Freeman H. Hrabowski, III

Born: 1950; place: Birmingham, Alabama


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Freeman peeled off the paper cover of his tattered second-grade textbook and discovered the original cloth cover, which was stamped with the name of the White school across town. A cast-off. A teacher told the dismayed child, don't worry about the book, just "get the knowledge and you'll be fine."

He learned his most profound lesson on courage at the age of 12 when he was taken off to jail with other schoolchildren for protesting segregation in Birmingham, Ala. Soon after they were released, the school board kicked the protestors out of school, but not before Mr. Bell, the colored principal of Hrabowski's colored school gave a speech to the children about the courage of civil disobedience.

Birmingham in the 1960s was segregated and mean, but rich in cultural identity. Black folks took care of each other and were brave enough to stand up for themselves in the face of separate and unequal everything. That was the community that raised Dr. Freeman Hrabowski III. Despite seeing his people spat on, bombed, burned, lynched and knocked down by the water from fire hoses, the future college president emerged whole. He was not embittered by racism, but driven to prove that he and other African Americans can succeed in spite of it.

By now you should be really curious about this Black guy with a Polish name. 'How is that possible?' you may wonder. Sure enough, the first Birmingham Hrabowski was a Polish plantation owner who left his land and his name to his slaves. End of story. Well, except that the lighter hued branch of the family on the "other" side of town changed their name to Robuskey (pronounced with a southern drawl), Hrabowski explains with a smirk.

"I had the best childhood a colored child growing up in the '50s could have," says Hrabowski. Then the 1960s arrived.

Growing up in Alabama in the 1960s was both awful and wonderful, he recalls. The central focus of his community in Birmingham was the church. Families worshipped there. They pooled their resources when someone needed help. Parents and civil-rights advocates met there and children did their homework there while sitting through those strategy meetings. He heard speeches by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth and others. He and his family supported the boycott of White-run downtown stores by refusing to buy new outfits for Easter Sunday mass and wearing jeans to church instead.

So it seemed only natural when this boy, growing up in the eye of the civil-rights storm (1963), insisted on participating in the famous Children's March. Civil-rights leaders organizing the demonstration figured that children had less to lose than adults and would draw more attention and sympathy. They were right. The school board threatened to fire all of the teachers - including Hrabowski's mom - whose children took part in the protest. But he was determined. His parents said no at first. "Then why did you take me to all those meetings?" he asked. His parents gave in.

He and hundreds of other kids were hauled off to jail. This good little schoolboy spent five days in a juvenile detention center full of roughnecks. "One of the older boys who knew my family protected me," he recalls, choking sorrowfully on the memory. "It was awful." While he was in jail, more children turned out to protest and many were beaten back by police with water hoses. The protest was caught on TV, and the nation's collective blood pressure shot up, from the White House on down. Some local shop owners caved, agreeing to hire and serve Blacks. When Hrabowski and the others were released from jail, they were heroes. "It was a painful and rich experience," he says slowly, his eyes focused on a place beyond the window. His mother kept her job.

A few months later, however, all hell broke loose in the steel mill city that had earned the nickname, "Bombingham" because of the frequent bombings of black homes and churches. This time, a bomb tore through the 16th Street Baptist Church in broad daylight. It ended the lives of four little girls attending an annual Youth Day program in their new, white Sunday dresses. It was a sunny day in 1963, just a month after Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I have a dream" speech. It was a crime that horrified America and has been investigated and embroiled in high-level racial politics ever since. One Ku Klux Klan member was prosecuted in the 1970s. In May, 2000, two former Klan members were indicted for their roles in planting the deadly dynamite. It'll still be a tough case. Lots of witnesses have died, and evidence has faded away since 1963.

It is not a memory that Hrabowski is willing to discuss much. But he did revisit those memories in "Four Little Girls," Spike Lee's documentary chronicling the lives and deaths of the four murdered children, and the aftermath. One of the girls, Cynthia Wesley, was Hrabowski's classmate. He told the filmmaker that he remembers saying good-bye to Cynthia after school that Friday. "See you on Monday," echoed in his head. He was one of the few children who attended the funeral mass that followed.

Freeman Hrabowski graduated at 19 from Hampton Institute with highest honors in mathematics and, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, received a Masters in Mathematics and his Ph.D., at age 24. President of UMBC since 1992, Dr. Hrabowski joined the University of Maryland at Baltimore County in 1987, serving first as Vice Provost then as Executive Vice President and presently, 1999, the President of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). He has been given very strong credit for turning around UMBC from a struggling commuter school a decade ago to what U.S. News & World Report called UMBC an educational "powerhouse." The university's technology programs, in particular, have brought national attention.

Hrabowski serves as a consultant to the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Department of Education, and universities and school systems nationally. He is a member of numerous boards, including the American Council on Education, Baltimore Community Foundation, Maryland High-Technology Council, and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. He is past president of the Maryland Humanities Council

Dr. Hrabowski is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Educator Achievement Award from the National Science Foundation and the first U.S. President's Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring (awarded in recognition of the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program). In 2004 he was selected as one of the 50 Most Important Blacks in Research Science.

Other awards are The Henry A. Rosenberg, Sr. Distinguished Citizen Award (Boy Scouts of America), The Andrew White Medal (Loyola College of Maryland), The Hatikvah Award (The Jewish National Fund), The Educator Achievement Award (NSF), The Outstanding Science Educator (Eli Lilly & Company), The Golden Torch Academic Visionary Award (National Society of Black Engineers), the Reginald H. Jones Distinguished Service Award (National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering).


Hrabowski's proudest accomplishment is the highly successful Meyerhoff Program for aspiring African-American scientists. The program began in 1989 with the help of Baltimore philanthropists Robert and Jane Meyerhoff. The highly structured education and mentoring program targeted Black men initially, then Black women, to prepare them to fill hiring gaps in science, engineering and medical research. In recent years, Hrabowski, a pragmatist, has protected the program from affirmative action backlash, by admitting White fellows too. The program has graduated more than 200 students to date, 98 percent of whom are African American and half of whom are women. The vast majority have gone on to graduate school. Another 200 fellows (30 percent of whom are White) are now in the pipeline.

The Meyerhoff secret? Committed professors are a must, but at UMBC, "each group is responsible for the next," says Hrabowski. The sophomores help the freshmen and so on. He makes no apologies for expecting the very best out of each of them. Not only are they expected to excel academically, but they are encouraged to work with inner-city kids and pursue artistic interests as well. Scientists, Hrabowski points out, don't have to be "nerds." Today, says the proud papa/president, "UMBC has become the leading producer of African Americans going on to earn Ph.D.s in science and engineering."

Dr. Hrabowski received his M.A. (mathematics) and the Ph.D. (higher education administration/ statistics) from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign at age 24. His research and publications focus on science and mathematics education, and he is co-author of Beating the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Males (Oxford University Press, 1998). He is co-author (with Greif, Geoffrey L.; and Maton, Kenneth I.) of African American Fathers of High Achieving Sons: Using Outstanding Members of an At-Risk Population to Guide Intervention. Families in Society. 1998 Jan-1998 Feb 28; 79(1):45-52. ISSN: 1044-3894.


1. Producing High-Achieving Minority Students in Mathematics and Science

By Freeman Hrabowski III

2. Preaching the Gospel of Academic Excellence By Brent Staples June 5, 2000 (below)

3. U. of Maryland Branch Is Beacon for Minorities in Math and Science By DIANA JEAN SCHEMO CATONSVILLE, Md., Oct. 11 New York Times October 14, 2000 (below)

3. U. of Maryland Branch Is Beacon for Minorities in Math and Science

New York Times October 14, 2000 - By Diana Jean Schemo CATONSVILLE, Md., Oct. 11

      As Elton Holmes sprinted through public school by the wheat fields of Maryland's Eastern Shore, collecting top honors in science and math, smart money would have bet that the most selective universities would come courting, eager to sign up a star minority student like Mr. Holmes. They did. Among others, Johns Hopkins University wanted him. But so did Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, and Dr. Hrabowski won. 

With the country facing a chronic scarcity of African-Americans in math and science, Dr. Hrabowski, a 50-year-old black mathematician, has turned this once unremarkable - and still predominantly white - state university outpost into a magnet for blacks pursuing careers in those fields. 

More blacks earn undergraduate degrees in biochemistry here than at any other university in the country, and nearly all the minority students in its elite scholarship program go on to medical or graduate school. The university's diverse chess team has won Pan-American tournaments three of the last four years. 

"If you see a group of black students walking together on a college campus, your first thought might be, `Oh, there goes the basketball team,' " said Dr. Michael Summers, an AIDS researcher. "Here you think, `There goes the chemistry honors club or the chess team.' It's just a different attitude on campus." 

Dr. Hrabowski's magic lies partly in a scholarship program he created a dozen years ago, which not only finances, but also trains and encourages 50 students a year who show promise in math or science. The Meyerhoff program, named for the Baltimore couple who first financed it, lures black high school students sought by the best colleges but also seeks out those with promise but who are less obviously headed for success. By combining them, it creates a critical mass of minority high achievers who become role models and mentors for younger students. 

"There are institutions that stress the achievement of excellence, but there's very little nurturing or encouragement to help students achieve that level of excellence," said Dr. William Massey, a research mathematician at Bell Labs who has worked with many Meyerhoff interns. "And there are programs that have nurturing, but they don't stress achievement of excellence. This is one of the rare programs that stresses both." 

Sometimes described as "the Pied Piper of smart students," Dr. Hrabowski said he created the program to help counter statistics showing that more black men were in prisons than in universities. Other figures, if less grim, were hardly more encouraging. A 1999 report by the College Board found that only one in 10 students demonstrating proficiency in math and science are Hispanic or black. And by 1997, three decades after a national study found that only 1.1 percent of doctorates in science, engineering and mathematics went to African-Americans, the number had reached only 2 percent. 

To understand why, Beatriz Chu Clewell, a researcher at the Urban Institute, studied 125 minority undergraduates majoring in math or science at three unidentified universities, as well as those who had the credentials to major in those fields but did not. 

She found minorities discouraged by grueling course work. "They felt that by going into math or science, they were becoming below average," she said. "It scared them off." Many described their professors in the humanities as engaging, while math teachers typically faced the blackboard, working out equations. Several remembered professors telling them to look around at other students. "Fifty percent of you won't make it to the 

end," they would say. And they were usually right. Though the same was true for white students, who also dropped out of math and science, the smaller numbers of blacks in these classes to begin with meant few or none were left after attrition. 

Dr. Hrabowski aimed to reverse these trends by blending pieces of successful efforts at other schools. Though most college programs for minorities emphasized remediation, Dr. Hrabowski focused on those that helped good students become better. 

"He's been able to take kids who could go to places like M.I.T. and convince them they could get a better education with a more constructive environment," said Dr. Harold Varmus, president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. "He's taken these kids and made them enthusiastic about science, high achieving and acceptable for admission to all the best graduate schools." 

In formulating the program, Dr. Hrabowski realized popular culture had changed dramatically since he was a student in the 1950's and 60's. Then, expectations that advances in civil rights were opening doors made many blacks feel they had to prepare "twice as well" to compete with whites, Dr. Hrabowski said. The Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1957 also made a national priority of cultivating future scientists, mathematicians and engineers. 

Today, he said, society seems to "prize everything but brain power." To counter the current mood, he makes stars of smart kids. The campus has no football team, but the chess team gets jackets, and comes home to victory rallies. 

"It's not enough to be passionate about science, experienced in science and good," Dr. Hrabowski said, "but one has to have the confidence to believe she or he can succeed." Dr. Hrabowski also told the Meyerhoff students to look around at their peers. But his punch line was different. "If they're not here in four years," he said, "we're doing something wrong." 

In recent years, this campus has begun gathering another set of numbers, offering a different portrait of minority achievement. Some 95 percent of its Meyerhoff scholars graduated in math and science, with 90 percent of them going into programs for advanced degrees in their fields. Of the 300 or so institutions offering undergraduate degrees in biochemistry, U.M.B.C. awarded the most of any, 67, to minorities last year. 

At the same time, Dr. Hrabowski tracked students who opted for other colleges, including in the Ivy League. He said only 35 percent of the students who went elsewhere stayed with math or science. 

Initially created for young black men graduating from high school, the Meyerhoff scholarships began accepting minority women in its second year. After a recent court ruling banning a scholarship restricted to minority groups at the University of Maryland's College Park campus, the Meyerhoff program became available to students of any race who "demonstrate an interest in issues of underrepresentation in the sciences." This year's crop of Meyerhoff students is 65 percent minority, Dr. Hrabowski said. On the modern campus in this Baltimore suburb, the program's students are nicknamed Meyerhoffs, and they are considered the campus leaders. 

Yasmine Ndassa, a 20-year-old Meyerhoff scholar, believes that the scholarship program's practice of weekly group study sessions has helped her through her course work. 

Dr. Summers, the AIDS researcher, said the Meyerhoff scholars were chipping away at biases among his fellow white professors in science and math, who he said tended to overlook black students in their classes. "Since Freeman's here, you have large numbers of minorities sitting in the front of class, asking good questions, pulling A's," he said. Jasmine McDonald, 19, a sophomore, said she was devastated after receiving her first C on a chemistry exam last year. She approached her Meyerhoff program adviser at the time, Anika Green. "They don't get upset," she said. "They want to know, `Are you getting a C because you're not trying?' " 

Ms. Green reminded Ms. McDonald that it was only her first test. "That just means you have to work hard," the adviser told her. "I picked that grade up," the student recalled. "And Ms. Green was there to say, `I wasn't worried.' " 

"When you don't believe in you, they believe in you," said Ms. McDonald, who went on to study the binding properties of H.I.V.-1 cells in Dr. Summers' lab. "The research is beautiful," she said. 

Mr. Holmes said part of his motivation lay in reversing people's assumptions about minorities in science. He added, "It's looking at the future, and saying, `What do I really want to do with my life?' " 


2. Preaching the Gospel of Academic Excellence

By BRENT STAPLES June 5, 2000

The University of Maryland Baltimore County has grown dramatically since it opened 34 years ago in a former cow pasture not far from downtown. The fledgling campus has become the anchor of a science and technology corridor and offers an undergraduate science program that is widely admired at the National Science Foundation and other important scientific institutions.
Last year, for example, U.M.B.C. ranked fourth, in a tie with Yale, for the number of undergraduate biochemistry degrees awarded.

But the scientific community is particularly excited about the university's success in turning out black scientists, at a time when African-Americans in cutting-edge science programs are exceedingly rare. U.M.B.C.'s Meyerhoff scholarship program routinely sends black science students to postgraduate programs at elite universities. In the first seven years of the program, 84 percent of the students went on to postgraduate study, most of them pursuing Ph.D.'s or medical degrees.

The scholarship program was conceived and financed by the Maryland philanthropists Robert and Jane Meyerhoff in 1988 to help African-American students pursue careers in science and engineering. The program has since been opened to all high-achieving high school seniors, and has enrolled 481 students, about 80 percent of whom are black.

The Meyerhoff effort is guided by U.M.B.C.'s energetic 49-year-old president, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, an African-American mathematician who has become widely known for his advocacy of programs directed at high achievers in the black community.The director of the National Science Foundation, Dr. Rita Colwell, recently hailed the Meyerhoff program as a model that "needs to be replicated all over the United States." The curriculum should be easy to copy. But what drives the program is Dr. Hrabowski's
ceaseless proselytizing and his contagious belief that every student he recruits is capable of excellence.

At many colleges, the expectation of mediocrity has become the order of the day for minority students, and students respond accordingly. During the 1990's, for example, the dropout rate for black college students was 20 to 25 percent higher than that of whites. Among students who finish college, black students average two-thirds of a grade lower than whites. The achievement gap is troubling because it often persists even when blacks and whites arrive at college with similar S.A.T. scores and levels of preparation Black students suffer great anxiety, fearing white professors are judging them unfairly for racial reasons, or because they sense that these professors do not respect them intellectually. This leads them to underperform. The Stanford University psychologist Claude Steele recently described in The Atlantic Monthly how race-based stereotypes hurt student performance.

Black students in Dr. Steele's studies did poorly on tests when experimenters intimated that the students would be judged on the basis of race. This "stereotype threat" proved especially damaging to black high achievers, who were accustomed to getting good grades and performing well on tests before arriving at college. These students worried that failure would confirm negative stereotypes. The tension they experienced precluded the relaxed, open concentration that is necessary for maximum academic performance. But these tensions subsided when the subjects were put at ease and believed they were being judged fairly, even when the judgments were harsh.

In the Meyerhoff program, young men and women get to know one another during a special summer semester before the regular school year and live in the same dormitory once school begins. The program stresses group study, so that the students learn to conceptualize complicated problems collectively, as teams of scientists do. Studying in groups also dispels cultural stereotypes that the students have about one another. Meyerhoff students are coveted as research assistants, and are quickly exposed to opportunities that lead to internships and to having research published in the leading science journals.

Dr. Hrabowski says the program succeeds because it creates the expectation of excellence and that excellence begets excellence as years go on. But walk through a room on campus with Freeman Hrabowski and you feel something else at play as well. He is a tireless academic cheerleader and seems to know every student's name. As a black university president who is also a mathematician, he cuts against well-established stereotypes and demonstrates to minority students in particular that they, too, can perform at the highest levels of science. Dr. Hrabowski's optimism about student ability seems to permeate the faculty.

To recreate U.M.B.C.'s success, universities will need to think about more than curriculum. They will need to filter out damaging preconceptions connected to race that dominate the culture as a whole -- and subscribe to Freeman Hrabowski's gospel of academic achievement.

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