Building Healthy Relationships

By Freeman A. Hrabowski III    //    Volume 23,  Number 6   //    November/December 2015

As international attention focused on Baltimore this past spring, faculty, staff, and students gathered on the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) campus to discuss the historical and cultural roots of the city’s unrest and how the university could be supportive of residents. Students sat on steps and lined the walls of a packed lecture hall for this “teach-in” as professors provided historical context on the policies and practices underlying racial and economic divisions in the city and the nation.

Faculty members talked about their connections to the city as residents, volunteers, and parents. Students described their experiences as mentors, organizers, and advocates, or simply asked how they could get involved and be connected. My colleagues and I were inspired by the determination of our students to understand the problems and look for solutions.

I was also struck by the importance of building and supporting a campus culture that encourages members to ask questions and work toward a shared understanding of what is possible. Governing boards are a critical part of these conversations. As fellow thought leaders, board members provide a unique perspective that can help campus leaders to understand the relationship between activities on campus and what is happening in the community. They can also help campuses build on their strengths while staying focused on mission.

For UMBC, events in Baltimore have led to a renewed focus on broad issues related to inequality and the ways that universities can support children and families in challenging circumstances. UMBC and other institutions that are part of the University System of Maryland have documented the initiatives and activities addressing these issues, which allows us to learn lessons from each other.

For example, the Choice Program at UMBC, a model for community-university engagement, provides round-the-clock supervision and support to hundreds of at-risk youths between the ages of 8 and 18 living in Baltimore and neighboring communities. The program is helping more young people than ever through an expanded job-training program in partnership with the University of Baltimore. We are now working to find resources to help additional young people, and we are exploring new ways for the campus community to embrace this work.

We’ve made community service part of many classes though our BreakingGround initiative and other service-learning efforts and are preparing students to teach math and science in challenging schools through our Sherman STEM Teacher Scholars Program.

As host of the 2015 Imagining America Conference, UMBC partnered with colleagues at local institutions to produce a four-day event highlighting the role of the humanities, arts, and design in addressing societal challenges and strengthening communities.

The board has been helpful in expecting regular updates on collaborative efforts with other campuses and in asking good questions about such areas as tech commercialization and economic development in Baltimore. For example, UMBC and the University of Maryland, Baltimore have an ongoing initiative supporting research and collaborative activities in a variety of areas of importance to the city, from the environment to producing human services professionals and addressing health disparities.

Reflecting on these and other initiatives, we can see what has worked and where we might expand our activities or do things differently. Most important, we recognize the values that make these efforts possible. Being transparent, asking questions, basing decisions on evidence, and involving different groups all build community and strengthen relationships.

Healthy relationships among an institution’s different constituents, from board members to faculty, staff, students, and alumni, produce the synergy that is at the heart of effective problem solving. Most important, the relationship with the board requires both trust and ongoing dialogue. The more board members understand about the challenges and the strengths of a campus, the more progress that institution can make.