The Three Decade University President

Monday, January 10, 2022 - Legendary University President Freeman Hrabowski takes Future U on a tour of University of Maryland Baltimore County as he prepares to turn over leadership of the institution. He leaves a strong legacy of student success for the university to build on.

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Transcript

Jeff Selingo:

In higher education, the true success stories are often buried from public view. But at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, known as UMBC, a success has been unfolding in plain sight for three decades.

Michael Horn:

That's right, Jeff. And those three decades have marked one of the most successful tenures of perhaps any president in higher education. Freeman Hrabowski, who is retiring after 30 years at the helm of UMBC. He's the main event today on an episode unlike any other we've done at Future U.

Sponsor:

Support for this podcast is provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is proud to support the work of the Postsecondary Value Commission. Because the question, what is college worth, deserves answers. Learn more at postsecondaryvalue.org. Subscribe to Future U wherever you get your podcasts. And follow us on Twitter at the handle Future U Podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, please leave us a five star rating so others can discover the conversations we're having about higher education.

Michael Horn:

I'm Michael Horn.

Jeff Selingo:

And I'm Jeff Selingo. UMBC opened in 1966. It was chartered three years earlier by the Maryland legislature as the first integrated campus in Maryland at a time when much of American higher education was segregated. In terms of American higher ed history, UMBC is a baby, just over 55 years old. It enrolled a little more than 700 students that first year.

Michael Horn:

And on that day in September when UMBC opened its doors, Jeff, it had a total of three buildings and 37 faculty members. Naturally, they offered only freshman level courses initially. And get this, tuition was $142, per semester, not per credit hour. It's safe to say they've expanded a lot since then, as we saw on a recent tour of the campus with the president of UMBC.

Freeman Hrabowski:

Ah, okay. So some of you it's the first time. If you look out, you see downtown Baltimore.

Jeff Selingo:

That's Freeman Hrabowski. He's retiring as president of UMBC at the end of this academic year after 30 years at the helm, that's over half the life of the institution. Now let's say this upfront. 30 plus years as president of a major higher education institution means we probably could do an entire season of episodes about this one man in this one university. There's so much more to know about Freeman than we're ever going to get to today. Like how as a ninth grader in his native of Birmingham, Alabama, he was arrested and jailed for helping lead a civil rights demonstration. That experience was described in Spike Lee's 1997 documentary, Four Little Girls, which depicted the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four young black girls, one of whom Freeman knew well. Or like how his signature program, the highly successful Meyerhoff scholarship program, which has paid the tuition of fees for hundreds of black students in science and engineering and provided wraparound services as well, means that more black students at UMBC go on to get PhDs than any other institution in the country.

Jeff Selingo:

Indeed, the first black woman to create any vaccine, in this case for COVID-19, is a UMBC alum. We won't get to all of that today, since you can read volumes on it elsewhere. What we're hoping to do is give you a glimpse of Freeman on campus to illustrate how he's led one institution for 30 plus years. And specifically, with an eye toward what does this mean for the future of higher education itself?

Jeff Selingo:

In the clip you just heard of Freeman, Michael and I were trying to do a run walk to keep up with Freeman as he took us up to the rooftop of the administration building at UMBC to look out over the campus that he has watched literally grow up with him. It now has 70 buildings. Throughout this episode, you'll hear some clips of us hustling to keep up with Freeman as he takes us on a tour of UMBC. As well as some clips of when we sat down with him in a studio. And one thing to know is that UMBC isn't a small campus. The university, for example, has dramatically expanded the number of buildings dedicated to scientific research, generally, to the benefit of the surrounding community and region.

Freeman Hrabowski:

And so, and they said, "We don't know what those scientists will be doing." I said, "How long have you lived in this area?" They said, "10 years, 20 years." I said, "If my freshmen haven't blown you up into chemistry labs you're okay." So the American response was, let's get rid of that chemistry. Seriously. Let's get rid of that.

Michael Horn:

But as you know, Jeff, this isn't just a story about buildings, far from it. This is really a story about investing in students and their success. UMBC isn't a flagship campus. It accepts roughly 70% of students. It's a minority serving institution where nearly a quarter of its students are Asian, a fifth are black, a bit under a tenth are Hispanic. And while students come primarily from Maryland, just under 5% are international students and 25% receive Pell grants. Over the last 10 years, the university increased its six year graduation rate for full-time first year students from 56% to 69%. That's an incredible jump that's taken UMBC from basically performing like the average higher education institution to one that's performing well above the national average graduation rate. And that rise has occurred because of a critical part of UMBC's focus, undergraduates. Freeman takes the success of each student seriously, which is something that we saw when we had an impromptu conversation with a student who just happened to be walking by us on our campus tour.

Freeman Hrabowski:

Hey, how you doing? Come here a minute, introduce yourself.

UMBC Student:

I'm Sam. Nice to meet you.

Michael Horn:

Hi Sam, how you doing?

Freeman Hrabowski:

Always give your full name.

UMBC Student:

I'm Sam Garret. Nice to meet you.

Freeman Hrabowski:

And your major?

UMBC Student:

I'm a GS major here.

Freeman Hrabowski:

What does GS mean?

UMBC Student:

Geography and environmental systems.

Michael Horn:

Where you go to high school?

Freeman Hrabowski:

Oh, the talent is there. That's why I'm always a believer. Yes, we need to look at pre-K through 12 and keep working on those issues in innovative ways. And we are doing that here with Baltimore, but we need to look at the undergrad experience. Are we doing as much as we can to inspire students, to want to become great professors, to be excited about asking the hard questions in science, you see? And I think we can do a better job. We are accustomed to looking at the highest achievers and they, of course, will go on and do well. But there's so much talent from our middle class and working classes that never will get that opportunity because we've not taken the time to think through what does it take to help them to not simply be okay, and to graduate. We talk about graduation rates. I want to talk about inclusive excellence. This is what UMBC has worked to do. We're taking middle class kids and making them the very best in the world. That's what's important.

Michael Horn:

And UMBC is dedicated to providing that experience to a mix of undergrads who hail from all kinds of backgrounds in a way that challenges them. It's an intentional part of the experience.

Freeman Hrabowski:

One of the biggest challenges in American society, and I've said it publicly, is that we don't help people learn how to work with people different from themselves. It's okay for people to be with people like themselves, sometimes. But if we are not helping them learn how to be with people who are from different religions and races, different parts of the world, then people leave with the same assumptions that they had when they first came. And I'm afraid that when we look at people coming across the stage, most have never gotten to know well people different from themselves. There's ultimate challenge in American higher education and in American society, we can be better than that. We've worked here to make sure we mix it up to get beyond your comfort zone because that's what education means. It means getting to become uncomfortable, because growth comes in that space of discomfort.

Michael Horn:

While on campus, Jeff and I toured UMBC's academic success center to see all the initiatives that UMBC as to support students. The hallways of this one stop shop for academic success were lined with explicit goals and metrics around student outcomes, with services ranging from tutoring to providing peer advocates. The dedication was clear.

Freeman Hrabowski:

People work hard to help students succeed. It's getting beyond what we thought was possible. We thought, because of programs we can't have here for a variety of reasons, we were doing as well as we could do in graduation rates. But what became clear was we could be creative. We could look at what other people are doing. I would be encouraging universities to look around the country, because there's some great practices in different kinds of institutions. And we can learn from each other. I like being a part of the Innovation Alliance because we learn from them. They can learn from us. We learn from them, but I think we need more opportunities.

Jeff Selingo:

So A key question Michael and I wondered about was how has the institution been able to get research faculty to continually focus on outcomes for undergraduates? One thing Freeman told us is this, UMBC prioritizes active learning over lectures and bringing undergraduates into research labs to make their learning real, very early in their experience. Peter Murray, who has served as the chief information officer at UMBC since 2002 offered a bit more insight when we ran into him on our tour.

Peter Murray:

We just have a great group because we've had this stability of leadership and my colleagues are great. We've been able to just every year, continue to innovate in ways that we don't have this stop and start. It's like compound interest. It makes a difference over 40 years

Freeman Hrabowski:

For us, it's been great that I've been able to stay here. And I think about the chemistry between the president and the faculty and other groups, but I also think about the extent to which the institution is evolving. We were very young then. We were only 20 years old when I came there, so this place has changed every five to 10 years in different ways. Most important, much stronger connections to the larger world. And I've had a chance to grow with it. But every campus is different. Some presidents can stay five to seven years and make a big difference. And in other institutions, it takes more time. Most important though, the question is, if you make changes, will the changes be sustained when you leave? That's the question a person must ask.

Michael Horn:

And so You feel like you want to make changes that are going to be sustainable for the long-term.

Freeman Hrabowski:

It's not enough to have a lot of fanfare and say, "Oh, these things were changed. These people were changed." The question is, what's happening after you leave? That's when you know whether or not you really made a difference.

Michael Horn:

It's a true legacy.

Freeman Hrabowski:

Yeah. Yeah. And the biggest story here is, that whatever has been changed has not been simply because of me, but because of a lot of people who believe in those changes, so it's in the DNA of the institution.

Michael Horn:

This connection between teaching and research didn't happen overnight. It was the result of a lot of work to create partnerships with large local employers and government agencies. And that's fueled the growth of the campus and the success of the students.

Freeman Hrabowski:

This was a farm to a state mental institution, which is beyond the trees that way. And then pig pen pond. The pigs were right there in that water right there. But these are all multi-tenant buildings. In total we have about 125 companies, not just here, but we have another campus that's on the other side of those trees. And we're one of the largest concentrations of cyber security companies in the country.

Michael Horn:

Wow.

Freeman Hrabowski:

And one of the reasons is we are very connected to the National Security Agency.

Michael Horn:

Makes sense.

Freeman Hrabowski:

We're one of the largest feeders there. We've got about 1200 graduates at NSA. This is BW. You think about it, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, you're down to exit one, 35, 40 minutes. Right? We use that for thinking about... And the connection to the national infrastructure in science and STEM, NIH, NASA, NSA, NIST, all those places. So we are in the top 20 in funding from NASA in the country. That's a part of the future. Northrop Grumman has worked really closely with us, Lockheed Martin, too, but Northrop in doing several things. One, hiring our students, hundreds and hundreds. Two, helping us look at curriculum. And three, actually giving us funding to help some of these young companies to build their business. They want to see our young companies will do it.

Michael Horn:

All of this work is really a system where the research, teaching and growth all build on each other and produce more and more success. Freeman views this all as a bigger part of the innovation and evolution that will incur in higher education. And it will impact the credentials that institutions award over time and the tools colleges use in teaching and learning.

Freeman Hrabowski:

So after 18 months, you can get a job of 65, $70,000. Okay. Now some of them will eventually move over and take a degree credit program. But I'm saying the future of higher education will involve a blurring of those lines between the traditional program and training programs and looking at the curriculum and looking at the skills, and most important, partnering with major employers.

Michael Horn:

The work in supporting students, moving many black students into PhDs and having greater research success for women and underrepresented minorities should also have an important impact on creating more diverse leaders in higher education in the long run, a topic that is very much on Freeman's mind.

Freeman Hrabowski:

We are the number one producer of African Americans who are going to get PhDs in natural sciences and engineering. And we are not an HBCU. It's the genius of the AND versus the tyranny of the OR. That's Jim Collins, not me. The fact is we have to think about how different kinds of institutions, like ours, which is a minority serving institution, can make a difference in this world. Now, interestingly, we're an MSI, minority serving, not because of our black population, but because of our Asian population. So understanding the different kinds of universities and what role they can play in producing more leaders, though. We do need universities thinking about producing leaders, whether they're leaders who will go to the professoriate or leaders who will be in our society, doing the work that needs to be done.

Freeman Hrabowski:

But the question is, do people understand how deep and complex the issues are, and how do we use the experts on our campuses and others to take the conversations to the next level? What should it mean in terms of policy development? What should it mean in terms of getting people ready to vote and to think through all the options that they have? How do we do this without it looking like it's Instagram, that it's just a matter of a few sentences? It will take deep substantive conversations and actions.

Jeff Selingo:

Right. So how do you ensure that this is not just a bunch of D&I plans or PR things like that? Do you think your fellow presidents get it that this is a moment and that this is the beginning of a very long conversation to have, and that the various stakeholders on campus, whether those are boards, it seems like the students get it, but do the faculty? Do the boards, and more important, do the presidents really get it?

Freeman Hrabowski:

I think that presidents really want to make a difference. My colleagues want to make a difference. We need time to understand what making a difference will mean. And that's, whether in universities or in the corporate world, it's an American societal issue that we have to grapple with. And a part of that will mean our listening carefully to different perspectives, our understanding the role that history plays in all of this. And this is why the humanities, social sciences, are more important now than ever. Because we have not done a good enough job, clearly. We talk about people being liberally educated. Well, how are you going to be liberally educated if you don't understand what this country has been through over the past few hundred years. And where we are now and how what we have as challenges right now really is a result of things, of problems, that have not been solved since before the Civil War.

Freeman Hrabowski:

And that's a part of this deeper issue. And then, so when talking about D&I, it's one thing to talk about whether students are having a good experience on the campus, but there are deeper issues even than that when we think about poverty in our society, when we think about disproportionate health disparities. I mean helping our students and ourselves to understand what can be done to make a difference. And, quite frankly, how do we build the professoriate? And that's a big piece of it. I say that in a piece in the Atlantic, that we can often talk about what's happening in our society, but we are not looking inward to say, wait a minute, we still are not producing enough people who become a part of the faculty, who will make the faculty more representative of the students to understand those different perspectives. We need people to say, "Yes, this is the problem. What are the steps we can take?" As a mathematician, I'm always saying to solve a problem, you have to be able to look at it from different angles and then take your time in thinking it through.

Jeff Selingo:

This is a topic that UMBC is working on with two other public institutions in the university system of Maryland, which we'll tell you about along with more of our day at UMBC after this short break on Future U.

Sponsor:

Support for this podcast is provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is proud to support the work of the Postsecondary value commission. Because the question, what is college worth deserves answers learn more at postsecondaryvalue.org.

Jeff Selingo:

Welcome back to Future U. If you've listened this far, you know this episode is a bit different from the others we've reported. Michael and I spent the day at the University of Maryland Baltimore County with its president Freeman Hrabowski, who is retiring after 30 years.

Jeff Selingo:

As we were telling you before the break UMBC is working with two other universities in the system, the University of Maryland College Park and Morgan State on representation leadership at universities. Thanks to a large grant the three institutions received. Led by an all woman leadership team, the breaking the mold program aims to develop a diverse pipeline of leadership, particularly in the arts and the humanities. It will focus on women faculty as well as black, Hispanic, and American Indian, Alaskan native faculty, and it builds on UMBC's success mentoring a diverse pool of post-doctoral fellows transitioning to faculty positions.

Michael Horn:

Now Jeff, there are a lot of issues out there that UMBC clearly could tackle, but Freeman made a point to us about the importance of focus, something all institutions would do well to heed.

Freeman Hrabowski:

We always say focus, focus, focus here. And the reason is, you can't get but so many things accomplished. It depends on how much money you have and resources, quite frankly. If you're not with billions of dollars in your endowment, you need to focus on those priorities that are most important. For us it's been certain programs that have been critical, and most important it's been a matter of building consensus among people on campus that this is important to this campus. So, issues involving women in technology, big area for us, and we really worked on that. Or issues involving strengthening what you do in the liberal arts broadly with the research, having connections between research and teaching, not just in biochemistry, but in public policy, for example. So that idea of having themes that are critical, that people say, "Yeah, this is important to us."

Jeff Selingo:

Not only that, but Freeman also talked about the importance of a team, not just individuals, in creating change.

Freeman Hrabowski:

It's so important to have people who believe in the university. What I'm always saying to people in higher Ed is, don't go to a place because you want the experience and you want to move on. No, you need to stay the course. Believe in that institution, help build that institution. Other opportunities will occur. And so we say to people who have left here, they are still a part of the UMBC family.

Jeff Selingo:

Finally, Freeman continues to ask big questions, ones that all higher ed leaders would be wise to ask. And he's setting the groundwork for new leadership for UMBC. And he's not being shy, Michael, about the profile of the person he wants to be the next president of UMBC, as you'll hear in this clip.

Freeman Hrabowski:

Oh yeah. Just to be themselves. This person is going to be amazing. And I will tell you, I've been throwing out to the airways, this woman is going to be an incredible president. She really is.

Jeff Selingo:

Good. Love it.

Freeman Hrabowski:

I believe in higher education. We need leaders who are passionate about the role of higher education in transforming lives. And most important advice to presidents, we want to keep building the research, but know those students. There's nothing more rewarding than sensing the stories of our students and building on those stories.

Michael Horn:

Jeff, it was a memorable interview and a memorable day on campus for us on Future U. Just to see how much importance the campus and Freeman puts on the individual stories of each student and each student's success was really an inspiration.

Jeff Selingo:

No doubt, Michael, it was also hard to keep up with him, because he just runs around campus. And what it shows is that it's possible to package the critical pieces together and have them work in concert with each other, research, undergraduate education and student success. Institutions don't have to give up on one to get the other. Institutions can, like Freeman has, take more ownership and accountability to change the lives and fortunes of students. And with that, as we close out this special episode of Future U, we'll give Freeman Hrabowski the last word.

Freeman Hrabowski:

Every student has a story, as you know, as every person does, but I'm constantly saying to people know the stories, know the stories.

Michael Horn:

I'm Michael Horn.

Jeff Selingo:

And I'm Jeff Selingo, and thanks for joining us on Future U. We'll see you next time.

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