Hrabowski, who stands out among college presidents for showing minority
youth how to be stellar engineers, mathematicians, and scientists, uses
chess to get students excited about the intellectual process.
By Susan Lapinski
Freeman Hrabowski was growing up in Birmingham, Ala., he saw and felt
things that children never should. He was spat on and called a racial
epithet by the city's police chief, Bull Connor. He saw the police
turn fire hoses and snarling dogs on his fellow African-Americans. He
also had the very scary experience of going to jail with
a group of other children demonstrating against segregation on behalf
of their parents, who couldn't afford to take the time off from
work to be arrested themselves.
of all, he lost a school friend, 14-year-old Cynthia Wesley, a sweet-natured
girl who had always made him laugh. Cynthia was one of four girls killed
in the racially motivated bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street
Baptist Church in 1963. At her funeral, I remember the Rev. Martin
Luther King saying that life was hard, hard as steel, recalls
Hrabowski, now president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore
hard as those times were, it's typical of Freeman A. Hrabowski,
III, to draw strength from them now. I became the person I am
today because of those days in Birmingham, he says. I learned
that the world is not fair, but that you should never underestimate
the power of the human spirit to transcend all kinds of tragedy. There's
a sense of empowerment when you know you can make a difference.
difference he's making for minority students in the fields of engineering,
math, and science has already won Hrabowski much acclaim. He and his
university, which enrolls 11,200 students, won the U.S. Presidential
Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring
in 1996. He was named Marylander of the Year by the Baltimore Sun in
1999, the same year he was awarded the Reginald H. Jones Distinguished
Service Award from the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering.
Last year, he was the recipient of the prestigious Harold W. McGraw,
Jr., Prize in Education. And this year, Fast Company magazine named
him one of their Fast 50 Champions of Innovation.
made Hrabowski such a standout among college presidents is UMBC's
Meyerhoff Scholars Program for gifted African-American undergraduates
in science and engineering. To be competitive as a nation, we
must educate large numbers of people from all our racial and ethnic
groups to be our research scientists and engineers, he explains.
He launched the program in 1988 with half a million dollars in seed
money from Robert Meyerhoff, a Baltimore philanthropist and MIT engineering
graduate. Millions more have since poured into the program from such
institutions as the National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics
and Space Administration, and National Institutes of Health. This August,
the program gained national attention as the focus of a Today
Show episode on NBC.
has put UMBC on the map for building a pipeline that reliably produces
minority engineers and scientists at a time when minorities are vastly
underrepresented in those fields. Of the 65,113 bachelor's degrees
awarded in engineering last year, African-Americans earned just 5.3%
of them, due to poor high school preparation, a lack of role models,
and other factors. While the test scores of African-American students
enrolling at UMBC have improved dramatically, Hrabowski's success at
graduating engineers has been only slightly higher than the average.
Last year, for example, just 14 out of 206 engineering graduates were
been very inspired by his charisma, his ideas, says Shlomo Carmi,
dean of UMBC's College of Engineering and a professor of mechanical
engineering. Carmi is building his own pipeline for young engineers
by working in conjunction with some of Baltimore's middle and high
schools to add introductory engineering courses to their curricula.
young talent has certainly paid off for UMBC so far. Ninety percent
of the program's scholars complete their bachelor's degrees,
and 80 percent of the engineering graduates go on to graduate school.
The program has already produced dozens of engineers and scientists
and about 50 African-American physicians. Hrabowski speaks of one alum
who was in the very first group of Meyerhoff students and just completed
his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Northwestern. Another is about
to earn a Ph.D. in bioengineering at Stanford. These are the faculty
members and administrators of tomorrow, he points out proudly.
does the Meyerhoff program work its magic? Hrabowski ticks off about
a dozen ways the program supports and sustains its scholars, who typically
come in the door with promising high school records and combined SAT
scores in the 1300s (and increasingly, in the 1400s). Before their college
classes ever begin, the scholars participate in a six-week preparatory
program called Summer Bridge. Besides taking classes in science and
math, the scholars learn how to work in groups, ask for tutoring when
they need it, and recognize that they have abilities and ideas that
are worth sharing with their classmates.
the experience of Summer Bridge and living in the same dorms, the scholars
start to feel like a team. You always had people to study with,
you always had people to call on for support, recalls Kamili Jackson,
B.S.E. '97, M.S. '99, a Meyerhoff alum from rural St. Mary's
County, Md., who is finishing up her doctoral program in mechanical
engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore this summer.
Meyerhoff secrets of success: Each scholar is paired with a mentor and
gets a lot of personal attention, takes a course in African-American
culture, and learns what it means to be smart and black. That
includes building patience, discipline, and reflection, Hrabowski
says. We start talking about graduate education in freshman year.
It's a climate where these students know they are expected to do
also a climate where Meyerhoff scholars get a lot of hands-on experiences,
thanks both to student internships and substantive faculty-student collaboration.
We have a caring, highly productive research faculty, and they
work to connect their own research and teaching with students'
interests, Hrabowski explains. Postdocs, Ph.D.s, and undergraduates
team up on research projects and papers, with the undergrads made to
feel integral to the process.
part of her Meyerhoff training, Kamili Jackson had hands-on experiences
with materials, including high-purity copper and concrete, when she
worked as a research assistant at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
and also in the UMBC Materials Lab. She summarized the results of the
copper studies both in her master's thesis and an article in the
International Journal of Plasticity. When I saw some of my UMBC
professors at a conference recently, they treated me like a peer!
she recalls with awe. I spent four years asking them questions,
and now they're asking me questions and really listening to my
responses. It's weirdand kind of exciting, too. adds
Jackson, who begins postdoctoral studies at the University of Cape Town
in South Africa in January.
that fired up the Meyerhoff program came from his own family, Hrabowski
says. His last name is a reminder of the Polish immigrant slave owner
who fathered his great-grandfather. His first name celebrates the fact
that he's the third generation of Hrabowskis to live free. For
his family of origin, life was all about learning. Freeman III was brought
up an only child in a house full of books by schoolteacher
parents who worked a lot of other jobs, including tutoring, just to
make ends meet.
parents thought that if you could get children to think and read well,
they'd be just fine, he recalls with a laugh. They'd
tack word problems up on the wall for me to solve, and I'd get
goose bumps solving them. The things they did to develop my curiosity
and self-esteem made me a big believer in their ideas. Those values,
and research from the Meyerhoff program, are reflected in two books
co-authored by Hrabowski: Beating the Odds: Raising Academically Successful
African-American Males (1998) and Overcoming the Odds: Raising Academically
Successful African-American Young Women (2002).
only 15 when he went off to major in mathematics at Booker T. Washington's
alma mater, Hampton Institute in Virginia. But he was confident. When
I took my first test, I just knew I would get the best score,
he recalls. But then the professor announced that the only 100
in the class had been earned by Jackie Coleman. She was a cute girl.
I shouted out, I'm going to marry that girl some day!'
I figured if you can't beat em, join em.
good on his promise. Wife Jackie is now a vice president at the investment
services company T. Rowe Price, and they make their home in Owings Mills
in Baltimore County. Their son Eric, 26, is a music producer, clothes
model, and poet in Atlanta. He reads and writes beautifully, but
he doesn't like math or science, jokes Hrabowski. He's
lot of other things have gone as planned. Hrabowski says he knew from
about age 13 that he wanted to be a college dean. That milestone was
reached when he was 26. Now 52, he's presided over UMBC for a decade
and seen many of his visions for the school materialize.
program is flourishing. So is UMBC's reputation for being a brainy
school. Its chess club, championed for years by Hrabowski and now cheered
on by the whole campus, has won the World Series of college chess, the
Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championships, five times in the
past six years. These victories have been celebrated in Super Bowl style
with a marching band, cheerleaders, and a smoke machine. It makes
the point, says Hrabowski, that we are especially excited
about the life of the mind.
also is becoming recognized for building Maryland's economy and
offering an excellent education to those who don't want to pay
Ivy League prices. Grant funding has risen from $40 million in 1997
to almost $90 million today. And this year, the Carnegie Foundation
for the Advancement of Teaching grouped UMBC among the top tier of American
universities and colleges for its extensive research and
doctoral program opportunities.
days, Hrabowski likes nothing better than going up on a rooftop to survey
his domain of 44 buildings on 500 acres. He can keep an eye on the rising
new information technology/engineering building, scheduled to open in
the fall of 2003. The building includes space for one of the university's
latest academic initiatives, the Center for Women and Information Technology,
which aims to do for women and computers what the Meyerhoff program
has accomplished for minorities in engineering and science. The
view is just wonderful, says Dr. Hrabowski of his rooftop perch.
Come on up.
Lapinski, a freelance writer based in Swarthmore, Penn., specializes
in education and the family. She can be reached at email@example.com.