Freeman Hrabowski III Shares Thoughts on Institutional Culture

by Lauren Provencher / Oct 28, 2020

The president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), Freeman Hrabowski III, recently shared his insights on improving student success in today’s climate by reforming institutional culture. The virtual talk, “The Empowered University: Shared Leadership in Challenging Times," took place on Oct. 12 with Illinois Chancellor Robert J. Jones as part of the campus series titled “A Great Conversation.”

Hrabowski is an esteemed leader in academic innovation and has an impressive background in higher education administration. He has served as president at UMBC since 1992 and has been nationally recognized for his outstanding leadership.

Most notably, Hrabowski was included on Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” list and named by President Barack Obama in 2012 to chair the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

He has also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Council on Education; the Clark Kerr Award from the University of California, Berkley; and the UCSF Medal from the University of California, San Francisco.

Hrabowski is an Illinois alumnus as well, earning an M.A. in mathematics and a Ph.D. in higher education administration and statistics at Urbana-Champaign. His research and publications focus on science and math education, with a special emphasis on underrepresented minority participation and performance.

Today’s Social Climate in Context

The conversation began with an introduction by Jones and a reminder from him about the importance of this dialogue for the university, as it was built on the tribal lands of Native American people.

Afterward, Hrabowski brought the audience back to 1963, when he was a young boy standing in the back of a church, not wanting to be there. He learned that young African American people needed to peacefully protest in order to get into better schools. It was thought that if young people participated in protests, America would see that even children know the difference between right and wrong.

When he told his parents, back in the 1960s, that he needed to protest, they said no. In fact, he remembered them saying, “If you march, you will go to jail.” After marching in a protest, Hrabowski did indeed spend five days in jail. However, he and many others did make a big difference: After these protests took place, Hrabowski said that people in America began to recognize they could do better.


After these protests took place ... people in America began to recognize they could do better."

His story was meant to illuminate the past in comparison to the social climate in the United States today.

“To understand today’s dilemma, the things that are going on in our country, it is so important to have context,” Hrabowski said.

He then mentioned a student who told him that the social climate has never been as bad as it is today among Americans. Hrabowski recommended the student reflect on the 1960s and referred to the 1800s and 1900s, when civic unrest consumed the U.S. For overall context, he said the student should compare those periods to today.

In particular, he said we can look at a few indicators that show the progress of Americans, especially African Americans. In the 1960s, he said, the number of people attending college was only about 10%. Of that number, only 3% to 4% of African Americans attended college compared to approximately 11% of white Americans. Today, the number of college attendees has risen to 30%, with 22% to 23% percent of African Americans pursuing a degree in higher education—a number that is still too low but has improved over the decades.

Although the numbers have increased, Hrabowski stressed that success is never final and there is much work to do, specifically with creating an institutional culture that improves the greater community.

“The question becomes who are we as a university when thinking about having an impact on the larger society … I want to challenge you, Urbana-Champaign, to look in the mirror and think about who you want to become,” Hrabowski said.

Rethinking STEM at UMBC

The conversation then turned to minoritized students pursuing STEM degrees. According to Hrabowski, only 20% of African American and Latino students who begin their academic journey with a major in science will graduate in that field. The usual reasoning for this is that their K-12 education wasn’t strong enough and left these students underprepared. While Hrabowski agrees that preK-12 education needs to be strengthened, he says institutions tend to place blame on other factors rather than reform their own practices to foster student success.

He also shared that at top-level universities, it is common that the science and engineering courses are created to only allow the best students to pass through, in an effort to keep the reputation of the program high. At UMBC, Hrabowski found that students with a strong background in the field who were well prepared and got support were the ones who made it in science and engineering. He noticed, however, that even students who had scored highly on high school AP exams and SATs were struggling to do well in college-level science and math courses.

Ultimately, his findings drove him to rethink the institutional practices that were in place by looking at the rigor of the program and the amount of support available for students in these fields. Adjusting these facets of the program allowed him to keep the standard high while also allowing more opportunities for success for all students.

At the Heart of It: Authenticity

Hrabowski finished the conversation by discussing how universities should reconsider institutional practices to increase inclusivity, especially during the pandemic. He views this moment in time as an opportunity to look at challenges such as discrimination in Title IX, hiring more faculty of color, and dismantling racist policies.

“This is an opportunity for our universities to rethink the broad critical thinking skills of our society,” he said.

At the heart of it, he believes, is authenticity. Students and people in general, Hrabowski said, can tell when you are being authentic. The challenge now is to use that authenticity to look at the different levels of racism on campus, listen to the voices of students, and have robust conversations about race that teach students and everyone else who is involved with the institution.


Learn more about Freeman A. Hrabowski III and “A Great Conversation” at Illinois.