An immersion in campus life 'Number one pitchman': UMBC president invests his own identity in his campus and particularly its students.

January 27, 1996|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

While driving one crisp afternoon, Freeman A. Hrabowski III spotted James T. Brady, the state secretary of economic development, in the lane to his left. Dr. Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, waved furiously.

He was trying, without success, to catch Mr. Brady's eye. In traffic, and in life, Dr. Hrabowski hungers for recognition: first for his campus, which turns 30 this year, and not entirely coincidentally, for himself.

To an extent unrivaled by his peers, Dr. Hrabowski, 45, invests his own identity in his campus and particularly its students.

As he walks around the campus, he stops what seems like every second person to talk, to ask how they are, to push a little bit. He knows the names, test scores, grades and interests of a staggering number of students.

"Within the first two years of his arrival, Freeman had been to every high school in the Baltimore area," said Dr. Slobodan Petrovich, director of interdisciplinary studies at the campus. "He was the first one to do that. He was the number one pitchman for us."

Dr. Hrabowski is utterly immersed in campus life, an approach that has won him much loyalty on campus and many fans off it. Yet he does not earn accolades for everything that he does in his job, which pays $148,000 a year. Some faculty members express concern that none of the three schools at the campus currently has a permanent dean, and that UMBC has not had a permanent undergraduate admissions director in nearly two years.

Off campus, critics are much more vocal. Hundreds of people who live in surrounding Catonsville unsuccessfully contested the university's plans to build a research park on largely undeveloped land. And some officials at other Maryland colleges believe he goes overboard in promoting his school.

'Never quits selling'

"He is assertive. He is a salesperson who never quits selling," said Towson State University President Hoke L. Smith. "That wears on some people -- but he is a very effective salesperson and has provided good leadership at the institution. He has UMBC on the move."

The university has spent much more effort and money than ever before to spread that very message. UMBC has taken great strides in the 10 years since Dr. Hrabowski first arrived on campus as an administrator, professors said.

Applications for undergraduate admission have risen, and incoming students are better prepared academically than their predecessors. Research grants were up 40 percent last year to $31.5 million, despite what administrators believe to be a relatively low level of state funding per student when compared with other Maryland public universities.

For example, the University of Maryland College Park will get $4,100 per student more than UMBC next year.

Some professors said Dr. Hrabowski deserves significant credit. became president of the largely commuter campus in 1993, after serving as vice provost, provost and then acting president.

Try to pin down Dr. Hrabowski on the two or three things he's most proud of, and he'll likely offer an 11-part description of the school, each with four components. His October convocation speech, characteristically, touched on almost every academic program.

This is not policy wonkishness. It is Dr. Hrabowski's unbridled exuberance.

Whatever he is involved in at the moment is not just exciting for him -- it must be for you as well. And if he doesn't grab his intended audience, whether passer-by or corporate chief, he'll try another tack. There's a bit of Lyndon Johnson in Dr. Hrabowski: He will cajole, harangue, beseech and reason in the same 60 seconds.

'Hard to say no'

"When he asks people to do something, people find it very hard to say no," Dr. Petrovich said.

In fall 1994, AIDS researcher Michael Summers, an associate professor of chemistry at UMBC, was offered a professorship at the University of California at San Diego, a major research campus. He was leaning toward accepting the job until the UMBC president asked him to stop by.

Dr. Hrabowski "made me realize what I was doing at UMBC other than my research," said Dr. Summers, who holds a prestigious research grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "The education side is just as important. Freeman made me feel like I was really wanted at UMBC. I came out of his office with a sense that this is a place I can call home.

"You can't have a conversation with Freeman without coming away charged and with a sense of enthusiasm."

One of only a handful of black presidents of predominantly white universities, Dr. Hrabowski once pursued a top student at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute who is black by visiting her home. He wanted to show her family that African-Americans could flourish at UMBC.

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