Freeman Hrabowski's UMBC legacy grows as he celebrates 20 years as president

Generations of students attest to the role Hrabowski and his wife have played as one-on-one mentors

(Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
September 01, 2012|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

The melody of the president's voice, the intensity of his movements gripped Jeremy Brickey's attention, cutting through the monotony of freshman orientation at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Honestly though, he thought Freeman A. Hrabowski III had to be "full of it." Who brings that kind of dynamism to rote encounters with students? Two years later, Brickey asked to meet with Hrabowski, this time to discuss his fraternity's return to campus after a suspension for serving alcohol to minors and pledging academically ineligible members.

Surprise No. 1: The UMBC president remembered him. Surprise No. 2: Hrabowski didn't seemed concerned with the fraternity. Instead he wanted to know what experiences made Brickey who he was. Did he think he had matured into a man?

The student mentioned he had published an autobiographical piece in the campus literary journal. Hrabowski called for a copy from his secretary and read it as they sat there. He appeared to be skimming, but his questions suggested he was absorbing every word.

Hrabowski, who is celebrating his 20th year as president, could be forgiven if he could not pick the 23-year-old Brickey out of the crowd of 13,000 students on UMBC's Catonsville campus.

The man students call "Doc" is recognized as a superstar in his field. Just ask Harvard, which gave Hrabowski an honorary doctorate in 2010, or "60 Minutes," which broadcast a glowing segment about him last year. President Barack Obama has sought his counsel on reducing college costs and propelling more students to graduate studies in math and science. Most recently, Time magazine named him one of the world's 100 most influential people, along with Hillary Clinton, Warren Buffett and Adele.

He is renowned for his big ideas; educational heavyweights such as MIT and Stanford have been to Catonsville to study the methods with which UMBC churns out elite black graduates in the sciences. How, they want to know, has a 46-year-old university, founded to serve commuters, cracked the code to one of American education's most vexing problems?

Hrabowski's mother believed he was sent to better the world, and he has spent a lifetime trying to meet those expectations. Everything about him seems outsized compared to his university system peers, from his celebrity speakers agency to his lucrative positions on corporate boards.

Sometimes he overshadows his campus, which excels in many ways but still lags in national rankings because of middling graduation rates and modest financial means. He's a magnet for attention. During the summer at an event supporting the Dream Act, which would offer in-state tuition to some immigrants, Hrabowski was the headliner and the one who drew criticism from some conservatives.

But Hrabowski, 62, would rather discuss Brickey's short story about coming of age with a drug-addicted mother.

To understand UMBC's success story, you have to watch Hrabowski with students, to hear them speak of how he has animated their dreams and kept them on track. These intimate relationships, in turn, help explain why Hrabowski has turned down other opportunities in favor of remaining president at UMBC for two decades, more than twice the average tenure for a college president. He believes, say close friends, that he can help students more profoundly and more directly by staying where he is.

Such personal relationships are uncommon for college presidents, who are more often consumed by the demands of fundraising and politics.

"I can't speak to other universities," says Miguel Calderon, a 2012 graduate from Bowie. "But from what I hear, it's not an everyday thing to see the president asking students, 'How are your classes? What did you get on your last test? You didn't do well? Maybe you need a tutor.' It's really a miraculous thing."

Brickey, a Lanham native, says Hrabowski gets mad at him if they go too long without communicating. "This is a guy who's on a flight to speak somewhere every other day," he says. "But here he takes the time to talk with me for 30 minutes all the time. It's amazing."

Together, they determined that for Brickey, an advanced degree was less important than a steady income. "The project was to stop being a boy and become a professional," Brickey says. He reached his goal well before graduation, securing a job as a market analyst for a book company.

But the two men, separated by authority and generations, are also friends. Hrabowski, who has added enough muscle through weightlifting to strain the buttons on his dress shirts, recently teased Brickey that "you're getting chubby."

These relationships do not end when Hrabowski's mentees graduate from UMBC. Many alumni communicate with him monthly by phone or text message. They stop by the Hrabowski home for lunch with his wife, Jackie, a retired T. Rowe Price executive. It's not uncommon for students to describe UMBC's first couple as "second parents" who are consulted on major life decisions.

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