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Editors' Picks Interviews

An Interview With Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III, President of University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III is a leading advocate for math and science education. For the past 25 years, he has served as the president of University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Dr. Hrabowski has also helped several workgroups and non-profits, including the Urban Institute and the National Science Foundation, engage with education issues. Dr. Hrabowski has been recognized for his leadership by organizations ranging from the Carnegie Corporation to The Washington Post. 

The Politic spoke to Dr. Hrabowski in September about his work at UMBC over the past several years, STEM education, diversity, and civil rights.

The Politic: Do you have a central thesis of higher education? What do you hope to accomplish with the thousands of students who matriculate to UMBC every year?

Freeman Hrabowski: My fundamental thinking about higher education comes as a result of understanding the evolution of American higher education. First of all, most people don’t realize that only about 10% of Americans had graduated from college all the way up until the early 60s. Today we’re up to 30%, and for certain groups the percentages are much lower than that. When I think of higher education and what we are doing in our country and at our university, UMBC—the primary purpose of education is to open the minds of students and to help them learn to think critically so that they can be citizens in the best sense of that word; to help with the public good. To take care of their families, of course, but to be able to make sound decisions and to understand how you take information and turn it into knowledge. And most importantly to have a strong ethical base, a set of values that guide their actions.

You’ve poured a large amount of energy and resources into promoting science and technology education. Can you discuss your major efforts to date?

First of all, I have found over the years that, as a mathematician, as I’m talking about STEM, people often assume that I’m not appreciating the values of the arts, humanities, and social sciences. When I think about what we do at UMBC, the first thing we do is emphasize the importance, broadly of the liberal arts. That helps students learn to think broadly and to understand the context from the history of a period to the challenges we face in thinking about the hard decisions we have to make, to the value of the arts in our minds, every day.

One of the challenges [for the U.S.] is that we have a much lower percentage of students who are graduating in STEM than some of the other industrialized nations. For example, in Europe, about 9% of students—of people who are 25 years old have degrees in STEM—in America, it’s about 5%. And the big challenge is that we have a culture in science that assumes that most people cannot make it. Literally, only about a third of the students who begin with a major in science or engineering will actually graduate in those areas. When you look at the research, it’s not because all of a sudden they decide they want to do something more “lucrative.” It’s because they didn’t do well in a first-year course. And it can be very discouraging. And what really surprises people is that, while we need to strengthen K-12 education, the fact is large numbers of students who go to the most prestigious universities in our country begin in science and engineering but change their majors within the first year or two. And that’s heavily because they got a C in a chemistry course or didn’t feel connected to the work.

What we’ve worked to do at UMBC is look at the problem of underrepresentation in science and engineering, beginning with students who are first-generation—about a third of our students—to minorities students, to women who are minorities, in specific disciplines. We have focused on those issues, and the result has been that we have larger numbers of students form every race actually succeeding in science with a large percentage who go on to PhDs and MD/PhDs. And that’s particularly significant because we have students from about 100 countries represented on campus and we know that often students with that international background are often the ones who excel in science and technology.

So you’ve talked a bit about students who immigrate from other countries. Do you think that there’s a different climate now that’s deterring those movements to the U.S. and hurting our efforts to improve STEM education.

I think we’re at the crossroads. First of all, we’re privileged to have large numbers of Americans who are the children of people who came to this country in recent decades. So we have—and you will find, throughout the twentieth century, there were many students whose parents didn’t speak English well, for example, who went on and went to the top of their disciplines—in science, in humanities—there’s a hunger that first-generation Americans tend to have that is very inspiring. The challenge we face is that some of the policies right now that we are hearing from Washington are very discouraging to people, including to my students and others who may be DREAMers. We’ve made promises and now we’ve got to give them support.

You mentioned this idea that you think we need to emphasize a broad education, not a STEM education. How do you respond to critics like Fareed Zakaria, who say that the promotion of STEM education comes at the expense of the liberal arts?

Most people don’t realize that mathematics and the sciences are a part of the liberal arts, going all the way back to the days of the quadrivium and trivium. The idea of learning to think broadly and critically can be done through a number of disciplines. We are passionate about the need to educate students broadly. It means that students study languages, that they take courses across cultures, and that they’re learning to write with clarity and think critically about the big issues of the day. This is the purpose of an education—to teach people to seek the truth and to appreciate what different disciplines contribute as one thinks about how to look at challenges and overcome obstacles.

At the Harvard Graduate School of Education commencement in 2016, you said: “We must get away from the idea that we weed students out of science.” Can you talk about what this means?

It’s about the mindset. Quality should not mean we’re excluding most people, it should mean we have a high level of rigor and a high level of support. At UMBC, we have…a collaborative approach where students work in groups and use technology to get feedback and think through problems, to teach students to think independently but also collaborate. It’s a much more active form of learning. There’s a time for lecturing, but the idea of having other approaches to teaching and evaluation should be something we’re all thinking about as we work to see more students succeeding. If the majority of students are leaving after a course or two, the question is whether it’s just the students that failed or whether it’s also the university that failed. We’re convinced that we have a responsibility to help students who are working really hard to succeed. Otherwise, why do we invite them to the university?

In August, then-Google employee James Damore issued a memo entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.” In it, he wrote “…we have an intolerance for ideas and evidence that don’t fit a certain ideology…treat people as individuals, not as just another member of their group (tribalism).” He also wrote that organizations should “de-moralize diversity,” “stop alienating conservatives,” “be open about the science of human nature,” and “stop restricting programs and classes to certain genders or races.” How effective do you believe our dialogue about industry and education diversity is, and how should it differ?

I saw many pieces written by people that I was encouraged by. They talk about the need for open dialogue. There’s a fundamental understanding that we should be able to find men and women from every possible group who can excel in the work going on, and that we shouldn’t assume that certain groups can’t perform, and that we need to be creative about how we give support to people different from ourselves. We work very hard to create a climate [at UMBC] in which people can say what they really think. We know that people differ in many ways and the way they look at issues, and they shouldn’t be immediately attacked. The challenge we’ve faced is we haven’t taught ourselves or the younger generation how to listen to other perspectives. There’s too much emphasis on being right rather than gaining understanding and struggling with it. It’s hard sometimes to come up with a consensus, but it takes careful listening, thinking, and respect.

When you were thirteen years old, you marched in the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. Now you’re the president of one of the most renowned research institutions in the world. How do you think the nature of the civil rights struggle has changed over the past several decades?

I was twelve! There’s a need to empower young people to take ownership of the problems we have. What we saw during that period that can be very encouraging to us today is that people were willing to rethink how they thought about who should be a part of mainstream society. And so many decent people of every race said, “We want every child to have these opportunities.” That was a huge change. Today we have similar problems. If a child is from the bottom 25% economically, their chances of graduating from a four-year institution are about 10%. So we still have the problem of helping many more young people develop the skills and values they need in order to get an education.

Maryland is known as a progressive state, but it still has a complex racial history and present. In the past month alone, a statue of Justice Roger Taney has been removed from State House and some have called for changing the state song, which celebrates “spurn[ing] the Northern scum,” and the state flag, which unifies banners flown by both the Confederacy and Union. Can you share your positions on these questions? How relevant do you think these state symbols are to UMBC’s institutional identity?

We’re the only campus in the state founded at a time when people of all races could come here. There’s no simple answer. I don’t want to simply erase history because I think we need to look at the good, the bad, and the ugly. I want to make sure that people remember the challenges we faced and that we face many challenges today. I haven’t made up my mind on much of this, and I think we need people to understand what’s at stake here. Although we’re in the suburbs, we’re encouraging our students to get involved with urban challenges [in Baltimore City]. I’m far more concerned about the fact that so many minority children can’t read than I am about the symbols. You take down all the symbols, will children be able to read? The worst thing that could happen is people remove some symbols and then they think, “OK, we’ve arrived. We’ve taken care of that.”One has to know the history of discrimination to begin to understand what we need to do as a nation. There’s so much we need to understand that can’t be solved through some symbolic gesture. I’m more interested in the substance of the challenges that we face. Let’s look at policies that put boys of color in jail disproportionately…these are issues that should take up far more of our time than symbols. That’s not to say we shouldn’t think through the best approaches, but decisions shouldn’t be made in such a way that we think we’ve suddenly solved the problem.

Where do you get your news?

I’m being challenged by my students to learn French, so I’m studying French stations a lot. I also check out other sources to get different perspectives, not just in the West but also in other places.

What place would you most like to visit?


If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing?

I would be working with children, especially poor children in the city with reading and math. They appreciate it so much; they appreciate people loving them.

Which living person do you most admire?

I have so many heroes who are college students of mine who have gone through so much.

What is your advice for college students?

I would quote Apollinaire: “The joy comes after the struggle.” In truth, education is not easy. Listen to things you don’t even like. You’ll grow and develop in ways you don’t even imagine.