Freeman A. Hrabowski III, who molded a young, undistinguished university into a national model for producing top-notch minority scientists and engineers, will retire from the presidency of University of Maryland, Baltimore County in June 2022.
His achievement in shaping the right academic culture to enable Black, Asian and Hispanic students from modest backgrounds to excel in the sciences and technology, elevated Hrabowski to a national leader in higher education.
Despite opportunities to jump to elite institutions, he remained stubbornly loyal to UMBC — committed to transforming the suburban, commuter campus into what he believes will soon be recognized as among the nation’s top research universities.
The 71-year-old will leave exactly 30 years after he became the university’s president — and long after his name became synonymous with UMBC’s rise through the ranks.
“We have made the most progress in showing the nation that we can educate a racially and ethnically diverse student body and prepare them for leadership,” he said. “We are what America wants to become.”
The university community learned of his retirement in an announcement Wednesday. In an earlier interview in his unpretentious 10th floor office, Hrabowski expressed no reservations about leaving, saying that the university is at a high point and will continue on its upward trajectory after his departure.
“We will have the largest freshman class. The research will be higher than ever. The achievements of our graduates are more visible than ever,” he said.
The campus now educates 14,000 students, up from 10,000, and includes a research park with 130 companies.
UMBC’s graduation rate is now about 70%, up from less than 52% two decades ago. Investment in new construction has increased from $118 million to $1.2 billion over the last decade of his tenure, and the school’s annual spending on research each year — though still a fraction of the Johns Hopkins University or University of Maryland, College Park — has risen to $84 million from $10 million. UMBC now boasts research centers in such areas as computing, space and atmospheric sciences, and the social sciences.
Between 2010 and 2019, UMBC had more Black graduates receive doctorates in the sciences and engineering — 146, according to federal government data — than any other university in the nation, eclipsing historically Black colleges and universities like Howard University and academic powerhouses like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cornell University.
In the last two years, UMBC graduates have been at the forefront of pandemic research and management. Hrabowski ticked off their names: Kizzmekia Corbett, a scientist instrumental in the development of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, the former U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, Baltimore’s health commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, a chief scientist at Moderna, and a nationally recognized Duke University neuroscientist.
“I think this COVID period showed the country just how amazing the academic program is here,” Hrabowski said.
Jay Perman, chancellor of the University of Maryland System and among the people who will have a hand in choosing a successor, said Hrabowski established an identity for the school.
“I think what he has done over these decades is position UMBC as an institution of great distinction, and yes, with this commitment to everybody gets a crack at opportunity,” Perman said.
“He has fixed it so that it ought to be easy to replace” him, said Perman, adding that he and the Regents know exactly what to look for in the next leader because the culture of the institution is very defined.
Hrabowski “sprinkled star dust on the rest of the enterprise” making Perman’s job easier, he said. “He has given us a clear description. UMBC has a clear path forward.”
Hrabowski sees it differently. He said that campus leaders, from students to faculty, have created a vision for the university that he has carried out, and so it will survive without him.
“He has been essential to so much work in higher education,” said Bridget Burns, executive director of the University Innovation Alliance, a national consortium of public research universities working on closing the achievement gap.
She called him “an inspirational voice and a moral compass” at a strong university dedicated to serving communities higher education has left out.
“It has never been about him,” Burns said. “He issues a beacon, a signal to others who want to do the work of the day.”
In an interview, Hrabowski talked passionately and expansively about his beloved university. A mathematician by training, he quoted T.S. Eliot and former Brown University President Vartan Gregorian, practiced speaking French, and laughed in his deep, unbridled cackle.
He is known for prowling the campus happily interrupting students to talk, sometimes calling them by name. He has taken hundreds of visitors to the roof of the tall, brick administration building to survey the layout of the campus and describe his plans for its future.
He said that UMBC is successful because it has high academic standards, a high percentage of faculty that are doing research, a focus on building a sense of community and making sure students interact with people from different backgrounds.
Hrabowski talks a lot about seeking truth. He believes educating undergraduates must include making them feel uncomfortable by forcing them to confront people whose values and beliefs they don’t share in civil discussions. He does not like political correctness, seeing it as stifling honest discussion.
Central to UMBC’s system of teaching is having students work collaboratively in groups that are intentionally designed to have a diversity of backgrounds and ideas.
UMBC was founded in the 1960s as a research university that welcomed female and minority students. Its student body is now 19% Black, 20% Asian and 8% Hispanic.
In 1988, Hrabowski and Robert Meyerhoff launched the Meyerhoff Scholars program, which has graduated more than 1,400 students. The first class was made up of all Black men, but it has become a scholarship program for all races, including a small percentage of white students. The program provides money, academic guidance, research opportunities and mentoring.
Meyerhoff Scholars have gone on to significant positions at research universities and the program has been copied by other universities, including the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. When the scholars program started the university was graduating only 18 Black students in the sciences
”We believe that students of all types and all kinds of backgrounds can excel,” Hrabowski said. “We believe in very high academic standards for our students and ourselves. We are a campus that is constantly seeking the truth, whether through research, through the teaching and learning process, through serving in communities to understand the challenges that we face as a society. And the vision would be to continue doing all of those things.”
Hrabowski’s tenure has included controversies, most recently in 2018 when a lawsuit was filed against the university and Baltimore County police over handling of sexual assault cases on campus. The suit was dismissed eventually, but students marched to the administration building where they met with Hrabowski demanding change.
The university did institute changes aimed at better educating freshmen and faculty, created a new office of equity and inclusion, and enhanced Title IX training.
Perman said they will find another leader, though whether or not they find someone with Hrabowski’s unusual ability to engage with students he doesn’t know.
Once when a group of new students stood awkwardly waiting for a dinner with college administrators to begin, Perman said he noticed the students suddenly surrounding Hrabowski in animated discussion. Hrabowski had given them a math word problem that they were trying to figure out.
Hrabowski’s wife, Jackie, said her husband is looking forward to his retirement, for time to focus on what he has always enjoyed, including his job, teaching rookie college presidents at the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents.
“I think retirement means now the ability to focus on the things that he is really good at. Meeting with people, giving them guidance, not just faculty,” Jackie Hrabowski said. “He has been this way since the day I met him. He has a knack for helping people see the best in themselves.”
They will remain connected to the university, she said. “You don’t really retire from your family.”
Hrabowski will have no say in who succeeds him, but he has some thoughts.
“This university has the opportunity to attract an amazing leader. And she will be an amazing leader,” he said, only half joking.