The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He transformed a small university in Maryland. Now Freeman Hrabowski is ready for his next act.

After three decades as president, Hrabowski is leaving the University of Maryland Baltimore County

Freeman Hrabowski, the longtime president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, is retiring at the end of the academic year. He is one of the longest-serving university presidents in the nation and among the most influential leaders in higher education. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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On a warm fall afternoon, Freeman A. Hrabowski III made his way through his college campus, past glassy buildings and manicured grass. It wasn’t always like this, he says. “In my early years as president, the first year, kids were accustomed just to dropping paper all around.”

On some campuses, the president can be a somewhat obscure figure. He is probably older, White. Students see him only at big events.

At the University of Maryland Baltimore County, however, Hrabowski is a celebrity. Students immediately recognize him, and they stand a little straighter as he peppers them with questions: “How are classes going?” “What’s your major?” “Are you studying hard?” “How’s your mom?” He’ll remember every detail. Some students even ask for selfies.

After 30 years at the helm of UMBC, Hrabowski will retire at the end of the school year, on June 30. He rose to national prominence as he transformed UMBC, a small school in the suburbs of Baltimore, into one of the nation’s top producers of engineers and scientists of color.

He is one of the longest-serving university presidents in the nation and among the most influential leaders in higher education. A search for a successor is underway.

Longtime UMBC president, who turned school into top producer of Black scientists and engineers, to retire

“Those are some big shoes to fill,” said Joshua Slaughter, a senior majoring in computer engineering. “The way he communicates with students and interacts with students is just something you don’t see at other universities.”

Hrabowski is plotting his next act, but he’s not leaving academia. He plans to continue working with and consulting university presidents and other education leaders, and spreading the message that higher education remains important.

“We must tell the story that higher education matters,” Hrabowski said in October. “When people give you these polls and a certain percent of different groups don’t believe in it, I always say, ‘Show me the family who’s had people go to college, who doesn’t want the next generation to go to college.’ The more people are exposed to education, the more they can envision who they can be and what their families can do.”

A 30-year experiment

Hrabowski’s philosophy — that anyone can succeed with the right support — is a remnant of his Southern upbringing. “Everyone knows his story,” Slaughter said. Hrabowski, at the age of 12, was jailed in 1963 after participating in the thousand-student Children’s March for civil rights.

“It was both frightening and empowering,” Hrabowski said. “The frightening part, the dogs, the fire hoses, the jail. Being in jail was awful. You felt like the caged bird.”

The empowering part: “It taught me … tomorrow can be better than today if I decide to be empowered to make it that way.”

Hrabowski took those lessons with him to what was then Hampton Institute, in Virginia, where he majored in mathematics. Becoming a college president was not on the radar. His parents raised him in Birmingham, Ala., and his mother had hoped her son would one day lead a Black high school — at the time one of the few positions of power offered to Black people. “She said, ‘You’re so smart. You’re going to probably get to be a principal of a high school.’"

After Hampton, Hrabowski went on to earn advanced degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he also worked as an assistant professor and an administrator. He served a short stint as an associate dean at Alabama A&M University before joining the leadership at Coppin State College, before it became a university, in Baltimore.

By the late 1980s, officials at UMBC persuaded Hrabowski to become their vice provost. In 1992, he became president.

The role ended up being a good fit. Through an array of efforts — mentorship programs, financial aid, programs aimed at increasing retention and graduation — UMBC became a model for schools throughout the country.

Drew Faust, who led Harvard University from 2007 to 2018, praised Hrabowski’s leadership and commitment to building an inclusive student body. “He’s shown that it’s possible to do more than many of us had imagined we could do,” she said.

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Hrabowski’s retirement from UMBC comes at a perilous time for higher education. The student debt crisis is approaching $2 trillion. More than 1 million students have gone missing from higher education since the start of the pandemic. The tenets of a liberal arts education, including the importance of civil discourse, are under scrutiny as free-speech controversies make headlines.

Americans across the political spectrum are questioning whether the institution that promises social mobility is still working.

But at this critical juncture, some say colleges are poised to prove their worth. Universities are uniquely positioned to be at the forefront of efforts to upend structural racism, Hrabowski and others argued in the Atlantic in 2020. And campuses should serve as training grounds for students to become civically engaged citizens, they said.

“We want Americans to learn to agree to disagree, with civility, and to focus on the ideas and not the emotions. That’s where we have not finished our work in higher education,” Hrabowski said. “You can’t make people do anything on a college campus. But you can create a culture that encourages hard questions.”

Among those questions, Hrabowski said: “What will it take to become an environment where students of any background can come in and excel, and get to know people from different backgrounds?”

The Meyerhoff Scholars Program — founded in 1988 and accelerated during Hrabowski’s tenure as president — has been the university’s attempt at an answer. Designed to increase diversity in science, technology, engineering and math fields, Meyerhoff is a national model, leaders say. The program has been replicated at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Pennsylvania State University.

“It has produced hundreds of Black and minority students that are literally changing the world,” said Letitia Dzirasa, Baltimore’s health commissioner and a Meyerhoff scholar, at an alumni awards event in October. Kizzmekia Corbett, the immunologist who led the team that developed the Moderna coronavirus vaccine at the National Institutes of Health, is another Meyerhoff. “That is [Hrabowski’s] legacy.”

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Meyerhoff and similar programs at UMBC have been part of a 30-year experiment that has yielded results: The graduation gap between Black and White students has closed, more students from low-income households are enrolling, and the university is the top producer of Black students who go on to earn doctorates in natural sciences and engineering.

It’s a testament to how transformative institutions can be, Hrabowski said.

“It’s this idea that you can come from all kinds of backgrounds and become the best,” Hrabowski said. “That’s the message that we’ve got to send.”

‘Success is never final’

Despite his upcoming retirement, Hrabowski, at 71 years old, is full of energy. Faust described him as “tireless.” Among his healthy habits: exercise and meditation. “I never thought I would be this fortunate,” he confessed.

Over the years, other schools — Hrabowski won’t divulge which — have tried to seduce him into taking the top job. But he remained loyal to UMBC. “The chemistry is very healthy here,” he said. And the state is supportive of the university’s mission. “They invest in us. We’ve had about a billion dollars in construction in recent decades for this campus.”

It’s also hard to leave something you helped to create. Hrabowski has led UMBC for more than half its existence.

The president speaks at campus club meetings with the same level of intensity as a TED Talk. He warmly greeted a group of about a dozen graduate students on a November night during one of his signature focus groups. Students are randomly selected to attend the regular meetings, then invited to spend about an hour asking questions, debating issues, sharing stories — whatever feels right. The point is to get students talking.

It’s part of the culture Hrabowski has carefully constructed at UMBC. “It’s not just a matter of imparting information, it’s a culture that Freeman has built,” said Paula A. Johnson, president of Wellesley College. Michael Summers, a mentor to Meyerhoff scholars and professor in the chemistry and biochemistry department, said Hrabowski has changed the way many faculty think about teaching.

“I didn’t feel like I had any prejudices when I started at UMBC and yet, looking back, I definitely was interacting with Black students differently than I was interacting with White students,” Summers said. “It’s hard to recognize the biases that we all have.”

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Students can feel the difference.

“In order to have a truly inclusive school, you need to make sure everyone in the chain of command, down to the students, is with the mission,” Slaughter said.

As at any institution, UMBC has its challenges. Students in recent years have accused campus officials of mishandling sexual assault cases. A 2018 federal lawsuit accused police, prosecutors and university officials of concealing reports of sexual assault. Most of the claims were dismissed in 2020. The institution has taken steps to reform, including overhauling its Title IX operations and processes.

“Success is never final,” Hrabowski likes to say.

The search for Hrabowski’s successor is ongoing. Jay A. Perman, chancellor of the state university system that includes UMBC, announced in October that he had appointed a search committee that includes students, faculty, staff and alumni.

“Whoever that person is who comes will have a great opportunity,” said Vandana Janeja, a professor and chair of the information systems department. “Listening is going to be the most important thing, really understanding the culture, but also being ready to shoot us out into this new place.”

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