Strategist's gambit proves right move

June 13, 2003

How do you transform a backwater college into an academic powerhouse? Freeman Hrabowski began by forsaking football and recruiting chess champions. Stephen Phillips reports

You'll probably recognise the roll call of America's top chess-playing universities. Predictably, it comprises the Ivy League institutions Harvard and Yale universities, Stanford University and the academic powerhouses of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Chicago - the usual suspects as far as cerebral success among US colleges goes.

The actual victor in the 2002-03 Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championships, however, might not be so familiar. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, or UMBC, lacks the cachet of its august peers but the small, publicly funded campus near Washington DC is accustomed to more than holding its own in such lofty company. Sporting brash nicknames such as Alex the Invincible, the Mongolian Terror, the Polish Magician and Surgeon, its chess titans vanquished all-comers at this year's event. The clean sweep made it six titles in seven years for UMBC.

This unlikely chess dynasty is no accident. With the alacrity with which other US institutions court gridiron or basketball prodigies, UMBC scouts recruit crack chess players from Sri Lanka to Kazakhstan, Belarus to New York City, with the lure of scholarships worth up to $15,000 (£9,000) a year. The scheme is the brainchild of associate computer science professor Alan Sherman but fits squarely into the iconoclastic academic vision of UMBC's president Freeman Hrabowski, for whom chess is a metaphor for intellectual excellence. "We want to attract serious students in chess because they tend to be excellent thinkers," he says.

But it goes deeper than that. Spurning brawn for brains, UMBC declines even to field an American football team. Chess masters tend to rub off on their peers in more useful ways than athletic heroes, Hrabowski says. They make it "cool to be smartI (symbolising) our emphasis on the life of the mind".

The intellectual flourishing that the 52-year-old African-American mathematics and science education scholar has presided over since taking charge at UMBC in 1992 goes beyond mind games. Under his aegis, the 11,711-student institution, founded in 1966 as a satellite to the University of Maryland's main campus at College Park, has blossomed from a comparative backwater into an academic powerhouse.

Research funding has swelled from less than $10 million to $70 million, while the number of PhD students has more than doubled to 70, thrusting UMBC into the vanguard of US research institutions tracked by the Carnegie Foundation. The university has become a handy academic springboard to elite institutions, sending graduates to Oxbridge, Germany's Max Planck Institute, the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego and sundry Ivy League colleges.

UMBC itself has also garnered a reputation as a hothouse for scientific innovation. Dollar for dollar of research and development funding, the 20 patents the institution will file this academic year (it managed only one in 1992-93) rank it sixth among US universities.

Partly to parlay such intellectual property into commercial money-spinners, the university opened a state-of-the-art business complex (part of a $300 million construction boom on the campus since 1992) in 2000 to incubate start-ups and forge ties between researchers and local firms. Some 25 fledgling companies, some based on faculty inventions, now call techcenter@UMBC home. An adjoining facility, opened last year, caters to more mature ventures.

Such credentials vaulted UMBC onto Newsweek magazine's influential "America's Hot Schools" roster this year - vital kudos amid cut-throat competition for bright students among US campuses. Undergraduate applications have since shot up 30 per cent.

Getting there hasn't been plain sailing, though. When Hrabowski took over 11 years ago, it was hardly an auspicious moment for publicly funded higher education in Maryland, a commercial corridor to the US capital. The state's mainstay defence industry was at a low ebb amid a post-cold war lockdown in Pentagon spending, depleting tax receipts ploughed into education. The general economic downturn of the early 1990s didn't help either.

Juggling a tight budget - state funding dipped by 20 per cent from 1991 to 1993 - with spiralling student enrolment, Hrabowski had some tough choices on his hands.

Cutting $8 million from overheads entailed drastically slashing UMBC's administrative payroll and unpopular paring of academic courses. The austerity measures were not without missteps, Hrabowski recalls. Layoffs proved overzealous and left UMBC without the auditing controls required of publicly funded bodies, necessitating hiring new staff a few years later.

Moreover, the decision to axe politically sensitive African-American studies and ethnomusicology graduate programmes alongside undergraduate accountancy courses drew flak.

But Hrabowski is unrepentant. Fiscal hardship forced him to take stock of UMBC's core academic mission and discontinue extraneous courses. In the crunch, he opted to redouble the university's focus on science, engineering and public-policy graduate courses and undergraduate science and liberal-arts curricula.

"It's difficult to be outstanding in all areas, one has to decide where the strengths are and build on them - this means making difficult decisions."

In making such calls, Hrabowski solicits advice from an interdisciplinary brain trust of faculty members to ensure even-handed governance. Reform efforts at other universities also offer inspiration. Hrabowski says he has drawn counsel from visits to Hong Kong's University of Science and Technology, MIT and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

UMBC has blazed its own trail, however, in fostering academic excellence among disadvantaged minorities. Some 13 per cent of its students are African-American, roughly mirroring their numbers in US society at large.

Yet blacks earn just 2 per cent of the PhDs awarded annually by US universities. To buck such grim odds, Hrabowski, an expert in minority education, spearheads aggressive outreach efforts at local inner-city schools to make academically inclined but deprived youngsters aware of the educational lifeline held out by UMBC. Promising minority pupils and aspirant first-generation college students are offered intensive extracurricular tutoring at UMBC to groom them for university entrance.

Such initiatives take their cue from the annual Meyerhoff scholarship programme, instituted in 1988 for 50 talented young African-American males (the most underachieving segment in US schools) to study science, engineering and mathematics at UMBC, but since opened out to disadvantaged women and all ethnicities.

Handling underprivileged students calls for a more interventionist pedagogical approach to help them adjust to the next level of learning, often among better-prepared peers, Hrabowski says.

Accordingly, Meyerhoff recipients attend six weeks of preparatory courses in the summer before their first term so they hit the ground running when lessons begin. The boot camp emphasises communal learning to combat the sense of isolation minority students often experience in an unfamiliar, predominately white setting.

Such insights are not just academic. Hailing from segregation-era Alabama, Hrabowski was mentored by a maths professor from the nearby Tuskegee Institute as a teenager. He then attended Hampton University in Virginia and earned a masters degree in maths and a PhD in higher education and statistics from the University of Illinois at the age of 24. As president of UMBC, he is one of only a handful of blacks running mainly white research campuses.

But Hrabowski eschews conventional analyses of black education that he says fixate on "remediation and deficiencies". He declines to dwell on the negatives, accentuating the positives instead. In this vein, Beating the Odds , his 1998 tome on promoting scientific excellence among black boys, and its 2002 sister volume looking at black girls, Overcoming the Odds , seek to draw lessons from examples of high-achievers.

Certainly, the Meyerhoff programme has thrown up ample fodder for such case studies - some 90 per cent of its participants proceed to graduate degree courses, and alongside its broadened scope, wisdom gleaned from the scheme has been applied across the board at UMBC to promote academic performance and student welfare.

Instilling a cooperative approach to intellectual inquiry, all students are encouraged to form study groups. Ground rules are established upfront to stop discussions dissolving into anarchic free-for-alls. Students must stick to the topic at hand and "be willing to give support to each other, getting away from competitiveness", Hrabowski says.

"One of the differences between us and other productive research universities is that our faculty work closely with freshmen and engage students in research early on," Hrabowski adds. UMBC undergraduates have collaborated on research written up in the journals Nature and Science , he notes, adding that whetting students' appetite for advanced study is key to cultivating a future pipeline of graduate degree candidates.

To minimise dropouts, meanwhile, parents are bought into the loop at orientation sessions and encouraged to contact faculty members discreetly if they notice students becoming discouraged about their studies.

Recounting the stern, admonitory tone of a more fatalistic university chancellor, Hrabowski recalls an induction speech to students that asked them to glance to their left and right and reflect on the sobering likelihood that one of them wouldn't graduate. "We should say 'our goal is to make sure all three of you graduate'," he rejoins.

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