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University of Maryland Baltimore County joins ranks of the country’s research powerhouses

The university becomes the third Research 1 campus in Maryland

Trevor Shepard, a chemistry major, works on a viscosity experiment at the University of Maryland Baltimore County in October 2020. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

The University of Maryland Baltimore County has joined the highest ranks of research universities in the country, a milestone for the young school with a reputation for producing scientists and engineers of color.

The 55-year-old university in suburban Baltimore reached Research 1, or R1, status, a distinction for universities with very high research activity.

“On a day-to-day basis, universities conduct a significant amount of research that lays the groundwork for future technologies, for better understanding where we are as a society,” said Karl Steiner, the school’s vice president for research. “Getting recognized on a national level that the efforts of our faculty, of our graduate and undergraduate students at UMBC who are the ones who do this research, is to some extent a verification that we’re on the right path.”

There are 146 R1 institutions nationwide and three in Maryland — Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland’s flagship campus in College Park and, now, UMBC.

“This is a HUGE deal, reflecting an extraordinary amount of work over decades,” Jay A. Perman, the chancellor of the university system that oversees UMBC, U-Md. and 10 other public institutions, wrote in a tweet.

The distinction, determined by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, is based on factors including the number of students who earn doctoral degrees, as well as on research expenditures and productivity. Faculty members at UMBC secured more than $200 million in research awards in 2021, according to the university.

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Among those are a mix of STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — and non-STEM projects, a point of pride for the university.

For example, Kimberly Moffitt, the interim dean of UMBC’s College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, is leading a project with U-Md. and Morgan State University to study disparities in college leadership and help usher more women, faculty members of color and humanities scholars into top jobs. Their research is being funded by a $3 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

In another project, Yonathan Zohar, a professor and the chair of marine biotechnology, received a $10 million award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop ways to raise fish on land, also called sustainable land-based aquaculture.

“Much of this will be research that will focus on the problems of humankind, whether we’re talking about HIV or covid,” said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the university’s president. He identified academic achievement gaps and economic disparities as other areas of interest. “The significance is that the accomplishment means that we have become one of the leading producers of research across disciplines,” he said.

The Carnegie Classifications are a decades-old system designed to compare schools with similar qualities, such as research intensity. But it has developed into a ranking system, with many schools aspiring toward a coveted R1 spot.

The system also has been criticized as excluding schools with large populations of students of color and rewarding schools with the most resources. No historically Black college or university has reached R1 status. A handful of HBCUs, including Howard University, Morgan State and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, are ranked as “high research activity,” or Research 2 schools.

UMBC is a minority-serving institution, with more than half the student body identifying as people of color, according to federal data.

He transformed a small university in Maryland. Now Freeman Hrabowski is ready for his next act.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which oversees the classification system, and the American Council on Education announced plans Wednesday to add a more inclusive classification system.

The Social and Economic Mobility Classification, slated to launch in 2023, will be another tool for comparing institutions.

“Historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, tribal colleges, and other minority-serving institutions have long been shut out of the top rankings due to lack of resources,” Paulette Granberry Russell, the president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, said in a statement. “Yet they have persistently proven their track record for elevating opportunities for students and for advancing research of importance to our nation’s most marginalized communities.

“The system now will serve as a more meaningful measure of student success with its new classification examining social and economic mobility and its broader emphasis on the diversity of higher education institutions,” she said.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona also praised the measure.

“Colleges and universities need to reimagine themselves around inclusivity and student success, not selectivity and reputation,” Cardona said in a statement. “I commend the Carnegie Foundation and the American Council on Education for their vision, and I hope today’s announcement will be the beginning of a new competition among colleges — one that rewards colleges doing the most for upward mobility.”