Freeman Hrabowski III is an African-American educator and has been the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for 26 years. As a young child living in segregated Alabama, Hrabowski witnessed firsthand the inequality minority groups face. Hrabowski strongly believes that education is their key to success. Hrabowski graduated college when he was 19 years old with a mathematics degree. Among numerous awards and accolades, Hrabowski was one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2012 and received a national lifetime achievement award from The American Council on Education.
Hrabowski is an important voice among American higher education scholars, for he gives voice to the socioeconomic struggles of African-American students. Hrabowski argues that there needs to be more minorities represented in the STEM fields. Furthermore, Hrabowski asserts that closing the STEM gap would help the nation’s failing science and math rankings. Hrabowski goes about his mission by publishing a few books and redefining the traditional college experience as the head of UMBC. Among his numerous books are: Overcoming the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African-American Males/Women andThe Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most. Hrabowski’s message resonates with the current generation of students who are ready to break through glass ceilings.
In 2017 Hrabowski sat down with the New York Times for a rare candid interview. In the interview, Hrabowski revealed a childhood that celebrated education, for his mother was a teacher. He also revealed that his childhood was constantly eclipsed by the harsh racial reality of being an African-American living in Alabama in the sixties. In 1963 when he was twelve years old, Hrabowski participated in the children’s march, a march conducted by Martin Luther King Junior, and was arrested and jailed for five days. Hrabowski credits the civil rights movement for inspiring him to want to “create an environment in which kids have the right to a great education” (Hrabowski 16). This interview revealed one of the many reasons Hrabowski chose to fight for minorities in higher education. The interview also shed light on the personal connection Hrabowski has towards minorities and education
In fact, the Civil Rights Movement of 1965 had such an impact on Hrabowski that he published Holding Fast to Dreams: Empowering Youth from the Civil Rights Crusade to STEM achievements in 2015. The essence of the book was to not only recount Hrabowski’s journey to becoming an educator, but to also describe the success UMBC has achieved when it comes to minorities in STEM. Hrabowski also makes clear that if UMBC can do it, any other college can do it as well. In the book Hrabowski revealed the thoughts he had while in jail, “When would I get out of jail? What could I expect of the future? Would Birmingham Al, the south, or America change so that someone like me, who was excited about school, could get an education and follow my dreams wherever they took me, even though I was black?” (Hrabowski 11). This was the beginning of a long life which has rooted Hrabowski in a career dedicated to education. Hrabowski’s career has allowed for him to fight for disenfranchised youth to get equal representation in higher education. Ironically, the same year that Hrabowski was jailed was the same year that UMBC was founded as a desegregated university, one of the first in Maryland. Hrabowski comments that UMBC, “represents a fifty-year experiment in higher education designed to see whether a ‘historically diverse institution’ that sought to achieve inclusive excellence could be a success” (Hrabowski 12). UMBC has certainly lived up to the expectations and they have become one of the most innovative research universities in the country.
A year prior to his New York Times interview, Hrabowski published a co-authored book with five other prominent higher education scholars. The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most described ways in which college administrators should adhere to their goals and missions, amidst the ever-changing landscape of higher education. In the book, it is revealed that UMBC “graduates more African-American undergraduates who go on to earn PhDs in STEM fields than any other predominantly white university in the country” (Hrabowski et al. Chapter 1). One of the main contributors to this achievement is the Meyerhoff Scholar Program at UMBC. Hrabowski et al detailed six themes which are crucial for success: Learning, Relationships, Expectations, Alignment, Improvement and Leadership (Hrabowski et al. Chapter 5).
Hrabowski, apart from ringing the alarms on the lacking number of minorities in the STEM field, gives us a ray of hope in Beating the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African-American Males and in Overcoming the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African-American Young Women. In these two books Hrabowski revealed the obstacles African-Americans face in academia. Among these obstacles are racism, a deterioration of inner-city education, a lack of academic role models and finally, a culture that does not fully believe in the power of education (Hrabowski 43). By publishing these two books, Hrabowski revealed what he thinks individuals and colleges could do to eliminate this large education gap.
The same year Hrabowski was interviewed by the New York Times was the same year that he wrote a lecture-based article for the Journal of Negro Education. In the article, Hrabowski outlined the problems minorities face in education, told of the success UMBC has had with their Meyerhoff program and painted a hopeful picture of the future. This article distilled all of Hrabowski’s views on education in one sitting and represents an entryway for one to get a glimpse on his career’s achievements. In the Applied Research portion of the article, Hrabowski reveals how the Meyerhoff program started through the philanthropy of Robert Meyerhoff and has now become “a national model for preparing talented students of color, young women, and others, for research careers in science and engineering” (Hrabowski 102). The article also shed light on why exactly Hrabowski believes more minorities are needed in the STEM fields. Hrabowski also revealed what the long-term solutions should be when college administrations start to take critical measures. Hrabowski lists numerous reasons as to why more minorities are needed in STEM. Among them are, the missing out on potential brainpower and the decline of America’s standing as a STEM superpower (Hrabowski 102). Hrabowski also reveals his own personal reasons as to why representation is so crucial. It is the more personal plea which stands out for the reader. Hrabowski reveals the struggles he went through graduate school, “I was not prepared to feel so isolated in my classes, usually as the only African American student. In fact, it was clear that people were unaccustomed to someone who looked like me being in the course, and in some cases did not expect me to do well” (Hrabowski 103). In essence, Hrabowski understands that the atmosphere and environment of an institution might sometimes be the only factor in driving minority students away from achieving in higher education. The pressure of being the only Black student in a classroom is stifling as Hrabowski described it. The pressure eventually led to him leaving, “I left the math program after completing my master’s simply because I had no one with whom to talk” (Hrabowski 103). Hrabowski then goes on to include the two criteria institutions need to abide by to help with the lacking numbers of minorities in STEM, “(a) substantially increasing undergraduate retention and completion; and (b) strengthening teacher preparation, college preparatory programs, and transitions to graduate study” (Hrabowski 104). These are the two “main priorities” Hrabowski believes administrations should focus on. Hrabowski concluded on an optimistic beat, “Young people can accomplish amazing things when they recognize that their abilities are not fixed…providing the support that young people need both to imagine what is possible and to develop their own abilities is the challenge we face as educators. It is also a great opportunity, and important we succeed. The nation is counting on us” (Hrabowski 106). Hrabowski was telling academia that representation is crucial and that there are definite, data driven solutions available.
Robert Hrabowski III is aspiring for all American students, regardless of their ethnic background, to have the chance to succeed in the STEM fields. After having spent his whole life dedicated to the cause of helping unrepresented minority students in higher education, Hrabowski has finally caught the nation’s attention. Hrabowski has recently been thrusted unto the spotlight due to the success of UMBC’s basketball team. The nation, and frankly the world, got to witness history as No. 16 seed UMBC defeated No. 1 seed Virginia. This in turn led to UMBC being placed on the radar and the university was praised for the diversity of its students and accomplishments as a research University. The fact that a dedicated educator and activist received well due attention and praise not for his decades of work, but due to a sports tournament speaks volumes about our society. Soon after the win, Hrabowski wrote a lengthy editorial for the Washington Post detailing both UMBC’s on court and off court success. Hopefully he is able to keep the attention of the nation and the higher education world and champion for his causes to an even larger audience.
Bryant, Adam, “Freeman A. Hrabowski III on the Value of Resilience.” New York Times (2017)
Hrabowski, Freeman A. Holding Fast to Dreams: Empowering Youth from the Civil Rights Crusade to STEM Achievement. Beacon Press, 2016.
Hrabowski, Freeman. et al. College: the Undergraduate Experience in America. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Carnegie Foundation, 2016.
Hrabowski, Freeman A., et al. Beating the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Males. Oxford University Press, 1998.
Hrabowski, Freeman A. Overcoming the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African America Young Women. Oxford University Press, 2002.
Hrabowski, Freeman A. “The 2017 Charles H. Thompson Lecture-Colloquium Presentation: Broadening Participation in American Higher Education–A Special Focus on the Under representation of African Americans in STEM Disciplines.” Journal of Negro Education, vol. 87, no. 2, Spring 2018, pp. 99–109.
You can keep up with Hrabowski’s current whereabouts through these links: