Change Institutional Culture, and You Change Who Goes into Science

The University of Maryland Baltimore County has a winning strategy for encouraging students of color to pursue careers in science.
By Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, and Kenneth I. Maton

In the late 1980s, the University of Maryland Baltimore County launched a major initiative to find out why more students were not succeeding in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—known collectively as the STEM disciplines— despite the university’s long-standing commitment to those fields. A review of student data revealed that the performance of African American students in particular was substantially below that of white and Asian students. So we convened focus groups made up of students, faculty, and staff to learn more about student underperformance, and we followed up with meetings among department chairs and faculty to consider strategies for supporting students better.

We recommended several measures: encouraging group study; strengthening tutorial centers; having faculty give students feedback early in the semester; raising admission standards; helping students appreciate how much time and effort are required to be successful; and enhancing the firstyear experience by, for example, improving orientation and explaining how to succeed as students.

Within a broader context, we set out to create a cohort of African American students in science and engineering who would become leaders and role models for the nation. This bold vision took shape in 1988 following discussions  between campus leaders and Baltimore philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff, who had an interest in supporting African American men in STEM fields. The Meyerhoff Scholarship Program represents the merger of the university’s and Mr. Meyerhoff’s goals. (See Related Articles for details about how the program operates.)

In its first year, the program focused on black men. In the second year, with funding from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, women were recruited to the program. Today, it includes students from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. About two-thirds of the students are from underrepresented groups; most are African Americans. Over the past two decades, it has produced a pipeline of hundreds of graduates pursuing and earning graduate and professional science and engineering degrees.

Benefits for All

Early on, when we examined undergraduate performance generally and minority STEM performance in particular, including retention and graduation rates, we discovered that white students in the sciences had many of the same problems experienced by minority students. We realized then that we would help both groups through the strategies we developed for supporting minority students. Articulating this became especially important when the success of black students led to some backlash among those bothered by the attention given to minority students and concerned about fairness and opportunities.

Indeed, through looking—with specificity—at the circumstances of different groups, we found that focusing on one group does not preclude giving special attention to other groups. For example, we learned the importance of expanding our focus beyond black men and other men of color to women, and from undergraduates to graduate students and tenured and tenure-track faculty in STEM disciplines. We learned to discourage people from pitting one group against another. We stressed not only the unique challenges each group faces, but also the potential of each group to contribute to the institution and, more broadly, to the public good (and the costs of failing to give each group the opportunity to do so).

We have written books and numerous articles about our experience. In them, we suggest ways for parents to raise academically successful African American men and women. We explain that we started with the men because their performance has tended to be at the bottom of the academic ladder and they have been especially underrepresented in higher education, particularly in STEM fields.

Because the program was designed initially for black men, we became accustomed to thinking about ensuring their representation in the pool of candidates for the Meyerhoff Program to advising them before the interview process (for example, encouraging them to show enthusiasm in interviews as a way to demonstrate their intelligence and excitement about the work). We encouraged campus colleagues to consider these issues by talking with them about the special challenges institutions face when they recruit young black men.

Culture Change

Transforming the culture of a university requires understanding its values, assumptions, and beliefs. Before the inception of the Meyerhoff Program twenty years ago, few of our underrepresented minority students, particularly African Americans, earned high grades in science. Faculty, staff, and the students themselves assumed that the underrepresented students lacked the necessary preparation (and, of course, some did). Most thought that any minority student who could earn a C in organic chemistry was really smart, because that was the best they had seen achieved—and often the black students who earned Cs would go on to medical school. In fact, the only African American UMBC graduate who had earned a PhD in science (in genetics at Johns Hopkins University) initially earned a D in his undergraduate genetics course in the early 1980s, even though he had a strong science background. Fortunately, he loved science so much that he retook the genetics course and did much better the second time.

Learning about his background underscored for us the importance of encouraging students to work in groups and to retake classes in which they initially perform poorly. Over the past two decades, as a result of listening to the voices of students who succeeded as well as those who failed, we developed a variety of strategies. In addition to group work and repetition of classes, these strategies include pushing students to connect with faculty members and asking faculty to lead discussions about class performance on exams.

Improving the performance of minority students in STEM fields and increasing the number of underrepresented faculty require not only listening but also asking the right questions and staying focused on institutional mission and values. Responding to these priorities, colleges and universities can use rigorous assessment and evaluation techniques to understand what is happening on their campuses in terms of climate and outcomes. They can evaluate academic performance among students and the success of faculty and staff. Doing so involves more than determining whether faculty earn promotion and tenure or whether students are retained and graduate. It also means finding out how faculty and students perceive the campus environment and whether they see themselves as important parts of the community, both respected and supported.

On our campus, institutional changes resulting from such inquiries and the success of the undergraduate Meyerhoff students led to the development of graduate-level initiatives focused on diversity in STEM PhD programs. Our colleagues have written extensively about lessons learned at the graduate level, including the importance of campus leadership and mentoring systems and of monitoring graduate students’ progress, financial support, recognition, and rewards.

The Fundamentals

At the core of the theory that supported UMBC’s successful institutional change is the development of a setting, or climate, that empowers students and sets the stage for them to excel academically. Indeed, the change on our campus—which aimed to expand access to programs and foster academic achievement— was part of a larger transformative process that the Association of American Colleges and Universities has termed “inclusive excellence.” Such a process focuses not only on underrepresented students, but on all students, faculty, and administrators, and it looks at how they affect the culture of an institution its mission, values, traditions, and norms. In the early days of UMBC’s transformation, the most important step we took was to identify inclusive excellence as a university priority by reaffirming our determination to help students from diverse backgrounds not only to survive but also to excel.

The theory behind our transformation included other elements as well, central among them behavior change. Everything from the relationships within the institution’s bureaucracy to informal collegial interaction was affected. We suggest that those framing plans for institutional change on other campuses ask certain questions at the outset of the process: Is inclusive excellence a priority of the institution, and is it reflected in stated goals, strategies, and values? Is the institution helping to develop and support coalitions across the campus in ways that encourage open and honest communication? Is the institution addressing any history of inequity that may exist and articulating new values that embrace inclusive excellence?

If the changes are to be effective and sustained, institutional leaders must be involved, and the campus must assess and monitor any steps taken quantitatively and qualitatively. Doing so means evaluating student access, diversity, and learning and successfully recruiting and supporting faculty and administrators from diverse backgrounds. For faculty and administrators, several questions need to be asked: Are we helping them to network? Have we identified strong mentors and highlighted effective mentoring practices? Have we identified what they need to do to succeed in their positions? Institutions must also use valid and reliable measures—such as focus groups, questionnaires, and conversations among people—to help assess the progress of institutional transformation and inclusive excellence.

Lessons Learned

Access means more than simply admitting students or recruiting faculty and staff of color. Success demands creating an environment that supports underrepresented groups in reaching their academic goals and ensures substantive interaction among people of different backgrounds. To accomplish this goal, institutions should look carefully at the campus climate and make changes when appropriate. The characteristics of the environment will affect the extent to which minorities feel supported and protected, and the approach taken in making organizational changes may have a long-term impact on the campus.

Bringing about substantive change requires approaches ranging from data-driven assessment of student achievement to ongoing conversations within the university community about such issues as race, gender, and socioeconomic background. We also learned the importance of using a strengths-based (rather than a deficits-based) approach to discussing the status and role of minority groups on campus, including the value they bring to our institution. The involvement of influential faculty members and administrators was critical as we developed strategies for evaluating the first-year academic performance of students in science and rethinking our approach to academic advising.

The Meyerhoff Program has generally benefited students in science, thanks in part to its creation of an empowering setting. Research on the “Meyerhoff model” and on the transformation on our campus reveals several important characteristics of such a setting:

  • a group-based belief system that is growth-inspiring, strengths-based, and focused beyond the self;
  • engaging, high-quality activities that involve active learning and build bridges with key external constituencies;
  • a strong support system, caring relationships, and a sense of community;
  • a highly accessible and multifunctional structure for making opportunity available;
  • leadership that is inspirational, talented, shared, and committed.

The program focuses on encouraging students to excel in science; to commit to increasing the number of minority PhDs in STEM fields; to expect to be the best and work accordingly; to engage in community service, including working with inner-city children; to appreciate financial, academic, and personal support; to associate with like-minded students, faculty, and staff; to work in groups; and to tutor and be tutored. In developing any strategy for institutional transformation, one also needs to consider the role of senior leaders, develop an institutional vision to gain buy-in from the most important constituents (especially faculty), and find the resources necessary to make changes.

The fundamental question about inclusive excellence is whether it is an institutional priority. If it is a priority, how is that priority demonstrated? What groups on campus support the notion, and how much influence do they have? Do opportunities exist to communicate about building this kind of excellence and encouraging leaders to talk about the meaning of the terms “excellence” and “inclusiveness” with increasing specificity?

Relationships

With all this said, the most important strategy is for faculty engaged in scientific research to develop strong relationships with minority students. The following story bears this out. Several years ago, one of our students, a talented African American woman graduate of the Meyerhoff Program, wrote to her UMBC mentors to discuss her future as she was completing her PhD in biochemistry at one of the nation’s leading research universities. She had performed superbly in the program, but she was seriously considering leaving science. After several conversations with her mentors, she wrote the following note:

Before talking with you, I had all but completely given up on the idea of going into bench science. Though I wanted to use it as a tool, I didn’t particularly want to engage in it any longer. I have found this road to be a particularly lonely one, and I couldn’t see myself walking it anymore. This last week has reawakened my spirit, however. I suppose that my soul was hungry for support, and your collective advice and encouragement have really fed me. Each day that passes allows me to reincorporate science into my future. I can’t thank you enough.

At the heart of institutional transformation are a campus’s culture and the relationships among and within the various groups on campus. To the extent that this culture and these relationships are empowering, institutions will succeed in helping students, faculty, and staff from all backgrounds to excel.

Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, is president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County; his e-mail address is hrabowski@umbc.edu. Kenneth I. Maton is professor of psychology at UMBC; his e-mail address is maton@umbc.edu.

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