Orange-letter Days | Exploring Your Center | Alumni Interview

ALUMNI INTERVIEW — January/February 2004

Changing the Equations.
By Amy F. Reiter

Freeman Hrabowski, AM '71 LAS, PHD '75 ED, has a dream.

As a 12-year-old living in racially charged Birmingham, Ala., Hrabowski marched as a youth leader in Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 Children's Crusade. Now he's president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, crusading to eliminate the race and gender gaps in math and science.

Photo of Freeman Hrabowski with students.
Freeman Hrabowski

When he marched and was jailed in the Children's Crusade, Hrabowski learned to question, "What's it worth to stand for a cause? To believe in something?" said his wife, Jacqueline Coleman Hrabowski, EDM '71, a vice president at T. Rowe Price. "I think it has made him more resolved to work for something that sometimes seems impossible."

Hrabowski found that cause right around him. He wanted to know: "How do I get more black kids interested in math and science?" Finding the answer would shape not only Hrabowski's life but also the lives of everyone around him, as well as influence the nation's perspective of the capabilities of minorities.

And he's already seeing results.

In his 12 years as president, Hrabowski has helped the 36-year-old university rake in federal grants to become a national leader in undergraduate math, science and engineering. Hrabowski is especially proud of his school's national reputation as a chess powerhouse. It has won six of the last seven Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess championships.

But even more notable than the statistics are the minds being cultivated at UMBC. In fields where drastically few minority students graduate and even fewer go on for advanced degrees, Hrabowski, using UMBC's Meyerhoff Scholarship Program as a springboard, has enabled hundreds of talented minority students to enter, excel and graduate in math, science and engineering. The goal is to produce minority Ph.D.'s, research scientists and physicians.

"It's a place where it's cool to be able to talk about research," Hrabowski said of UMBC. "Whether one is in the sciences or the arts, there is a lot of passion."

That passion is due in large part to Hrabowski, a trim, smooth-skinned, black man with a gentle, confident smile. Even at 53 years old, he still looks a little like an overgrown kid in a sleek business suit — and has the energy and enthusiasm to match.

Jacqueline said of her husband, "He's just relentless. He gets it done. He does twice as much as most folks." His close friend, UMBC chemistry/biochemistry professor and Howard Hughes investigator Michael Summers, said Hrabowski was a child prodigy. Said Summers, "You just can't not admire him."

Hrabowski is more modest. "I was just very fortunate to have encouraging parents," he said. "My parents always said, 'You're going to be a great teacher.'"

When he was 13, he met a black Tuskegee Institute dean and mathematician and was further inspired to seek an academic role. "Every morning since, I would face the mirror and say, 'Good morning, Dr. Hrabowski,'" Hrabowski said, "but I never let anybody hear me."

The only child of educators who often worked two or three jobs while also helping those around them, Hrabowski grew up quickly. His wife jokes that he didn't have much growing up to do.

"He's never really been a child," Jacqueline said. "He's always been kind of a young adult."

That maturity set Hrabowski apart from the beginning, even as he became a friend and leader to those around him.

In third grade, while many students were pulling away from math in confusion, Hrabowski was falling in love with the field. It made sense to him. Math taught him patience and to look at a problem from different perspectives. Hrabowski said he saw "a connection between mathematics and life."

That connection has benefited him. When his friend was among the four girls killed in the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Hrabowski could have turned bitter from the experience. Instead, "he has just devoted his life to making things better for the next person," marveled Summers. "I don't know how someone can come out of the experience that he had as a young person and have that positivity."

His wife attributes that positivity both to Hrabowski's character and his cause.

The boy who loved math became the phenom teen-ager recruited by colleges as early as 14 years old. He entered Hampton Institute in Virginia at 15, and despite the age disparity between himself and his peers, became a campus leader. He was studying abroad in Egypt when, without his knowledge, his class elected him their future senior class president. Not bad for an 18-year-old college junior.

At Hampton, Hrabowski also met his wife, Jacqueline. They ran into each other three separate times on the first day of their freshman year. "I knew that he had this impact on people, that they would want to hear what he had to say," Jacqueline said. "I just knew that he was a sweet person and someone you could trust with your life."

At the recommendation of his professor, Geraldine Darden, MS '60 LAS, Hrabowski enrolled in graduate study at the University of Illinois. "She suggested that I come here, and I'm glad I did," he said.

One week after the Hrabowskis were married, they left for their honeymoon — graduate school at Illinois.

It wasn't until Hrabowski arrived at the University of Illinois that he felt strongly how much of a minority he was in his field. Previously, he had attended segregated schools and a primarily black undergraduate college. At Illinois, he was one of only three or four black graduate students in mathematics. "I was prepared for the academic work but not the isolation," he said.

At Illinois, Hrabowski's ideas about how he could improve education began to take shape. He also continued to lead.

Photo of Freeman Hrabowski with students.
Freeman Hrabowski, center, chats with students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
The Hrabowskis' approachability and studious example attracted students to their apartment in Pennsylvania Avenue Residence Hall, where he was a residence hall director. "We felt like we had hundreds and hundreds of kids," Hrabowski said. Eventually the couple expanded the program out of their apartment into an informal tutoring program in the basement of PAR.

In 1975, UI master's of mathematics and doctorate in education in hand, the 24-year-old Hrabowski stayed at Illinois another year as a visiting assistant professor in educational psychology and assistant dean of student services. He was also in charge of the local Upward Bound.

By 1977, he was a professor of math at Coppin State College in Baltimore. He was also the college's dean of arts and sciences.

He would have to find something new to say to himself in the mirror.

In 1987 Hrabowski moved to UMBC, first as vice provost, and in 1992 as president of the mid-sized research university in the Baltimore suburbs. With the Meyerhoff program, Hrabowski set out to prove that if academically excellent minority high school students were put in a situation where they were expected to excel academically, they would rise to those expectations.

Hrabowski credits his faculty for their commitment to helping students achieve. Hrabowski's faculty credits him in return.

"He's spectacular. To be honest, he's the reason I'm still at UMBC," said Summers. "People feel that they're doing more than just a job. There's a social value."

The next step for Hrabowski is taking the values of the program into a larger arena. He has spoken at universities around the country about how to improve their recruiting and retention of minorities in the sciences.

He said, "It's important for me to talk about my experiences as a way to encourage people to think about what women and minorities must go through.

"We still have not produced large numbers of minority scientists," Hrabowski said. He sees that lack of diversity every day as a high-level administrator and consultant to organizations like the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Education, where he often finds himself the only black person in the room. "Of course it's discouraging when no one in the room looks like me," he said.

Nonetheless, Hrabowski's Alma Mater is paying attention to his success. Last November, he returned to speak as part of the David Dodds Henry Lecture. The program brings a nationally recognized educational administrator to the Urbana campus approximately once every three years. He will also receive an honorary doctorate from the University this May.

But Hrabowski doesn't need to come to campus to remember his Illini spirit. He says he already sees successful Illinois alumni wherever he travels.

"It is always encouraging to see how Illini are doing well," he said. "Wherever I go, I meet people from the U of I. We all smile."

Debra Bragg '77 ACES, a UI professor of education and acting head of the department of educational organization and leadership, is certainly all smiles. Bragg was a key player in bringing Hrabowski to campus. She said his visit has already had an impact on administration and faculty at the U of I, encouraging them to work harder to create a place that, as he said, "lives and breathes the intertwining of diversity and excellence."


Top photo: Doug McDonough Photo.
Bottom photo: Mark Lee Photo.

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