Many of us first heard the name University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) for their historic upset of a number one seed in the NCAA tournament, however, there is an even more historic lesson there, with a far greater impact, and one I hope we learn from.
Outside of hoops, UMBC is remarkable for two powerful and I would argue interrelated things, first, it was a college that was designed to be integrated, and second, it is having real success in educating Black students.
Articles have started to circulate like “UMBC produces more black M.D., PhD graduates than any other U.S. school”
And check out the numbers,
University of Maryland, Baltimore County produces more black M.D. and Ph.D. degree-earners than any other college in the country, according to new data from the Association of American Medical Colleges.
In total, 44 UMBC alumni who identify as African American or black earned M.D.-Ph.D. degrees. These degrees indicate a combined scientific and medical education and are typically sought by students who want to conduct research in a medical setting. Since 2000, 413 black men and women have earned M.D.-Ph.D.s from institutions across the country — more than 10 percent of those were UMBC alumni.
10% of all the degrees issued nationwide come from one university with 13,000 students. Something is clearly going right here. And while this is not a straight cause and effect situation, it is worth noting that UMBC has another pretty unique feature.
UMBC Was Designed as an Integrated School
Yes, you heard that right, while much of the country was fighting rear guard battles to maintain segregation UMBC was designed to be integrated. And that design set it up for continued support and success.
This is from the Atlantic
The Maryland legislature chartered UMBC in 1963 with the idea that it would serve students of all races at a time when much of America was still segregated. That same year, I was jailed as a 12-year-old for participating in the Children’s Crusade in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, and Governor Wallace took his infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door.” Even those who were fairly progressive still questioned whether people of all races could study alongside one another and succeed. Everybody thought it couldn’t be done because it hadn’t been done. And then we did it.
They did it… and it worked.
The Benefits of Integration; The Liabilities of Segregation
I don’t think Black folks got PhDs by sitting next to White folks, but I do believe that integration often brings resources and opportunities and segregation often limits them. This complex interplay is spelled out in Richard Rothstein’s book, The Color of Law (who we are doing an author talk with on 5/10, more details to come), and the ways that access to resources are linked to race and geography. UMBC, unlike many segregated schools, was placed in strategic thoroughfare and aligned around high end labor needs. The school was actually designed for success.
As described by Wikipedia
UMBC’s main entrance is approached from Metropolitan Boulevard where there is a UMBC Campus exit that leads to UMBC Boulevard. Soon after the campus exit, UMBC Boulevard intersects Research Park Drive which leads into UMBC’s Research & Technology Park. UMBC’s campus is also served by Wilkens Avenue, which provides access to the Baltimore Beltway and Rolling Road. Entrances off of Wilkens Avenue include Hilltop Road and Walker Avenue. Hilltop Road leads towards Catonsville’s Business District on Frederick Road and Spring Grove Hospital Center. On the other side of the campus, Poplar Avenue gives direct access to Arbutus’s Business District on East Drive. The campus core is served by Hilltop Circle, which creates a complete circle encompassing the campus.
While I respect and appreciate the work of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), I would wonder whether most of them were positioned to thrive by the local governments—on choice land, with access to choice opportunities. And I am not sure if HBCUs get that same preferential treatment by Southern legislatures, and whether they are similarly poised for success, or can weather changing political climates.
UMBC was set up for success by the legislature and is a child of it. It is not a stepchild, as many of our segregated schools are.
In the relatively bleak landscapes of real integration and Black academic achievement, UMBC is a legitimate bright spot. We should celebrate them for much more than basketball, and copy their success off the court. Though this one success is a painful reminder of how far we have to go elsewhere, and the need for courage and resoluteness in getting there.
*This piece first ran here at Great School Voices.
Dirk Tillotson is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Great Schools Choices, which supports community-based charter school development and increasing access for underserved families. He has worked for over 20 years supporting mostly charter community schools in Oakland, New Orleans and New York City, and he’s even consulted on education issues in the Middle East.
As a child, his parents moved their family to a high-performing school district where they were the first Black family on the block. The challenges of that experience embedded in him a desire to create academically high-quality schools where students don’t have to check their identities at the door.
Dirk currently resides in Oakland, California, and blogs at Great School Voices.