UMBC’s Freeman Hrabowski reflects on his presidency
Freeman Hrabowski made headlines last month when he announced his plan to retire. After three decades as president at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Hrabowski will step down at the end of the academic year. As one of the most dynamic leaders in American higher education, Hrabowski turned the relatively new, public four-year university into a thriving research institution and challenged the narrative that only prestigious, wealthy institutions can deliver quality education.
Today UMBC graduates more Black students who go on to earn Ph.D.s in the natural sciences and engineering than any other American institution. The university increased its six-year graduation rate for full-time first-year students from 55.7 percent to 69.2 percent over the past 10 years. Investment in campus infrastructure has also skyrocketed during Hrabowski’s tenure, growing from $118 million to $1.2 billion.
Inside Higher Ed recently spoke with Hrabowski about his tenure, leadership strategies and his plans post-UMBC.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You first went to school for mathematics; what made you decide to pivot into higher education?
A: I had gotten a master’s in mathematics and I really enjoyed abstract algebra, but I had no one to talk to. Nobody would work with me in groups; I was usually the only Black in the class.
Most importantly, I wanted to be able to talk about the work. I began seeing that a lot of graduate students were having problems with their quantitative courses across the social sciences. I was especially interested in looking at how statistics could be used in explaining different challenges and trends in higher education.
Q: So math has continued to play a role in your higher education career?
A: Very much so. One learns to think critically in mathematics, and I am a strong champion for math and for encouraging students to study math, either as a major or as a part of their programs. My focus for years has been on evaluation — quantitative and qualitative evaluation. So all my research over the past 40 years has focused heavily on STEM education and evaluation of programs and the use of statistics.
Q: How does your background in civil rights activism contribute to your leadership style or practices?
A: I heard Dr. King say when I was 12 that “Tomorrow could be better than today.” All the things we saw as children — going to schools that didn’t have resources, being given torn-up books from the white schools — the world didn’t have to remain that way. The day might come when we could go and sit at the table in a restaurant rather than going through a side door to pick something up.
His message gave me hope and opened my mind to the possibilities that America could be far better than it was at that time.
Q: UMBC was founded in 1966 and you’ve been president for more than half of its existence. How has the relative newness of the institution impacted your ability to lead and implement changes?
A: We were the first campus founded in our state that would accept students of all races. Every other university — typically in the South in general — was either for Blacks or whites. We were attracting large numbers of people from interracial backgrounds and people from the military, people from the intelligence community, and people from overseas. This has always been a university that asked good questions, and that was experimenting to see what might be most effective as we thought about educating people from all over the world. Today, almost 60 percent of our students have a parent from another country.
What we are best known for is the fact that we lead the country in producing African Americans who go on to get science Ph.D.s and M.D. Ph.D.s — we are No. 1 in the nation. What’s really great, though, is that we produce large numbers of students of all races who go on to grad school, in the humanities and the sciences.
We’re a young university, so you might ask, how could you become No. 1 in these areas when you’re only 57 years old? That’s because we’ve been willing to experiment and to try new things.
Q: Quite a few other schools tried to woo you over the past couple of decades. What made you stick with UMBC for so long?
A: I have been so fortunate to be at a university that values people. I’ve been really fortunate in that faculty and students and staff were willing to work with me as a young president at 41, and to give me support by telling me the truth — by telling me when something was going well, but also by telling me when I needed to improve, or when I needed to rethink a position, or when I made a mistake. But the difference is this: they’ve never just said, “You made a mistake.” They’ve said, “We really think this is a mistake, but we’ve got some suggestions about how to fix it.”
We need leaders who believe in their institutions and we need institutions who will believe in their leaders. That doesn’t mean that we always agree, but it means that we believe in authenticity and integrity and speaking the truth.
Q: You were recently quoted saying, “You don’t have to be rich to be the very best.” What advice would you give to other colleges who are working to convey that same message about their institutions?
A: We have to counter the notion that you see in the media: that anybody who is wealthy enough and privileged enough will tend to go to certain universities. And if you didn’t — particularly in certain parts of the country — people are like, “Oh, I’m sorry.” It’s that kind of attitude.
We should be especially proud of what we do at our institutions because we transform lives. We take a young man who had no one [in his family] go to college, and before you know it, he is the president of Clemson University. It’s a wonderful story. We take a young woman out of Hillsboro, N.C., and she becomes the first Black woman to create a vaccine. These are exciting stories, and they show America that you can come from the working class or middle class and become the very best.
Educators must focus on creating an environment in which it is great to be loving learning. I was in tears when the UMBC [basketball] team was able to be victorious over UVA — which is a wonderful university with a much bigger endowment than we have. The reporters were asking [players], “What are you going to do now after the game?” And they said, “I have to go back to my room and study for a test.” Another said, with tears in his eyes, “We stand on the shoulders of our chess team.”
Q: What are some of your priorities for this last academic year?
A: We are focusing on the lessons we have learned over the past two years and wanting to make sure we don’t go back to business as usual. Whether talking about the use of technology, continuing to strengthen the teaching and learning process, giving our colleagues support in research, to raising money. It’s always a challenge for young campuses to raise money.
And getting ready for a new president. We are very excited about that.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I will stay in higher education. I work with a couple of foundations right now, I will continue to do some of that. But most importantly, I’ve already been working with new presidents and provosts around the country. I work in the Harvard University program for new presidents, and I enjoy that work. I’ve also been working on a variety of meetings with university boards and senior leaders with my book The Empowered University.
Editorial Tags: PresidentsImage Source: Courtesy of the University of Maryland, Baltimore CountyImage Caption: UMBC president Freeman Hrabowski will retire at the end of the academic year.Is this diversity newsletter?: Newsletter Order: 0Disable left side advertisement?: Is this Career Advice newsletter?: Magazine treatment: Trending: Display Promo Box: Live Updates: liveupdates0Most Popular: 3Ad slot: 8In-Article related stories: 12