Q&A: University-wide Commencement Speaker Freeman A. Hrabowski, III

Portrait photo of Freeman Hrabowski III

As previously announced, Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), will be the commencement speaker at Drexel’s university-wide commencement ceremony on June 9. Hrabowski is an educator, author, civil rights advocate, and mathematician who is retiring from UMBC this year after presiding over the mid-sized research university in the Baltimore suburbs for the last 30 years.

In this Q&A, Hrabowski discussed life lessons, the transformative power of education, and why his speech will be short and Drexel-informed.

Q: What was your path like leading up to college?

A: My parents both were teachers. My dad left teaching to make more money working in a steel mill in Birmingham, Alabama, because laborers made more than teachers, and especially Black teachers at that time. In the late ‘40s, my mother was fired from her job as a teacher because she led protests in favor of the equalization of teacher salaries, because teachers of color made much less than white teachers with the same academic preparation. She got an even better teaching job afterward. She was known to be an activist, and that shaped conversations in our house about what is just and wanting fair opportunities for everyone. That’s why it was hard for my parents to turn me down when I wanted to be in the Children’s March [a 1963 demonstration in which hundreds of children protested segregation; many, like Hrabowski, were arrested and taken into custody] because I could say, “Yeah, but you got fired doing [your protest] years before!” My mother said something like, “But I was an adult.” I said, “Yeah, but I’m a good thinker.” I was 12!

Their belief in education and the power of education to transform lives was something we talked about all the time in our house and in our community. My dad helped the laborers, who were men of color, get their GEDs. He would work with them at lunch or after work, and then he’d send them to my mother, who, besides teaching English and math in the daytime, taught in the GED program in the evening. Plus, my mother had me help her tutor students at our house with reading and math problems. We also helped kids fill out the forms for college because the financial aid forms were difficult then, as they still can be for people now. Our house was a center, and our neighborhood was a center, for helping people of color dream about education for changing their lives. That’s my upbringing, from my church to my neighborhood to the schools: it was all about more education.

Q: Were there any life lessons you learned from your educational experiences that you carry through today?

A: I was in National Science Foundation programs as a high school student and was in a math program at Tuskegee University with Black kids from all over the country. It was so clear to us that children who came from Northern states were far better prepared academically because they had been in integrated schools that had more resources. But by the end of the summer, the students who did the best, whether they were from the South or North, were those who had fire in their bellies and a hunger to never give up. I saw how hard work made the difference.

That’s one point, and the other is that because my mother was an English teacher who became a math specialist during the time of the New Math, she learned that a child who could read well could be taught to do word problems. I was her guinea pig. My foundation was rooted in two major things: connecting language arts and math and science, and helping to build a sense of self — to believe in myself, to not be a victim, to not let anybody else define who I was. The arts and humanities helped tremendously with that. Our parents wanted us to be bigger than our environment. They wanted us to see ourselves as being in the world. Those lessons helped in college, with group work and tutoring. It taught me so much about emotional intelligence, and that if students learn how to solve a problem, or how to read a passage, they become much more confident in their academic capacity.

Q: Now that you’re retiring, what’s standing out from what you’ve learned over your career?

A: I’ve talked about a lot of those major lessons publicly. My TED talk [“Four pillars of college success in science”], which has over a million views, asks, if most students aren’t succeeding, what else should we be doing? If I put a problem on the board and test people on that concept and most people don’t pass the test, does that mean they just didn’t have the sophistication or the ability? Or is it saying something about the fact that I haven’t taught it to them? If most students don’t succeed, you haven’t taught it. You may have presented the idea, but that’s not the essence of teaching. I would argue we really have only taught something when people have learned it. And then we must be very rigorous in the evaluation of what we do, not just of the students, but of ourselves. It takes scientists and engineers to produce scientists and engineers.

In my most recent book, “The Empowered University,” I said that we must be secure enough to look in the mirror and to be honest. We all brag about success, but what about those students who don’t succeed? What might we have done to help the student do better? We need to be honest about what else we need to do, not only as a university, but as a society.

Q: Your time at UMBC was a turning point in advocating for and increasing diversity in STEM and higher education, particularly with the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. Thinking about all the graduates that passed through during the years, what comes to mind? 

A: People don’t realize that we are a model of international and domestic diversity. People see me as a Black guy, so they think it must be a heavily Black place. Well, the largest minority on our campus is Asian — almost 25 percent of our students identify as Asian. Then it’s about 20 percent Black and 40 percent white, and there are a lot of international students. We’ve got 11,000 undergraduate students, 3,000 graduate students, and then another training component with more than 6,000 students. About 60 percent of our undergraduate students have at least one parent from another country. Many came here with their parents, who are scientists and engineers in the national corridor between Washington and Baltimore or are involved with the intelligence community.

Those campuses that have done better have generally been most successful in the social sciences and humanities, but very few campuses can say most students who come with an interest in science and engineering complete majors in those areas. About 40 percent of our students in STEM go immediately to graduate school, which makes us much more like a private university. We’re the leading producer of Black bachelor’s degree recipients who go on to get PhDs in the natural sciences and engineering. So those are the lessons and the achievements. 

Thinking about the country as a whole, what I would say is that all of our campuses have a long way to go in diversifying the professoriate. We don’t have enough people from underrepresented groups. I don’t know a campus that can tell me otherwise.

Q: You’ve spoken publicly about how higher education should work to dismantle that kind of structural racism. Is there anything else you wanted to bring up?

A: I think that we still have a way to go in preparing women, people of color, and people from other diverse groups, like LGBTQ, who are represented in different layers of an institution, in upper-level administration, faculty and staff positions. We’ve done better in some areas on our campuses and not as well in others. We’ve made progress in terms of more women presidents and provosts, but we’re not where we need to be. We certainly need more Black and brown academic leaders and leaders across the institution from advancement to finance. Universities are a microcosm of American society. I’ll mention some of this in the commencement address, but while we’ve made some progress, we have a way to go.

Q: What else are you planning for your commencement address?

A: Throughout COVID, I’ve ended my meetings with students and colleagues by saying, “Keep hope alive.” We need that message of hope and optimism. What lessons have we learned? The worst thing we could do would be to get through this crisis and then forget it. This is the importance of history, and I will be talking about history over the past 50+ years in my address.

I’d like to say something that people can keep thinking about, and I’d like to be as supportive and inspiring to the graduates as possible. I want to share the message that you will be okay. When people graduate at any level, it’s natural to ask, “Will I be okay?”

One of the things I always do for commencement addresses — including this upcoming one at Drexel — is to ask the university to give me a chance to talk with a few of the graduates. Those students become my kitchen cabinet. I ask what they want me to talk about, because I have plenty I could say, but I want to know what’s on their minds. I make that a part of whatever I say. It always makes me feel like I’m more connected to the class. I’ve been doing that for years because I hate when a commencement speaker comes and knows nothing about the university or about the class and what they’ve gone through.

And I’m not going to be long! That’s the final thing I will say. Nobody wants to hear the commencement speaker go on and on. The shorter the speech, the happier people are.

Q: What made you want to come to Drexel? What’s your relationship with the University?

A: First of all, I am such an admirer of [Drexel University President] John Fry. I have known him going back to when he was at other institutions before Drexel, and I have been with him since the beginning of his presidency at Drexel. I was one of the speakers at his investiture ceremony at Drexel in 2011. I remember we were getting ready to march in, and he saw one of his daughters, and she was very young, and she didn’t look happy. He stopped the procession and went over and got down to her level to talk to her until they could get a smile. That touched my heart. There was nothing more important than his little daughter in that moment. That spoke volumes about his character. I’ve told that story before, but I can never tell it enough because we reveal more through our actions than through what we say. He was leading at that moment. If you want to know somebody, watch how they treat other people.

I’ve spoken several times on the campus. I have such great admiration for the leadership of your campus, but also for the Drexel education. One of our leading bioengineers, [Professor of Chemical & Biochemical Engineering and Director of the Center for Advanced Sensor Technology Govind Rao] is a PhD graduate from Drexel [who received a PhD in chemical engineering in 1987]. He’s sent students to Drexel, and it’s gone both ways. Govind not only has gotten all the awards, but he’s producing generations of students from UMBC who are on the top in engineering, and he’s a product of Drexel.

Q: Is there anything else you want to bring up?

A: I think we need institutions like Drexel. We need higher education more than ever. We need institutions that pull in as many students of all backgrounds and will educate them. And we need institutions that are important to the economies of their region. I know Drexel is just that. We’re very impressed with what John Fry and his colleagues have done to build Drexel into an economic powerhouse. We take great pride in doing the same thing here in the Baltimore-Washington Corridor.