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“UMBC is in my blood”

Freeman Hrabowski
John Lee
UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski and his successor, Valerie Sheares Ashby, speak with junior Liza Strang on campus. Credit: John Lee

Getting a selfie with Freeman Hrabowski on the University of Maryland Baltimore County campus is a thing.

Hrabowski was frequently stopped by students asking for selfies at a recent event celebrating UMBC being recognized as one of the top research institutions in the country.

“Let’s get us in this picture,” Hrabowski told Liza Strang, a junior. “I love it.”

After working the crowd, the 71-year-old Hrabowski stepped up to the podium and received a rock star greeting.

“Hello, I love you!” Hrabowski told a cheering crowd.

After three decades, Hrabowski will step down July 31 as president of UMBC. Hrabowski has become nationally known for transforming the school into a leading research institution with a diverse student body.

He calls UMBC a magical place, with a student population that looks like the Plaza of Nations at the UN. Minorities make up more than 50% of the student body.

Part of the credit for that is given to the Meyerhoff Scholars program. It is open to students of all backgrounds who want to get a Ph.D in science or engineering.

“And that’s part of the magic, that we have been able to do what now others are now wanting to do and that is to educate students from all races, across the disciplines,” Hrabowski said in an interview with WYPR.

Hrabowski said UMBC is the leading university in the country in producing Black undergraduates who go on to get their Ph.Ds in natural sciences and engineering. He credits the faculty and staff for making that happen.

“They were committed to this idea of diversity in the sciences, in the humanities and all these areas, they have worked to give more support to students.”

Then there’s UMBC’s work in Baltimore City Schools to give disadvantaged children and students from different backgrounds a shot at one day getting a degree.

Earlier this year, it got the largest gift in its history, $21 million, from the Sherman Family Foundation.

That grant helps fund the Sherman STEM, (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Teachers Scholars Program which supports UMBC students who want to become teachers in Baltimore City.

Rehana Shafi, the program’s director, said it includes an intensive tutoring program created for some city students who are struggling academically through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve been serving 355 kids in four schools with over 100 UMBC students who work with them one on one every week,” Shafi said. “And we’re working with the kids who are testing in the lowest percentiles to help them have the basic skills so that they can actually access the curriculum that’s being taught during the school day.”

The program trains educators to teach STEM classes in city schools. It includes a longtime partnership with Lakeland Elementary/Middle School nearby in Southwest Baltimore.

Hrabowski said, “So the idea is to support those great teachers at Lakeland and the other schools in that area as we produce more teachers for the city and other challenging schools.”

UMBC is a relatively young university. It opened in 1966. Hrabowski is its first Black president.

His road to leading UMBC and his mission to make higher education more diverse began with his early upbringing in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, in the 50s and 60s.

“Baltimore is the upper south,” Hrabowski said. “I always tell people that. One day we think like Philadelphia the next day like Richmond. But when you get to Birmingham it’s the deep south. And I take great pride in that because it has been the struggle of the deep south that reflects the struggle of the country in many ways when talking about these issues.”

Hrabowski was a classmate of one of the girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church by the Ku Klux Klan. At the age of 12 he was jailed for five days for taking part in the Children’s Crusade march, an experience he calls awful but rich.

He grew up in a home filled with books and faith.

Hrabowski said, “They told us as children, the adults, that we needed to work as hard as we could, as hard as we could to be twice as good because the world would not always be fair and that we didn’t have time to be a victim.”

He said he tells students, both on campus and in the city schools, that if they can read well, all things are possible, even when dealing with what he terms structural discrimination.

“The fact is, we must teach our children to want to know,” Hrabowski said. “To dare to know. To learn, to read, to think. And that all came from my upbringing in Birmingham.”

Hrabowski recalled a recent address he made at a high school in Virginia. He said the subtleties of discrimination today often make it difficut for many to see the vestiges of racism are still alive in our institutions.

“It was so clear as people were saying, ‘well we don’t have the same kind of racism,’” Hrabowski said. “But the brilliant STEM students were all white and the children who were having academic problems and reading issues were all Black. And the adults, all very nice, but the fact was that there was that same demarcation by race.”

Back at the campus celebration for UMBC receiving an R1 classification as one of the nation’s top research universities, students and faculty were displaying what they have been working on. For example, there was an exhibit showing the university collaborating with the Army and the University of Maryland College Park on using artificial intelligence on the battlefield.

That wouldn’t have happened back when the school was a commuter campus, said Anupam Joshi, the director of UMBC’s cyber security center.

“No research,” Joshi said. “Mostly teaching. And when Freeman leaves it’s an R1.”

Gregory Simmons, UMBC’s vice president for institutional advancement, has been at the school for 30 years. Simmons said Hrabowski’s leadership has shown that public higher education can transform lives.

“People unlocking the real power of a place where people from all backgrounds, who look like anything, who are smart and want to work with other people, the problems that they can solve together and how we can be better together than any one of us could be individually,” Simmons said.

Kaitlynn Lilly, a senior at UMBC double majoring in physics and mathematics, said Hrabowski has a few quotes that are well known around campus. She recited one.

“Watch your thoughts because they become your words. Watch your words, they become your actions, watch your actions they become your habits, watch your habits they become your character, and watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”

Lilly said every time she has heard Hrabowski speak, he has made an impact.

“I don’t think there’s ever a time where he’s spoken and I’ve been in a room where I don’t feel completely inspired leaving it.”

Once he steps down, Hrabowski said he will no longer be on campus, out of respect for the incoming president, Valerie Sheares Ashby. However, wherever he goes, Hrabowski said he will be talking up his former workplace.

“UMBC is in my blood. In terms of my soul, I am not leaving.”

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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