How Freeman Hrabowski transformed UMBC into an innovation hub and national education powerhouse

By Matt Ward

Photography by Mitro Hood

Freeman A. Hrabowski III is learning to speak French. He is reading Proust in French. He is texting with students, in French. During a recent interview with SmartCEO, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County president is practicing his tenses and describing his teacher, a doctoral student at UMBC, in French.

“We never stop learning,” Hrabowski says, slipping back into English.

It’s a lesson he’s eager for his students to learn. Hrabowski brings many talents to bear as a university president, and scholarship is first among them. His first love was math, but his interests and knowledge extend to drama, music, literature, business, leadership and beyond. He is a gifted orator, and in a face-to-face meeting, he speaks extemporaneously in clean, well-built paragraphs, in uncommonly complete thoughts.

Friends say he has an uncanny ability to read a room, to understand his audience, to connect with people. They say he is as deft in a board room as he is in an auditorium.

Hrabowski’s skill in math made him stand out in grade school, and he entered college at Hampton Institute in Virginia around his 16th birthday. He continued his math studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but also began a formal study of leadership; his Ph.D. is in higher education administration and statistics. As a young dean of arts and sciences (1977-1983) and vice president for academic affairs (1983-1987) at Coppin State University, Hrabowski began to solidify what would be his defining mission as an educator. Combining his passion for math with his penchant for leadership, he set out to help talented minority students pursue college degrees and careers in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

“The Hampton experience showed me what a caring environment could be,” Hrabowski says. “The Illinois experience showed me what a major research university should look like and how it should be run.

“The Coppin experience helped me understand both the potential of the city to help children and young people succeed and the challenges those young people faced, the academic challenges,” says Hrabowski. There, he increased the workload for students entering college, asking professors to give them five days of work in reading and math instead of three. “Some of the smartest human beings I’ve ever met, I met at Coppin, some of my students, who had faced all kinds of challenges — some of the strongest human beings. And that experience taught me not to judge a person by the person’s family background or neighborhood, but to make sure I got to know the person and the person’s ability to think and the person’s ability to work hard.”

Hrabowski became president of UMBC in 1992 after serving there as vice provost and then executive vice president. During his tenure, the one-time commuter school has risen to national prominence as a standard bearer in science, math and engineering and has become, as the New York Times has noted, “one of the top sources of African-American postgraduate degrees in science and engineering.” Hrabowski has brought to life at UMBC the vision of his predecessor and mentor, the late Dr. Michael Hooker, winning support for and building a 71-acre, 525,000-square-foot technology and research park on the edge of the Catonsville, MD, campus. The park, called bwtech@UMBC, boasts over 120 companies, 50 of them in cybersecurity, and all of them working closely with students and faculty at UMBC. Graduates get hired there, and alumni move their established or burgeoning companies there. The result is a beehive of activity modeled after the entrepreneurship-centered models at Stanford, MIT, and in Research Triangle, North Carolina.

SHINING BRIGHT

Hrabowski, it must be said, is nothing short of a national figure and a star in the academic world. The New York Times recently called him “a university president who has probably done more to encourage interest in science and math among minority and low-income students than any other educator.” He trains new college presidents through a program at Harvard. He has chaired a National Academy of Sciences committee report on expanding minority participation in science and technology. President Barack Obama named him chair of his Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans. U.S. News & World Report listed him as one of America’s Best Leaders in 2008. In 2009, he was one of TIME magazine’s 10 Best College Presidents, and in 2012, one of its 100 Most Influential People in the World.

The driving factor behind all of that attention is Hrabowski’s success in bringing minority students into the fold of STEM studies. In 1988, he co-founded the Meyerhoff Scholars Program with philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff and his late wife, Jane Meyerhoff. The program, which is open to all high-achieving students but is specifically geared toward helping underrepresented minorities, funds scholarships for students working toward degrees and careers in STEM. To date, about 1,200 students have participated — 900 of them are alumni, and 290 are active students at UMBC. More than 500 program alumni have received M.D., Ph.D., combined M.D./Ph.D. and master’s degrees, and another 300 are actively pursuing graduate and professional degrees in STEM fields.

A story Hrabowski tells in his new book, “Holding Fast to Dreams,” illustrates the power of the Meyerhoff program. The year was 1989, the program was just getting off the ground, and Hrabowski and his team had invited a group of young African-American men from high schools around the state to a weekend recruiting event at UMBC. Nominated by their principals, guidance counselors, science teachers and math teachers, these students were all high achievers in the classroom. “At one point during the weekend, we asked each student to walk up onto the stage and talk about himself: his name, where he was from, one achievement of which he was particularly proud, and his dream,” Hrabowski writes. Not a single student mentioned an academic achievement; instead, they talked about being in the school band or winning something in sports. They were, Hrabowski recalls, “too embarrassed” to talk about their academic achievements.

Here is where this becomes a Freeman Hrabowski story: He told the entire group to prepare to come across the stage again, one by one, and to list an academic achievement. The first student said, “with embarrassment, ‘I have never made a B,’” Hrabowski writes. “He had his head down. And it hit me. I said, ‘Boy, come back here.’ Then I said to the whole group, ‘Do you understand what he’s telling you? This young man is telling you that he has earned As all his life.’ I turned back to the young man and said, ‘Son, let me tell you something. You’re more special than you realize. I want you to say your name, and I want you to shout it out that you are a straight-A student.’ He was still too quiet that second time, so I said, ‘Say it again.’ The third time he shouted it out, and the room erupted — all of the visiting students and their families gave him a standing ovation. There were tears. It was a revelation. We, as a society, were not getting children excited about being smart, about wanting to be the best. Since then, the Meyerhoff Program has incorporated many practices like this to recognize and celebrate academic victories.”

For Hrabowski and UMBC, the work continues, through the Meyerhoff program and through other efforts.

“What Robert Meyerhoff, my colleagues and I started 25 years ago as a bold experiment has become a model for other disciplines on campus and for other universities across the country,” Hrabowski says. “The program is being duplicated on other campuses, and the lessons we’ve learned are benefiting thousands of students.”

CASE STUDIES IN LEADERSHIP

Freeman Hrabowski has learned, by studying, by constantly looking for areas for improvement, to be an excellent university president. He has learned how to fundraise, he has learned how to manage the school’s $405 million operating budget, and he has learned how to run a capital campaign; construction has been steady during his tenure, with completed projects including the Performing Arts and Humanities Building, Information Technology and Engineering Building, and Public Policy Building, as well as new student housing. He has learned how to do policy work in a university setting, and he has learned how to manage that potentially maddeningly, truly democratic institution: the faculty senate.

University governance is not like corporate governance. In the university setting, the faculty has a big say, and the faculty senate moves by consensus; the body will assume, ostensibly with civil acquiescence from the minority, the will of a majority of its members. A public university is run by a board of trustees and an executive. But a campus with a dissatisfied faculty can be an unruly place, and many college executives — even one at UMBC, in the mid-1970s — have found themselves sent packing after receiving a symbolic vote of no confidence from the faculty senate.

In 2008, UMBC signed an agreement to bring Army ROTC, a college-based program for training commissioned officers for the military, to campus; it was a move large numbers of UMBC families had requested. But before the agreement, the school went through an intense period of debate — and protest — on the topic. Some faculty members and students opposed the idea, citing what, at the time, were two of the most common criticisms of the military: the drawn-out wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy (which has since been repealed).

“All of those folks were heard, and Freeman, as a good president, doesn’t move to quash that or hide that. He sees that as part of how a good liberal arts university should work,” says Tim Nohe, a visual arts professor at UMBC and past president of the faculty senate.

“He is tolerant of many different views coming together, and as an executive he needs to hear many different viewpoints. As Freeman will say about many decisions, whether they’re policy or fiscal decisions, we work through a multiyear process,” Nohe says. “He’s got great moral authority, so when he brings something to the table, like ROTC, that might cause controversy, he carries that with him.”

Hrabowski’s take on ROTC was that UMBC should put itself in a position to help shape the future leaders of the military, rather than sit on the sidelines because of disagreement with certain military policies.

“There were challenges,” Hrabowski says, “and some of the challenges were ones I could appreciate. The point about sexuality [was one], and some of us were saying that, if we’re in the tent, we can speak up for what we believe is right, more so than if we’re just on the outside. I made a commitment that we would be talking about those issues and working to get those things changed, so that people were not discriminated against based on sexual orientation.”

Ultimately, the faculty senate voted to support the ROTC agreement.

Hrabowski counts it a as lesson in leadership that once you’ve had a chance to deliver on a plan, the stakeholders the next time around — whether they are faculty, students, the community at large, political leaders or business leaders — will come to the table more ready to work.

“The more people see that what you say you’re going to do, you do, and the more you consult with people and get their points of view, the more trust and respect you build,” Hrabowski says. “Not just in an individual, but in an institution.”

There’s evidence of this — a major project that has gone well and won increasing community support — on the southern edge of the campus, next to the athletic complex. Tenants of the technology and research park include Northrop Grumman, the U.S. Geological Survey, NASA/Joint Center for Earth Systems Technology, Allegis and RMF Engineering.

“It took colleagues on campus working consistently with the community to get the support from the state and the county to bring about the research park,” Hrabowski says. “Change is often hard to effect. It took changes in attitudes, and the concerns that people had clearly meant that we needed to continue to work effectively with the larger community and the internal community.” That has meant ensuring the technology park does not put a strain on resources elsewhere in the university, as well as holding ongoing focus groups with various stakeholders regarding the park and its progress.

The technology park’s tenants give it high praise.

Jeehye Yun, who graduated from UMBC in 1996 with a degree in computer science, is founder and CEO of RedShred, a big-data analytics startup housed at the tech campus. RedShred works in the cutting-edge space of machine learning and natural language processing — both of which deal in the area of artificial intelligence. The company has drawn on help from UMBC faculty and doctoral students to help in solving complex problems. “It’s an active relationship,” Yun says of her student partners. “We see each other a few times a week.”

Mike Adelstein, who graduated from UMBC with a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology, went to work for Potomac Photonics, which manufactures miniscule biotechnology components and medical devices, in 1997. The human hair, Adelstein explains, has a diameter of about 75 microns — his company makes items down to 1 micron. A few years ago, he bought out the company and last year, moved to bwtech@UMBC South, where he’s already hired several UMBC graduates and employed others in internships.

So how does a CEO convince his investors to move to a location like the tech park, especially when the company is already well-established? Adelstein replies: “Knowing the people that come out of UMBC, knowing the community and seeing what Freeman has done, that has been the biggest benefit, and that’s how I’ve sold it to the shareholders.”

Adelstein says he has modeled his own professional approach on what he learned from observing Hrabowski: “The way that he was building UMBC was the way that we wanted to build our company. He doesn’t judge a book by its cover. If a person is willing to work hard and has shown that he has an interest and a passion for what he’s doing, he will be given the opportunity. That is the way we have done things here at Potomac.”

Delali Dzirasa, who graduated from UMBC in 2004 with a degree in computer engineering, is president of Fearless Solutions, a software company based at the tech park. He counts Hrabowski as a mentor, noting, “I literally don’t make any major life decision without checking in with him first.” Dzirasa, who is hiring UMBC grads at his company, says the amazing thing about Dr. Hrabowski is just how many people count him as a close personal mentor.

“I’m always surprised about how many folks share the same story,” Dzirasa says. “He’s super connected, and uses his connections to help his students.”

Hrabowski says the spirit of entrepreneurship at the tech campus has spilled over into other areas of study at the school, where programs in the arts and in nonprofit management now include primers on handling revenues, expenses, marketing, and other business-related issues.

“More and more we have infused some of those entrepreneurship principles into regular classes, not just in STEM areas, not just in the business classes, but particularly in the arts, where much of the economy is shaped by all of these creative people,” Hrabowski says.

‘THE JOY COMES ONLY AFTER THE PAIN’

Joseph T. Jones Jr., founder of the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore, tells another classic Freeman Hrabowski story. This was in the late 1990s. Jones, who was a drug user and drug dealer and spent time in prison before getting his life together and going to work for the Baltimore City Health Department in the 1980s, had been invited to a dinner party by Robert Embry, president of the Abell Foundation (years before, Embry had introduced Hrabowski to Robert Meyerhoff, too). Jones gave a talk at the dinner, about the foundation he had created to help black men in Baltimore. Jones also told of his own life story, of how he got off the streets, completed an associate’s degree in accounting, and went to work. Hrabowski was at the party.

“Afterward, Freeman pulled me aside and asked why I didn’t go any further with my education,” Jones says. “He said, ‘I need you to come see me.’ He was all over me about it. When I went to meet with him, he was unapologetic about the fact that I was going to enroll in UMBC.”

Jones did just that, graduating in 2005 with a bachelor’s in social work. The experience, he says, changed his life. He is particularly proud of the fact that his second son, born in 1999, often saw him studying; sometimes they even studied together.

As someone who has pushed others to continue their educations, Hrabowski has put his money where his mouth is. A term as a member of the Peabody National Advisory Council reignited his interest in classical piano (which he’d studied as a boy for eight years), and he started taking lessons again. In the moments when he is not working or answering texts from his students — “Doc, you gotta see this!” — or putting in media appearances — Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls (1997), a taping of 60 Minutes (2011), a TED Talk (2013), Tavis Smiley (2014) — he might lose himself in the ringing pathos of a Chopin nocturne. Or some Beethoven.

Hrabowski is interested in poetry, drama and literature, too (his mother was an English teacher), and his tastes run to works that wrestle with heavy topics. Zora Neale Hurston is a favorite writer (Spoiler: The love of her life gets bitten by a rabid dog and dies, among other tragedies in “Their Eyes Were Watching God”). His favorite play is “Waiting for Godot” (Spoiler: Godot never shows up, and that is perhaps the least depressing thing that happens, or doesn’t, in the play). Beckett — whose plays have been staged at UMBC, though the school has never done Godot — “is never about happy,” Hrabowski says. “It’s either going to challenge you or depress you.”

And that, perhaps, tells us something about how this man continues to raise the bar for academic achievement at UMBC; this incredibly bright guy who came to Catonsville by way of Birmingham, AL — where he participated in civil rights protests as a boy, even going to jail for five days for marching in a protest when he was 12 — Hampton, Champaign and Coppin, believes that the darkness sometimes comes before the light.

And here, he quotes the poet Apollinaire: “La joie venait toujours après la peine,” Hrabowski says, sitting at the small conference table in his office on the 10th floor of the UMBC administration building. This is during one of the single-digit-temperature days this winter, and Hrabowski is nursing a cough. Outside, construction workers are hammering away at the school’s new campus entrance. The poem, which Hrabowski has been studying, is called “Mirabeau Bridge,” and he obligingly translates the line: “The joy comes only after the pain.”

Hard work, frustration, struggle. They are crucial, Hrabowski says, to learning.

“It’s ok to struggle, in fact it’s great to struggle because there’s no achievement without struggle,” Hrabowski says. “We want UMBC to be a caring environment, a nurturing environment where we know the students, know their strengths, but also know their challenges, have a sense of their backgrounds. I often use Plato’s allegory of the cave, the idea that as you begin to understand more about the truth in life, it can be very painful — right? — as your eyes are opening. So from the beginning, in the first sessions with new students, we talk about getting beyond your comfort zone. Education has to be about getting beyond one’s comfort zone. It’s about not just learning new things, but learning in a way that one questions basic assumptions, and so we talk about getting to know people different from yourself, from around the world; we talk about taking classes that can push you to think differently, to understand why you believe what you believe. And then, whether it’s a literature course on T.S. Eliot or a biochemistry course, really effective coursework requires students to struggle. If the student’s going to grow and learn, one has to struggle — it’s very important. We enjoy telling students that if they can succeed here, they can succeed anywhere in the world.” CEO

Matt Ward is a freelance writer based in Baltimore, MD. Contact us at editorial@smartceo.com.

A CAMPUS ON THE RISE

UMBC opened its doors to students in 1966, a year after the Higher Education Act and two years after the Civil Rights Act. “We’re the only campus in the state [university system] that’s privileged to say that from the beginning when the doors opened, students of all races could come here,” says Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of UMBC. “And so it has that history of being diverse.”

Today, the school has about 500 full-time and about 250 part-time faculty, more than 1,200 staff, and in 2014 was home to $74 million in research, training contracts and grants. Student enrollment last fall was 13,979, 2,600 of them graduate students. This year’s freshman class had an average high-school GPA of 3.78 and an average three-part SAT score of 1801. Four of last year’s graduates got Fulbright scholarships.

The Baltimore Sun reports that the university’s endowment was about $1 million when Hrabowski became president; it’s about $70 million today, and research funding has grown commensurately.

UMBC fields several Division I sports teams, most notably in soccer, where the men’s team made the Final Four for the first time last year. One sport the school doesn’t do — and likely won’t in Hrabowski’s tenure — is football.

Here it should be said that if you have not met Freeman Hrabowski or heard him speak, you have not heard him laugh. He laughs, easily and loudly, and his laugh is sonorous, like his voice. And he laughs at the question about the football team; he’s been asked it before.

“People are always asking, ‘When are you going to get football?’ It’s as if a university evolves to a higher level and it gets football. And my point is, why would we spend all that money to lose? Most places lose, and football costs more than anything else,” Hrabowski says. One outfit at UMBC that has a long-held winning record is the chess team, which grew under Hrabowski’s tenure and has remained a perennially strong competitor. “We’ve always been known for the final four in chess, we’re proud of that,” he says.

The university president adds that he had recently learned 11 of the swimmers on the swim team have 4.0 GPAs. Athletics at UMBC, he says, are balanced against academic work, and the school doesn’t do grade inflation for its athletes. “When somebody has a 4.0,” Hrabowski says, “it really means something.”

Keeping up with the swim teams’ GPAs or just walking through the university commons or the library, Hrabowski is famous for being in touch with his students. “Connecting to students keeps us grounded because it’s so easy to get involved in policy work, budget work, fundraising and everything else, and if you’re not careful, forget the fundamental reason we’re here,” Hrabowski says. “The fundamental reason we’re here is to seek the truth and bring others into that work.”

TEACHER AND STUDENT

Landry Digeon, a native of Normandy, France, is currently at UMBC working on his Ph.D. in Language, Literacy and Culture. He’s also Freeman Hrabowski’s French teacher.

SmartCEO: What is it like to have Freeman Hrabowski as a student? Is it intimidating at all?

Digeon: Lessons with Dr. Hrabowski are a combination of entertainment and intense work. At first, I sure was intimidated by teaching the president of UMBC. But Dr. Hrabowski was very approachable and personable from the beginning. His enthusiasm and high spirit quickly made me feel comfortable. In our first lesson, we looked at French writer Victor Hugo’s poem “Demain dès l’Aube.” He instantaneously fell in love with it and learned it all in a couple of weeks. I am consistently impressed by Dr. Hrabowski’s progress. Trying to keep up with him is probably more intimidating than his position as a renowned university president.

SmartCEO: What is Freeman like as a student? How does he compare to other students you’ve taught?

Digeon: I have several years of teaching experience, and I have never seen a student like Dr. Hrabowski. He is in many ways the archetype of the ideal student. I have been impressed by the incredible amount of energy and hard work Dr. Hrabowski puts into understanding and learning the material. He once told me that he was determined to learn French “as if my life depended on it.” Since then, he has proven that he meant every word of it. I believe his determination is what drives him and maintains his level of commitment and discipline. But really what makes Dr. Hrabowski an exceptional student is the passion he has for learning and constantly growing. He is curious and playful with the language. He makes connections with word etymologies and grammatical structures. He is a very creative learner and practices that with confidence. Dr. Hrabowski is definitely the most inspiring student I will ever have the chance to teach, and I probably learn as much from him as he does from me.

WORDS OF WISDOM

Successful leaders are selfless, passionate and deeply connected to not only the cause but also the individuals who share the vision.

Be selfless

“I sometimes think not enough emphasis is placed on the significance of a team, a cabinet of people who represent the leadership of the campus. We in America tend to think about ‘The Person,’ and the longer I live, the more I understand it’s never about me, it is about so many people.”

Synergy is everything

“The only way I can be good at my job is if others are good at their jobs. It’s the interdependence, it is the chemistry, the synergy. The only way one person can be considered really effective is if there is a level of effectiveness among the people around that person, because if we were not working well together, I don’t care how much I might go out and say great things about the place, if it’s not true, what I’m saying, ultimately, it means nothing. It means nothing. And the only way an organization, a company or a university can continue ahead is if you have layers of effectiveness. People at different levels believing in the same vision, moving in the same direction, with an appreciation of independent thinking, where people bring different perspectives and have robust and healthy dialogue and even disagreements, all with the goal of ensuring that the best thinking prevails.”

Free your mind

“The most effective leadership of teams of people involves creating an environment in which we’re constantly opening our minds to ask different questions, we’re constantly looking in the mirror to understand what works well and what does not, or how something can work better. And for universities, the fundamental question is, are we as effective as we can be in helping students to learn and grow, and are we using resources as effectively as we can, and how might we find ways of attracting even more resources in order to keep building the enterprise.”

SCHOLAR, LEADER, VISIONARY

Both Hrabowski’s parents were teachers — they met at State Teachers College, which would later become Alabama State University (his father left the career early to work all manner of higher-paying, more labor-intensive jobs). But the story of Freeman A. Hrabowski III — and it is an astounding, inspiring story — goes back farther than that. Hrabowski recounts his family history in his new book, “Holding Fast to Dreams,” which is out this month from Beacon Press. His great-grandfather, Tom Hrabowski, was “a slave, the son of a plantation owner,” Hrabowski writes. One of Tom Hrabowski’s children, as a member of the first generation born after slavery, was named Freeman. That Freeman eventually had a farm outside Selma and a son, Freeman A. Hrabowski Jr. The son worked hard on the farm, but also took his studies at the rural high school he attended seriously. Later, he would have that focus on education in common with his wife, Maggie; each had been valedictorian of their respective high school classes.

Later, the couple figured out their shared interest in education ran even deeper. In the early 1900s, as Booker T. Washington traveled the country, giving speeches, he made two stops in Alabama, in Wetumpka and Selma. “In each of those two cities,” Hrabowski writes, “there was a young woman in the audience who, like many others, was so taken by what Washington said that she began to live her life with the goal of following his advice when she had children. His advice? Send your children to school. Education transforms lives. The women? My two grandmothers.”

Born in 1950, Freeman A. Hrabowski III grew up in Birmingham, AL. By 1963, when Freeman was 12, the civil rights movement was in full swing there. The story of his being swept into the movement, of his marching in protest and going to jail for five days as part of the Children’s Crusade, of being moved to action by Martin Luther King Jr., is incredible. Hrabowski’s thin volume, which goes on to detail his experiences promoting STEM studies to minority students, is a piece of American history, and on top of that, it is extremely well-written, told by a scholar with the ease of a skilled storyteller.

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