Author/UMBC President Dr. Freeman Hrabowski

The tireless advocate and educator discusses his new book about empowering youth, titled Holding Fast to Dreams.

Dr. Freeman Hrabowski has been president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County since 1992. He's also a consultant on science and math education to national agencies, universities and school systems. He was named to TIME's 2012 list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World and by U.S. News & World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders. Hrabowski co-founded the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which encourages high-achieving students to pursue advanced degrees and research careers in science and engineering, and was prominently featured in Spike Lee’s documentary, Four Little Girls, on the racially motivated bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL. He's out now with a book, titled Holding Fast to Dreams, that chronicles his educational journey and the programs he has helped launch.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2012. The renowned educator has gained widespread fame for developing successful holistic programs for high-achieving students of all races.

He’s out now with a new text that recounts his remarkable journey. It’s called “Holding Fast to Dreams: Empowering Youth, From the Civil Rights Crusade to STEM Achievement”.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Freeman Hrabowski coming up right now.

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Tavis: Pleased to welcome back to this program Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He was named one of the 10 best college presidents by Time magazine. The innovative programs that he has implemented have had incredible success preparing gifted students of color in science, engineering, and related fields for the most competitive STEM PhD programs in the nation.

He recently published a book that details these successes. The text is titled “Holding Fast to Dreams: Empowering Youth, From the Civil Rights Crusade to STEM Achievement”. Dr. Hrabowski, always an honor, sir, to have you on this program.

Freeman Hrabowski: Thank you, Tavis, very much.

Tavis: I want to jump right in because, as this audience knows, I have an abiding love for Dr. King. I’ve said many times that I regard him personally as the greatest American this country has ever produced. That’s my own assessment, but I regard King as the greatest American ever produced. So there’s a wonderful story in this book in your childhood of your encounter with one Martin King.

Hrabowski: Yes.

Tavis: And your life ain’t been the same since that encounter. Tell me about that moment.

Hrabowski: Sure. I’ve been talking about this time when my parents insisted that I come to church with them in the middle of the week. And I’m sitting in the back of church doing my math and eating M&Ms, the two things I love most, eating and math [laugh].

And I hear this man say, “If the children participate in this peaceful march, all of America will understand that, quite frankly, even our babies know the difference between right and wrong and that they want a good education.” And I look up and I say, “Who is this guy?” and his name, of course, was Dr. Martin Luther King.

I ended up telling my parents when we were at home that I wanted to participate. We knew that kids who did would go to jail. My parents said absolutely not and I called them hypocrites, which you did not do at that time, but the next morning…

Tavis: Hold on. I’m surprised you’re still living to tell the story [laugh].

Hrabowski: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I had been, I thought, very analytical. I said you asked me to go, you told me to listen to what he said. I did all of what you said. He said he wants us to go and now you tell me I can’t. The next morning, they came in and explained that they did not trust the people in the jail to take care of me.

I was 12 and yet they decided, as they put it, to put me in God’s hands and I did go. While it was a terrible experience in many ways, it was an empowering experience. It taught me at age 12 that I could be a part of my own future, that I could help to control my destiny.

Tavis: What happened at that march?

Hrabowski: The march was very, very difficult. We had been trained not to listen to people who were trying to get us to be violent. We had been taught to be disciplined and to walk and to sing the songs of the civil rights movement, those spirituals, and I’ll never forget when I got up to City Hall and we got to the steps there, and the Police Commissioner, Bull Connor, asked me the question, “What do you want, little negro?”

And I said what I had been taught to say, which we wanted simply to kneel and pray for our freedom, our freedom to go to better schools, to go to schools where, quite frankly, we get the resources. We had some great teachers in our black schools, but not the resources. And he looked at me, actually spat in my face, and threw me into the police wagon.

I’ve told that story before, and it’s a difficult story to tell. And yet what I would say to you is that experience did lead to a number of us understanding what Thoreau talked about in “Civil Disobedience”, that we as Americans have the right to say when we think something is wrong and that we can make a difference.

And most important, the entire lesson taught me several things. One, building community is important, teaching students to support each other, having adults who care about them, teaching us that we don’t have time to be victims, that there may be things wrong, but we can find ways to make a difference. And for me, the power of education to transform lives.

Tavis: Tell me about–since you loved to eat as a kid–tell me about that dinner with your mama and your daddy when you got home and told them what had happened. What was that family gathering like?

Hrabowski: You know, my wonderful, deceased parents were Christians and hardworking people working five jobs between them, just a good American family, very blessed in many ways, having grown up in rural Alabama. And what they said to me was two things. “Son, you don’t have time to be a victim”.

Number two, and most important, “You don’t want to let bitterness control your life, that you have to understand every person is a product of childhood experiences and that people sometimes out of ignorance do things that are bad, but you cannot allow bitterness on the inside to eat away at you.” I’ll never forget that. It took me years to fully appreciate what they were saying, but they were absolutely right.

Tavis: For a particular person watching this program right now who might take the fact that, by my count, two or three times now you’ve made the statement that we ought not to be victims, for the person watching this who takes it the wrong way and thinks that this is the line they hear all the time on Fox News, the problem with Negroes is that they too often live in a place of victimization, they embrace this notion of victimhood, make a distinction for me between what you mean by that and…

Hrabowski: Sure, sure. You know, let me say that I’m on a campus that has students from 150 countries. I watch kids coming here from all over, from African countries, from Asian countries, European countries, and we work with kids in Baltimore.

We supervise over 500 children, mainly boys of color, heavily African American, who are first-time offenders, and we work with them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I get a chance to work with a lot of those kids and here is the message. Yes, there are problems in our society that we need to work on. There are public policies that need to be changed. There’s no doubt about that.

There are policies involving putting people in prison that are discriminating against certain groups. At the same time that we work to change those policies, the question is what do we tell children? What is it that we want to tell them to empower them? I don’t want these little boys we’re working with and little girls to feel there’s nothing they can do. I want them to know, yes, the world can be unfair, as my parents told me.

And yet we have to figure out ways of changing the world. Yeah, we want to work on that, but we also want to work on what we can do as children, as young people, to make a difference. We do want to learn to read and think. We do want to understand what this STEM education is about. We want to understand the possibilities.

So when we bring these children to our campus and our college students work with them, the message we’re giving them is that there is a strength-based approach, that they have more determination–these kids have more determination and more strength than people ever realize.

I don’t want them to feel that they are so weak or they’re warped in some way. I want them to know as children of God that they can do anything. And yet we have to give them the support to do that. So, no, it is not the message that somehow it’s their fault or that we don’t want them to understand the problems of our society…

Tavis: Or that the system isn’t dysfunctional.

Hrabowski: No. The system has real problems. There’s no doubt about that. We have to work on those problems just as, in the civil rights movement, we worked on everything from the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, now the Higher Education Act. Getting ready for the 50th anniversary of that. If it hadn’t been for that Higher Education Act, most Americans of all races would never have gone to college.

So there are public policy issues we need to address. I want more of my students of all races learning how to address those parts of our society that need substantial improvement while we work to build strength in our children. We don’t want them just sitting back.

And let me just say this. These children come from environments that are, in many cases, very tough. They come from environments where they’ve seen guns, where they know about violence, where they know about drugs, and where they may not have gotten the support.

So I’m not saying that’s not all the issue, but I am saying but what do we do to help those children to help themselves as we work to address all of the major issues we face in society?

Tavis: I suspect that somebody’s going to send me an email to say that the following question that I’m about to ask is a gross overstatement and it might be, but I think you’ll take my point.

Hrabowski: Sure, sure, sure.

Tavis: We started this conversation talking about your growing up in Birmingham.

Hrabowski: Yes.

Tavis: You live and work in Baltimore.

Hrabowski: Yes.

Tavis: Where police brutality is concerned, what’s the difference?

Hrabowski: You know, I would say this. I know a lot of police officers who work very hard to help children, and I think it’s very important for us to thank those people who put their lives on the line every day, all right? When we find an injustice, we need to deal with that injustice. I agree with that.

But let us not suggest that large numbers of these people who are giving us their time, their effort, their careers, to help and protect are not doing great work in America. It is very important that we support–and these are police officers of all races. At the same time, when there’s an injustice, there’s a challenge, we need to understand what’s the issue here.

Now at the same time, and even more important to me, I am concerned about children who are killing children and we have to talk about both because the vast majority of young people who are being killed are being killed by other kids. There are reasons for that.

There are public policy issues we need to address, but at the same time, what do we do? What am I doing? What is my campus doing to help those young people to stay alive? We had five of those children in our Choice Program administered by The Shriver Center. We had five children killed last year by other kids between the ages of 14 and 17.

You see, I want people to deal with that issue and the kinds of things we need to do broadly in our society, yeah, to deal with the challenges in those communities. But at the same time, I want to be sure that we do all we can to help children and families to be protected and to help themselves, to make sure they’re as much as possible in the same time supporting each other.

Tavis: One of the primary institutions, it can be argued, that is failing these babies is the institution that you are a part of, the education system.

Hrabowski: Right, yes.

Tavis: I don’t want to ask the question any more specifically. That’s a broad question, but talk to me about the fact that our education system is as much failing these kids as any other part of our society.

Hrabowski: Right. You know, the first thing I say to people like you, brilliant people, is I wish you’d go in and teach for a year so you could see just how hard it is to be a teacher. Just as I say we need to support police, it’s so easy for those of us who are not in the schools to say, oh, these teachers aren’t doing these things.

These teachers are working hard in so many cases to help children and we need to give them support just as we need to teach parents how to make sure that their kids know how to respect those teachers. We’re talking about teachers of all races who give their lives to help kids. There are many issues involved here. It is not a simple solution.

You know, my first books with colleagues that we wrote focused on raising smart black–the high-achieving black boys, high-achieving black girls. Yes, we talked about things we should do in the schools, but we also talked about what families need to do.

When do we talk about what I as an adult am responsible for? And I don’t have to have an education to help my child learn to read, to turn the TV off, to get a chance to talk about the ideas. We have a tendency to blame one group and not talk about the other group. I would say it takes the whole village to raise that child.

We have to find–we are working with young people from poverty where you got a grandmama, a mama, or somebody else working hard to help us to help their child, and teachers working to do the same thing. The work we do in Lakeland Elementary in Baltimore City schools is phenomenal because those teachers, that principal, those families, are on it. They are focused on helping their children to succeed.

So I don’t accept the idea that the educational system is not working. I think we have challenges. We have children of all races who are not reading well and computing well. I’m a mathematician. I’m as concerned about the STEM and the arts and humanities, and this is what we do on our campus. But I would suggest we need to understand more about what teachers go through in those schools.

Tavis: You’ve said a couple of things I want to come back to. First is, we agree. I mean, we’re having a great conversation here. But we agree that it’s not either/or. It’s both/and.

Hrabowski: No, it’s both.

Tavis: We agree on that.

Hrabowski: And I want more people to be teachers. Before they go out and talk about all the teachers aren’t doing anything, it’s so easy to sit back and say they’re not. You get what I’m saying?

Tavis: I get it, I get it.

Hrabowski: You’re not saying it, but you get that from people.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Hrabowski: One of our challenges in our country is that we tend to sit back and criticize others.

Tavis: But even the Obama administration had to come down on its knees the other day and admit that they have been too aggressive on this standardized testing.

Hrabowski: The standardized testing issues.

Tavis: They had to back up on that.

Hrabowski: Right, and yet we still don’t know exactly where we need to be. I see it every day. Let me just put it–let me be very controversial here. We want to make sure we’re not simply testing and penalizing children, but tests are important.

Tavis: Absolutely. You got to know where you are, yeah.

Hrabowski: Well, let me tell you. When people say to me, “I want my child to come to UMBC and her test score is not high, but she had good grades, but I don’t know what the grades sometimes mean”, this is one of the challenges in terms of needing to have the rigor in all schools to support teachers so they can bring their rigor. Because when somebody says, “I don’t believe in standardized tests”, this is what I say.

We produce a lot of students who go to PhDs in science and medicine. You’re on the operating table and the person comes in and says, “I’m a doctor, but I never passed the test, but I’m gonna cut on you”, I don’t think so. In other words, at a certain point, you have to be able to show that you know the work.

Now here’s the point. People from advantaged environments have much more support with those tests. We have to make sure we’re giving children, families, and teachers the support they need in ensuring that the child learns how to do well on standardized tests.

Tavis: But I think the argument against this standardized testing is not that people don’t think kids ought to be tested. You got to know where they are. The argument is whether or not teachers are being forced to spend a disproportionate amount of time in the classroom teaching to the test so that real instruction gets lost.

Hrabowski: And this is where people don’t understand education. Having written a lot of questions for standardized tests, the only time you’re teaching to the test is if I give you 10 problems. I teach you how to solve those 10 problems.

Then I give you the same 10 problems on the test. Then I’m teaching to the test. But if I work with you on 10 types of problems and then you have a test that covers those types of problems, that is not teaching to the test. Most people not in education don’t understand that.

One of our challenges in education is that people who are not in the classroom, who are not working with those teachers, don’t understand the subtleties of these points, and we come up with language that we use or we’re teaching to the test. No, no, no. We do need to teach children how to read well and think critically and write well, and how to solve math problems.

And testing will be a part of that, but the balance and to make sure we’re giving kids the support they need and families the support they need. So I don’t disagree. I think it is important that we make sure we’re not going overboard and that we are supporting families, but we need to also help families to play a role in helping children in those schools.

You don’t solve problems in engineering or in medicine or in science using numbers. We express problems in language, and the problem is kids have not developed strong language skills to read and write and understand relationships among words.

As a math teacher, I will tell you I’ll give you a word problem and then I’ll say, “Let’s see if we can dissect the problem. Let’s look at the relationships among the words.” Then we go to symbols and then we go to equations. The first thing the kid will tell you in a word problem situation is, “Give me the equation. Don’t give me the paragraph.” And that’s about reading skills.

So what am I saying? I’m saying we need in STEM to understand, first of all, that we in America are not keeping up. Having chaired the National Academies Committee on underrepresentation, the majority of Americans who start with a major in STEM, of all races, leave that major within the first year or two.

And it’s not because of, quite frankly, money. It’s that they didn’t do well in the course work, so we got some issues involving how we define science in the first year. My TED talk talks about the fact that we’ve got to get away from thinking that first year of chemistry or engineering would be weed-out courses. Now go back to K through 12. Here is the point.

We have to help children understand that the better they can read and the more they get a chance to work in math and science, the more opportunities will be available. Many other jobs in our society in the decades to come will have a strong technology component. And then when people say, well, why so much STEM?

Well, number one, when you look at our country, compare it to European countries. Only about 5% of the 25-year-olds in our country have degrees in STEM. In Europe, it’s twice that. In Asian countries, they’re producing. They’re creating more universities to do this. Why is it important? This is what I want every American to think about.

Whether they’re talking about healthcare, that’s STEM in the National Institute of Health. Whether they’re talking about intelligence and defending our country, whether they’re talking about the environment and all of what we talk about with global change, all of this is rooted in scientific work, science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

And then in their lives, when you think about all the problems we had for people of color and others with mortgage situations and the economy, there was a basic math theme there or what people didn’t understand things about interest rates and mortgage and those kinds of things.

So we need to be teaching young people, people in general, to appreciate the value of these areas, but they go hand in hand. If there’s one message, Tavis, I want you to keep pushing, it is reading and thinking skills and STEM and the arts, humanities and social sciences.

A lot of the programs at UMBC where you got these students from all over the world, quite frankly, focus on the intersection of those areas, imaging and digital arts. We’re in the final point of Game Development, people from computer science and the arts working together. You can go across the board and you can find ways that you connect.

People talk about Steam, of course, but arts, humanities, social sciences with the sciences, I mean, Game Development course combining people in history and people in computer science to teach a part of the Civil War. So Game Development is going to be something you’re going to hear more and more about as an idea in Steam.

Tavis: I want to circle back to your text, “Holding Fast to Dreams”, because it occurs to me 20 minutes into this conversation that you had two wonderful parents, as you mentioned earlier. You had a chance to do something that most people never did, which is to hear Dr. King in person.

Hrabowski: Yes, yes.

Tavis: King then didn’t just offer you a challenge, but pregnant inside of that challenge was his belief in your capacity, in your agency, as a child to actually make a difference, to get involved and to make the world a better place.

The point is that you had the kind of experience that most kids in Baltimore or in South Los Angeles–you get my point–never, ever had. So I wonder how then these kids get motivated? How they see themselves as having agency to do something in the world if they don’t run into a Martin King of Freeman Hrabowski?

If you ask kids in your generation, name me 10 Black people who you think love you enough to die for you, you could rattle off some names. Ask that question to kids in Baltimore today. Name 10 Black people you think love you enough to put their life on the line for you. You’d be sitting there a while waiting–you take my point.

Hrabowski: So here’s what we have to do. Of those two, much is given, much is required. That’s the point of the book, that those of us who have been blessed to get an education have a responsibility to reach out to these children and these families.

And the most exciting part of UMBC to me is not simply that we produce the largest percentage of African Americans going on for MDPs–these are among predominantly white schools–but that we are producing scholars who are going to be teachers in the challenging schools in math and science, really high-achieving young people of all races who are in those schools, Sondheim scholars in public affairs working to make a difference in the lives of children.

So the university is producing a lot of young people of all races who are going to work in challenging schools and to be that leader, that educator, who can make a difference not only in education, but across discipline. the Linehan Artist Scholars, the humanity scholars, who are saying let’s look at the issues we face, whether it’s about health disparities, the academic achievement gap, the fact that children need role models. My athletes are working with kids.

We need many more Americans’ understanding it’s not about one person, one leader. It is about us, Tavis. That’s the point and that’s the point of the book. The civil rights movement, the point that people don’t get about Dr. King, was he was empowering a generation of children to believe we had a responsibility to other people the same way we’re saying at UMBC that we have a responsibility.

And I use STEM achievement as the idea because that’s where Americans are doing the least well, but the same principles of building community, take researchers to produce researchers, high expectations of all people, evaluating what works, and being honest and robust about the issues of race are very important in our country.

Tavis: How concerned should we be about these for-profit colleges that many believe are taking advantage of exploiting kids, students of color?

Hrabowski: I think we should be very concerned. I am always bothered when I look at wonderful advertisements that will pull in young people of color and people from low income backgrounds, get them into those institutions, and those students so not graduate, and they have big loans.

Yes, we should be concerned. I think that families need to be asking the right questions. We need to teach families to ask the right questions.

I know that Secretary Duncan and the president have worked on an approach to helping inform families about what they need to be asking. The questions you want to ask of any university, okay, what’s the percent of students by race who are graduating? What kinds of jobs do they get? How can I talk to some of the graduates to get a sense of that?

Because we have not done enough to help people who are not from families where they had a lot of education to understand those critical questions that can help them make a decision about the value of community colleges, for example, public institutions and private that really care about students, who can demonstrate that students are graduating, getting good jobs, and are well-educated.

Tavis: I want to circle back to the cover of this book, Jonathan, if you don’t mind putting it back up, as I thank Dr. Hrabowski for being here. The picture–zoom in on that picture. There you go. What am I seeing in this picture here?

Hrabowski: You’re seeing something that will shock most people. It’s the HIV virus. You’re seeing three of one of my colleagues who’s a Howard Hughes investigator who is white. You’re seeing an African American who’s a [inaudible] scholar, and you’re seeing one of my wonderful Korean immigrants. And it is a picture that I think reflects what we do at UMBC and what the country should be doing.

It is showing people from different races learning how to think well and focusing on the problems of humankind. This Dr. Mike Summers, Howard Hughes investigator, has actually been able to come up with understanding this structure of two parts of HIV virus leading to drugs that keep people alive.

This is in biochemistry and the whole point is that we have to teach young people of all races to get beyond their comfort zones, work with all kinds of people, and we have to pull the scientists and the researchers, many of whom, as you know, are white, into this work.

Dr. Mike Summers is one of the leading producers of young people of all races going on to get biochemistry PhDs. That’s the dream that Dr. King had, people beyond race who learn to work with other people to solve the problems of humankind.

Tavis: His name is Freeman A. Hrabowski, III. The text is called “Holding Fast to Dreams: Empowering Youth, From the Civil Rights Crusade to STEM Achievement”. Doc, I love the work you’re doing. Always honored to have you on this program.

Hrabowski: Come visit the campus.

Tavis: I’ll come see you. I will.

Hrabowski: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to see you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: October 28, 2015 at 1:42 pm