America's Best Leaders: Freeman Hrabowski, University of Maryland-Baltimore County

America's Best Leaders: Freeman Hrabowski, University of Maryland-Baltimore County

Freeman Hrabowski

Freeman Hrabowski

By + More

CATONSVILLE, MD.—Freeman Hrabowski III was a fat, nerdy, African-American kid with a weird name growing up in segregated Birmingham, Ala. But he was smart. He had skipped ahead to the ninth grade by the time he was 12. And when he saw his friends readying for the "Children's Crusade" march for civil rights in 1963, "I just had to join in."

As he got swept up in a mass arrest, Birmingham's notorious Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor spat on him. The jail guards locked the young freedom marchers in with hardened criminals. Hrabowski remembers spending five terrified days and nights shielding younger kids by reading his Bible aloud and singing songs.

At one point, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march of parents to the jail. "We looked out and saw him and our parents," Hrabowski recalls. "They were singing. And [King said], 'What you do this day will have an impact on generations as yet unborn.' "

King was right. Outrage at the brutality against Birmingham children helped build national pressure for laws banning racial discrimination. That outcome gave Hrabowski a life mission: "The experience taught me that the more we expect of children, the more they can do," he says.

Hrabowski's civil rights background, his Ph.D. in education and statistics (which he earned when he was just 24), and his ebullient cheerleading for education have led him to the presidency of what had been a no-name commuter campus—the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. And they've empowered him to take bold actions, such as disbanding an Africana graduate studies program and refusing to field a college football team in favor of funding math undergraduates and a championship chess team. The result: a dramatic increase in the number of technologically advanced graduates of all races and genders.

"Freeman is one of the rare figures who has single-handedly turned around a major institution," says Anthony Marx, president of Amherst College. "Along the way, he has taught all of higher education that minority and low-income students can and should be held to the highest standards, and can meet those standards and excel."

UMBC was a relatively young school in Baltimore's suburbs when Hrabowski arrived as vice provost in 1987 with big plans to turn it into a place where "it is cool to be smart."

Hrabowski, who got his bachelor's in math, focused on math and science in part because he was worried that the American economy would suffer if other countries continued to graduate more technology experts than the United States. But Hrabowski knew that many people who looked like him—young black men—could need a little extra help to succeed in the sciences.

Providing support. Within his first two years at UMBC, he had raised enough money to set up the comprehensive tutoring and aid offerings of the Meyerhoff Scholars program. Initially designed to help smart black males become scientists and engineers, the program quickly expanded. Hrabowski took over as UMBC's president in 1992, and four years later, the Meyerhoff program was open to students of all races and genders "who are interested in the advancement of minorities in the sciences and related fields." Now, about 1,900 high school seniors a year are nominated by their teachers for one of the 60 or so Meyerhoff slots that provide scholarships, special summer classes to sharpen academic skills, tutors, and research opportunities. One thing Meyerhoff Scholars don't get: any breaks. If they get a C in a class, for example, they are "encouraged" to repeat the course.

Hrabowski manages to steal A students away from far more famous schools because he recruits brainiacs the way some schools recruit quarterbacks. Malcolm Taylor, a graduating Meyerhoff computer engineer, turned down full scholarships elsewhere because he was invited to UMBC when he was a sophomore in high school and was "amazed" by Hrabowski. "He comes into the room and you can feel it. He has that leader charisma. He knows everyone by name."

Hrabowski turns even chance meetings into teachable moments. If he happens to be showing a guest around campus and runs into Taylor, "He'll say, 'Introduce yourself. Tell them what research you are doing.'" If Taylor doesn't deliver a clear, succinct, and audible response, Hrabowski booms out in his megaphone-like voice: "Speak up. You have to project! If people can't hear you, it doesn't matter what you say."