How to Get More Black Men Into Science

James O'Brien for The Chronicle

October 27, 2014

In the 1980s, when I was vice provost at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, I visited public schools to speak with boys of color about academic achievement. The children often reacted defensively. "What did we do wrong this time?" they would ask. Their skepticism and suspicion made it clear they were accustomed in school to being associated with undesirable behavior.

During that same period, a potential donor, Robert Meyerhoff, asked me a related question: "Why is it that the only positive thing I see on TV involving black men is about sports?" The other images, he commented, involved violence or antisocial behavior.

I was both encouraged and surprised that this philanthropist was asking such a provocative question. Our subsequent discussion led to our creating the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, with his support, at UMBC. The initial goal was to increase the number of black men excelling in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and continuing on to pursue STEM doctorates. At the time, we could not find a single predominantly white institution that was succeeding in doing this. The strengths-based program we started in 1988—which focused on students’ positive traits and experiences rather than their weaknesses—was designed to provide an alternative vision of black male success.

Over the years, the program has been broadened to include other minorities, women, and students of all races interested in solving the problem of underrepresentation. Today, UMBC is quite successful at educating undergraduate students of all races, including African-Americans, who go on to complete STEM doctorates and related professional degrees. The strategies we learned from the Meyerhoff program, including efforts to build community among students, encourage mentoring, and engage students in research, have been so effective that we now use them across disciplines.

In the first year of the program, we recruited a group of African-American males and brought them to campus to compete for admission. We asked each to come across a stage and talk about one achievement of which he was proud. Though they were all strong academically, not one mentioned an academic achievement. In fact, when I asked them to speak a second time, one student was so embarrassed by his A average at a technical high school in Baltimore that he still had difficulty telling the group about his academic success.

That experience helped us understand the need to encourage the students to celebrate their academic achievements. We examined the literature of psychologists who talked about the importance of building strengths-based programs. As a result, we placed special attention on students’ strengths, including resilience, determination, and the ability to persevere in challenging situations.

The next year, when we started admitting young African-American women to the program, our colleagues were often impressed by their positive and enthusiastic approach. We found that the men were often less communicative and showed less enthusiasm for the work of science. As a result, we began to work with the young men to help them understand the importance of demonstrating their passion for science through their responses. We’ve also found it helpful to give young black men opportunities to reflect on their experiences. The central message was that we needed to build a climate that helped the students learn to trust faculty, staff, and students of all races and openly discuss the challenges they were facing.

In addition to focusing on building community among students, other components of the program include high academic standards, tutoring, research opportunities, a summer bridge program, mentoring, a focus on community service, family involvement, scholarship support, formation of study groups, and personal advising and counseling.

We have also learned important lessons from interviews with men in the Meyerhoff program and significant adults in their lives, including parents, teachers, counselors, and coaches. Many emphasized the importance of high academic expectations, the ability to overcome adversity, strong limit-setting and discipline, maintenance of family rituals, open and consistent communications, and candid discussion about values and resulting behavior. We learned still other lessons from parents with other sons who were not as successful academically.

More than 90 percent of the 1,240 students who have entered the program since 1989 (and are not currently enrolled) have completed STEM degrees. Since the first class graduated, in 1993, more than 90 percent of program alumni have gone on to graduate programs, with large numbers receiving Ph.D.’s and M.D./Ph.D.’s in STEM fields. Significantly, more than half of the program’s African-American students have been male.

Various programs have worked with us to replicate the Meyerhoff model. One particular example is the Hopps Scholars Program, at Morehouse College. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is now funding efforts to replicate the program at Pennsylvania State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While those programs are not solely for minority males, each will have many males of color participating.

We’ve also gained considerable understanding about issues confronting males of color through our experience working with at-risk children participating in the Choice Program, which we started in the late 1980s through the Shriver Center at UMBC (named for Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver). The program provides round-the-clock supervision and support to hundreds of children ages 8-18 (mostly center-city African-American males). Participants typically are either referred through the court system or come from high-risk environments. UMBC students of all races, including black males, tutor and serve as mentors for these children. The lessons from this program are similar to those we’ve learned from working with other African-American males on campus. Our approach focuses on empowering boys and young men by teaching them to listen to and analyze advice, ask good questions, recognize their strengths, and take ownership of their futures.

As we’ve applied lessons from the Meyerhoff and Choice programs to other programs and initiatives across campus, we’ve also learned the importance of using analytics to understand the particular challenges confronting different groups, such as black males in STEM areas and women in engineering and computer science (whom we support through our CWIT program, for Center for Women in Technology). The lesson is to bring specificity to both assessment and programming as we think through how to help each group succeed. We discovered, for example, that many men of color transferring to our university from two-year institutions to pursue STEM degrees were struggling academically.

Other young males with similar backgrounds and experiences offered to work with these new students. They stressed the importance of listening to academic advice on course selection and study habits, learning time-management skills, taking advantage of tutoring, and working with others. Most significant, the older males have helped the younger ones understand the need to ask for help and accept it when offered. This extra support has been effective, and many more of these transfer students are now completing STEM degrees.

In all these efforts, the language we have used to explain our intentions has been very important. For example, a focus on men of color does not have to mean that other groups are not receiving support and attention. We must acknowledge the challenges facing those other groups, and spend time discussing them. The central question for any university is how to be clear about the vision of what it is trying to achieve and what it wants for its students. It is important to create a climate in which students, faculty, and staff can be honest about the problems they are facing, work together to develop strategies that can be effective, and share feedback about what is working. Listening to different voices is essential.

Our challenge in American higher education is about more than getting students to change. Though we want them to understand the importance of hard work, persistence, and believing in themselves, it’s just as important that colleges and universities focus on changing institutional culture. We must ask ourselves two fundamental questions. First, do we believe that each group of students can succeed? And second, do we have the will and determination to make sure that they do?

Freeman A. Hrabowski III has been president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County since 1992. His newest book, Holding Fast to Dreams: Empowering Youth From the Civil Rights Crusade to STEM Achievement, will be published next year by Beacon Press.