University president Freeman Hrabowski

The UMBC president describes his successful efforts in nurturing a new generation of leaders in science, math, engineering and technology.

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.


Tavis: NASA’s ambition to take us to Mars and beyond will never be fulfilled without a new generation of leaders in science and technology, engineering and math. Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, as president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is working to make sure that we will have that talent by focusing on recruiting and nurturing the career choices of a wide range of students, but particularly students of color.

He’s been named by Time magazine one of the 100 most influential folk in the whole world, as well as one of the country’s 10 best college presidents. Dr. Hrabowski, good to have you back on this program.

Freeman Hrabowski: Thank you, Tavis. Good to be here.

Tavis: You been good?

Hrabowski: I’m doing great. Thank you.

Tavis: It’s good to see you.

Hrabowski: Thank you.

Tavis: So we just talked to Administrator Bolden who whispered in my ear, “Ask him about this mission to Mars.” So I’ll start by asking you about the mission to Mars [laugh].

Hrabowski: And what is the question that you ask?

Tavis: What do you make of the mission to Mars?

Hrabowski: No, no. I am always excited about the possibilities, all right? We have so much more to discover and I think, for me, the mission to Mars is a metaphor for what we have in life. The question is, what are the questions we’re not even asking yet as we think about educating students?

And there’s the point. How do we create the workforce, the scientific workforce that will reflect inclusive excellence and that will be able to answer that kind of question? And there is the point of education itself. How to learn to ask good questions.

Tavis: Back to my introduction here, then. How to achieve that without what we commonly refer to as STEM, science, technology, engineering and math? Let me ask whether or not you are concerned about our future, given how short we are falling in those areas.

Hrabowski: Now I am concerned that we need to do more, but I am more optimistic than ever. I’m a strong believer in taking an optimistic approach. We will do what is necessary to make sure that, as a country and, quite frankly, as a human race, we do what we need to do.

Now I’m a mathematician. I get goose bumps doing math, but the first thing I have to say to families thinking about STEM is when people say, well, what is it my child needs to learn? The first thing I say is to learn to read and think well. If you give me a child who can read well, I can teach her to solve math word problems.

We don’t express science or engineering or medicine in numbers. We express our problems in words. So first challenge we face as we think about helping more children to do well in science, technology, engineering and math is to teach them to be good thinkers and good readers. This is at the heart of what we need to do.

With that, the idea is how do we give them a sense of the possibilities? How you can use math, how you can use science, how you could be a doctor or an engineer? Or, quite frankly, how you can use technology in the arts together? So the idea of connecting disciplines not just in STEM, but across the board is what we do at UMBC.

We are determined to have more students who are artists, who are in imaging and digital arts, for example, students who are in languages who are excellent in technology and who also understand how the humanities should be playing a very important role as we work to influence what happens in STEM. It’s not just STEM. It’s STEM in the context of a larger array of disciplines and ways of thinking about the world.

Tavis: Why do certain students – and I’ll let you unpack the certain as you take it.

Hrabowski: Sure.

Tavis: But why do certain students have an aversion to or are directed away from or scared of, you tell me, this stuff?

Hrabowski: Okay, so keep in mind that I’m fortunate to be president of a university with students from 150 countries and I’m looking at how people from all over the world think of all races, think about math, science and learning and those kinds of things. And I can say comfortably to you that, unfortunately, in our country, we send the message to children of all races that math and science really are for a few people.

We tend to think, well, if I ask an American audience, how many of you knew by the time you were in the 11th grade that you were either a math science type or a history, English and arts type, almost everybody will raise their hands. Then you say, well, how did you know that? I mean, for you, did you know by that time?

Tavis: Yes, I knew.

Hrabowski: Now how did you know it?

Tavis: I knew it all before then [laugh].

Hrabowski: Well, how did you know? What would you say?

Tavis: I wasn’t doing so well in math.

Hrabowski: And this is exactly what happens. What happens is, we tend to say to a child who’s not doing as well, it’s not for you, as opposed to what we see in some other countries when they say it just means we’ve got to work with you more so you can get it. You can get it.

It’s about high expectations, clarity of what needs to be done, working with the child to make sure the kid can get it. Many more people can do well in these disciplines. We just have to take the right attitude.

We call the first year of science and engineering in American colleges and universities weed-out courses, weed-out courses. You know, what has made my campus different and what we’ve really worked on is to say, if you come here saying you want to be a physician or an engineer of any race, we want to make sure it happens.

So we have redesigned the way we teach, and that’s a part of the issue whether it’s in high school or in college. The elementary school kids are working around in groups. The closer they get to college, the more structured, the more they’re sitting at the table by themselves, not working with other people.

We have to teach children how to work with each other in order to support each other in doing math and science. I want every American kid of every race getting goose bumps doing math.

Tavis: Not just where math and science are concerned, but how much of our falling behind – my phrase, not yours – has to do with the fact that we don’t get that students learn differently, has to do with what you just said a moment ago, the way we teach?

Hrabowski: Well, let me say this. There are so many excellent teachers in America of all races. I will tell you there has been a constant drop in minority teachers, especially Black teachers, that we have to get more students of our very best wanting to be teachers. But the fact is, there are so many really good teachers in our schools and we don’t give them credit. We have to start there.

But number two, I am convinced – and the books that my colleagues and I have written on beating the odds, of overcoming the odds on raising smarter boys and raising smarter girls – we need to see what we can do to support families as they support teachers.

Because it’s not just what I teach you in that classroom. It’s what happens after school and it’s so important that we give kids much more support in their work after school, in the weekends and on to summertime. It’s amazing to me that we don’t realize that the way you learn to do is by doing over and over and over and the common course standards that some people are worried about.

This is what I said to a group in San Francisco this week. What we’re saying is too hard for our kids is what advantaged families and their kids have always gotten. The common standards are no different from what the best in the world get right now.

It’s teaching a child how to think critically and that’s going to mean the teachers and coming up with different approaches ’cause a lot of kids are bored in school, high school and college especially. And for little boys, for example, who don’t want to sit there, I mean, we need more physicality, ways in which they can connect the work, ways in which they work together.

But secondly, we need to think about ways of giving our families support so they can know what they can do to help that teacher and to help that community as they work to help those children. It’s going to take a village to create more children who can think critically.

Tavis: When you say give families support, what do you mean by that?

Hrabowski: Well, I mean, the books that we wrote talked about what is it you can do? The typical person would say, well, I don’t know any math, so I can’t help my child with the math. Yes, you can help your child with the math. There’s some questions you can ask.

Where are the notes you took, son, from today? Let me see them. Explain to me what the teacher said. What problems do you have to do, all right? Have you done the 10 problems? You didn’t understand those three? Okay, tomorrow I want you to write down the question you’re going to ask your teacher. Come back the next day, show me where the teacher showed you how to do it, all right? Help me understand it.

Showing interest in the work makes all the difference in the world. Most people have not been taught to do that. People love their children. Of course, they do. When they understand that the more interest they show in the work, they don’t have to be able to do the work, just showing the interest. And the more they turn the TV off for selective work so they can read and study, the better those children will do in school.

Tavis: You grew up in Alabama?

Hrabowski: I grew up in Birmingham.

Tavis: What happened to you down there [laugh]?

Hrabowski: I was blessed. I was blessed.

Tavis: Something happened to make all this work.

Hrabowski: Oh, the community.

Tavis: What happened?

Hrabowski: The community, the church, my great parents, hardworking Christian people who were working two or three jobs…

Tavis: This is Jim Crow era, though.

Hrabowski: Oh, didn’t matter. In fact, the fact is, in our community and people from the Deep South will tell you, that we were always told you have no choice. You must not see yourself as a victim. You must be empowered.

The new book that I’ve written is coming out. It’s on empowering youth and it is based on my reflections on having had the chance to march in the civil rights movement in 1963, to spend time in jail for marching, wanting a better education, right? And how those experiences taught me that a child can be empowered to be her best, his best.

A child can be told no time to be a victim. Let’s get on it. Let’s work on it, all right? And that we have, though, to give that child the support and an understanding of the challenges that we face in a society that doesn’t necessarily see me as a little child, as being a child of worth.

Tavis: I’m glad you said that because everything you said, I obviously concur with 100%. And yet there are still these institutional, structural barriers that we’ve seen with these brothers being killed in the street by cops.

Hrabowski: Sure, sure.

Tavis: There’s still institutional barriers; so I don’t buy this argument that just because Obama’s president, my child can do or be anything. The content is not situated properly in the context, I think.

Hrabowski: Sure, sure. I think there’s several things to be said. I think we should be inspired when people of color and others do well.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Hrabowski: We’re all proud of the president. Secondly, we need to be saying yes, as I say to my students. We need to understand what is not right about our society and think about ways that we can work to change that. At the same time, we want to look in the mirror at self and see how we can be better.

You know, as somebody was saying to me just a few minutes go, how do we go about talking to the children? What’s the approach we take? It is so important for adults to learn how to connect to children.

So on my campus, we got all these smart kids from all over and young people are all insecure. They’re all worried about their future. They want to know, will I be okay, all right? But it’s also important that my American students of all races see how hard my students from other countries work.

We don’t want to say that in America, but kids of other countries, of all races, are taught to work much harder. You get that little kid from Barbados or Jamaica, the kid from Nigeria, the kid from China, from India. They come over and they’re hungry and they just work, work, work. Part of the issue is this, that some kids are given all of what they need to do what they need to do.

We have to find ways to help all of our children have the support that they need. You know, UMBC is a very special place because we work with some of the highest achieving kids of all races. We’re producing large numbers who go on to get PhDs, MD PhDs, and yet we work with first time offenders.

We work with children, little boys mainly, of color, some poor white kids between the ages of 8 and 17 in our Choice program. We supervise these children 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We make sure they’re up in the morning, in school during the day; bring them on campus in the evenings. And these are children out of the inner city. My campus is out in the suburbs, but…

Tavis: Baltimore City, yeah.

Hrabowski: But the campus is right there at the airport. And here’s the point I would make to you. When the children start, they seem mean. They seem hard. They seem tough because they’ve been through so much. But the more attention we give them, the more my students and those people who are the young grad students who are working with them, the more they work with them, the more these kids begin to become children again.

And the point I’m making is this. We have to find ways for those of who are advantaged to do far more to give support to children even as we fight all the problems that we have in our society. In 1963, only 2 to 3% of Blacks were educated. Only 10% of whites, 11%. Today we have many more, 20%. We got a lot of professionals with challenges for people of all races. How do we get people connected to children who need that support?

Tavis: Finally, for those who are wondering, as I did years ago when we first met and became friends, how a Black kid in Alabama ends up with a last name of Hrabowski [laugh]. You want to tell that story right quick?

Hrabowski: My great-great-grandfather was Polish and a part of slavery. In the southern history, we southerners know these things. We do indeed [laugh].

Tavis: Now you see why Time magazine, though, has listed him as one of the best college presidents. If I had a kid, I would love for my kid to go to school, any school, where Hrabowski was president. Mr. President, I’m honored to have you on this program.

Hrabowski: Thank you. Inclusive excellence is the name of the game.

Tavis: That’s it, and you are running the show.

Hrabowski: Thank you.

Tavis: You’re running the game. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: December 19, 2014 at 2:24 pm