4 Questions With Freeman Hrabowski III

Freeman Hrabowski III (Getty Images)

Freeman Hrabowski III is called the general of math and science; he turned a commuter college about 15 minutes from Baltimore's Inner Harbor into one of the nation's leading sources for African Americans who receive Ph.D.s in science and engineering.

For 20 years now Hrabowski, a native of Birmingham, Ala., has been at the helm of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, a college with about 13,000 students — 40 percent minority. At age 12 Hrabowski was jailed in the children's marches in downtown Birmingham during the civil rights movement after coming face-to-face with Bull Connor, the infamous segregationist police commissioner, who spat in his face.


Those experiences, the 61-year-old Hrawbowski said, are part of the tapestry woven into him that created an even stronger resolve to succeed. Last week Time magazine named Hrabowski one of its "100 Most Influential People in the World." He's one of only four African Americans on the list this year, which also includes actress Viola Davis from The Help, President Barack Obama and singer Rihanna.

The Root talked with Hrabowski about his emphasis on African-American achievement and the success of African Americans in math and science.

The Root: What is the key to attracting African Americans to the study of math and science and related industries and jobs?

Freeman Hrabowski: The key is for young people to start as early as middle school getting a firm grasp on subjects such as algebra and learning how to solve problems. It's also important for teachers to tell their students how they will apply algebra and geometry. Students will ask, "When will I actually use this?" Students are bored in school. You have to get them involved in group study and hands-on learning to get them more interested. Sitting back and taking notes doesn't get it.


FH: Our children don't learn to read clearly and critically at an early age. Reading is at the core of problem-solving in math and science. We need to have more families turning off the TV and reading more. We can't have parents watching The Real Housewives while telling their children, "Go and do your schoolwork." Be an example. Parents may not know how to do the homework, but they can show an interest.

TR: Gains have been made toward closing the achievement gap, but that gap persists. Why?


FH: It all goes back to reading. Middle-class African-American families read less than their white counterparts. Blacks who come from other countries tend to read more and do better in school than blacks born in this country. They seem to have a certain hunger — a certain drive.

Blacks reared in the South who moved north seemed to have a similar drive and determination. They have an old-fashioned approach to hard work. They are not lulled into thinking they have already achieved success. The success of our nation lies in the strength and quality of education all of our children receive.


TR: What role did your experiences during the civil rights era in segregated Birmingham play in shaping your career and success?

FH: It showed me that the only way I would escape second-class citizenship was to be the best and work twice as hard. There was no place like Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, where we were always getting hugs and applauses while being encouraged to do more. There was no time to be a victim. When I saw and heard leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, I saw educated men who were excellent models of leadership. I wanted to be like them.


Denise Stewart is a freelance writer in Alabama.

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