‘The Empowered University’

New book from Freeman Hrabowski says universities that want to grow must embrace culture change and shared leadership, in addition to academic success.

November 20, 2019
 

Freeman Hrabowski is the kind of university president whose conference talks make you feel you feel like you gulped some coffee, not like you need to. He’s a math nerd who is somehow relatable but also commanding. He’s got stories about everything, including marching in the Birmingham Children's Crusade at the urging of Martin Luther King Jr. And he looks preternaturally natural wearing a tiny microphone on a giant TED Talk stage.

He’s the kind of president who could probably write a thinly veiled book about how awesome he is and get away with it. That book would likely focus on how he brought the University of Maryland at Baltimore County’s graduation rate from 30 percent several decades ago to 70 percent today -- or to about 85 percent if you count students who transfer elsewhere to pursue degrees UMBC doesn’t offer. It would probably also tell how Hrabowski shaped a community from a big-city campus where 60 percent of students have a parent from another country.

Yet Hrabowski’s most recent book, The Empowered University (Johns Hopkins University Press), isn’t all about him. Instead, as he wrote, “It’s about us.” Based on notes from months of campus focus groups about what UMBC is doing right and where it can improve, the book -- written with Philip J. Rous, provost, and Peter H. Henderson, senior adviser to Hrabowski -- could have remained an internal project. But it went public, based on the idea that it may help other institutions become similarly empowered, in Hrabowski’s words, to look themselves in the mirror.

“What we talk about the empowered university, it’s not to say, ‘Look at how great you are,’” Hrabowski said in an interview. “It’s whether you can look in the mirror and be honest about your accomplishments and identify the ways in which you, we, can be much better.”

He added, “I don’t know any university in the country that doesn’t have a lot of work to do, and that’s what we’ve got to be saying. There are always groups of students with whom we have not been effective -- and faculty and staff, too.”

Indeed, Hrabowski says in the book that “success is never final.” The university has made huge strides in promoting a culture of inclusive excellence, especially in the natural sciences and engineering. It has been among the leading producers of biology and chemistry bachelor’s degrees, over all and for racial minority groups, for instance. It has a slew of scholars' programs and collaborates closely with local community colleges not just on the transfer experience but on building a consistent college experience. But now Hrabowski wants that lower-performing one-third of students to excel, too. He and others on campus want classes to be more interconnected and for there to be an even greater institutional focus on civic engagement.

And so, part of UMBC’s growth involves moving from quantity -- graduating more students -- to quality. Through faculty-led initiatives, UMBC has already redesigned introductory courses in the humanities and sciences based on best teaching practices, as identified by the National Center for Academic Transformation. It’s rethought dozens of additional courses to have an entrepreneurial bent. And it has embraced analytics to track where students are succeeding and where they are not. Sometimes, Hrabowski said, he encounters faculty members who believe that writing something on board means teaching it. But UMBC’s faculty largely drives its innovation.

Looking in the mirror, of course, entails facing whatever is there, staring back. And not every university president is willing to do that. Nor is every university president willing to take direction from a potentially unruly faculty through robust shared governance systems, formal and informal. But Hrabowski’s point is that no university can be empowered without doing both.

“An academic community searching for truth and insight must be willing to respectfully engage in conversations, albeit often difficult ones, listening as necessary to those who may think differently from ourselves,” he wrote. “I believe the more we engage in these conversations, the more trust, dignity and respect we engender and, as a result, the easier and more productive these conversations will become.” This is not the easy path, he says, and but it’s the right one, as it ultimately benefits students.

Students are part of this ethos, Hrabowski wrote. And they’ve tested it, such as when a group of protesters stormed Hrabowski's office over the filing of a federal lawsuit alleging the university mishandled a sexual harassment case. Inviting the students to his conference room, he told them, “Whenever you have more than 100 students in your conference room, clearly something isn’t right.”

What followed was Hrabowski’s recognition that the university was, at the very least, not communicating its campus safety efforts well enough to students. UMBC also arranged a series of listening sessions with different campus groups for the next week.

There are no easy answers. But the key to being able to have conversations that lead to healing or change or innovation, Hrabowski said, is humility. That’s also central to the kind of culture he wants to keep building on his campus, and which he wants to see in the country at large.

“Graduation rates are not enough. The other big questions that need to be asked of students are, ‘Have their attitudes changed and are they more broadly educated than they were when they got here?’ Hell, if you look at our society, even among highly educated people, we are so divided. So how much difference are we making in the lives of people, to make them question their assumptions?”

In asking such questions, Hrabowski is not doubting the value of higher education. Instead, he wrote, it’s more important than ever, as “we are experiencing and responding to global economic integration, a revolution in telecommunications that connects us as easily to Beijing as it does to Baltimore, rapid technological change, and advances in science and medicine.” There are the “grave challenges of climate change, population growth and migration, inequality, cybersecurity and terrorism.” And so “we must prepare our students for this work, and we must reshape our universities to address these real-world issues.”

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