For over 30 years, University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman A. Hrabowski III has walked Academic Row, the main stretch of campus lined by academic buildings, stopping students he knows by name outside of buildings to chat about their studies and lives.
He credits growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, for his interest in engaging with students on a personal level.
“I am southern to the bone. And we southerners are very nosy,” he said, laughing. “I love walking around campus and going ‘how y’all doing?’”
But, as he puts it, getting to know more than just students’ names is part of the human experience, something he learned from his parents who were educators themselves.
From a young age, he learned about the value of education in democracy, and he began his long career of activism when he was only 12 years old, taking part in the 1963 Children’s Crusade, where thousands of African-American children took to the streets to protest racism and injustice against Black people in America. Many of the children were arrested, including President Hrabowski, who spent five days in a juvenile detention facility.
“Going to jail with other children taught me that social protests are an important part of our democracy,” he said.
In 1970, he graduated with highest honors from Hampton University (formerly Hampton Institute) with a degree in mathematics and went on to earn his master’s in mathematics and Ph.D. in higher education administration/statistics, both from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
His civic-minded outlook led him to focus on equity to ensure that UMBC would provide an equal-opportunity education to everyone. After becoming president in 1992, he has taken UMBC from what he calls a “young public university” to a “research powerhouse.”
One of the most exemplary and successful programs at UMBC, the Meyerhoff Program, was founded by President Hrabowski and Robert and Jane Meyerhoff in 1988 to help encourage and support young African-American men interested in science. The Meyerhoff cohort has grown and expanded to incorporate even more diversity and has been replicated at institutions across the country.
That program is just one of many President Hrabowski has helped kickstart, according to Jay Perman, who worked for 10 years very closely with President Hrabowski as fellow presidents within the same system; Dr. Perman presided over the University of Maryland, Baltimore, before becoming Chancellor of the University of Maryland System in January. He says UMBC has been transformed under President Hrabowski’s leadership.
“You only have to watch him in action in front of a legislative committee to understand why,” said Dr. Perman. “He reduces it down to a [personal level]. It’s not ’30% of students do this or that.’ He can actually fire off names of alumni who are accomplished and of whom he’s proud.”
One such outstanding alum is the speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, Adrienne A. Jones. President Hrabowski sees the good in every single student, she said, “even when they don’t see the good in themselves,” and takes pride in every one of his many awards, never taking them for granted.
His achievements, which include publishing a handful of books related to his educational pursuits, are widely recognized across the country. He has honorary degrees from over 40 universities, including Harvard, Princeton and Johns Hopkins University. And in 2012, he was named by President Barack Obama to chair the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans.
Johns Hopkins University President Ronald Daniels calls President Hrabowski one of his “favorite people in the world.” When President Daniels moved to Baltimore 11 years ago, President Hrabowski quickly reached out, and they have been friends and collaborators ever since.
“He’s a true polymath with a profound appreciation for every discipline and field,” said President Daniels, going on to cite President Hrabowski’s focus on the transformative power of education as just one of his many strengths.
And even now, in the face of a new reckoning surrounding race and adversity, President Hrabowski proudly talks of hope for the future. As an educator, he believes that part of UMBC’s mission is to prepare students to become leaders while also understanding the importance of history, what it means to have a healthy democracy, how to be civically engaged, and “most importantly,” he said, “understanding that our future does not depend on one person, but on all of us.”
Freeman A. Hrabowski III
Hometown: Birmingham, Alabama
Current residence: Owings Mills
Education: Hampton Institute, Bachelor of Arts in mathematics (1970, Highest Honors); University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Ph.D. in higher education administration/educational statistics
Career highlights: UMBC, 35 years here, including 30 years as president; Coppin State University, dean and academic vice president
Civic and charitable activities: Board memberships: T. Rowe Price Group, McCormick & Company, and the Baltimore Equitable Society. Advises a range of federal agencies, national organizations, school systems, and universities across the country.