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Meyerhoff scholars from as far back as the start of the program in 1989 gathered in Baltimore, Maryland, this spring to celebrate the program's 30th anniversary.

Jim Burger/University of Maryland, Baltimore County

A vaunted program for boosting the diversity of U.S. academic scientists is starting to spread

The audience applauded when Crystal Watkins Johansson revealed she was being promoted to associate professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University and head of the new Sheppard Pratt Memory Clinic in Baltimore, Maryland. And there were cheers for Lola Eniola-Adefeso, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, when she described “standing at the top of the academic ladder, working to pull up others like me.”

In May, the two women had returned to their undergraduate alma mater, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its Meyerhoff Scholars Program and honor its namesake, Baltimore philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff. The 95-year-old civil engineer, who made his fortune in commercial real estate, is lionized for his $500,000 donation to UMBC that launched what is now widely considered to be the most successful program in the United States for preparing minority students for careers in academic research.

The data tell an impressive story. Johansson and Eniola-Adefeso, who are both black, are two of 1150 alumni, of whom 71% are black or Hispanic. To date, 312 Meyerhoff scholars have earned Ph.D.s, 59 have joint M.D./Ph.D.s, 141 have been awarded M.D.s, and some 40 now hold tenured or tenure-track positions. An additional 265 have received a master’s degree in a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) field, and 258 more are now enrolled in graduate or professional school. These scholars represent the “new face of science,” says Michael Summers, a UMBC biology professor and longtime adviser to the program.

Signs of change

Despite their professed interest in moving the needle, however, few U.S. research universities have tried to follow in UMBC’s footsteps. But that could now be changing.

In September, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Chevy Chase, Maryland, will announce a competition to fund as many as six research universities that want to embrace the Meyerhoff model as part of a broader effort to make all students feel welcome in pursuing undergraduate STEM degrees. It comes after HHMI seeded a successful 5-year replication pilot at Pennsylvania State University in State College and the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill: This spring, the two schools reported that their first graduates had done even better than UMBC’s initial cohorts. And in April, two University of California (UC) schools, Berkeley and San Diego (UCSD), received money from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) to create undergraduate diversity programs built on the Meyerhoff model.

Such moves shine a spotlight on the factors leaders of the Meyerhoff program say have been key to its success. The list includes encouraging an esprit de corps among its hand-picked students, as well as providing financial aid, tutoring, career counseling, and summer research experiences. But the new programs have also called attention to the obstacles facing universities trying to replicate Meyerhoff, including tensions over funding, figuring out how a new diversity effort will mesh with existing programs, and changing deeply entrenched campus cultures.

“We need to build on programs like Meyerhoff,” says Gentry Patrick, a black professor of neurobiology who created a diversity program 2 years ago at UCSD that is the basis for the replication project being funded by CZI. “But if we had already figured it out, there would be a lot more full professors in neuroscience who are minorities. So there needs to be innovation, too.”

An unorthodox approach

Many institutions already operate programs to attract and retain more minorities in STEM fields. But change is occurring at a glacial pace. Overall, black and Hispanic people each make up only about 4% of all tenured faculty at U.S. Ph.D.-granting institutions, percentages that have remained nearly flat for each group since 2013. And the numbers appear to be worse within the STEM disciplines.

In a bid to improve the statistics, UMBC officials took a somewhat unorthodox approach when they established the Meyerhoff program. Many diversity programs target students from underrepresented groups who might otherwise struggle to earn an undergraduate degree, and the programs are often limited to one discipline or a single college within a university. In contrast, Meyerhoff is unapologetically elitist: It targets high-achieving students bent on an academic career, a much longer and more arduous path that requires more than just an undergraduate degree.

To get in, students must have a high math score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, excellent high school grades, and a declared intention to major in a STEM field. And once accepted—UMBC enrolls anywhere from 60 to 90 Meyerhoff scholars each year—a student scholar is free to pursue a degree in any STEM discipline.

“We didn’t just want students who could make it through the program,” says Freeman Hrabowski, the longtime UMBC president who launched the Meyerhoff program. “We wanted them to do so well that they’d be excited about going to graduate school and becoming Ph.D.s and M.D./Ph.D.s and M.D.s,” says Hrabowski, a mathematician who notes that he was often the only black student in his math classes.

Meyerhoff scholars recognize the value of that caring approach to their education. A “gesture of gratitude” capital campaign unveiled at the May gala is halfway toward its $1 million goal. “My academic journey has been great,” explained Eniola-Adefeso, a member of the seventh class of Meyerhoff scholars. “And it absolutely would not have happened without Mr. Meyerhoff and the Meyerhoff Scholars Program.”

Freeman Hrabowski (left), president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, celebrates with the Meyerhoff Scholars Program’s benefactor, Robert Meyerhoff (right).

Jim Burger/University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Slow path to replication

Meyerhoff has long been eager to share its winning formula, which it has distilled into 13 essential elements. But holding true to those principles is far more than a check-the-box exercise.

UMBC’s 6-week summer bridge program, for example, isn’t just a way to acclimate incoming freshmen. Students wear nametags and introduce themselves before answering in class to help them learn each other’s names. To foster teamwork, they study in small groups—and their grade is based on the performance of the lowest scoring group.

For years, however, Meyerhoff was regarded as an outlier. One reason, observers say, is the not-invented-here syndrome, in which a program developed elsewhere is seen to have fatal flaws. Launching a new initiative is also a surefire way to stoke financial tensions on college campuses. Shifting scarce resources into a new diversity effort, for example, can alienate faculty members and staff who run existing programs that have the same goal.

Universities may also face an unspoken but nonetheless deeply held attitude among some faculty that students from underrepresented groups cannot excel in science, or that the obstacles to their success are simply too large to overcome. Meyerhoff also suffers from the perception that the ebullient and forceful Hrabowski was its secret sauce, and that any attempt to replicate the program without him would fail.

In 2013, however, two universities— Penn State and UNC—approached Summers with the idea of creating faithful copies. Summers, in turn, pitched the idea to HHMI, which for more than 2 decades has paid his salary as an HHMI investigator. In 2014, HHMI launched the Meyerhoff Adaptation Project, putting up $7.75 million for Penn State and UNC to launch their own programs.

Working with UMBC officials, the schools have spent the past 5 years transforming their approach to working with minority STEM undergraduates. And in the 26 April issue of Science, they published the most conclusive evidence to date that Meyerhoff can be replicated.

The first cohorts of students in their programs, they reported, earned better grades and were more likely to receive a STEM degree and enroll in a graduate STEM program than Meyerhoff’s early recruits. And those pioneers were hardly slackers. Using students who declined an invitation to participate in the program as a control group, evaluators have found that Meyerhoff scholars are twice as likely to graduate with a STEM degree and seven times more likely to earn a graduate degree in a STEM field.

Fidelity to the Meyerhoff model was the key to success at Penn State and UNC, the authors say. “There have probably been a dozen schools that have gotten funding to do what they say in replicating Meyerhoff, but they really aren’t,” says Summers, a corresponding author on the paper. “Instead, they have taken bits and pieces that they could afford to do. But nobody has reported the outcomes we have had, until Penn State and UNC.”

Leap of faith

That success didn’t come easily. The Penn State program, called the Millennium Scholars Program (MSP), began in 2013 as a “leap of faith,” recalls Mary Beth Williams, a chemistry professor and senior associate dean. “We had been talking with UMBC, and we started it without a budget,” she says. The HHMI grant arrived the next year and provided needed validation, Williams adds. “The grant got the attention of our president, who decided to centralize its management and expand it from the colleges of science and engineering to the entire campus.”

Penn State’s initial decision to start MSP on a shoe string, however, also forced officials to take resources from other programs aimed at improving diversity in STEM fields, fueling resentment. And that resentment persisted even after the HHMI money arrived, Williams says. “They haven’t forgotten that their programs were tapped,” she says, “and that’s a big regret.”

At UNC, embracing the Meyerhoff model forced the school to do some things that were out of character, admits Joseph Templeton, a longtime UNC chemistry professor who helped stand up its Meyerhoff clone, called the Chancellor’s Science Scholars (CSS) program. Branding incoming CSS students and housing them in the same dorm, for example, accentuated their differences from the rest of the student population and runs counter to the university’s culture of inclusivity, he says. But it was necessary to begin to build the camaraderie that UMBC has found is so important in helping minority students combat impostor syndrome, the feeling that any setback is seen as proof that they don’t really belong.

At both universities, gaining faculty buy-in has also been critical, Templeton and Williams agree. For example, recruiting the best teachers on campus for a summer program designed to launch freshmen into the programs has proved essential to getting new students off on the right foot, Templeton says. Encouraging faculty to become long-term mentors also has been key. Equally important, Templeton says, is that the university collectively value such activities when making decisions regarding tenure and promotion.

Just months after Penn State and UNC published their impressive results, however, HHMI told the schools it would not be renewing the 5-year pilot, which ends this year. That decision won’t halt either program: HHMI’s grant covered only a fraction of the cost of running the two programs, and both schools have folded funding for them into capital campaigns fronted by their presidents. Since 2017, they have raised $7 million and $15 million, respectively.

A new initiative

HHMI’s decision did, however, prompt UMBC officials to hunt for new ways to spread the gospel. They found a receptive audience at CZI, a Redwood City, California, company founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, “to advance human potential and promote equality.”

In April, CZI announced a $6.9 million grant to replicate Meyerhoff at UC Berkeley and UCSD. But the funding came with a twist. Rather than emphasize UMBC’s original goal of preparing students for academe, officials said their immediate goal was to improve diversity in the workforce of Silicon Valley, the engine that built Zuckerberg’s vast fortune.

Silicon Valley firms rely heavily on UC Berkeley graduates, CZI officials note, many of whom join companies—or start their own—after earning a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field. And although reshaping the professoriate that trains the next generation of STEM students is also a noble goal, they say it is one that lies much further down the road.

Although CZI has paired UC Berkeley and UCSD, the two research powerhouses are taking different approaches to replicating Meyerhoff. UC Berkeley is starting from scratch, despite having hosted a successful diversity program for more than a quarter-century. UCSD, meanwhile, is building on Patrick’s fledgling program.

Starting over, UC Berkeley has hosted an acclaimed program to improve STEM diversity for more than 2 decades. But the CZI grant will be used to create a new entity, an indication that diversity programs are not all cut from the same cloth.

The existing program, called the Biology Scholars Program, was started in 1992 by evolutionary biologist John Matsui with funding from HHMI. It now serves 400 students a year, many of whom are first-generation college students of limited means, as well as those who have transferred to UC Berkeley from the state’s community college system.

Matsui, whose mentoring efforts were recognized by former President Barack Obama in 2013, says his yardstick for success is “distance traveled”—how much progress students make after entering the program. And although some of his graduates eventually garner faculty positions, his primary goal is to help them channel “their passion for science” into whatever STEM career they choose to pursue.

Only about one-third of his students would even qualify for the Meyerhoff program, Matsui says. “They are undervalued based on standard metrics,” he says. “But keep in mind that many went to schools in communities that are seriously underresourced, and because of their life experiences they have many other demands on their time.”

In contrast, the students in the new CZI-funded program, known as the Berkeley Scholars Program, should be committed from the start to graduate school, says Michael Botchan, the university’s dean of biological sciences. The program will help prepare them for “applying and getting into very good research programs,” he explains, with summer labs, industry internships, and other components to enhance their skills—and bolster their resumes.

The new UC Berkeley scholars will also be expected to hit the ground running. “We’ll be recruiting high-potential underrepresented minority students from local high schools,” Botchan says. “The idea is to have them become a cohort, living together, studying together, and having that identity spread across all STEM fields.” Botchan hopes the program will allow UC Berkeley to correct a blemish in its enviable record of having more undergraduates eventually earn STEM Ph.D.s than any other U.S. institution, namely, that only a handful are minorities.

Adding on

UCSD wasn’t even on CZI’s radar when the charity began to talk to UC Berkeley about replicating Meyerhoff. But Summers, who was involved in those discussions, suggested that adding a second site would strengthen both programs and spur a healthy competition, as the two programs sought additional outside funding.

That suggestion ultimately led CZI to UCSD and Patrick, who was already leading a fledgling diversity program called Pathway to STEM (PATHS). Patrick hadn’t heard of the Meyerhoff program when he created PATHS in 2017. Instead, he drew on his own experience growing up in an impoverished neighborhood of east Los Angeles, California.

I didn’t become a successful scientist by simply studying what others had done and copying it.

Gentry Patrick, Pathway to STEM at the University of California, San Diego

As an inner-city black man with uncertain career prospects, Patrick had already overcome long odds by the time he accepted UCSD’s offer to join its school of life sciences in 2004 as an assistant professor. He was the only black man on the faculty when he arrived, he recalls—and that dubious distinction remains true today, he says.

His path into academic research was paved by a series of strong mentors who nurtured his innate love of science. PATHS, which welcomed its second class this summer, is designed to help minority students with similar career aspirations, he says, “by valuing their community and cultural experiences, engaging their capacity and building upon their strengths so that they can achieve and excel in science careers.”

Patrick had already been talking to potential donors about lending their support to PATHS when CZI and Summers came calling. So, he welcomed their interest and began to bone up on what Meyerhoff had accomplished. He was impressed.

“I drank all the Kool-Aid,” Patrick says. “I definitely think that replicating Meyerhoff is the way to go.”

At the same time, he says PATHS will not be a Meyerhoff clone. “I didn’t become a successful scientist by simply studying what others had done and copying it,” he notes. “I had to figure out what I wanted to do, and what I thought would work.”

One issue Patrick wants to confront, he says, is that minority students are too often seen through a “deficit lens,” which highlights their shortcomings and sends the message that they don’t really belong. In contrast to the Meyerhoff scholars, who are already high-fliers when they join the program in the summer before their first year at UMBC, Patrick says many PATHS students are less sure they want to pursue a STEM career, and more likely to switch majors after an early academic setback. Removing that lens will be essential to their progress in science, he says.

HHMI’s new venture

HHMI’s new Meyerhoff-inspired initiative will complement its existing efforts to encourage universities to rethink their entire approach to diversity. The charity’s Inclusive Excellence program now funds efforts at 57 schools to examine every aspect of the undergraduate experience—what goes on in the classroom, the lab, and across campus—with the goal of increasing the chances that minority students will persist in STEM. The aim is to change the organizational culture, says HHMI’s David Asai, who runs the program, which is now soliciting a third round of applications that could bump its ranks to roughly 90 institutions. And the key changemakers are faculty members, he says.

In contrast, Meyerhoff’s primary focus is on the student scholars. And Asai thinks such programs have an inherent limitation. “These [scholars] programs will only be successful within an environment that is inclusive,” he believes.

HHMI’s new program, called Driving Change, will be a blend of both approaches. Universities will be asked to absorb what Meyerhoff has learned and apply it to their campus, Asai explains. But he avoids the word “replication,” emphasizing that “each campus has its unique culture and deeply rooted values.”

The second element, he adds, is for universities “to develop approaches that will lead to a more inclusive learning environment for all students.” That sounds a lot like the Inclusive Excellence initiative, he admits, but he expects the adoption of a Meyerhoff-like program will influence what a university does with the grant.

“There are different ways to drive change,” he says. “Meyerhoff has been very successful, but it’s not the only way to change the culture.”

HHMI hopes to unveil the program in September, and it comes with a long rollout. Those interested in applying will be asked to do a self-study of current efforts to improve diversity, Asai says, and then attend a workshop in which UMBC presents the key elements of the Meyerhoff program. And the winners, to be announced in spring 2021, will then spend a year designing their approaches before enrolling their first class. The 5-year, nonrenewable grants will total $2 million to $2.5 million apiece, Asai says, and should be considered “startup funds” to help institutions launch their efforts.

On the shoulders of giants

A program like Meyerhoff isn’t cheap. At UMBC, the current annual budget of $4.2 million comes from an endowment created by the initial gift, along with institutional funding, outside grants, and other private contributions (which play a major role). And observers say establishing such an endowment for diversity efforts can be key to sustaining them.

Beyond the material support endowments provide, an institution’s commitment to establishing one speaks volumes about its commitment to diversity, Summers says. At Penn State, which has made its scholars program part of its overall capital campaign, “I love the fact that [university President] Eric Barron says that inclusion and excellence are not assignable responsibilities,” Summers says. “It means he’s taken ownership, and that he’s not going to assign it to someone and have [that person] run it while he does other things that he thinks are more important.”

Patrick has also begun to build an endowment for PATHS. But in addition to his smooth talking outside donors, he is counting on UCSD to invest in his vision for enhancing diversity in STEM. “What is it worth to the university to have someone like Gentry Patrick doing this work?” he says. “If I can be a testament to the fact that academic excellence and diversity are not divergent, you need to find a way to support that.”

Patrick believes that he’s “on a path to play the role” that Hrabowski has performed in making the Meyerhoff program the gold standard for how to diversify the U.S. academic research community. But that path involves forging a much closer relationship with the local community than has been the case at UMBC.

“There’s a Venn diagram that includes what philanthropists, what the community, what the university, and what the students can contribute,” Patrick explains. “And I’m looking for where the overlaps are.”

For Summers, the question of whether a university needs a towering figure like Hrabowski to replicate Meyerhoff has been answered: It doesn’t. “But you need someone who says that [replication] is an institutional priority,” he says, “to evaluate where the institution is now and what level of commitment is necessary.”

“Freeman showed us how to do it,” Summers adds. “Now, it’s up to other universities to make it happen.”