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Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the charismatic educator whose transformational leadership dramatically boosted Black achievement in science and engineering, announced on Wednesday that he will step down as president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, capping a 30-year tenure that put the once-sleepy suburban institution on the map.
Hrabowski will depart next June. His announcement, in a video on the school’s website, triggered a flood of praise from educators, political leaders and associates.
A son of the segregated South who was arrested at age 12 for participating in a civil rights march alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — and who was spat on by notorious segregationist Bull Connor — Hrabowski’s vision and passion for UMBC were instrumental in getting state leaders to spend more than $1 billion on an institution once described by Time magazine as a “humble commuter school.”
In a Twitter post, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) said Hrabowski “has inspired so many with his actions, words, and dedication. His commitment to supporting students from under-represented groups has transformed higher education not only in Maryland, but around the world.”
In a joint statement, University System of Maryland Chancellor Jay A. Perman and USM Board Chair Linda Gooden said, “While his retirement is more than well-deserved, it will be difficult to say goodbye to a leader like Freeman.”
“It’s UMBC’s commitment to the achievement of every student, and its work in cultivating a diverse corps of scholars and leaders, that has marked the university as one of the most respected (and emulated) pioneers in American higher education,” they added. “It’s impossible to overstate his influence on UMBC — and on its students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Over an incredible 34 years at UMBC — 30 of them as president — Dr. Hrabowski has led the university to national and international acclaim.”
Hrabowski may be best known nationally for partnering with the philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff on the creation of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program in 1988, to increase the diversity of STEM leaders.
As a result of his success, Hrabowski received frequent job offers to run more prestigious institutions. And Maryland political leaders strongly encouraged him to run for office. (The late Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., according to colleagues, wanted him to run for governor, and several gubernatorial candidates asked him to join their tickets.)
But Hrabowski was loyal beyond measure to his mission at UMBC, a school that — when he took the helm in 1992 — was still a relatively new after-thought in a state that boasted the more prestigious Johns Hopkins University and the flagship University of Maryland, College Park campus just 26 miles away.
“Dr. Hrabowski is a true visionary, and his leadership has been transformative for so many students, for Baltimore County and for our entire state,” said County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. (D), a UMBC alum.
“I thank him for his decades of dedicated service devoted to expanding access to educational excellence, sparking innovation, and promoting equity – efforts that have transformed UMBC into the national leader it is today.”
Greater Baltimore Committee CEO Donald C. Fry said Hrabowski “transformed UMBC from a respected local institution to a university of considerable national stature, known for its innovation, science and technology programs, and its culture of excellence.”
“He has made a lasting impact by advancing minority participation in math and other sciences, which has paid off with a significant number of students of color earning doctorate and medical degrees.”
President Obama tapped Hrabowski to lead the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans.
His 2013 TED Talk on the “4 Pillars of College Success in Science” has been viewed more than 1.1 million times. And he was featured in a “60 Minutes” segment in 2011.
Time named him one of “The World’s 100 Most Influential People” in 2012.
Despite his notoriety, Hrabowski was a regular and gregarious presence on campus who enjoyed interacting with students. The feelings were mutual.
In his announcement video, he thanked students, faculty, staff, university system leaders and others for supporting his efforts to elevate the school.
“It is the best place in the country to work,” he said. “We have scholars from all over the world and students who are amazingly talented, and we work with children in the communities.”
“We are determined to seek the truth and to prepare leaders for the next generation.”
Hrabowski co-authored four books, including “Beating the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Males,” “Overcoming the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Young Women,” “Holding Fast to Dreams: Empowering Youth from the Civil Rights Crusade to STEM” and “The Empowered University: Shared Leadership, Culture Change, and Academic Success.”
The 71-year-old did not give a reason for his decision to step down, nor did he hint at future plans. Despite his apparent disinclination to seek political office, his name is certain to surface once again next year as gubernatorial candidates search for running mates.
The USM Board of Regents said in a statement it will soon launch a national search for a new president.