Meet Societal Challenges by Changing the Culture on Campus

January 16, 2011

American higher education has an extraordinary record of accomplishment in preparing students for leadership, in serving as a wellspring of research and creative endeavor, and in providing sustained public service. Despite this success, we are facing an unprecedented set of challenges. To maintain America's global pre-eminence, we must substantially expand the number of students we educate, increase the proportion of students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and address the pervasive and longstanding underrepresentation of minorities who earn college degrees, including in those STEM fields.

We will also need to increase our research efforts to deal with global and national challenges involving the environment, security, health care, and the economy. American higher education will undertake these efforts in a fiscal climate characterized by shrinking resources from governments and students' families.

These conditions are requiring institutions to identify priorities, plan strategically, and make the most efficient use of their resources. In addition, accomplishing our goals may require cultural changes within our institutions and the integration of these changes with our planning processes. At the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, we view the culture of the institution as manifesting itself in every aspect of daily life on the campus. It is reflected in the questions we ask (and those we don't ask), the achievements we measure and highlight (and those we ignore), and the initiatives we support (or don't support). In this context, we believe that changing our institutional cultures to focus more directly on broad societal challenges is critical to the future of higher education­—and to the larger society.

This approach may have profound implications that some higher-education leaders may not have considered. For example, consider the issue of increasing the number of Pell Grant-eligible students who graduate, an issue that is central to social mobility. While many would agree, no doubt, that this issue is important, changing our institutional cultures to focus on it might also mean changing the way we assess our performance as institutions and the ways in which we hold ourselves accountable and allocate resources. Imagine, for example, if additional factors in determining college rankings in U.S. News & World Report's annual survey included the numbers of Pell Grant-eligible students who graduated, pursued graduate study, or found jobs after graduation.

We recognize that many institutions already focus on both institutional and societal interests. Nonetheless, the urgency of today's challenges requires American higher education to refocus some of its efforts in specific areas to ensure the nation's long-term strength. That is why we are encouraged by UMBC's success in helping students of all races and backgrounds succeed at the highest levels academically. We view our efforts to ensure diversity and excellence as representing one model of how changes in a university's culture can help tackle a challenge of significant societal importance.

Since its creation, in 1988, UMBC's Meyerhoff Scholars Program has graduated hundreds of underrepresented minority students, most of whom have gone on either to complete STEM Ph.D.'s (or M.D./Ph.D.'s) or to pursue STEM postgraduate degrees. These graduates, including some who hold faculty positions at top universities, are emerging as leaders in their disciplines. In addition, retention and graduation rates for underrepresented minority students equal our rates for all students at UMBC (both in STEM fields and across all disciplines). But the situation at UMBC in the late 1980s was quite different. Not only did underrepresented minority students fail to go on to Ph.D. programs, but the majority of those who aspired to STEM careers became discouraged and did not graduate.

The process of cultural change began for us with focus-group discussions involving students, faculty, and staff concentrating on minority-student underachievement. Such inclusive conversations are key because, although institutional culture reflects subjective values, cultural change requires rigorous analysis, both qualitative and quantitative. It begins when an institution looks carefully at itself, identifies its strengths and weaknesses, recognizes the challenges it faces, and understands how its response to those challenges can lead to desired outcomes.

Process is an important factor in creating cultural change, and thus shared governance and broad consultation are critical to campus discussions. An inclusive approach helps to create support for institutional change and harnesses the ingenuity and creativity of faculty, students, and staff. For example, faculty members who initially raised questions about whether the university could or should influence minority-student achievement eventually played leading roles in securing external grants to support the success of all students in undergraduate research.

The components of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which is supported by the Baltimore philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff, reflect what we learned from our campus conversations and from research into other programs across the country. We encouraged minority students to study in groups; strengthened tutorial centers; encouraged faculty to give these students feedback earlier in the semester; emphasized the need for faculty and staff members to communicate with incoming students about the demands they would face in STEM fields; and focused on supporting students during their crucial freshman year.

For more than two decades, we have tried to create a community of student scholars who not only work together in labs and form study groups to master coursework but also consult closely with faculty and staff who understand and appreciate the important roles they play in supporting these aspiring young scientists and engineers. The program's success also illustrates the essential role that philanthropic support and partnerships with donors must play in higher education's efforts to address broad societal challenges.

Regular assessments have been invaluable as well. From the start, the program's strengths, weaknesses, and outcomes have been rigorously assessed by teams of independent experts. In these evaluations, there has been no substitute for specificity—knowing how individual students and groups of students are performing in specific classes and majors. We have learned, for example, that we need to examine different groups based on such factors as gender, race, major, socioeconomic background, level of high-school preparation, and college performance. Documenting successes has helped build momentum, and, perhaps more important, documenting challenges and responding to them have demonstrated a commitment to substantive improvement.

Such thorough and honest evaluations have been instrumental in building campus support for the Meyerhoff program and for broader change in the institution's culture. The program has served as a model for developing other campus programs focused on academic excellence and inclusion, broadly defined. These have included endowed special scholars programs for high-achieving undergraduates in the arts, humanities, and public affairs, and graduate programs supported by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.

Our successes have also provided motivation for broader curricular and pedagogical initiatives. For example, our faculty members have redesigned the curriculum in first-year chemistry to increase active learning through collaborative interactions, resulting in a 15-percent increase in course pass rates and in doubling the number of chemistry majors over a four-year period. (Such course-redesign efforts are part of an overall effort to improve academic outcomes in challenging introductory courses at the University System of Maryland, under the leadership of its chancellor, Brit Kirwan.) In other disciplines at UMBC, similar efforts relying on group study and collaboration, technology, and active learning have also yielded positive results, including higher retention and grades and increased coverage of content during the semester.

Institutionalizing cultural change requires that campus support be sufficiently broad and strong to ensure that the change can be sustained beyond a particular group of leaders. In the case of the Meyerhoff program, the campus has derived substantial benefits, including national recognition and external funding from agencies and foundations. This recognition and support, coupled with the academic success of our students, have helped build campuswide consensus about the importance of the program and an increasingly strong sense of ownership among faculty and staff.

We hope that aspects of the broad framework developed and nurtured at UMBC can serve as a useful guide for other institutions as they make cultural changes to meet the challenges of the world around them.

Elliot L. Hirshman is provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Freeman A. Hrabowski III is president of UMBC.