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

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Seeding the campus with Meyerhoff Scholars as role models was one of Hrabowski's first blows against what he sees as a self-destructive subculture prevalent in too many communities and ethnic groups, a subculture in which those who get good grades are held in contempt for being weak or effeminate, or for "selling out" or "acting white."

Many of his moves have been unconventional and sometimes controversial. He won't fund a varsity football team, but, to attract world-class minds, he funds big scholarships for chess players (many from Eastern Europe). And he stages big celebrations when the chess team wins national championships. Hrabowski pushes professors to replace boring lectures with more active lessons and to create opportunities for students to work and study in groups. He pumps students to give back by tutoring or mentoring younger kids.

It's working. Hrabowski has turned the 12,300-student school into one of the nation's biggest producers of technology graduates. The 20-year-old Meyerhoff program alone has graduated more than 600 students in the sciences, 69 of whom have gone on to earn M.D. or doctoral degrees. Overall, 43 percent of the nearly 1,900 diplomas UMBC handed out in June were for math, engineering, or science. And UMBC's student technology pipeline is growing. The number of white science majors at UMBC has almost doubled, to nearly 1,300, since 1985. The number of African-American UMBC undergraduates majoring in science or engineering has increased sevenfold, to more than 400.

Perhaps most important, Hrabowski's influence is spreading beyond Catonsville, Md. Skidmore College in New York, for example, has launched a similar program to recruit and support low-income and underrepresented youths.

Trickle down. And it is spreading down to youngsters in their most formative years, such as 13-year-old Brandon Giles. A year ago, Giles was just one of thousands of fatherless, failing youngsters in Baltimore. Then, his mother signed him up for a new, boys-only charter middle school focused on science that was cofounded by a friend of Hrabowski. At first, Giles didn't like spending six days a week, year-round, at a no-girls school. Last fall, Giles continued to get into trouble and was bristling at teachers' attempts to rein in his behavior. He asked for advice from one of the Meyerhoff scholars who volunteered Saturdays at the Bluford Drew Jemison S.T.E.M. Academy in East Baltimore. "He said, 'Don't let people bring you down. You have to run with' " whatever punishment and assignments teachers mete out. So now, Giles says, "If they say, 'Go to detention,' I go to detention. If they tell me to write 15 pages, I write 15 pages."

Last spring, Giles made the honor roll. His new ambition is to get a degree from UMBC and become a police officer. "I want to create a mentoring program for kids who grow up without their fathers," as he did, Giles says.

Hrabowski has never met Giles. But the mathematician in him would appreciate this proof of the transitive properties of leadership. He has helped create another generation of good students, eager to inspire the generation after them.

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