The College Donor Digest

From the Bookshelf: The Empowered University

July 21, 2020 | Rebecca Richards

In his 2019 book, The Empowered University: Shared Leadership, Culture Change, and Academic Success, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland–Baltimore County (UMBC), describes the campus’s growth from a regional, commuter school to a STEM powerhouse. Philanthropy played an important role in this transformation. Donors who shared Dr. Hrabowski’s vision generously funded programs that gave students from all backgrounds the opportunity to achieve academic success.

In the 1980s, the UMBC administration noticed that African American students did well in liberal arts studies but were disproportionately failing in the natural sciences. Students attributed the low success rate to racism and a lack of support for minority students. Upon investigating, Dr. Hrabowski and his colleagues found that the rate of failure in the natural sciences was unacceptably high for students across demographic lines. If students were struggling universally, the issue most likely lay with the academic preparedness of the students and the teaching methodology. The administration took several steps to rectify the situation: They increased their admission standards, incentivized professors to innovate their teaching styles, and established the Meyerhoff Scholars Program in order to address the racial disparity.

The Meyerhoff Scholars Program began in 1989 with a $500,000 gift from Robert (Bob) Meyerhoff, a real estate developer and local philanthropist. He and Dr. Hrabowski shared a vision for empowering black students. The program provides substantial financial and community support to students majoring in the natural sciences. In order to qualify, students must have taken academically rigorous science and mathematics courses in high school and earned high standardized test scores. The university takes pride in the fact that “UMBC educates more African Americans who go on to earn an MD-PhD than any other institution in the nation, and that we also produce more African Americans who go on to earn a PhD in the natural sciences and engineering than any institution that is not classified as a historically black college and university (HBCU).” Because of its success, the Meyerhoff Scholars Program has inspired similar programs at Pennsylvania State University and the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. While Bob Meyerhoff may have envisioned his gift having an important impact at UMBC, the ripple effect of his investment at other schools is truly impressive.

Dr. Hrabowski also emphasizes the need for a strong liberal arts program alongside STEM. “In the long run,” he writes, “the success of our nation depends on how we manage our higher education enterprise in a twenty-first century that demands informed, educated, engaged, and thoughtful citizens, as well as a skilled and knowledgeable workforce that can drive our economy.” The liberal arts and STEM go hand in hand. Higher education should produce students “with the capacity to think critically about the problems and opportunities of our local communities, states, nation, and world.” Through private philanthropy, donors can help institutions like UMBC prepare students to be lifelong learners who are ready for the unique challenges of a rapidly changing job market.  

This book review is featured in Vol. 3, Summer 2020 Issue of the College Donor Quarterly, FAR's signature newsletter. To receive the next edition of the newsletter, please email


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