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UMBC: Where Vision Matches Achievement


The proposed merger of the University of Maryland Baltimore County with the university's professional schools in Baltimore sank from sight this spring. So UMBC has tacked back to windward and set its own course. It's headed straight toward an important and achievable goal: In the next ten years it will make itself a national model for a mid-sized public research university.

After a year in an un-merged limbo and a budgetary dead end, the school is surging ahead again. Earlier this month, the state regents confirmed Freeman A. Hrabowski III as UMBC's new president. He has held the position on an interim basis since Michael K. Hooker left last summer, and there was never much chance that the regents would bungle by picking anybody else.

Dr. Hrabowski is ideally suited to lead UMBC through the next stage of its development. He knows the school. In 1987, Dr. Hooker personally recruited him to be vice provost and then promoted him to executive vice president. In those positions, he earned the trust, confidence and affection of faculty, staff and students.

He also built a solid record of achievement. For example, he headed the innovative and enormously successful Meyerhoff Scholars Program under which UMBC recruits gifted African-American science and engineering students and guides them through a demand- ing undergraduate curriculum.

In fact, Hooker-Hrabowski will be a perfect one-two punch for UMBC. President Hooker was a visionary with a flair for salesmanship. He shone a bright light on the previously little-known and unappreciated Catonsville campus with the peculiar name. He convinced the business community that UMBC had surprising strengths in biochemistry and biotechnology -- strengths which could play an important role in greater Baltimore's economic future.

As president, Dr. Hooker laid out a vision of what UMBC could become -- a mid-sized but first-rate public research university with world-class expertise in strategically selected fields such as the life sciences, photonics and information systems. In those areas, UMBC could develop collaborative research arrangements with high-tech industries and make itself an economic engine in a knowledge-based world economy.

Dr. Hrabowski shares that vision. He talks about it everywhere he goes, and he brings to UMBC's presidency the leadership and political skills necessary to achieve it. He showed his abilities as an effective inside operator this spring. While still only an interim appointee, he persuaded the regents to reverse their earlier decision to shut down several UMBC programs, including its award-winning theater department.

Dr. Hrabowski will need those skills, and all of Dr. Hooker's visionary eloquence as well, to accomplish his mission at UMBC. The challenge he has set for himself extends far beyond merely assembling and maintaining a collection of high-technology research units. Dr. Hrabowski intends to build a great educational institution. That goal requires a balance between outstanding graduate-level science and strong undergraduate liberal-arts programs.

Otherwise, the school cannot maintain the sense of educational purpose and academic community which distinguishes a research university from a mere research center. Nor will it attract talented students from this area. More and more of them look to UMBC for a scientifically oriented college education, and they will stay in this area after they get it.

In fact, the overall quality of UMBC students has jumped dramatically. Since 1985, the freshman class' average Scholastic Aptitude Test scores have risen from 950 to 1080. During this period, the scores of African- Americans, now 15 percent of the DTC diverse student body, have risen from 812 to 1060. Meyerhoff Scholars average over 1250. And UMBC is no longer a revolving educational door. Retention rates are now 83 percent, as high as at any other public university in the state.

UMBC's remarkable progress was on display at yesterday's graduation ceremonies. The university awarded 49 doctorate degrees, up from 14 in 1985. For the first time, a UMBC student has won one of Britain's prestigious Marshall Scholarships. Three members of the faculty have been awarded National Science Foundation appointments as Presidential Young Investigators.

UMBC has also impressed execu- tives from this state's high-technology companies. They have come to the campus to inspect the science -- the applied molecular biology program, the Center for Structural Biochemistry, the Center for Bioprocess Manufacturing, the Photonic Technology Center, the Imaging Research Center. UMBC's outside-funded research has jumped from $3.5 million eight years ago to $15 million today.

UMBC, however, offers the Baltimore region much more than first-class strategic science. It can become a first-rate university -- an institution which continually revitalizes our city and state with a steady flow of ideas, inventions, investments and, most of all, talented people. In time, even its unusual initials can become a symbol of the school's pride and strength, in the same way that people respect UCLA.

In order to capitalize on that opportunity, Maryland must, at long last, give UMBC the support it needs. The regents must become forceful advocates for the vision. The Maryland Higher Education Commission must focus less on eliminating supposed duplications and more on building strong educational institutions. The governor and the General Assembly must make sure that even in tight times the school has the money it needs to retain the promising faculty it has somehow managed to recruit.

Most important, this state must finally begin to make good on the commitment which it so proudly proclaimed in 1988 -- the pledge to raise the quality of Maryland's public higher education to the highest levels in the land.

Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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