In other arenas, we continue to tackle seemingly intractable problems. Our Sherman STEM Teacher Scholars Program trains some of the best students in math and science to teach in middle schools in challenging city environments. Our Center for Women in Technology and its scholars program are working to reverse the substantial decline in the number of women in computing. Our Linehan Artists Scholars and students in our BreakingGround civic engagement program use the arts and humanities to help address problems in Baltimore and other cities, including documenting the impact of deindustrialization.
What we saw Friday night reflected inclusive excellence, people of diverse backgrounds, races, and economic classes working together. It’s clear from commenters in the media, on social media, and in other venues, that many people were impressed by the rich diversity of our community, not only on the court, but in the band, on the dance team and cheer squad, and in the audience of alumni, faculty, staff, and students. We encourage broad participation and interaction among all groups—and in so doing, we are reflecting what we hope America will become.
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.
Because of institutions like ours and forward-thinking legislation like the Higher Education Act of 1965, American society has been transformed. In the mid-1960s, only about 10 percent of American adults had earned bachelor’s degrees. Only about 11 percent of white adults and 4 percent of African American adults had reached this level of education. During that period, most families of all races did not expect their children to attend college.
Fifty years later, perceptions about college accessibility have changed dramatically. According to a Pew Survey, 94 percent of parents now expect that their children will attend college. A third of the adults in this country already hold bachelor’s degrees and another 10 percent hold associate degrees from community colleges. The percentage of African Americans with bachelor’s degrees, while still lower than that of Asian Americans and whites, has increased almost six-fold to 23 percent.
However, while we have moved to desegregate higher education, there’s a fundamental question of whether we’ve integrated higher education. Perhaps the reason UMBC is considered one of the most innovative institutions is that we encourage difficult conversations and ask challenging questions, and we welcome different points of view with the understanding that we can agree to disagree with civility. We tell students to “get beyond your comfort zone, to get to know people different from yourselves.” It’s in that space beyond comfort that true education occurs.
That is the connection between what’s happening on our campus, what we saw Friday night, and what needs to happen in our country. America needs people from different racial groups, different backgrounds, different points of view trusting each other and—even against the odds—working to achieve their common goals. It takes grit to achieve moments of greatness.