UMBC president named among world's most influential leaders

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the longtime president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County whose trailblazing work in educating minority students in the sciences has catapulted the university onto the national stage, has been recognized as one of the most influential leaders in the world.

Hrabowski will join a renowned crowd of dignitaries, foreign heads of state, celebrities, activists and other reformers on Time magazine's 2012 Top 100 Most Influential People, due to be released Wednesday.

The 61-year-old mathematician, who has led UMBC for two decades, will join the ranks of notable figures such as Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, and the Baltimore-born creator of "Mad Men," Matthew Weiner, who all made the list last year.

"I accept this as a wonderful award on behalf of the whole campus," Hrabowski said. "My success and the campus' success are the same. People appreciate what we've done at the university, and I enjoy telling the story."

According to Time, Hrabowski — who was named by the publication in 2009 as one of America's 10 Best College Presidents — was chosen for "turning a humble commuter school into one of the nation's leading sources of African Americans who get Ph.Ds in science and engineering."

William E. Kirwan, chancellor of Maryland's university system, said that Hrabowski's leadership in the areas of science and educating minority students has transformed higher education not only in Maryland but across the country.

"You can hardly think of a better positive force for advancing educational opportunities in America than Freeman Hrabowski," Kirwan said.

"There's just so many dimensions to his influence. You have a person who has had a direct impact on the lives of thousands of students, but he's also had a profound influence on countless tens of thousands of others just by his charismatic, powerful message and his commitment to quality and inclusion."

Hrabowski, who earned his undergraduate degree at 19 and his doctorate at age 24, said his experience shows that education changes lives.

"People enjoy authenticity," he said. "Nothing is more important than the education of young people, and the best news for us is that people come to UMBC to thrive intellectually. When you can tell that story with authenticity, people listen."

UMBC has come a long way since it sprang up on Catonsville farmland in 1966 with 750 students, gaining national attention during Hrabowski's tenure.

In 2008, U.S. News & World Report named Hrabowski one of America's Best Leaders, and in 2009, 2010 and 2011 the publication ranked UMBC the No. 1 "Up and Coming" university in the nation.

In the past decade, UMBC has opened an on-campus research park, attracted minorities to the sciences with its Meyerhoff Scholarship program — which has been replicated at institutions across the country — and paired undergraduates with top scientists.

While Hrabowski's focus has been on the sciences, UMBC's humanities programs have also emerged as some of the strongest in the nation.

For the past three years, U.S. News has included UMBC on a list of 10 universities most focused on undergraduate teaching. A billboard along Interstate 95 touted that UMBC tied with Yale on the 2012 list.

For students at UMBC, Hrabowski's recognition mirrors the pride they have in their president, and validates what they knew from the moment they stepped on campus.

"That man never rests, he is constantly going and pushing," said Catie Collins, a psychology and English literature major at UMBC who also heads the university's Student Government Association.

Collins, a senior, recalled how students are surprised to see their college president walk among them, stopping to ask their names as easily as he'd ask how their last exams went, doling out advice if the results were poor.

"He believes in you, and he's also going to push you to the next level," Collins said.

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.