A few weeks ago, I spent a day at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. The first thing you see on the drive into the campus is a six-foot-tall sign, stuck in the grassy median of the entrance road, that says, "WE'RE NUMBER 1" and "Top Up-and-Coming National University AGAIN!" It sets a tone: UMBC is on the move. How far it will be allowed to go is less certain.
The No. 1 designation was courtesy of U.S. News & World Report, which conducts an "up and coming" survey along with its regular annual ranking of which colleges are sitting atop the biggest piles of money and fame. The campus itself is fairly standard, with clusters of dorms encircling a compact group of grassy lawns and academic buildings. Throngs of students were out that day, lounging in the kind of late-summer sunlight that keeps brochure photographers in business. Everyone was fiddling with cellphones, and there was nowhere to park.
In other ways, UMBC is unusual. Although the present campus wasn't opened until the mid-1960s, making it an adolescent in higher-education years, UMBC has built a robust base of research faculty and financing. It is highly diverse: Half the students are white, 20 percent are black or Hispanic, and 20 percent are Asian. Its program to help minority students earn Ph.D.'s in science, engineering, and mathematics is nationally known. And its president has the kind of résumé you couldn't make up: Freeman A. Hrabowski III marched for civil rights in Birmingham with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. before graduating from the Hampton Institute at age 19, earned a Ph.D. in higher-education administration and statistics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign at 24, and became UMBC's president in 1992, when he was 41. He's been living, breathing, and promoting the place ever since.
But perhaps the most radical thing about UMBC is that it appears to have substantially organized itself around the task of helping students learn. After lunch with the provost and department chairs, Hrabowski took me to a science building, with frequent stops to greet students and faculty members, by name, along the way. We arrived to an unusual sight: About 50 students were milling around the door of the chemistry lab, 10 minutes before class, waiting to get in. The reason was simple: Latecomers to Chem 101 aren't allowed in the door.
Once they enter, students gather around tables with built-in computer terminals to work and learn together on group projects. Charts projected onto screens around the room as the professor moves among the groups. UMBC switched Chem 101 away from the standard lecture format five years ago. The result was an increase in the course pass rate from 71 percent to 86 percent, even though the passing standards are higher now than then. The number of students majoring in chemistry has nearly doubled, and other departments are moving to adopt the model.
For this and myriad other reasons—the latest issue of the university's journal of undergraduate research includes articles like "Parallel Performance Studies for a Numerical Simulator of Atomic Lay Deposition"—bright students in Maryland are flocking to UMBC, and people in the know cite it as a university to watch.
Yet I wonder how far UMBC can go from here. Far more people in the world remain out of the know than in.
That's because they don't have enough ways of knowing.
The Chronicle is publishing a series of articles titled "Measuring Stick," which explores the highly charged debate over assessing how much college students learn. The reaction from readers has been fascinating. While many embrace the assessment challenge, others reject it on principle. "I did not give birth to any of these students, and I am, therefore, not responsible for their ability or inability to learn anything," wrote one.
But even those with a more enlightened view of their teaching responsibilities tend to balk at anything that hints of standardization and comparability. Subjecting university teaching to the kind of public, widely shared standards of quality that we routinely apply to university research remains a bridge too far. Learning is too complex, we are told, and the available measures too crude. The specters of homogenization and government control are often invoked, and for good reason. It's not hard to imagine the consequences of assessment done wrong.
It is, by contrast, hard to fully imagine the consequences of assessment done right. And that's the problem. At the risk of sounding Rumsfeldian, not all the unknowns are known.
What if, for example, UMBC isn't actually up-and-coming? What if it's already there?
UMBC specializes in the task that every parent, pundit, and lawmaker in America most wants universities to accomplish: teaching young people to become great scientists and engineers. It may already be better at this than the Ivies and Research I universities that everyone knows.
But without reliable, public assessment information to prove that to the world, UMBC has few ways of elevating its standing to a level that matches the quality of its academic work. Right now, universities' reputations rest on wealth, fame, and selectivity. UMBC can't hit up rich alumni for giant donations because it hasn't existed long enough for many of its alumni to get rich. Starting a big-time sports program is a bad bet, as the scandal-plagued basketball program at Binghamton University, a fellow America East Conference member, shows. If UMBC becomes too selective, it risks sacrificing diversity and its obligations as a public institution. And it will be hard for whoever follows Hrabowski to match his particular talents.
Without a good measuring stick, great public universities can't prove their greatness. In the long run, that means we'll have fewer great public universities than we need. That shortage won't matter much to the institutions that control the existing higher-education power structure, or to the small number of privileged students who are allowed to attend them (that is, the groups that have the most to lose from shifting the terms of prestige toward learning). But it will be a slow-motion calamity for everyone else.
Early in the afternoon, Hrabowski led me up a narrow spiral staircase to the roof of the UMBC administration building. We followed what I suspect is a well-used path to the top of the building's north face, where he pointed to the Baltimore skyline in the distance, a new arts-and-humanities building rising from a construction site to the east, a research park in the woods behind us, and a center of NASA-financed research below. After nearly two decades in the presidency and a remarkable American journey, Freeman Hrabowski III can see every good thing about UMBC. But unless other people have the means of fully sharing his vision, it will take too long for the rest of the world to catch up.