Hrabowski says the school's successes are rooted in a simple philosophy: Any student, no matter the background, can be educated.

Time, and those who knew Hrabowski as a young man, point to his upbringing as his greatest influence. Born in Birmingham, Ala., at the start of the civil rights movement, he was jailed at age 12 for five days for participating in a civil rights protest.

"He brought something that many students don't have today," said Genevieve Knight, who taught and served as a mentor to Hrabowski at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia. "He has something in him that says, 'I'm for mankind, I'm for humanity.' "

Knight, now 72 and living in Columbia, said she would describe him as a "Renaissance man." "Some of us are good at one thing," she said. "And some of us are good at being influential on mankind."

Francis "Skip" Fennell, professor of mathematics education at McDaniel College, who formerly headed the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, called Hrabowski an "American hero."

Fennell said that what makes Hrabowski among the world's most influential figures is that his spirit and passion are felt just as strongly in one-on-one conversations as they are on national stages.

"I see him as a person, who, when you're in his presence, you know it, because you feel like you're in his presence," Fennell said. "He's not looking at his watch, he's going to make you feel that what you say is important. That's the quality of a leader that probably isn't in a textbook."

Hrabowski said that he considers the Time honor, which will appear in the magazine published Thursday, a recognition for universities and their leaders nationwide.

"I think we often take for granted colleges and universities," he said. "At UMBC, we don't take it for granted, we celebrate it. That celebration gives people hope. People need to hope that we can educate all kinds of students, and those students will go on to lead our nation."

Freeman A. Hrabowski III

Birthplace: Birmingham, Ala.

Age: 61

Education: bachelor's degree in mathematics from Hampton Institute; master's in mathematics and doctorate in higher education administration/statistics from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Career: Has been president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County since 1992; serves as consultant of the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the National Academies; came to UMBC in 1987 as vice provost and was later named executive vice president; previously held various positions at Coppin State University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Alabama A&M University.

Trivia: He was featured in Spike Lee's 1997 documentary "Four Little Girls" about the racially motivated bombing in 1963 of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.