STEM-powered equity in higher ed

President Freeman Hrabowski drives University of Maryland, Baltimore County students to diversify the STEM world
By: | Issue: February, 2016
January 21, 2016

BALTIMORE COUNTY, Maryland—As a child, Freeman Hrabowski marched in Martin Luther King’s peaceful civil rights protests in Birmingham, Alabama, in the mid-1960s. He wound up in jail for a week.

Hundreds of miles away on the edge of the American South, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County opened its doors. It was the only campus in the state founded after widespread integration, so it has no history of segregation, says Hrabowski, who, since becoming president in 1992, has transformed the institution familiarly known as UMBC from a commuter school into a renowned research university.

“We have a special place in American higher education,” says Hrabowski, seated in his small office, a base of operations that’s more functional than extravagant. “In higher education, we have too often allowed people to stay only with people like themselves. At UMBC, we are very proactive in encouraging students to know people of different cultures, races and religions. We believe in this fundamental purpose of higher education.”

Hrabowski, 65, admits he wasn’t paying complete attention the first time he heard Dr. King speak at his church. He says he was doing math problems in his pew and “listening with one ear.” But he got the message: As an adult, he has been driven to steer more minorities, women and low-income students into careers in STEM and related subjects, such as medicine.

The first university-based research park in Maryland is the school’s “bwtech@UMBC.” The school also has relationships with global security company Northrop Grumman and other large corporations as well as with government agencies such as NSA, which has its headquarters about 20 minutes away and employs more than 1,000 of UMBC’s graduates in cybersecurity and other positions.

Leader at a glance

Freeman Hrabowski, an Alabama native, has been president of University of Maryland, Baltimore County since 1992.

Undergraduate study: Hampton University, degree in math (1970)

Doctorate in Higher Ed Administration: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1975)

First administrative position: Assistant dean for student services, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was also a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology (1974-76)

On the way up:

  • Alabama A&M University (1976-77): Associate dean of graduate studies
  • Coppin State College (1977-87): Vice president for academic affairs, dean of Arts & Sciences, and professor of mathematics
  • University of Maryland, Baltimore County: Vice provost (1987-90), executive vice president (1990-92)

Outside the institution: Has served on boards of dozens of corporations and community organizations, such as T. Rowe Price, the Urban Institute and the Marguerite Casey Foundation:

Favorite music: Beethoven and Chopin (especially Chopin’s “Nocturnes”)

Favorite books: 19th Century Russian and English literature

Hobbies: Meditation and exercise; currently learning French

The university’s Meyerhoff Scholars Program provides STEM scholarships to minority and low-income students, many of whom have gone on to become doctors.

It all adds up to UMBC—which just surpassed 14,000 in enrollment—now graduating minority students at the same rate it graduates white students.

“I am more optimistic than ever—we are talking about the problems of low-income students more than ever, we are being honest about not having educated low-income kids,” says Hrabowski, who brims with a King-like determination and the energy and enthusiasm of a teenager.

“But it’s not enough to talk about college-going rate or even graduate rates. It’s about what we’ve taught them and the quality of the education: Are they good thinkers, do they have values that we want to see in educated American citizens?”

Embarking on innovation

Hrabowski’s passion for teaching goes back to the learning environment created by his parents. His mother was a math and English teacher while his father had left education to work in a steel mill. Both served as neighborhood tutors, helping adults—particularly working fathers—earn their GEDs and encouraging local families to seriously consider sending their children to college.

“My home was one where people came to study,” he says. “The house was always filled with kids studying.”

Eventually, Hrabowski also began tutoring in math—an activity he continued into high school and college at Hampton University in Virginia. “I was fascinated by the notion that you could help another person build confidence and become good at something,” he says. “If a child is not confident, a child can be worried about even taking the risk of pronouncing a word.”

Leading church youth organizations and his participation in the Civil Rights marches also showed the young Hrabowski that he could have a lasting impact on the world beyond his community, he says.

“I wanted to go to better schools—I didn’t want torn-up books that kids in other schools were no longer using,” he says. “I realized that tomorrow could be different from today.”

Following that principle in graduate school, Hrabowski created a math tutoring center for graduate students and undergrads at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which he attended after earning his bachelor’s degree in math from Hampton. He also worked as a residence hall director and taught high school students in the Upward Bound college-prep program.

He held administrative positions at Urbana-Champaign, Alabama A&M University and Coppin State College in Maryland before joining UMBC in 1987 as a vice provost, becoming president five years later.

Creating an inclusive economy

The Baltimore skyline, about eight miles away, can be seen in the near distance from the higher floors of buildings at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

At the heart of the university’s civic engagement and service learning is a philosophy launched in 2012 known as “Breaking Ground.” It’s described as more of a “vibe” than a program, even though it awards grants to faculty and students working on civic engagement projects.

One student, a former Peace Corps worker, established a community produce garden in a part of Baltimore designated a “food desert”—meaning the neighborhood had no supermarket or other convenient access to groceries.

She also organized “cooking exchanges” in which grad students showed middle and high schoolers how to prepare healthy meals. The teens painted the plates on which the meals were served to display in an art exhibit, as well.

The university also took over a batch of Flying Fruit Fantasy stands that sell healthy shakes at the city’s renowned Inner Harbor, Camden Yards baseball stadium and the University of Baltimore law school.

The goal was to help underserved youth in the city develop job skills. These workers expanded the menu to sell food and eventually opened a cafe at the law school.

“Part of our mission is to make the economy more inclusive of people of color, of women, of people of all backgrounds,” President Freeman Hrabowski says.

“Enlightened universities now more than ever make the connection between education, research and what comes after. They’re finding ways to help students connect what they’re passionate about with opportunities.”

“Innovation has everything to do with looking in the mirror and being honest with yourself and then having the imagination to think about how the world can be changed,” he says.

Hrabowski’s longevity gives people on campus and in the community greater confidence to believe in his academic ambitions, says Tom Sadowski, a UMBC graduate who’s now president and CEO of the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore.

“Freeman is a force of nature in the most positive sense possible,” Sadowski says. “He’s built the institution up and he’s personally invested. It gives you the impression he’s going to do the same thing for you.”

Hrabowski has turned UMBC from a great community-based institution to a university with global appeal. “It’s grown by an order of magnitude,” Sadowski says. “It used to be a great option for education within Baltimore, now it’s a great option for a superior education and career-launching point for youth throughout the world.” Putting technology in perspective

UMBC has redesigned classrooms to deemphasize lecturing and encourage collaboration around technology. Hrabowski likes to show iPhone videos of a UMBC chemistry class where there are no pens or paper, and the desks are arranged in clusters rather than rows.

“Students are working in groups as project managers, as bloggers, as technologists,” he says. “People see that no student can sit back and be passive—every student has a role and the roles change throughout the semester.”

The same occurs in the humanities, particularly in writing classes where students collaborate on writing projects while the instructors work with small groups. Though STEM is a driving force at the university, the arts and humanities also are priorities for the president. Hrabowski often points out that the university’s orchestra comprises equal amounts of music majors and science and engineering students.

A recent campus tour with administrators visiting from Simmons College in Boston ran through the university’s new $170 million arts building. Coming across a student conducting a quartet through her senior recital piece, Hrabowski invited the group to stop and listen. A classical pianist who favors Beethoven and Chopin, he was clearly moved by his students’ modernist composition.

He then showed off the adjoining theater where the university’s drama department will stage works that Hrabowski says will “challenge or depress” audiences. In other words, you’re more likely to see Waiting for Godot than My Fair Lady.

“We need arts and humanities to put our lives in perspective, to express what we’re thinking and feeling,” says Hrabowski, who’s currently learning French and enjoys 19th century literature. “As we think about our heavy emphasis on technology, it really takes ethical reflection and understanding the history of the development of technology to not simply be consumed by it.”

Celebrating students

If Hrabowski’s standard desk and meeting table will never be listed among the 100 most luxurious president’s offices, that may be because he spends a lot of time outside of his book-filled room.

He meditates regularly—and encourages other to do so—but also wears an Apple Watch and a Fitbit to count his steps on his frequent walks around campus, eyes wide and vibrant with the wonder of an explorer rediscovering the beauty of familiar territory.

He also stops and speaks to just about every student he passes—and students smile genuinely when they see him, and seem excited to chat. They often take selfies with this president, whose enthusiasm for their success and well-being is contagious.

“It’s so important to be talking to students all the time, having opportunities for one-on-ones to get a sense of what’s on their mind,” he says.

While Hrabowski may not remember every name, he remembers most of their stories, and asks them how they’re doing in their classes or about their plans for the next phases of education.

And while his tone is always joyful and affectionate, he also seems to be preparing his students for their encounters in the world beyond college: They seem to know he expects an eager handshake, confident eye contact and substantive answers to his questions.

On a recent walk around campus, he encountered a young woman in the library working on an application to Harvard’s graduate school. After a chat of several minutes, he encouraged her to send him an email reminder so he could “brag about her” to some of his higher ed contacts.

The thing about Hrabowski is that it didn’t sound like an empty promise meant simply to impress the student or any bystanders. It was clear that he would find the time to follow through.

Hrabowski puts as much energy into supporting his staff as he does into celebrating his students. UMBC has routinely been named a great higher ed workplace. And there is an undercurrent of concern among faculty and administrators about Hrabowski someday retiring and the difficult task of finding a replacement.

Hrabowski is prone to describing his management philosophies with a touch of humor.

“True leadership means keeping everybody minimally dissatisfied,” he told a group of K12 administrators at a Baltimore County Public Schools leadership conference. “The healthier an organization, the more people are laughing.”

Humor aside—or perhaps because of it—these tactics have produced leaders. Clemson University President Jim Clements has three degrees from UMBC and still phones Hrabowski, whom he considers a mentor, for guidance and advice. Forget that Clemson had the No. 1 football team in the country last fall, and that one of the biggest “sports” at UMBC is chess.

“He cares so much about closing the disparity gap in education and access for all,” Clements says. “And he knows that as a country we need to raise educational attainment levels across the board. He’s worked on it his whole life.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.