CATONSVILLE, Md. — It is a humid weekday afternoon as calculus professor Bonny Tighe begins to solve equations at the front of the class. As she writes, she scolds. The class did not do well on the last quiz. The class average is a 30.
“Some of you are doing the old ‘your eyes are open but your brain is asleep,’ ” she says, as she scribbles over a slide about inverse trigonometry.
The students, all incoming freshmen and all people of color, could be anywhere else on this hot July day but they have chosen to be here, in this three-hour pre-calculus class. And while they might be struggling with math at the moment, they are on a bright path.
These students have all received a prestigious scholarship here at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County that is awarded each year to promising students of color who want to study science, technology, engineering, or math.
The Meyerhoff scholarship is just one of many ways president Freeman A. Hrabowski III has transformed this once unremarkable commuter school into a science and technology powerhouse gaining national prestige as it produces record numbers of PhDs of color and places students in high-quality jobs and graduate programs at places like Harvard and MIT.
Because of its success, University of Massachusetts system leaders in Boston have looked to UMBC and its president for advice about UMass Boston, a university with similar beginnings that has not been so successful, at least not yet.
Like UMBC, UMass Boston serves many minority students and those who stay in the region after graduation. But for more than a year, the Boston campus has been mired in political bickering, budget trouble, and a standoff between some professors and administrators. And for years before that, it languished amid mismanagement and a lack of attention from the university system and the state government.
UMBC went through growing pains of its own, but it has emerged a successful model of how to educate a diverse group of students and send them on to promising careers. Much of the credit has gone to Hrabowski, who has managed to engage the faculty, secure state support, connect with major employers in the region, and prepare students to succeed in the nation’s top graduate schools.
“We want working- and middle-class people to believe that they have opportunities to go to first-rate institutions that they can afford,” Hrabowski said in an interview in his office, where his desk is piled with books and gifts from people who have come seeking his wisdom.
Data show that Hrabowski is achieving his idealistic goals. The school now produces more black MD-PhDs than any school in the country. Last year’s undergraduate graduating class went on to programs at Columbia, Cornell, Duke, MIT, Harvard, and Yale. The undergraduate graduation rate is around 65 percent, higher than the national average and roughly equivalent across all races and ethnicities.
Hrabowski knows UMass Boston well — he has advised UMass system president Martin T. Meehan for months — and he sees its potential, but he also recognizes the problems.
“I think there’s a need to build trust,” he said.
He has built that trust on his campus, and across Maryland, by preaching his gospel of equal opportunity excellence in an egalitarian tone that makes professors and students eager to join him.
“It’s a very safe environment to try new things, to innovate, so that’s huge,” said Katharine Cole, vice provost and dean of undergraduate academic affairs. Cole, who arrived a year ago from the University of Tampa, said it was this unique atmosphere that persuaded her to leave a good job well into her career.
When other college presidents visit him for advice — and plenty do — Hrabowski takes them first to the roof of his building. In one direction lies the city of Baltimore, in the other, Washington, D.C. Nearer, you can see a burgeoning technology startup park and cranes rising over the UMBC campus as buildings go up. Ten minutes away is BWI airport.
Hrabowski, 67, has harnessed all of this: state funds to develop his campus and attract entrepreneurs, and the proximity to government agencies and companies to create jobs and research partnerships. He has managed to convince state and business leaders that UMBC is vital to the region’s success.
That will be the key for UMass Boston, too, he said. It is also located near a booming economic hub and public transit, not to mention other major academic institutions. But in a city that has Harvard and MIT in its backyard, UMass has always been more of an afterthought. .
“It is critical that the elected officials and the public, both, believe in public higher education,” Hrabowski said.
In Maryland, they do. The House speaker pro tempore is Adrienne Jones, a 1976 graduate and champion of the school. This year the Maryland Legislature increased its higher education funding by 4.3 percent. At UMBC, about 20 percent of the funding, per student, comes from the state. State support makes up about a quarter of the budget at UMass Boston, but the campus is responsible for all its own building projects, which is not the case in Maryland. And in the budget just approved by the Legislature, UMass got a 1 percent increase.
“The state feels that it is important to support higher education, in particular in the case of UMBC,” Jones said. “We see that as a link to the economy of the state and a well-educated workforce.”
She grew up within walking distance of UMBC and remembers when parts of the campus were farm fields. She attributes its rise to Hrabowski’s infectious fervor.
“It’s one of those places where everyone always seems to be upbeat, even when it’s raining out and you’re dodging raindrops,” said Jones.
Part of the president’s success lies in his dedication to the place. Hrabowski has led the campus for 25 years in an era when many leaders stay only five or 10. He can rattle off the names of Johns Hopkins presidents who have come and gone during his tenure. Other prestigious jobs have beckoned, but he is dedicated to UMBC. In 2012, Time magazine counted him among the 100 most influential people in the world.
The mission of educating underprivileged students of color is close to his heart. A native of Birmingham, Ala., Hrabowski was intimately involved in the civil rights movement as a child and those ideals fuel him still.
UMass Boston, which also aims to serve students of diverse backgrounds, has meanwhile struggled to find a permanent leader. Some professors who were unhappy with the most recent presidential search process caused such a sharp public outcry in May that the three finalists withdrew. Hrabowski was a consultant for UMass Boston during that search and knows the predicament well.
“Sometimes a few people can seem like they’re speaking for everybody, and I think it’s important for a campus to decide how it wants to represent itself,” he said.
In many ways, UMBC and UMass Boston are similar. There are about 14,000 total students at UMBC and about 16,000 at UMass Boston. Minority students make up about half of both school’s student bodies, with about 18 percent African-American students and similar percentages of Asian-Americans and Latinos.
Tuition at UMBC is about $12,000 for in-state students with another $12,000 for room and board. At UMass Boston tuition is comparable, around $14,000.
UMBC was founded in 1963 and UMass Boston a year later, both as commuter schools. UMBC opened three years after its founding with 750 students and three buildings. Enrollment nearly doubled the next year and the campus started to add facilities.
A decade after UMass Boston opened in the Back Bay, however, it moved to a new campus in Dorchester that has plagued the university ever since because of poor construction that soon began to crumble.
While UMBC has been blessed with nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars in the past 20 years from the state to construct nearly all of its new buildings, UMass Boston has been forced to pay for buildings largely on its own, as well as repair the inadequate structures from the ’70s. As a result, it has nearly maxed out its ability to borrow but lacks key buildings, including a space for its successful nursing program.
Hrabowski has overseen the construction of more dormitories, and now about half its students live on campus, he said. UMass Boston is preparing to open its first dorm this fall, something administrators say will contribute to students’ success.
Hrabowski said state support will be key if UMass Boston is serious about rising to prominence.
“Any state that wants its public institutions to be strong must work to invest in them in such a way that students of all types are interested in considering attending,” he said.
Hrabowski always wants more from the state, but he has also focused on growing the private support.
In 1988, together with philanthropists Robert and Jane Meyerhoff, he founded the Meyerhoff Scholars program, which has become an international model for the advancement of diversity in science, engineering, technology, and math fields. In the 1990s, the school began to rapidly increase the number of PhDs it graduated each year.
Meanwhile, despite its budget challenges, UMass Boston has found ways to improve the quality of its teaching and research. In 2015 it opened an Integrated Science Complex.
And this year the National Institutes of Health awarded two UMass Boston professors a five-year, $1.3 million grant for their program preparing undergraduates for PhD programs and careers in biomedical research.
Local technology executives gave money for scholarships and mentorship programs for entrepreneurial students, the first such program in the history of UMass Boston.
In Baltimore, Hrabowski rebranded his school “An Honors University in Maryland” in 1995 to help cement its increasingly sophisticated reputation. The school has focused specifically on science and engineering, especially cybersecurity, an effort to find a niche rather than overextend itself.
It has worked. In all, 88 percent of undergraduates who graduated in 2017 have jobs or are pursuing graduate degrees, or both. The university’s first Rhodes Scholar graduated this year with a degree in chemical engineering.
“Public institutions should not be the safety school — we have to get away from that,” Hrabowski said.
Despite its success, Hrabowski still wants to improve. He wants to raise the graduation rate to 70 percent. At UMass Boston the rate is in the mid 40s and higher for white students. Hrabowski is also having trouble holding on to good administrators and faculty, who are increasingly recruited to elite schools across the country.
Even still, it is rare to find a university campus without conflict. Faculty members have had their share of disagreements with the administration, but they said they have avoided major standoffs because their concerns are taken seriously.
“Shared governance is huge at UMBC, like at the core,” said Kimberly Moffitt, an American studies professor who just ended a two-year term as chairwoman of the faculty senate. As part of her role, she said, she was included on many decision-making committees and able to express faculty’s views.
Professors say Hrabowski has managed to create a culture that encourages professors to take risks and try new ideas. Deans said faculty come because the school is small enough that an individual can make significant changes and accomplish a lot. The place is nimble.
Professors also engage in projects to help the surrounding communities and local school districts, which they find fulfilling. And they say the university emphasizes work-life balance.
“We’re not perfect,” said William LaCourse, dean of the College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences. “But when we look in the mirror we don’t, you know, blame the students, we don’t blame external aspects, we look at ourselves first and see what can we change.”
Indeed, Hrabowski’s optimism is infectious. He overflows with such aphorisms as “success is never final” that echo around campus.
It can take him a long time to get places because he stops to talk to students, many of whom he knows by name. Hrabowski, a self-proclaimed health nut who sneaks celery sticks and hummus between meetings, is approachable. In his business suit, he shakes students’ hands and asks where they are going to graduate school or what they got on their last calculus exam. He glorifies studying, praises smarts.
“We like being nerdy, we take great pride in being nerdy, all right?” he said. “Our vision has been for a long time that people would appreciate that nothing is more important here than brainpower and grit.”
He isn’t kidding about that. For many years, the school’s winning chess team was the pride of campus. That is, until its cybersecurity hacking team, CyberDawgs, won the national collegiate cyber defense competition in 2017 and stole the spotlight. This year, however, all that was blown away by the surprising basketball victory over the University of Virginia in the NCAA tournament that made the school an overnight sensation. After the victory, one player said, “We stand on the shoulders of our chess team.”
Another thing you notice as Hrabowski buzzes around his campus is the actual campus, and how pleasant it is. He points to flowers in bloom and a pond the school recently refurbished next to the library. Those things matter, he said, because they make students feel special.
It’s much different from the cracked concrete plaza at UMass Boston and its imposing brick buildings that crumble and leak. At UMBC, black and yellow flags flutter above the central sidewalk and even in the summer, the campus is alive with summer camps, graduate students doing research, and the Meyerhoff students, who are still in calculus class.
Tighe, their professor, has taught at UMBC for 30 years. During these summer programs she is one part math teacher, one part life coach. In between solving equations, she tells the students they will need to learn how to manage their time and look up definitions of words they don’t know.
Students in her class said they already feel themselves changing from high schoolers to young adults. One quiet student, Tyler Carlyle, admitted the course is a bit of a shock. He took calculus in high school and thought he knew what he was doing, but this is a new level of difficulty.
What Carlyle has learned, however, is how to ask for help. He feels encouraged by the camaraderie among his classmates and at ease in such a racially diverse group.
He is also encouraged by the adults here. He was intimidated to apply to UMBC because he had never done research and only one person in his family has a bachelor’s degree.
“The staff here saw something in me and took a chance on me and that pushes me to do my best every day,” he said.
No one in his family works in the sciences or technology, but he wants to get a medical degree and be a pediatric surgeon. From where he sits in this lecture hall, that dream seems realistic.
“It’s sort of comforting that there are strangers who constantly tell you that they see something in you,” said Carlyle, who grew up in Gaithersburg, Md.
In the back of the lecture hall is Tania Evans, a 21-year-old who just graduated. She was a Meyerhoff scholar as well and will soon begin a PhD program at Georgia Tech in chemical engineering. This summer she is a counselor for the incoming freshmen.
As she whizzed through their homework with her pen, she recalled what it was like to be them. It was tough, for sure, but nurturing. Professors cared.
“You don’t have to be competitive or cut-throat to be successful,” she said.
As students work in groups, Tighe reflects on her three decades on campus. She has watched the quality of UMBC skyrocket, from a safety school to students’ first choice. And even though her current crop of students are not studying hard enough right now, she knows they will be fine.
Half an hour until 4 p.m., Tighe gathered her bag and left the students to finish their work in groups. On her way out, she stopped and marveled at the places some previous Meyerhoff recipients are now going to graduate school. Frustrating as it sometimes is, she loves this job.
“I wouldn’t still be here if I didn’t,” she said.
Hrabowski said many of the faculty at UMass Boston are as impressive as at his own school, but they have been overshadowed by the controversies. He thinks UMass Boston has potential and he is impressed by its alumni. But he isn’t sure the city of Boston understands their impressiveness.
First, they need a new president, he said. But it will take more than that.
“It’s never about the one person,” he said. “It has to be a tone that when the person comes in it’s not us versus them, but how do we work together.”