Freeman Hrabowski, president of UMBC, talks about UMBC on Aug. 24, 2016. Video by Jen Rynda/ Baltimore Sun Media Group
When Freeman A. Hrabowski III was hired at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County at the end of 1986 as vice provost, the university's relative youth intrigued him.
"There were a lot of high-achieving people here who wanted to be rebellious and crossing disciplines and solving problems," he said. "I wanted to be a part of that story."
Not only does Hrabowski think this description still holds true, but as the school celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, he notices it more than ever.
On UMBC's first day of classes, Sept. 19, 1966, there were 45 faculty members, 35 support staff and 500 parking spaces. The college's first graduating class, the Class of 1970, had 241 students.
These days, enrollment, based on the most recent statistics available from last fall, has grown to 13,839 — 11,243 undergraduates and 2,596 in graduate programs. Eighty-five percent of the students are from Maryland, including 18 percent from Baltimore County.
Earlier this month, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, kicked off its year-long celebration honoring the 50-year anniversary of the school's founding. For some former faculty and staff though, every year is a special anniversary as they remember the years they spent at the school more than four decades ago, when UMBC was just a small cluster of buildings on the outskirts of Catonsville and Arbutus.
The ranking was based on schools which are "making the most innovative improvements in terms of curriculum, faculty, students, campus life, technology or facilities."
It also ranked UMBC sixth in undergraduate teaching, a ranking led by three Ivy League schools — Princeton, Dartmouth and Brown — followed by Virginia's College of William & Mary and Miami University-Oxford.
Those statistics delight the longtime president, a mathematician who has been in the position since 1992.
"What they say," he said, "is we are the national model for the combination of academic innovation and inclusive excellence, a place where students can come from all over the world — and from Catonsville — and do superbly."
Hrabowski defines academic innovation as the ability to say tomorrow can be a better day. That's the phrase he wants to associate with UMBC. There's no single academic program he wants to define the school, citing public policy, science and engineering, the arts and humanities, and social sciences, as focus areas.
Hrabowski said a UMBC student represents hard work, perseverance, resilience and a willingness to never give up.
"If there's one thing we want people to remember, is that success is never final," he said. "We are constantly working to be better."
That extends to working with the university's neighbors.
"What we like about UMBC and our values is that we really are focused on the idea of supporting those in the community and helping students to think not just about making a lot of money, but what difference you will make in the lives of other people," Hrabowski said.
An internal strategy group has been studying the university's connections to the community, including ways to foster economic development and research partnerships, and finding "a culture of engagement that has fueled community connections."
In June, university officials walked the streets of Arbutus with members of the Arbutus Business & Professional Association to get a better understanding of the neighborhood.
The association's president, Bettina Tebo, said the university has been attentive to businesses and residents and their needs. For example, the university has been working with merchants so students will be able to use their Campus Card, a debit-like card used to pay for meals at campus dining halls, at more nearby businesses.
"We want the students from UMBC to come to Arbutus. We want them to feel like that's part of their home," Tebo said. "They want to be a good neighbor and they follow up with their actions."
The university also hosts the bwtech@UMBC Research & Technology Park, a 71-acre campus that offers office and lab space for startups and established businesses to innovate and expand.
State Sen. Ed Kasemeyer, a Democrat whose district includes UMBC, said the growth of the school over the last 50 years is a source of pride.
"Most institutions which gain national attention, it takes 100 years [or more] to reach that level of quality," he said. "Here you have a school that in half a century that has become part of that elite class."
The value of education
Even as tuition has increased in the last five years by $750 for in-state residents, to $5,632, and almost $1,900 for out-of-state residents to $12,246, Hrabowski believes college does not cost too much.
The challenge, he said, is to help support families to be able to pay for it.
In UMBC's first year, tuition was $346 for in-state residents and $746 for out-of-state.
"There's nothing a family can do that's more important than the education of their children, because education transforms lives. I stand by that," he said. "And I think compared to the costs in other states, students and families get a bargain here."
What UMBC needs to do, Hrabowski said, is to make sure it can help students pay for tuition, by providing financial aid and helping secure jobs on campus and beyond.
"Our students end up having less debt than most institutions in the country because we're going to help them get paid internships and get good jobs so by the time they're seniors, if they've taken our advice, they've got great opportunities when they graduate."
Poulomi Banerjee, a 21-year-old who graduated from UMBC in May after studying public health, didn't realize how new the school was when she went there. She's now the program assistant for the school's Division of Student Affairs for its 50th anniversary celebration.
A graduate of Centennial High School in Ellicott City, Banerjee said UMBC's reputation has risen in her circles because of the growth of its science, technology, engineering and math, and arts programs.
"It's just something that I grew up knowing about, so I think it's really incredible to see how much we've changed," she said about the school's golden milestone. "This marks that we're here and ready to grow, and I know we've been up and coming for a long time, but I think we're finally here and we're ready to show everyone what we can do."
Room for growth
Senior Ben Grace, of Catonsville, has seen the school change over the years. As a child, he'd watch basketball games at the school and over time, witnessed its growth.
Grace, 22, who is studying financial economics and plays on the school's basketball team, said the school is shedding its reputation as a commuter school and is becoming one of the top up-and-coming universities in the country. UMBC offers six residence halls and four apartment communities. About 3,900 students live on campus, including 75 percent of the fall 2015 freshmen class.
"It's nice to see the evolution of the campus and how far this place has come," he said.
The 50-year anniversary is exciting for Hrabowski, who at 66, says he wants to stay in his position "forever." He believes more people will say UMBC is a premiere academic institution in the years to come.
And there's room for growth, though he said he wants it to occur slowly.
He looks forward to the completion of an $85 million, 172,000-square foot events center, which will host its first basketball game in January 2018 and its first commencement that May.
Work on a 130,000-square foot Interdisciplinary Life Sciences Building, in the center of campus and home to classrooms and research labs, is set to begin next year and be completed in 2019.
In the classrooms, he's excited to see what he called "hybrid" experiences, combining face-to-face gatherings and online technology.
"You don't just sit back passively and listen and have somebody open your head up and pour the knowledge in," he said.
What keeps him going is his students. He has seen students over the years overcome obstacles — from health to finances — and come out stronger.
"Youth will give you hope that things can be better," he said.
UMBC is hosting a 50th anniversary celebration Sept. 16-19.
For more information and a complete schedule, visit 50.umbc.edu/celebrate.
By the numbers
•UMBC is one of 12 institutions in the University System of Maryland.
•Over the next 10 years, enrollment is expected to grow about 9 percent.
•The freshman class of 2015 entered UMBC with an average high school GPA of 3.78 and an average SAT score of 1210. Compared to Maryland's flagship university in College Park, for its 2016 freshman class, the average weighted GPA was 4.21, while the middle 50 percent of SAT scores ranged from 1260 to 1420.