Urban Wire Supporting Student Achievement on an Uneven Playing Field: A Conversation with Freeman Hrabowski
Bridget Lowell
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In 1963, 12-year-old Freeman Hrabowski marched against segregation, was spat on by Bull Connor, and was arrested in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. Today, the now-famous Children’s Crusade is considered a turning point in the struggle for civil rights. But back then, Hrabowski was just one of many terrified children who spent five days in the Birmingham Detention Center.

It was a moment that forever shaped Hrabowski, who went on to become a powerful force for education and opportunity in America—and to transform countless lives for decades. As president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), he leads 14,000 students from a range of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds and enables them to achieve success.



Hrabowski is a guiding force for the Urban Institute, too: last week, he capped 14 years on Urban’s board of trustees, most recently as vice chair. At a special event, he spoke with Urban’s president Sarah Rosen Wartell about inequality in America, the field of higher education, and the power of high expectations.

On what it takes to overcome structural racism in America

Hrabowski is widely recognized for evolving UMBC into a world-class academic institution that exceeds expectations again and again. Many of his students have overcome overwhelming odds, whether they are from dangerous neighborhoods in Baltimore or underresourced countries thousands of miles away. “We need a better understanding of the multiple ways that poverty has an impact on students, from stress, from the ability to learn, to motivation,” he said.

Wartell described how, walking across the UMBC campus, Hrabowski greets students by name and finds ways to remind them, in every brief interaction, that he expects them to accomplish great things—and that he and their academic community are here to help.

Hrabowski’s students have said that his faith and optimism in them gave them the confidence to pursue and achieve their goals. Wartell, too, knows the power of Hrabowski’s support and high expectations, as he has mentored her through the highs and lows of being a new nonprofit CEO.  

At dinner, however, she challenged him, questioning whether it was fair to place responsibility on individual students for overcoming the injustices and obstacles many of them face. Would they be better served by all of us working together to dismantle structural barriers embedded in our society?

Hrabowski responded by quoting a phrase coined by author Jim Collins: “The genius of the and, versus the tyranny of the or,” he said. “It’s not one or the other.” Hrabowski added that the student standing in front of him doesn’t have time for social change; they need to be supported and empowered today, while we are collectively advocating for broader action and long-term change.

On why we must change STEM education

At UMBC, Hrabowski has graduated more people of color with a future doctorate in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field than any college campus in the country. He pushes back against a competitive academic culture that intimidates STEM students into thinking they can’t “make it” in science. “Rather than help students grow in STEM, we weed them out,” said Hrabowski, whose new book, The Empowered University, chronicles the evolution of UMBC after 30 years under his leadership.

Across racial and socioeconomic lines, STEM students are dropping out of their programs in high numbers, and structural barriers, from social cues to teaching practices, make it difficult for students of varying backgrounds or with different learning styles to succeed. Hrabowski points out that a country in urgent need of expertise in science and technology should be supporting, growing, and enabling the next generation of scientists. 

“We need to move beyond politics and focus on what the evidence says about best practices,” Hrabowski said. “We need to focus in a systematic way on replication, and replication of those practices in different settings.”

To maximize the potential of future STEM students, Hrabowski launched the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC, with support from the Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Foundation. UMBC also offers the Sherman STEM Teacher Scholars Program, which aims to increase the number of highly qualified STEM educators teaching in high-needs schools.

Although he’s concluding his service as an Urban trustee, Hrabowski will continue at UMBC’s helm, fulfilling a prediction Dr. King made about him and the other jailed children as he prayed with their parents outside the detention center that day in 1963:

“What you have achieved, by marching and going to jail,” King told them, “will change the lives of children not yet born.”

Research Areas Education
Tags Higher education Racial and ethnic disparities Racial equity in education