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Book Review / The Empowered University

Book Review / The Empowered University

By Michael Dabrowski

We live in a time of change, disruption, and innovation. From this inflection point, where we go as a society depends on the priorities we set for the institutions pre-paring the next generation of leaders.

The rise of consumerism and the declining public support for education set the stage for higher education corporatization. In our rush to monetize everything education-related, we often promote competition between institutions, initiate conflicts between the staff and the administration, and create an unhealthy relationship between the students and the institution while losing sight of the sector’s foundational principles. In this intimate narrative, written from the first-person perspective, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, President of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), provides a glimpse into how a small university manages to consistently outperform much larger and more established rivals. His dedication to education’s founding principles and creating a collaborative culture across the institution becomes evident.

This intensely personal account of nearly 30 years as president at UMBC leads the reader to assume that this will be all about the long-term leader and his institutional successes, and the take-away could undoubtedly be precisely that. However, Hrabowski, with coauthors Philip J. Rous and Peter H. Henderson, shift the conversation from the first pages to a narrative about “us.” In no uncertain terms, the authors underscore that the successes at UMBC are a collaborative achievement of a community that energizes administrators, staff, faculty, and students to create an empowered university.

This book consists of two sections. The first part reads like a recipe for creating an emboldened university while acknowledging American higher education’s historical framework of the 20th and early 21st centuries. It looks back to provide a context to gaze into the future to anticipate the demands from an educated citizenry and the institutional culture change required to meet these needs. The second part consists of historical case studies covering topics from racial access and gender issues within education, academic achievement and student engagement, community building, research culture, and student protests as a dialogue with the institutional leadership. With a clear focus on student excellence, the book digs into course design, learning models, faculty diversity, partnerships, community engagement, and infrastructure issues, all aimed at cultivating and empowering a university culture that promotes innovation in a rapidly changing landscape. There is something here for anyone involved in education, and this diversity is a testament to the foundations of a collaborative culture.

Through the successes and challenges described in the book, Hrabowski paints a picture of a future that will be better than today. He directly confronts the resistance to change that is human nature. In response to a world requiring something else from future citizens, he underscores that “it is our obligation to address the evolving role of our institutions in society and help students succeed.” He favours developing leadership at all institution levels to foster a climate that encourages asking questions and is committed to creating a shared path forward embraced by faculty, administrators, and students.

His long tenure as President of UMBC gives him a unique perspective as a leader promoting minority academic excellence. The vision and successes described throughout the book can serve as a role model for Canadian leaders and institutions as they struggle with Indigenous representation in postsecondary education. Learning from his experiences with black minority academic excellence, we can increase university education access for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. Hrabowski shows how we can shape universities to reflect our society to create a more welcoming environment for an increasingly diverse student body. The hurdles to overcome are the same, and Hrabowski offers a proven roadmap for empowering universities that could promote reconciliation and a renewed relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada.

The authors are conscious that this book makes the process of institutional change look effortless and are quick to underscore that there is nothing easy about it. It is a long, arduous process, but the results are worth the effort. This book is worth the read for anyone interested in the future of higher education and institutional leadership.

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Michael Dabrowski, is an Academic Coordinator in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Athabasca University, and past-president of the Canadian Network of Innovation in Education (CNIE-RCIÉ).

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