By UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski, Provost Philip Rous, and Peter Henderson
It is challenging to understand fully the culture of an institution. It is even more challenging to change that culture. At UMBC, we have focused our attention and resources on work that is critical to improving our administrative operations, building our research, and supporting student learning and achievement. We were guided in this work by questions that reflected our shared values: Are we putting people first? Are we providing students who come to our campus with the best experience possible? Are we doing the very best we can in all aspects of institutional operations given our mission and resources? Are we then taking that extra step, “above and beyond,” to do more, to do things differently, and to do our work better?
When I started at UMBC as vice provost in the late 1980s, our chancellor [Michael Hooker] had just articulated a new vision that asked us to improve our academics, grow our research, and be a more engaged partner with our community. Hooker had set UMBC on a new trajectory toward a new future. Yet, in my first years, if something went wrong, people would often say, “That’s UMBC.” That’s just the way it is, and the way it is just isn’t so great. It is unlikely that an institution with such a negative prevailing attitude could encourage and enable behavior that would lead to sustained excellence. To move toward the vision articulated by our leadership, something had to change. But how?
The larger vision that Hooker articulated was important, yet there was also a new and different feel at a more granular level. We began to take ourselves much more seriously. We created the Meyerhoff program, and it was a success. We became known as a destination for talented students. We built a research park, without which the state would not have taken us seriously as a research university. We evolved rapidly from a commuter school to a residential research university. We upgraded our admissions standards. We looked carefully at our performance on state audits and how to improve our financial and administrative structures. We celebrated as a community our commitment, hard work, and accomplishments (what we now call “grit and greatness”).
It is a cliché, but every journey does begin with a single step and a single success that can demonstrate for others what could be. With each success and subsequent success, more and more members of the community began to look at our goals, values, and work in a different way. Culture change can be imperceptible at times, yet at other times one can recognize that the institution has reached a tipping point. One day, you realize that your campus has changed, the paradigm has shifted, the culture is now perceptibly different. It was in this manner that our campus transformed itself from “That’s UMBC” to “unabashedly aspirational.”
In 2017, our campus was named one of the nation’s top academic workplaces in Great Colleges to Work For by the Chronicle of Higher Education for the ninth year in a row. We were just one of ten four-year institutions with more than 10,000 students featured on an “honor roll” of those with outstanding marks across nearly every measured category.
During this same period, when we went from “that’s UMBC” to “great college to work for,” our six-year graduation rate also climbed from 35 percent to more than 65 percent (more if you include the 10% who transfer out of UMBC and earn a degree at another institution and the 10% still enrolled after six years). So, how did we get from being perceived by some as mediocre to “unabashedly aspirational”? We’ll talk about particular programs and initiatives [later in the book]. Here it suffices to say that small innovations and initiatives can lead to big changes. Eventually, over a period of time, the organization is transformed.
Serious, sustainable change is hard work. It is often far harder than we would like to think it will be. When the change we want to see involves race, diversity, differences, and inclusion, it can be even more challenging, as these are topics most Americans are not comfortable discussing. But when change is the right thing to do, we must nevertheless engage and persist.
At UMBC, we are hungry for change. The imperative to evolve rapidly arises from our collective commitment to do all we can to better serve our students and their families; support student learning, persistence, and completion; connect our students and faculty to opportunities in the Baltimore-Washington region; and work to address our region’s social and economic needs. At just over fifty years of age, we are yet a young, growing institution, and to advance these goals, we must innovate, continually addressing new needs as they arise while simultaneously laying the foundation of a new model of the public university. Our mantra is “success is never final.”
As a campus, we are also a healthy community. This quality is expressed in our ability to be reflective; we can look in the mirror and be honest about what we see, good, bad, or challenging. When issues arise, our culture of reflection leads us to collect data that can inform our decision-making and to have respectful conversations that identify problems and possible solutions. We can acknowledge openly both our strengths and weaknesses, recognize the challenges we face and opportunities we can embrace, and understand how a well-considered response can lead to the desired outcomes. We structure our conversations so that they are inclusive and open to differing perspectives, using our shared governance structures or focus groups with stakeholders for a specific issue.
Change requires grit—commitment and resilience—because it does not happen overnight. Change that matters only succeeds because of long, organized, and sometimes expensive commitments. It requires the engagement of many individuals as leaders and change agents in order to persuade others, and that can require, from time to time, difficult conversations. This can be daunting for some.
Change requires courage, because it requires us to see things differently from the way they are at present. It requires us to recognize our failures as well as successes. For change to be possible, you first have to see the world and the lens through which you view it. Only then can you observe what could be and understand what the possibilities are. To make progress, you need to ask different and often difficult questions of yourself and others and then set different expectations so that others begin to see the world from a different perspective too.
Change necessitates courage because, so often, it requires a leap of faith and an acceptance of substantial risk—believing that a goal is achievable even if the outcome is, as yet, unseen: “No one believed it could be done, because it hadn’t been done before. And then we did it.”
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Note: This excerpt is from chapter three of The Empowered University, co-written by UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski, Provost Philip Rous, and Peter Henderson, in Hrabowski’s voice. The excerpt has been modified for length and clarity. The Empowered University is available in the UMBC Bookstore, as well as Holding Fast to Dreams (2016) and President Hrabowski’s earlier books.