Freeman Hrabowski is one of seven recipients of the 2011 Top American Leaders awards, bestowed by The Washington Post’s On Leadership section and the Harvard Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership. This year’s recipients were chosen by a selection committee convened by the Center for Public Leadership, and will be honored at Ford’s Theatre on December 5, 2011.
This profile was written by Christopher B. Howard, the president of Hampden-Sydney College and a member of the 2011 Top American Leaders selection committee. Visit On Leadership to see more of the winners’ profiles.
Much of the recent news about the state of U.S. higher education has a decidedly negative tone. Comments about our inability to graduate men and women capable of meeting the ever-increasing demands of the 21st century abound. Perhaps the only news more unnerving than reports on higher education, save the economy, are those about the alarming rate at which African-American men are falling by the wayside. But as the late Steve Jobs would remind us, “there’s an app for that.” And his name is Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III.
This thoughtful, dynamic and capable president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) with a full-throated laugh, glistening smile and warmth of spirit that makes you literally want to hug him, is the “killer app” higher education desperately needs more of for many reasons.
First and foremost, Dr. Hrabowski understands much of what is plaguing minority youth when it comes to mastering those vital skills necessary to comprehend then excel in critical thinking and the sciences. His scholarship on teaching math to traditionally underserved communities identifies the key problems and offers nuanced solutions that get positive results time and time again. With philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff, he co-founded the Meyerhoff Scholars Program for high-achieving minority students committed to pursuing advanced degrees and research careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Based upon its impressive outcomes, the program has become a national model. Today, UMBC graduates a high number of African-American students who go on to earn doctorates in these important fields.
Unconfined by traditional classrooms and research journals, Dr. Hrabowski has catapulted UMBC to the top ranks of innovation and research institutions in the United States. And he has done so by structuring innovative partnerships with the world’s top technology firms. Several of the region’s most pioneering firms dot the campus along I-95 north of Washington, D.C., and they provide cutting-edge research opportunities for faculty and students as well as jobs for its graduates and individuals in the surrounding area.
Never one to forget the importance of the common touch, Dr. Hrabowski offers scholarships to students nominated by presidents throughout the state’s community college system. Do not think for a moment there may be “quality” issues, as UMBC, Maryland’s Honors University, is where many of the states’ professors enroll their children—perhaps an even more compelling endorsement than the school’s impressive national rankings.
A gifted orator, Dr. Hrabowski’s talks are part sermon, part motivational speech and part social science, with a bit of Mark Twain’s folksy wisdom mixed in for good measure. He regales the audience with stories of his proud mother who taught in the segregated Birmingham schools and then shifts gears to extol the audience to do their part in educating those least fortunate in their communities, telling the story of when he participated in Dr. King’s “Children’s March” in Alabama and was jailed as a result.
The first time I heard one of Dr. Hrabowski’s mesmerizing speeches, I was reminded of my Hall of Fame football coach from the U.S. Air Force Academy who told us to “never take a lazy step” on the field. A visionary leader with boundless energy serving at the vanguard of higher education, I don’t believe Dr. Hrabowski has ever taken a lazy step in his life.