An immersion in campus life 'Number one pitchman': UMBC president invests his own identity in his campus and particularly its students.


While driving one crisp afternoon, Freeman A. Hrabowski III spotted James T. Brady, the state secretary of economic development, in the lane to his left. Dr. Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, waved furiously.

He was trying, without success, to catch Mr. Brady's eye. In traffic, and in life, Dr. Hrabowski hungers for recognition: first for his campus, which turns 30 this year, and not entirely coincidentally, for himself.

To an extent unrivaled by his peers, Dr. Hrabowski, 45, invests his own identity in his campus and particularly its students.

As he walks around the campus, he stops what seems like every second person to talk, to ask how they are, to push a little bit. He knows the names, test scores, grades and interests of a staggering number of students.

"Within the first two years of his arrival, Freeman had been to every high school in the Baltimore area," said Dr. Slobodan Petrovich, director of interdisciplinary studies at the campus. "He was the first one to do that. He was the number one pitchman for us."

Dr. Hrabowski is utterly immersed in campus life, an approach that has won him much loyalty on campus and many fans off it. Yet he does not earn accolades for everything that he does in his job, which pays $148,000 a year. Some faculty members express concern that none of the three schools at the campus currently has a permanent dean, and that UMBC has not had a permanent undergraduate admissions director in nearly two years.

Off campus, critics are much more vocal. Hundreds of people who live in surrounding Catonsville unsuccessfully contested the university's plans to build a research park on largely undeveloped land. And some officials at other Maryland colleges believe he goes overboard in promoting his school.

'Never quits selling'

"He is assertive. He is a salesperson who never quits selling," said Towson State University President Hoke L. Smith. "That wears on some people -- but he is a very effective salesperson and has provided good leadership at the institution. He has UMBC on the move."

The university has spent much more effort and money than ever before to spread that very message. UMBC has taken great strides in the 10 years since Dr. Hrabowski first arrived on campus as an administrator, professors said.

Applications for undergraduate admission have risen, and incoming students are better prepared academically than their predecessors. Research grants were up 40 percent last year to $31.5 million, despite what administrators believe to be a relatively low level of state funding per student when compared with other Maryland public universities.

For example, the University of Maryland College Park will get $4,100 per student more than UMBC next year.

Some professors said Dr. Hrabowski deserves significant credit. became president of the largely commuter campus in 1993, after serving as vice provost, provost and then acting president.

Try to pin down Dr. Hrabowski on the two or three things he's most proud of, and he'll likely offer an 11-part description of the school, each with four components. His October convocation speech, characteristically, touched on almost every academic program.

This is not policy wonkishness. It is Dr. Hrabowski's unbridled exuberance.

Whatever he is involved in at the moment is not just exciting for him -- it must be for you as well. And if he doesn't grab his intended audience, whether passer-by or corporate chief, he'll try another tack. There's a bit of Lyndon Johnson in Dr. Hrabowski: He will cajole, harangue, beseech and reason in the same 60 seconds.

'Hard to say no'

"When he asks people to do something, people find it very hard to say no," Dr. Petrovich said.

In fall 1994, AIDS researcher Michael Summers, an associate professor of chemistry at UMBC, was offered a professorship at the University of California at San Diego, a major research campus. He was leaning toward accepting the job until the UMBC president asked him to stop by.

Dr. Hrabowski "made me realize what I was doing at UMBC other than my research," said Dr. Summers, who holds a prestigious research grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "The education side is just as important. Freeman made me feel like I was really wanted at UMBC. I came out of his office with a sense that this is a place I can call home.

"You can't have a conversation with Freeman without coming away charged and with a sense of enthusiasm."

One of only a handful of black presidents of predominantly white universities, Dr. Hrabowski once pursued a top student at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute who is black by visiting her home. He wanted to show her family that African-Americans could flourish at UMBC.

Several students said their interest in UMBC dated from episodes in which Dr. Hrabowski visited a high school, or spoke to a student group, or talked to a relative in church. One sophomore said her mother was sold on the school when Dr. Hrabowski stopped her younger brother in a supermarket to quiz him on his interest in math.

School visits

"That they were coming to our school indicated that they were interested in African-American students," said junior Damon Tweedy, a graduate of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George's County whom Dr. Hrabowski helped to recruit. "He's very charismatic, very energetic."

Each year, Dr. Hrabowski trots out information on several quirky, but academically intriguing facts. For example, in November alone: The UMBC chess team defeated the team representing the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to gain a berth in the chess championships in New York. The campus Model United Nations team ranked as one of the five best at a contest at the University of Pennsylvania. And the debate team finished 10th of 60 schools at a New York tournament, defeating Yale University and the University of Virginia along the way.

UMBC administrators say their 10,500-campus has improved to the point that they no longer dwell on competition with the larger and better-known flagship campus at College Park. Nonetheless, they privately say College Park is not for the truly serious student -- a notion their counterparts elsewhere reject. All Dr. Hrabowski would say is: "It's not unusual for students who are looking at Penn or Yale to also be looking at UMBC."

Campaign to improve image

High school admissions counselors and college applicants do not always see it that way, leaving Dr. Hrabowski to pursue a consistent campaign to improve the school's image.

In fall 1992, the Maryland General Assembly designated St. Mary's College as the honors college of Maryland. In fall 1995, armed with a $40,000 consultant's report, UMBC administrators decided to add the words "A Public Honors University" to its publications and to play down the words "Baltimore County" in its name. The new slogan was born of little more than the desire to project an elite image out of state, administrators said.

Hungry for a more national reach to its press coverage, and mindful of the need to expand the base of corporate and private donors, Dr. Hrabowski has in three years roughly doubled the size of the campus' offices in marketing, fund raising, and public and alumni relations. These efforts now cost $1.1 million a year.

While an administrator at Coppin State College, Dr. Hrabowski participated in the influential leadership program held by the Greater Baltimore Committee, where he met Mr. Brady and other rising civic leaders. He continues to work those circles.

Dr. Hrabowski is intent on strengthening ties to the corporate world to bolster opportunities for faculty research and student .. internships.

In the end, Dr. Hrabowski consistently says, the strength of his campus is determined by his students, for whom he often acts as mentor.

SAT scores climb

The Scholastic Assessment Test scores of entering freshman students have steadily climbed over the past two decades, from 879 in 1977 to 1,111 last fall, tying with College Park for the second straight year. Dr. Hrabowski is so competitive that he delayed releasing the scores of freshmen entering in fall 1994 until he knew the College Park scores.

Those figures do not involve the increasing slice of new undergraduates who are transfer students and tend to have lower test scores. But the improvement in the student body is real, professors say, and they link it in part to the adoption in 1988 of the Meyerhoff scholarship program at the behest of Dr. Hrabowski, then vice provost. Other UMBC merit scholarships are awarded to standouts in the arts and humanities.

The Meyerhoff program, which has gained national attention, was created to lure talented black students pursuing math or science, and now is open to all promising math or science students who seek careers that will aid inner-city communities.

'Wonderful candidates'

"We've seen some wonderful candidates from UMBC," said David M. Trabilsy, assistant dean of admissions at the Johns Hopkins University's medical school.

"Their experience -- research, student activities -- seem to prepare them for just about any direction that they wish to pursue," he said.

That, too, becomes a selling point for UMBC, and for Dr. Hrabowski himself.

"I just want to talk for a moment about my kids applying to medical school," he said at the outset of a recent conversation. "They've been interviewing at places like Duke and Columbia. Damon's waiting on Harvard, and he's already [been accepted] into Hopkins. Already in! It doesn't get any better than the Johns Hopkins' School of Medicine. And here's another. . ."


Freeman A. Hrabowski III

Born: Aug. 13, 1950, Birmingham, Ala.

Lives: In Owings Mills

Family: Married to Jacqueline Coleman Hrabowski; son, Eric.

Education: B.A., Hampton Institute (now Hampton University); M.A. and Ph.D., University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.

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