A Magnetic Force

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 30, 2007

In his 15 years as president, Freeman A. Hrabowski III has so transformed the University of Maryland Baltimore County with his exuberant, forceful character that people on campus invented a word for it: Freemanized.

Once an afterthought even within the state, a commuter school overshadowed by other campuses, UMBC now grabs national attention. Hrabowski has elevated research and entrepreneurialism on campus and helped lift minority and low-income students, especially black math and science majors, to the highest levels of academic achievement.

With about 12,000 students, a third of them the first in their families to go to college, UMBC is a national leader in graduating minority science students who go on to earn doctorates and medical degrees.

"It's hard to imagine another school that has come as far in the last 15 years as UMBC," said Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education.

"It's extraordinary," said William Brody, president of Johns Hopkins University. "People from all the major colleges and universities across the country are coming to UMBC to see what Freeman has done."

Hrabowski helped turn UMBC into a residential campus, launch two research parks and catapult the amount of research dollars the school receives from $10 million in 1990 to $85 million in fiscal 2006. Since 1990, 15 buildings have gone up, including five dorms.

Along the way, Hrabowski's following has continued to grow. "I think UMBC will be at the epicenter of a change that happens nationally," said alumnus Kafui Dzirasa of Silver Spring, who just earned a doctorate at Duke University and is finishing his medical degree. "One way or another, he's going to change the world."

Stephanie Nunez of Bowie, who turned down Princeton University for a UMBC scholarship, said, "He has this charisma and aura about him that draw people towards him."

And Vice Provost Diane Lee said, "He's the kind of leader who elevates everyone around him."

Hrabowski's story has permeated the culture at UMBC: As a child, he was deeply involved in the civil rights struggle in the South, marching and going to jail for the cause. And even when he was going to segregated schools, he was determined to continue his education to the highest level possible.

More than a few prestigious schools have tried to snag Hrabowski over the years, but he has stayed at this school in Catonsville for 20 years. "This is a place where people at all economic levels and all races have a chance to excel, to be the best," Hrabowski said. "We are the new America -- the America this country wants to become."

Hrabowski talks like a preacher, thinks like a scholar, has boundless energy -- he typically sleeps four hours a night. He fills a room, grabbing shoulders, spreading his arms, shouting with laughter. He knows everyone, remembers everything, expects extraordinary things. He bursts out with things such as: "I get goose bumps from math problems -- goose bumps!"

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