Asking the Hard Questions
A DISCUSSION OF“If We Are Simply Creating Techies Who Can Only Work With the Technology, We’re in Big Trouble.”
As an executive at the most innovative university in the United States and a graduate of what I call “a liberal arts college masquerading as an engineering school,” I find it refreshing when scholar-leaders in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the STEM fields—speak both passionately and eloquently about the arts and humanities. Thus, I found the interview with Freeman A. Hrabowski III (Issues, Spring 2023) particularly rewarding.
Although West Point launched the United States’ first school of engineering in 1802, my alma mater, the US Air Force Academy, is perhaps the most technologically forward-thinking of all the military service academies. But as Hrabowski reminds us, “If we are simply creating techies who can only work with the technology, we’re in big trouble.” The same can be said of our future turbocharged, technologically enhanced officer corps. They too must be deeply rooted in what makes us human, especially when generative artificial intelligence is beginning to distort our collective conceptualization of “knowledge.”
Raised in the Deep South during the throes of the Civil Rights movement, Hrabowski draws a direct line from the sense of agency he gained while participating in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Children’s March in Alabama (an act that landed him in jail) to not only advocating for more Black PhDs in STEM but actually producing more of them. Hrabowski accomplished this heady task by completing what he identifies as among the most difficult tasks one can attempt: changing an institution’s culture—in this case, at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “To change the culture, we must be empowered to look in the mirror and to be honest with ourselves,” he reflects, if you’ll pardon the pun. Looking in the mirror, Hrabowski and his colleagues changed expectations, proclaiming and proving that underrepresented minority students can and will do math as well as their counterparts. But even after a successful 30-year run as a university president (when the average tenure is closer to six), Hrabowski’s efforts to promote improved outcomes for students, pre-K to PhD, haven’t slowed.
With a $1.5 billion scholars program funded and named in his honor by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Hrabowski has taken his crusade to even higher levels. Acknowledging that despite his team’s Herculean efforts, the average number of Black students earning PhDs in STEM fields has moved from just 2.2% of all PhD STEM graduates to 2.3% in the recent past, Hrabowski realizes his work is far from done. Just as important, he is quick to note that less than 50% of students starting college graduate in six years, regardless of race.
Reflecting on his lifelong work, Hrabowski asks, perhaps rhetorically, but perhaps not: “What is it going to take to create a professoriate that will make exceptional achievement in STEM by people of color the rule rather than the exception?” One certainty: Freeman Hrabowski won’t stop asking that and even more difficult questions, just as he has been doing for the past four decades.
Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer
Arizona State University