ASEE Prism Magazine - October 2002
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All The Right Moves

Freeman 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

When 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.

Worst 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 Campus (UMBC).

As 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.”

The 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.

What's 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.

Hrabowski 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 African-American.

“I've 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.

Nurturing 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.

How 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.

Sharing 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.

Other 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 well.”

It's 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.

As 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 weird—and kind of exciting, too.” adds Jackson, who begins postdoctoral studies at the University of Cape Town in South Africa in January.

 

FAMILY TIES

The ideas 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.

“My 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).

He was 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.”

He made 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 a rebel.”

But a 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.

The Meyerhoff 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.”

The school 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.

These 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.”

 

Susan Lapinski, a freelance writer based in Swarthmore, Penn., specializes in education and the family. She can be reached at slapinski@asee.org.