On March 16 something impossible happened: No. 16 seed UMBC beat overall No. 1 seed University of Virginia in the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament.

The whole point of March Madness as spectacle is that anything could happen, and despite all efforts to keep the tournament fair and competitive, ‘anything’ rarely does happen, especially in the first round, and especially in the No. 16 to No. 1 matchup.

UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski, III with the men’s basketball team. (Courtesy photo)

But if the NCAA is fair, then a UMBC-like victory was all but inevitable.

What’s so special about UMBC? The AFRO interviewed UMBC’s 26-year president Freeman A. Hrabowski, III to have to him explain why this is happening here, and why this is happening now.

“It really is young people inspiring the nation by showing them that their sense of self and their commitment to being all that they could lead to something happening that all the experts said wasn’t possible, and that is a part of what we’ve done at the university,” Hrabowski said of the Retrievers win.

Hrabowski, a mathematician by profession before he became UMBC president, may have created a culture that leaves less to chance, but instead reliably plays the odds.

“What much of my work is focused on, and that is how do we prepare people to consider the broad possibilities for themselves,” Hrabowski asked. “How do we help people not to limit themselves by simply what has already happened and what has already been done?”

Hrabowski, in his TED talks and many interviews, often starts with an origin story set in Birmingham, Alabama, as a 12-year-old student marcher with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“If we can get the children, to participate in this peaceful demonstration in Birmingham, we can show America that even children know the difference between right and wrong, and that children really do want to get the best possible education,” is a quote that Hrabowski attributes to King in a candid moment at church and cites as the inspiration for his commitment to education and economic justice.

King had another formulation, a paraphrase of Theodore Parker, “let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Fifty years in, as a marcher, a mathematician, and a campus President, Hrabowski was asked how he fit into that pattern.

“I am a mathematician, and I’m always thinking about that road up, and not wanting to ever get to the top, because inevitably, you’re then beginning to go the other way, if we’re to further the metaphor,” Hrabowski said. “As a nation, I would say we have a long way to go. We have certainly made progress, when you look back down and see where we come from on that arc.”

Stats immediately in mind for illustration, Hrabowski went on to explain how while White college graduations tripled from approximately 10 percent to 30 percent, since the march, Black graduations, over the same period, grew even more dramatically from 3 percent to 22 percent.

Knowing the equation and intervening early also seems to explain why UMBC boasts 17 percent Black freshman enrollment, beating both Maryland’s “flagship” campus College Park (12 percent) and the national average (14 percent, as reported by the Atlantic).

Earlier this week, the New York Times published an alarming series of ladder charts highlighting the limited opportunities for Black males to advance economically and the the unique precarity facing the same population when it comes to vanishing legacies of wealth.

“It’s what we’ve been working on now for 30 years,” Hrabowski said. “The Meyerhoff program actually started for African-American males that first year and this study focuses on that population, and there’s a reason: because when we disaggregate the data, we see that Black children are most likely to have difficulty, as children, as teenagers, but then, unfortunately, we see that even children who are not from poverty, Black boys, are most likely of any other group to not do well, to end up in the bottom quarter when thinking about income.”

Hrabowski claims proven results of intervening early with this particularly vulnerable population explains why the program has survived so many gubernatorial administrations, both Republican and Democrat.

“We’re slowly moving up that arc, that’s the bottom line,” Hrabowski said.