Q&A: UB Tech keynote speaker Freeman Hrabowski

Technology "must be seen as integrated with the teaching and learning process, both in the classroom and in the institution."

Hearing Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, interact briefly with his CIO during the phone call for this Q&A, it’s clear that he would take being the subject of a roast in stride. And were that CIO ever the guest of honor at such an event, Hrabowski could command the mic and leave everyone, guest of honor included, in stitches. 

He and CIO John Suess are longtime colleagues, the president in his seat since 1992 and Suess since 2000. But laughter apparently is not reserved for the C-level folks. “If the campus has no humor, it’s a very boring place,” says Hrabowski.

The business going on at UMBC is hardly boring, either. During his UB Tech® 2020 keynote address, Hrabowski will share UMBC’s path to student success and inspire attendees to renew their commitment to ensuring success for all of their students. Visit ubtechconference.com for more on the event, to be held June 15-17 in Las Vegas.

Why is it important that technology leaders in higher ed be aware of and advocates for student success efforts? 

Experts in technology—whether they’re chief information officers or working in the field—are educators. They’re educators of colleagues, faculty and staff. Success with the administrative operation is important when thinking about moving things in such a way that we’re able to get the job of teaching and learning done. 

The technology piece is not an add-on piece. It must be seen as integrated with the teaching and learning process, both in the classroom and in the institution. 

Places that are healthy use a CIO as counsel in the same way you do a counsel for law—having that person as part of every conversation.

I’m very interested in tech people appreciating what they can do, in looking at learning analytics, for example, or in ways in which technology can make administration more effective. Having that group appreciate their education roles is critical. 

You just co-authored The Empowered University: Shared Leadership, Culture Change, and Academic Success (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019). In what ways do you want campus leaders to feel empowered?

They should be empowered to look in the mirror as a leader—or as a university, a community college, even a society—and to say, “What do we do well that we can celebrate? But where are we lacking? What are the gaps?” One of those gaps is the fact that large percentages of our students in all types of institutions are not succeeding. We tend to take that for granted. We say that’s the way of the world, that’s the way it is. How would we feel if somebody said: “If you go to the hospital, you’ve got a 50% chance of being treated successfully.” That would be unacceptable. But we have not gotten to that point in universities. When half the people are not succeeding, they not only lack a degree, but they’re in big debt. And they don’t have the degree to get out of that debt. 

We don’t make progress if we keep doing the same things, the same way, and having the same results. 

Related: 4 pillars of college success in science

The two techniques I have found to be helpful in looking at ourselves have been focus groups—with different groups of students affected by different initiatives—and data analytics, looking at the trends and disaggregating the data. 

I’m a math person. To solve a problem, you have to be able to state the problem. To be able to state the problem, you have to have a culture that says this is not about blame, this is about having student success as our No. 1 priority. 

How has your long tenure at UMBC impacted your ability to foster its growth and success?

It’s a double-edged sword: The longer you’re at a place, the greater chance you could become cynical, or feel “been there; done that,” or just not be as enthusiastic as you need to be. Some of us who’ve been here a long time are able to inspire others and I see that. They somehow stay positive and make us laugh. Part of innovation is being irreverent in some ways and being able to laugh about some things—and continuing with honesty about, “this sucks and this goes well.” Then the longevity can be helpful. 

The first sentence in my new book is: “It’s not about me; it’s about us.” That’s one of the things I want to say to all leaders. It’s about a group of us working together. It’s not about what I do; it’s about what we do that’s very important. 

What lessons can UB Tech attendees learn from UMBC’s technology team?

What our tech workers do is constantly ask themselves the question: Are we being effective in helping faculty—in explaining technology with clarity and simple language in a way that people are not either turned off or intimidated by?  

Also read: STEM-powered equity in higher ed, a profile of Freeman Hrabowski from the UB archives

Technology workers have to be really good with the language and with emotional intelligence—since so often people are not comfortable with the technology. 

Say I go into a classroom and put a problem on differential equations on a board and solve it—and people are amazed I’m doing it with such lucidity—and then I give a test on problems like that and everybody fails it. Did I teach it? Most people would say yes, I taught it; they just didn’t get it. I would argue you are only effective as a teacher if students grasp the concept and can demonstrate their mastery of the work. That’s where I think we fall down. 

We know we need to work on structure here. We have a number of people working on analytics and doing some good work, but we don’t have the coherence we need to have. We’re working on that, but as good as we are, we know we can be even more powerful. 

My CIO has been my senior counselor. I think places that are healthy use a CIO as a counsel in the same way as you do a counsel for law—not waiting until there’s a problem with technology, but having that person as part of every conversation—so that technology is part of envisioning the next steps for everything. 

Are there other big takeaways you hope to leave with UB Tech attendees?

We must be inspired by the nobility of the work that we do. We all have this responsibility to help the public understand that higher education truly matters. 

It’s up to all of us, not just presidents, to talk about our stories. What is your story? How did you get here today? Most people are the first generation to go to college, or the second. Where was that family before you went to college?

Look at yourself and at your campus. What’s the gap between where you want to be and need to be, and where you are now? Be honest. Own it; own that gap. 

Tech people need to be reaffirmed in the idea that what they do matters. Whether they’re working on things involving learning analytics or they’re working on the operational efficiency and effectiveness of campus, what they do truly will matter to the quality of the enterprise. 

We must all think about how not to make decisions based on anecdotal information, but rather on our use of evidence acquired through analytics. It’s not about what happened with three students, but about what happened given the big data. Technology is critical to the future of evidence in our society.  

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB. 

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