That’s not usually an auspicious start to a young man’s teenage years, but Hrabowski was arrested for participating in the 1963 Children’s Crusade, a civil rights march in Birmingham, Alabama, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
And Hrabowski has only soared from there, coupling the lessons of the civil rights movement with his love of mathematics to focus on the power of education to transform lives.
For the past 27 years, he has led the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, transforming the suburban Catonsville campus into a highly regarded destination for science, technology, engineering and, of course, math education. He’s also invested in other programs at the school, including the arts and public policy.
He’s often been recognized — by Time magazine as one its 10 Best College Presidents, American Council of Education Lifetime Achievement Award, Carnegie Corp.'s Academic Leadership Award and The Baltimore Sun’s Marylander of the Year, to name a few of the honors.
And UMBC employees appreciate his leadership. One called him a “visionary with a great sense of where UMBC can and needs to be.”
“Dr. Hrabowski is down to earth and you can tell that he genuinely cares about the students, faculty and staff at UMBC,” another said. “He is engaging and funny. He is very well spoken, but he also listens carefully to the needs of others. He also encourages others to be the best individuals they can be.”
Hrabowski took a moment from leading UMBC and championing STEM education to answer a few questions from The Baltimore Sun about leadership.
What is a leader’s role in building a place people want to work?
A leader should always be saying, “It’s not about me, it’s about us.” This approach reflects the critical importance of building a leadership team that sets the tone for an organization, supports its culture and affirms its values. The leader’s role is to keep this team focused on these values: integrity, hard work, grit and support for each other. This last point is essential. While we have collective and individual goals, and we are committed to moving toward them, we also understand the fundamental truth that nothing is more important than the people who make up the organization.
At UMBC, we understand that culture is reflected in the questions we ask, the priorities we set, the achievements we recognize, and so many other aspects of daily life on campus. When talking about culture, I often draw on a passage from Eric Weiner’s book The Geography of Bliss: “Culture is the sea we swim in—so pervasive, so all-consuming, that we fail to notice its existence until we step out of it.” This is why I never think just about my influence on our culture, but instead reflect on the ways that all of us at UMBC — students, faculty and staff — create this culture by supporting and influencing each other. We encourage each other to “be our best selves,” and we also recognize there are times when all of us need support. In this way, we show we are determined to overcome the odds, set high aspirations and dream about the possibilities.
What’s the hardest lesson about leadership you’ve learned?
As leaders, we have come to recognize that you can never not lead. It’s not just about what you say, but also what you don’t say and the things you communicate with body language, the way you treat people or how you receive good or bad news. I sometimes teasingly say to people that effective leadership means keeping everyone minimally dissatisfied.
There’s actually some truth in that — if you’re doing the right thing, there will always be some people who are not happy. Doing the right thing means you’re doing what is best for the whole group. Some might not always like the result, but all we can do is be transparent in our decision-making, follow our moral compass, and work to empower others.
Healthy organizations are made up of people who are empowered to look in the mirror to recognize strengths, and also opportunities for improvement. Effective leaders inspire others to want to be better than they are.