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Weekly Wisdom Episode 9: Transcript of Conversation With Freeman Hrabowski, President, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Weekly Wisdom Episode 9: Transcript of Conversation With Freeman Hrabowski, President, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Note: This interview, Episode 9 of the Weekly Wisdom Series, originally aired on June 15, 2020 as part of the University Innovation Alliance’s Innovating Together podcast, appearing live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Click here to access our summary, along with helpful links and audio from this episode.

Freeman Hrabowski:
I always say something that surprises people, and it’s at the beginning of this new book called The Empowered University. That it’s not about me, it’s about us. It’s right now, there’s no doubt the buck stops with me. When it doesn’t go well, people are writing to me. When it goes well, it goes well because of so many people who are working together. I think it’s important to think about community.

Bridget Burns:
Welcome to Innovating Together, podcast produced by the University Innovation Alliance. This is the podcast for busy people in higher education who are looking for the best ideas, inspiration, and leaders to help you improve student success. I’m your host, Bridget Burns. You’re about to watch another episode of Start the Week with Wisdom which, for those of you who are at home if you have not seen this before, these are weekly episodes where we conduct an interview with a sitting college president or chancellor and we want to talk to them about how they’re navigating the challenge of this moment. We’re in a really unique time and we want to focus on their leadership and unpack how they are making decisions, how they are navigating and hopefully it will leave you with a sense of optimism, a bit inspired, and give you a bit of hope.

Jeff Selingo:
I’m Jeff Selingo joining you from Washington D.C., where I’m an author, a journalist, and a special advisor at Arizona State University. And Bridget, I think we’re really delighted with today’s guest. Because we have with us Freeman Hrabowski, who many people in higher ed and around higher ed knows as the president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, U.M.B.C., which of course really rose to some prominence a couple of years ago because of their big win in March Madness tournament. But we all know in higher ed there’s so much more to U.M.B.C. than basketball, and Freeman I think will talk about a little bit about it today. He’s been president there for 28 years. He's a legend in higher ed, receiving many accolades including being listed as one of the ten best college presidents by Time magazine. Also, author of a new book called The Empowered University

So, Freeman, great to have you with us today. You’ve not only been one of the longest serving leaders in higher ed, but you’re also a prominent face in the civil rights movement, Spike Lee’s film 4 Little Girls. So, given the global pandemic and the fight for racial justice in the U.S. after the murder of George Floyd a couple of weeks ago, I know many people are looking to you for leadership during such a challenging time. So how are you holding up right now? What’s on your mind?

Freeman Hrabowski:
First of all, thank you both. You are both admired leaders in higher education, so it’s great to be here talking with you. I’m holding up well. My students give me strength and inspiration every day. It is a challenging time and I’m glad you brought up both those issues of the COVID challenge and the challenges we face regarding structural racism. I would add a third, and that is the problems with the economy, and particularly for people who are not from the wealthiest of homes or who are not as privileged. All three of those come together, and what I would say to you is what I am saying to my students and my colleagues and we’re saying at U.M.B.C.: This is a time that sheds light on our character as a country and as leaders, as educators, as universities.

And we’re determined at U.M.B.C. to act with authenticity and to be honest with ourselves to say we can be better at whatever we’re doing. And we want to show our students how to lead, I would say, with not just authenticity, but with the kind of humility that suggests to people we can do this. We can do this. I can talk forever, but I think you may want to ask me questions [laughter].

Jeff Selingo:
No, we have many questions.

Bridget Burns:
So that is a bit of an answer I think to this next question, but I’m hoping you can go a little bit further. Because, you know, I’m seeing there are interim leaders in this moment. There are folks who are in the midst of transition, and so I sit in this kind of central space and observe how university presidents and chancellors are responding, how they’re communicating in this moment. And I think as someone who served for 28 years, I’m hoping you can give them advice about how to lead in this moment. Exactly what kind of framework do you think as a leader of an institution serving thousands of students that you would suggest that they incorporate, especially for those who might be in the interim or the new capacity?

Freeman Hrabowski:
Yeah, I always say something that surprises people, and it’s at the beginning of this new book called The Empowered University. That it’s not about me, it’s about us. It’s right now, there’s no doubt the buck stops with me. When it doesn’t go well, people are writing to me. What did you not do, for example? But when it goes well, it goes well because of so many people who are working together. And for people who’ve not been in the job for long or who have been in there for long and who may be feeling somewhat discouraged, I think it’s important to think about the importance of community, of the people around you, of student leaders, faculty leaders, staff leaders. What gives me encouragement besides my students, when I look at my colleagues, staff, and faculty who are working so hard to help our students.

And thinking about how we do it. It’s not just reaching the goal line. It is about how we get there, and that means showing people that in stressful times, we need to think about being supportive of each other, to keep a kind of calmness, to bring honesty to the work but to be able to say things in a way that we can hear each other. We talk about retriever courage  – at U.M.B.C., our dog’s a Chesapeake Bay Retriever  – and that’s the courage to look in the mirror and not only to be honest with self, but to listen to the other voices. Whether it’s about the fears that people have about this disease right now or it’s about the challenges involving racism, the question is how can we show not only through what we say, but through our actions that we are committed to making the place better, to addressing the issues and concerns that people bring up, and most important that we have a vision that tomorrow can be better than today.

It’s so easy to go down, down, down in that hole because of all the problems we’re having. But we have had problems before. Racism is not new. We’ve had diseases before, and you can talk about ways in which they are the same and ways in which they are different. But what makes the difference will be our attitudes not only as leaders, but as people who are serving other people. And that’s what gets me through every day. From thinking back over the past 50 years of my career, seeing how people have been able to inspire us, even when the times were dark. It’s very important. Hope, you know, Jesse Jackson said to keep hope alive. It is so true; it is so true. We must keep hope and believe in this next generation.

Jeff Selingo:
So, Freeman is there something that from earlier in your presidency or earlier in your life or career that really kind of drives you right now? And, you know, is there a leadership lesson that you pull from either earlier in your life or earlier in your career that kind of helps you through this moment?

Freeman Hrabowski:
Sure, sure. There’s no doubt that growing up as a Black child in Birmingham and marching with Dr. King and spending a week in jail, all those things were as awful as they could possibly be, and yet as empowering as they could possibly be. Because that statement I made about tomorrow can be better than today, that theme came from listening to Dr. King. And I did see things improve. We have a long way to go, but my God, I did see so much progress over a number of years. And then my first year at U.M.B.C. before I became president and within the first few days there in 1987, we had a Black student protest. And it was a very difficult time. And yet at that period, Michael Hooker, the president, and my colleagues and I worked with students listening to them, trying to understand their perspective, and we learned a lot, and we made changes based on what we heard.

And then we’ve had other situations since then. Every campus goes through this. Every president knows what I’m talking about. I say in that book there’s a protest around the corner. And the question is how do we deal with it? And one part of what we learned, what I learned as a child, what I learned as a young administrator was that first of all, when we see these protests, they are a part of our democracy, a very important part of our democracy, when people feel empowered to say what they really believe; number two, that we only get better as we face the truth, the good, the bad, and the challenging, and then as we work on implementation. Now I’m going to go back and forth between talking about the issues involving every day right now what we see on TV and the protests. But on the other side, looking at COVID-19 and the challenges of preparing for the fall.

In both cases, the fact is that the more we can hear the voices of people and bring those voices to the table, and the more we listen to experts – in every case, listening to experts and letting reason prevail – the better off we are the next day. And the more we get knocked down, as we get knocked down by health or by these other challenges and we get back up, the stronger we can be. And that’s probably the most important lesson. You know, in the Black community, and there’s a phrase in church that says we fall down, but we get up. And we use the word at U.M.B.C. "grit." When we see that word grit, that hard work, that resilience, and never giving up – now is the time we in America, in the world, and at U.M.B.C. must use that word and show it through our actions. Grit: it’s very important.

Bridget Burns:
So, I’m curious about what you think is going to change about higher education as a result of this moment? I think there’re a couple ways you could go with that question. And I’d love to know what you think is going to happen, but also what you hope will happen.

Freeman Hrabowski:
And I want to start with what I hope. And I hope that we will take this time in America to listen to these voices who’ve not been heard, number one, and to look at both democracy and voting, because the American education is directly tied to just that, to democracy and to voting, and to bring into positions of power people who believe in higher education, people who believe in science and believe in the humanities. And we have a role to play. We can be empowered and help Americans more than ever. There is an initiative called Imagining America where my arts and humanities colleagues work with people from Syracuse to all kinds of campuses on looking at ways that the humanists and the artists can help change urban communities. And now, well, we should be seeing much more of that. We can play a role with all of that.

And secondly, when we think about the health challenges that we face again, there’re several things. I’ve just finishing writing an article with my colleagues on this shortage of people from diverse backgrounds in the scientific discussions, and the need to bring more – something that our campus has worked a lot on – more people into the scientific enterprise so that they can bring those perspectives, looking at the disproportionate numbers of people of color or of African Americans and Latinos who are contracting this disease and actually dying. And so, whether we're talking about bringing people into public health, into medicine, into science, into policy, I’m thinking this is the time when American higher education – I’m hoping, but I believe it will happen – understands that our strength as a country will be inextricably tied to our success in bringing people from all backgrounds into the problem solving as we face the future.

Jeff Selingo:
Freeman [laughter] your enthusiasm and optimism always amazes me even in what I see as some the darkest moments, and I’m only late 40s. So, you’ve seen a lot more of the world than I have, but what really drives this optimism and purpose right now for you? Because when I talk to university leaders, they’re really worried. They’re not only worried about the pandemic and coming back to campus and are they going to be able to bring back students to campus and all the financial and health pieces of that. But everybody’s worried about what they describe as the campus is going to be like a tinder box this fall. Because the protests that we’ve seen in our cities and across the country are going to come to our campuses. They know that, right?

Freeman Hrabowski:
Yes, yes.

Jeff Selingo:
So, you’re going to be dealing with all this all at the same time, and most of the people I’m talking to, they’re hopeful, but they’re not very positive right now.

Freeman Hrabowski:
It’s a great question, and I am as realistic as the next. People say you must not be being realistic. I’m so realistic that every day I am challenged, in fact, when I go into the city of Baltimore or D.C. and I see poor children. Poor children and their families are struggling like this every day. Those of us in higher education who are presidents or part of the professory are very privileged. And we have not had this level of struggle before, but poor people of all races and Black people in cities and poor whites struggle every day. Children struggle seeing other children killed everyday in our country. And so, families struggle without having healthcare. And from my perspective, I think this is a time when we have the chance become more enlightened and more sensitive to what so many human beings, Americans and then in other countries also, go through every day the things that we’re dealing with – the uncertainty, the illness issues, the racial tension issues, the economic issues – and this is all a part of life. And I think the more enlightened we become as a society, the more we’ll understand it’s not just about us. It’s not just about a president of the university or on any level. It’s about all of us, and it’s not just about those of us who are privileged. Because while some will say, oh things have never been this bad, well go and look. It’s like when Katrina hit. All of a sudden people saw the poverty in New Orleans, but those people had been going through that every day. And so, this is a time when the light is shining on the human condition. And it’s showing those of us of privilege what other people have gone through all along. And so, going back to something Bridget asked me about, about what I hope for.

It is that we can help our students and our colleagues understand we should be preparing people to pay it forward, to want children of all backgrounds to feel they matter, to make sure Blacks matter and other groups matter, and most important to put ourselves in the shoes of other people. It seems to me that’s at the essence of what it means to be educated. To be constantly asking questions trying to learn new things. And what could be more important than learning how others are experiencing life? And this is giving us a chance to do that, and when you’ve gone through what certain groups like African Americans – just start with us – you know right now people are talking about Black people, and we had gotten away from doing that as much.

You know that, we talk minority and that’s fine. But it’s good to bring specificity. There’s a time to talk about every group. There’s no doubt about that, from gender to L.G.B.T.Q. to Asian Americans to Latinas to Latinx to African, to all of us. We need all those conversations. This very moment we are seeing so many Blacks killed through police brutality that people are taking the time to say anti-Black, Black racism. That is not to the exclusion of other groups, but it is saying let’s take a moment and see what’s happening in this country. And so, I think back to how bad things were for me as a colored child – not called Black then – colored child in Birmingham. It’s hard for a white to understand how we felt when our little friends, little girls were blown up in the church and we had nightmares and still have nightmares.

And I don’t say that for pity. It is to say that people have no idea what people have gone through for years, and I think this is what we’re seeing right now. And so, with all that said, it may sound as if I’m bitter. I am not. My faith keeps me strong, and I know we made progress from the '50s and '60s up until a period. We are now seeing some real problems, but this is the human condition. We make progress, we slide back some, we learn things, and we move ahead. I have confidence that we as human beings and we as Americans will say, "Enough is enough. We’re better than this." That’s what gives me hope. I truly believe at every level we’ve been able to say we’re better than this, and we make progress. That’s the hope for me.

Jeff Selingo:
That’s great and I think your perspective, your wide perspective helps. Sometimes I think presidents get too deep into their own lives, into their own institutions, their heads down – 

Freeman Hrabowski:
Right.

Jeff Selingo:
– in the work rather than looking out and beyond. Right, Bridget?

Freeman Hrabowski:
Right, right.

Bridget Burns:
Yeah, so I’m curious about as, you know, you are leading so clearly in this moment. And so, I’m so glad that we’re able to share your leadership with others. Because I know that’s not always the case. Not every institutional leader has a clear sense of how to move forward in this moment and be able to keep folks inspired. And part of that I think is the design of the job. So, I would love to just turn our head a little bit towards that and that I have a sense of just how inundated you are on a daily basis [laughter]. The amount of requests, the amount of just inputs and demands and needing to make decisions and constantly facing possibility of surprise.

Freeman Hrabowski:
Right.

Bridget Burns:
And I’m just wondering how you would suggest others – and I want to a view of how you go about this job – how do you keep your head focused on the challenge of the day as opposed to being caught up in whatever is going to be a distraction of the moment?

Freeman Hrabowski:
Sure, sure.

Bridget Burns:
And now plenty of things right now that are not a distraction. They need to be dealt with. But I’m just curious about how you differentiate and make those kinds of decisions.

Freeman Hrabowski:
You know, I always say to presidents it’s so important to take care of self and one’s health because the stress is enormous. It’s just great, it really is. And that means the health, so I’ve got the people at my president’s office, and I compare notes on our exercise every day. You know, that may sound frivolous, but it’s so important. I’m getting my steps in. I’m getting six, seven miles in a day mainly walking, a little running with it, but we’re working on it. And they will tell me about their biking and other things and to do that, which is not the job, but it is the job. It is making sure colleagues are working on emotional and physical health. It’s very important. If you don’t have your health, it’s hard to do other things. And then, two, having good people whom you can trust around you and who will tell you the truth.

And tell you when what you’re saying does not make sense or when it needs rethinking, or when you’re being too irritable when you need to be more positive. Because you’re seeing the positive side now – believe me, there are times when Freeman is a little irritable [laughter] and it's great to have people who can help bring humor into all of this. And then having a structured approach to saying what are the most critical issues we’re facing right now? There is no doubt that we are focused on COVID and safety and health. Making sure faculty, staff, and students starting with our students, but faculty and staff are healthy, and then therefore balancing online versus in person and what we’ll do there. Two, we are all looking at M.S.N.B.C. or other stations right now and realizing protests are all around us.

And our students are writing to us, because with all of our success in producing Black scientists and being one of these leading predominantly white schools, and graduation rates and things for African Americans and others. The fact is that we have our challenges also. Any president of a university in America should be honest enough to say that his or her campus still has challenges. And as my colleagues, as my students write to me, particularly alumni, and are saying we have these problems in this department, the first thing to do is to not be defensive. Two, thank them for their courage; and three, listen carefully. That’s that retriever courage to what they’re saying. And four, think about next steps so that you’re not just giving platitudes, but if you’re talking about things that can be done.

For example, helping Americans of all types understand the challenges that we’re facing right now. So, the idea of focusing on the COVID issues, on these race issues and then on the budgetary issues. Because the budgetary issues are just as critical as anything else. It’s quite frankly even more critical and for us we keep talking about guiding principles of the academic program first, and people at the same time. That we’re trying to support people so that we can have as much job security as possible as we think about what we cannot do in the future, for example what we must do but on a multi-year level. So budgetary, health, and these challenges, those are the three big things. Other things are more routine that we work on.

And finally, perhaps more significant than any of them beyond physical health, beyond the particular issues, is working to set a tone that says to my colleagues we are in this together. We are working very closely with Jay Perman, who’s the Chancellor of our university system of Maryland. We’re meeting two or three times a week, and we encourage each other. He has that positive attitude also, but being able with each group when we meet with our faculty group, staff groups, and student leaders, to say we can get through this. Tell us what you’re thinking. Listening to what we’re thinking about, we’re in this thing together, and that we will make it. I can’t say that enough: we will make it. Any time people go through challenges and succeed, you will find a theme of positive, can-do attitude.

And that goes all the way to life and death. I have the honor of working with students and colleagues every year who have cancer, and I say the honor. It is such a challenge for them, but to have them wanting me to go through it with them – and I’m telling you, I’ve seen it over and over again with my 17-year-olds to my colleagues that when they have that positive attitude as they work with the physician, the results tend to be much better than when they just kind of give up or just focus only on the negative. That does not pull you up. So, my job is to work with my colleagues to elevate us and to be elevated by them. Long answer.

Jeff Selingo:
That’s great, Freeman. This has been a great time together. So, one last question, a lot of hot takes right now about the future of higher education. What from this moment, and there’s a lot of things going on in this moment, might stick for the long term? What do you see in how institutions are being really innovative in this moment?

Freeman Hrabowski:
Yes, yes.

Jeff Selingo:
What do you see sticking?

Freeman Hrabowski:
Sure. It will be the thought that we are not simply longing for the good old days. We have a tendency to romanticize the way we’ve always done things. I have always said, particularly when talking about success in science and engineering, that we need to rethink. My TED Talk talks about that, how we change the culture. The pillars of success, and it has to do with high expectations, higher than we have right now; to believing more people can succeed, and that means everything from using technology more effectively; to not thinking that simply without technology and face-to-face is always superior; to thinking that we got to have more hybrid approaches to the work itself; to thinking we’re thinking about different ways of assessing the work that we’re doing; to building community both on campus and through technology, that community is more important than ever.

And creating a culture that continues to ask good questions and to not simply complain or say oh how bad things are. Because that doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s important to be realistic and to say yeah, these are our challenges. Just as it’s important to say this is the protest, but after the stating of the challenge, after the protest, then what? And in America, higher education, that’s where we are right now. That we, right now on my campus, faculty are working on workshops to make their work with technology even more effective. Even as we work with children in Baltimore City.

I would say there will be stronger teaching and learning as a result of more people realizing we can be much better than we are. That’s the message I want to send, that American higher education does some wonderful things, and yet we want to be secure enough to say we can be much better.

Bridget Burns:
I feel like that’s the most perfect note to end on. We’re so grateful for your leadership historically in higher ed, but especially in this moment, and your willingness to inspire others. I think for those of you who are watching at home, obviously leadership matters so much right now. And we know that higher education leaders in particular are having a moment where we want to shine a spotlight on those that are truly doing an exemplary job. And President Hrabowski, you are, and you have been for so long. Ever since I first met you seven, eight years ago, you have been inspiring and helping in ways that you could never fully understand.

Freeman Hrabowski:
Thank you.

Bios of Guest and Co-Hosts

Guest: Freeman Hrabowski, President, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, has served as President of U.M.B.C. (The University of Maryland, Baltimore County) since 1992. His research and publications focus on science and math education, with special emphasis on minority participation and performance. He chaired the National Academies’ committee that produced the 2011 report, Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads. He was named in 2012 by President Obama to chair the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans. His 2013 TED talk highlights the “Four Pillars of College Success in Science.” Dr. Hrabowski and U.M.B.C. have made numerous "best of" lists, including U.S. News & World Report (2008), TIME magazine (2009), and the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership (2011). He serves as a consultant to the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the National Academies, and universities and school systems nationally; and on several foundation boards including The Urban Institute and the Baltimore Equitable Society. With philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff, he co-founded the Meyerhoff Scholars Program in 1988 for advancing underrepresented minorities in science and engineering. Dr. Hrabowski is the author of Holding Fast to Dreams: Empowering Youth from the Civil Rights Crusade to STEM Achievement, and co-author of Beating the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Males, Overcoming the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Young Women, and The Empowered University: Shared Leadership, Culture Change, and Academic Success. As child-leader in the Civil Rights Movement, he was prominently featured in Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary Four Little Girls, on the racially motivated bombing in 1963 of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Freeman Hrabowski graduated from Hampton Institute with highest honors in mathematics. He received his M.A. (mathematics) and Ph.D. (higher education administration/statistics) from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Co-Host: Bridget Burns, Executive Director, University Innovation Alliance
Dr. Bridget Burns is the founding Executive Director of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA). For the past decade, she has advised university presidents, system chancellors, and state and federal policy leaders on strategies to expand access to higher education, address costs, and promote completion for students of all backgrounds. The UIA was developed during Bridget’s tenure as an American Council on Education (A.C.E.) Fellowship at Arizona State University. She held multiple roles within the Oregon University System, including serving as Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor, where she won the national award for innovation in higher education government relations. She was a National Associate for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and has served on several statewide governing boards including ones governing higher education institutions, financial aid policy, and policy areas impacting children and families.

Co-Host: Jeff Selingo, author, journalist, special advisor at Arizona State University
Jeff Selingo is an author, a journalist, and a special advisor at Arizona State University.  He has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest book, Who Gets In & Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September 2020 and was named an Editors’ Choice by the New York Times Book Review. A regular contributor to The Atlantic, Jeff is a special advisor for innovation and professor of practice at Arizona State University. He also co-hosts the podcast, FutureU. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his family.

About Weekly Wisdom
Weekly Wisdom is an event series that happens live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It also becomes a podcast episode. Every week, we join forces with Inside Higher Ed and talk with a sitting college president or chancellor about how they're specifically navigating the challenges of this moment. These conversations will be filled with practicable things you can do right now by unpacking how and why college leaders are making decisions within higher education. Hopefully, these episodes will also leave you with a sense of optimism and a bit of inspiration.

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