When George La Noue started the process of writing a book about the history of UMBC, he had a specific vision in mind, and knew he couldn’t accomplish his goal without the insight of administrators, faculty, staff, and students across the university. In many ways, the process of writing Improbable Excellence: The Saga of UMBC reflects the highly collaborative nature of the campus community, which is rooted in its founding 50 years ago.
Researching such a young university can be difficult because the archives are literally being formed in the moment. However, when La Noue, research professor of public policy and political science, was teaching a constitutional law class one day, he noticed that students became highly engaged when the discussion pivoted to the history of UMBC in the context of higher education desegregation—when students began to see UMBC’s story in the context of a national story.
Following the vibrant discussion, La Noue decided to create independent study research projects for a team of nine students to investigate different aspects of UMBC’s history. The topics ranged from the development of buildings on campus to the creation and growth of student organizations and academic departments.
“There is no course on UMBC history,” explains La Noue. “I couldn’t direct them to a source for where to begin, so they really had to learn what questions to ask throughout the research process.”
Many of the students who completed the independent studies that helped inform Improbable Excellence went on to graduate school and law school, and credit the intensive research experience for helping to jump-start their careers.
David Bennett ’11, political science, is now a health policy advisor for Senator John McCain. He focused on the development of the social sciences at UMBC for his research project.
“I had the opportunity…to sit down with the various chairs of those departments…some of them who have been here for many, many years to discuss what that department looked like back then and what it looks like now. It’s really quite astounding to see the determination of folks who were in their early thirties to form these departments to [become] what they are today,” explained Bennett at the Roots of Greatness luncheon during UMBC’s 50th anniversary.
Another student, Yasmin Karimian ’11, political science, indexed the book and now works at Amazon in contract law.
It took four years to write the book, which is 424 pages in length and contains 1300 footnotes. In addition to his students, La Noue credits several UMBC colleagues for help with conducting interviews and tracking down research materials, including Ed Orser, professor emeritus of American studies; Joe Tatarewicz, associate professor of history; Tom Beck, chief curator at the Albin O. Kuhn Library; and Lindsey Loeper, Albin O. Kuhn Library archivist.
“A number of people contributed such important work,” says La Noue. “The book was much better because of everyone’s participation. They went in depth in areas that I didn’t have insight or time.”
Header image: Cover of Improbable Excellence displayed at UMBC alumni reception in Annapolis. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.