go with anecdotal information rather than bringing the level of rigor,” he said. “We need to bring a level of rigor of conversation to ask the right questions to develop a process for looking at the data ... and to listen to the voices of students and faculty. The question is what (students) need to do before they get to college so they have a better background, starting in 10th or 11th grade. I’d rather see spending more money getting them ready for the freshman year experience.”
He said there needs to be more dialogue and honesty before more progress can be made.
“Any structure will find that the people who are in the positions of power are comfortable with where things are,” he said. “The challenge every institution faces is ... how we develop a culture that allows people to talk about the real problems without having people become defensive because it’s not about pointing fingers or saying somebody is doing something wrong. It’s more about how we solve this problem together.”
MSU Director of African American Studies Stephen Middleton said Hrabowski highlighted many possible solutions for having more gender and race diversity in every academic discipline.
“The university can form a partnership with our public schools ... perhaps sophomore year or junior year to track students who have an interest in college and make sure they have the preparation for the field they want to enter,” Middleton said. “I think (Hrabowski is) suggesting a holistic approach to making students ready.”
MSU Graduate School Interim Dean Karen Coats said while understanding needs to be developed about how students who come from underrepresented backgrounds face different sets of challenges than majority students, they must be held to the same standard.
“What I’m seeing is that mentoring is very important to the population of students that may require a deeper level of understanding that the environment they come from may not be the same as many of the majority students,” Coats said. “That’s not true of all majority students because many of those may come from first-generation backgrounds where there is not an understanding of what it takes to be successful in our generation.”
MSU President’s Commission on the Status of Minorities Chair Adrienne Morris said Hrabowski was instrumental in addressing the need for students of all backgrounds to be well prepared for the challenges of college once they graduate high school.
“We really need to focus on K-12 education, preparing students for that next step and looking at where we’re putting our funding,” she said. “We want students to be prepared when they do to get to a university instead of letting them get here (with little chance to succeed).”
Wanda Mitchell, University of New Hampshire vice provost for faculty development and inclusive excellence, said Hrabowski is one of the key leaders in establishing more diversity in academia.
“I think the topic is very fitting. Our country is changing demographically — race and ethnicity — and this conference brings to the forefront that we need to utilize all of our talents at our institutions of higher education,” she said. “We have to create ways to diversify, open doors to access in order to achieve the excellence we need at institutions of higher education, and Dr. Hrabowski has a wonderful track record of doing that at his institution.”