President Freeman has truly left a mark on the UMBC campus by increasing the number of Black graduates from STEM and doctoral programs. (Photo by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County)

By Megan Sayles,
AFRO Business Writer,
Report for America Corps Member,
msayles@afro.com

President Freeman Hrabowski III has led the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), since 1992. After decades of revolutionary leadership, the giant of higher education announced his retirement. 

In spite of his profound adoration for the school and its students, Hrabowski is ready for his next chapter in which he will mentor new presidents and provosts at Harvard University. He will also support the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s novel, billion-dollar program to produce more scientists of color. 

The program was named after Hrabowski, a privilege he deemed inconceivable. 

“For a Black kid who went to jail with Dr. King and didn’t know what was going to happen, this is an honor I could have never imagined,” said Hrabowski. 

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Hrabowski grew up in a middle-class family. His parents were teachers, meaning he grew up as privileged as a Black kid could be during the 1950s and ‘60s in the Deep South. 

Living separate but equal, he couldn’t go through certain doors, eat-in certain restaurants, or drink out of certain water fountains, but his parents time and time again instructed him to never let anyone else define who he was. 

When Hrabowski was 12 years old, he marched in the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. He along with thousands of other youth were taken to jail for their efforts to protest against segregation. 

During his week in jail, Hrabowski looked out his cell’s window and wondered, “will I be OK?” The experience was a turning point for him. 

Hrabowski became the poster child for the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, giving speeches in churches, NAACP meetings, Alabama Christian Movement meetings, and to Black sororities and fraternities. 

While his dedication to civil rights never ceased, Hrabowski had another passion: mathematics.

He was a gifted student and dreamed of becoming a math teacher one day because doing arithmetic gave him goosebumps.

His parents were proud graduates of Tuskegee University, and Hrabowski spent much of his time at the campus, which showed him how nurturing historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are. 

He knew he had to attend an HBCU after taking summer courses in Massachusetts. There, Hrabowski was the invisible man. His fellow students ignored him, and his teachers refused to speak to him.   

At age 15, he attended Hampton University, in spite of his parents’ desire for him to enroll at Morehouse College, and he completed his undergraduate degree in mathematics at 18. He also met Jacqueline Coleman at the university. She has been his wife for 50 years. 

Ever since he was young, Hrabowski wanted to earn a Ph.D., so after graduating from Hampton University, he attended the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign where he received his master’s in mathematics and then his doctorate in higher education administration. 

At 26, Hrabowski became the dean of arts and sciences at Coppin State University and achieved his dream of teaching mathematics. He remained at the school for a decade and exited as vice president of academic affairs when former UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) President, Michael Hooker, offered him the opportunity to become the next provost. 

Hrabowski was no stranger to the university, as his wife taught early childhood education and child psychology there. His first impression of the campus was that it was suburban, young and boasted an abundance of bright students. 

After several years of serving as provost, he became president of the predominantly White institution. 

Hrabowski’s tenure as president can be distinguished by its emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. 

When he took office, UMBC students who studied the STEM disciplines, struggled to attain their degrees, and Black students faced even more challenges than their White counterparts. 

He made it his mission to ensure all UMBC students have the ability to succeed in STEM. 

Today, UMBC is a Research One (R1) university, the nation’s highest level of research performance. The school also graduates more Black students who go on to earn doctoral degrees in natural sciences and engineering than any other U.S. college. It is also the number one institution to produce Black graduates who go on to earn M.D. and Ph.D.s. 

“The Black graduation rates are as higher than any other institution, and half of our Black students are male, which is unheard of in American education,” said Hrabowski. 

His most cherished memories of UMBC involve witnessing former retrievers, the university’s mascot, excel in their careers. 

Most notably, UMBC is credited for having the first Black woman to create a vaccine, Kizzmekia Corbett. She was a student in the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which was designed to prepare minority students for STEM disciplines, and graduated from the university in 2008.  

During the COVID-19 pandemic, she played an instrumental role in the development of the Moderna vaccine.

Hrabowski said he hopes he’s left a legacy at UMBC that students of all races can excel. 

Valerie Sheares Ashby will become the university’s next president, the first woman to hold the position, and Hrabowski has no doubt that she will continue to propel the university forward.

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