The Greatness Agenda: Dr. Freeman Has Been Key in Shaping the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, into a STEM Success Story

By Hawkins, B. Denise | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, November 10, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Greatness Agenda: Dr. Freeman Has Been Key in Shaping the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, into a STEM Success Story


Hawkins, B. Denise, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


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For Dr. Freeman Hrabowski III, nothing beats the view from the top of the world that he helped shape during the past 20 years. Even on a day when storm clouds hover, the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, or UMBC, humbly acknowledges that his academic kingdom looks mighty good.

Visitors flock to the 12,888-student campus, which is also fourth among U.S. research universities in the production of IT degrees and certificates, according to recent data from the Department of Education. It also is the largest producer among those universities of IT graduates in Maryland, D.C., and Virginia.

UMBC sits along a corridor that leads to the region's international airport and the nation's capital. Hrabowski reveals that many who visit are from institutions such as Cornell, the University of Michigan and Louisiana State University, as well as HBCUs including Florida A&M University and Morehouse College.

Since 1988, when he co-founded the famed Meyerhoff Program at UMBC with Baltimore philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff, the university has been successfully doing what some parents, corporations and even President Barack Obama want all in American higher education to be able to do--reinvigorate students' interest in the sciences and in math while training the next generation of engineers, researchers and scientists. Though it was at first focused on increasing the number of African-American males attending college and earning degrees in the sciences, today, using federal, foundation and university funding, the Meyerhoff program has broadened its reach to include all high-achieving students regardless of race while still focusing on its commitment to recruiting and retaining underrepresented students, says LaMont Toliver, the program's director.

According to Hrabowski, UMBC is one of the few predominantly White institutions in the nation that can say that the graduation rates of African-Americans are always as high as any other group and sometimes even higher.

The expertise and zeal Hrabowski brings to STEM and the success of minority students at UMBC are fueled, in part, by his own academic background. Hrabowski is a mathematician who graduated with honors at 19 from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). He earned a Ph.D. in higher education administration and statistics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign when he was 24.

At UMBC, 45 percent of the students earn degrees in STEM and 50 percent of them are African-American, Hrabowski says. UMBC also leads the country in the number of predominantly White universities sending Black students on who complete Ph.Ds. in science.

For the past two years, UMBC has landed in the coveted No. 1 spot on U.S. News & World Report's ranking of top up-and coming schools in the nation. Many say that Hrabowski has been largely responsible for putting the East Coast university on the map.

"Dr. Hrabowski's leadership at UMBC and commitment to underrepresented groups in science and engineering have had a powerful impact on both the Maryland system and on higher education as a whole," says Stephanie Bell-Rose, head of TIAA-CREF, which in March awarded Hrabowski the Theodore M. Hesburgh Award. This is the organization's highest honor and prize for leadership in higher education.

On the 'rooftop'

Before they leave UMBC or soon after they arrive, Hrabowski almost always asks his guests, "Would you like to go up to the rooftop?"

For Hrabowski, the man who "lives, breathes, and bleeds UMBC," the tour he leads is a part of doing business as the CEO. And, he adds, the roof of the university's administration building is just "a great place" to sell the institution he's led as president for two decades.

He first points to UMBC's public policy building, which offers the largest doctoral program in the state. "We show them the library, the two engineering and IT buildings--the university produces more than 30 percent of Maryland's IT graduates and about 20 percent of them are African-American.

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