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Sitting down with the one and only Freeman Hrabowski

The Retriever recently sat down with the one and only Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III, our school president and the public face of UMBC. We discussed topics ranging from race relations in our community and the country at large, to the challenges of his day-to-day job, to his stance on UMBC’s athletics.

When did you, as a school administrator, recognize that diversity within your student body was not only necessary, but a boon to this school?

Perhaps when I was a graduate student working within the administration at the University o

f Illinois. I could see that the mostly white student body there was not comfortable interacting with students unlike them. As I interacted with groups of students, I could see how students grew immeasurably as a result of learning new perspectives and hearing different stories.

What would you like to say to people who believe that “politically correct culture” is running rampant in our colleges and is harmful to the learning environment?

I think we need opportunities to say what we really think to people from different backgrounds. But to be able to do that, we have to create an environment in which people feel safe in expressing themselves. Simply saying what is “politically correct” does not mean we are strengthening understanding among people of different groups. It just means that people are saying what we want them to say. That’s not what education is about. Education is about seeking the truth, understanding different aspects of any particular argument, learning how to listen critically and express one’s self with clarity, and to put oneself in the shoes of other people. We need much better depth in this country when it comes to these issues than just being “politically correct.”

In recent years, racism has reared its ugly head on campus, in Baltimore, and in America at large. Why do you think we’ve reached a point with such heavy tension and how do you think we can alleviate it?

I think that we have always seen racism in our society and different types of prejudices. We are seeing examples of unprecedented violence in recent times. We’ve always had violence, but we are seeing examples through TV and social media of unfair treatment and of misunderstandings among different groups. And the challenge of inequality in our society is greater than it has been in decades, in regards to socio-economic issues. Families need far more support than our society is giving throughout America, not just in the urban setting. Unfortunately, the media will give us “breaking news” and soundbites rather than the multidimensionality of the challenges we face in our country.

If you could add anything to the school, regardless of price, what would it be and why?

More support for people here. Financial support. Some students need help to pay bills. Faculty need more support for their research. Staff members need financial support. Some people are stretched thin. Our university does extremely well. As a result, we are bursting at the seams with projects and people wanting to be here and that takes a lot of money. To support our campus, it will take a lot of support. We have a lot of good will at UMBC. Students, faculty, staff and alumni feel good about who we are. But to continue excelling, we need the financial support.

Courtesy of Candace Dodson-Reed

What do you believe have been your biggest accomplishments and your biggest failures in your time at UMBC?

My accomplishments have been the accomplishments of my colleagues and students. Nothing in particular that I have done would qualify.  We have wonderful faculty and staff and amazing students. The people here do so much to support each other. It’s never about me or one person. It’s really about helping the community. We as a community of faculty, staff, and students have worked hard to educate students, build the research, and to support the communities in Maryland and beyond.

I don’t think in terms of failures so much. I think in terms of progress. Our school is a work in progress. I am in a work of progress, even at this age. I am determined to help the institution attract more resources to support more people, gain visibility and show off how outstanding our university is. We’re getting some of the visibility now, but success is never final.

In regards to the students who still want a football team, why would you argue that is an unnecessary expense?

What I would say is a football team is costly. We simply don’t have the money. We’re talking millions and millions of dollars. Unfortunately, most teams still lose, even after spending the money. I’d rather focus on what we’re doing now so we can be the best we can be. UMBC is a campus that focuses first on academics. We all know that. We are very proud of our outstanding student-athletes. And they are just that: students first, athletes second. We’re also proud of our teams.

What are some of the more challenging aspects of your job?

Remaining positive, even when there are many challenges and when people can be very upset. Sometimes people don’t realize that I’m human too. It’s very important that I keep a positive attitude, even in the midst of very difficult situations. Also, maintaining a work-life balance is hard. Every student, staff member and faculty member has this problem. Maintaining a healthy relationship between the two is difficult, but it is necessary to be healthy. Another big challenge is to keep laughing. Keeping a sense of humor and not taking any of it too seriously is also a challenge. As my mentor Walter Sondheim said, “Live life seriously but don’t take it seriously.” It means do your best and let it go, don’t obsess.  

What is an academic department that you would add to the campus, if possible?

I would have the programs that we’ve not been allowed to have, such as undergraduate electrical engineering. We have Master’s and Ph.D programs for it, but we aren’t allowed to have it. The students do very well in computer engineering and computer science and going into electrical engineering at the graduate level. The faculty has been very extraordinarily creative in providing student support to to do what they want to do. I’m especially pleased that we have great programs in the humanities and social studies such as American Studies, GWST, Media and Communications that prepare students broadly.

In the upcoming years, how do you plan to expand our campus’ commitment to clean energy?

We have done several things. For instance, we signed onto to the President’s Climate Commitment in May 2008. We get 20 percent of our electricity from renewable sources. primarily the MD hydroelectric plant. Now, we are participating in a process called, “Generating Clean Horizons,” a large-scale renewable energy project here in Maryland. We are buying their energy through the “power purchase agreement,” including the electricity commodity and the associated renewable energy credits. Also, we now have solar bus stops on the main campus and a nine kilowatt solar array in the BW Tech lot. Of course, we have the solar-charging tables. We’re definitely looking at more solar projects. I’m very excited for the vegetative roof for the Administration building, which will be opening in the months to come.

If you could name anyone as your successor for your position, who would it be and why?

I can’t possibly think about it because I’m so focused on working at UMBC. Even if I wanted to name someone, that would be the kiss of death for their administrative career. So all I can do is laugh and say that I’m focused on being the president.

What is one thing you would like to say one of your school alumni did that made you extraordinarily proud?

I’ll tell you what I said in South Carolina to the President of Clemson, who is a UMBC alumnus. When I spoke to his faculty at Clemson, I said, “We work to help students of all races learn how to talk with authenticity about the challenges in our society from the issues of race relations to health disparities to the academic-achievement gap in America.” Jim Clements, the President of Clemson, has three degrees from UMBC, and is a white American male who learned how to speak on these issues as an undergraduate at UMBC. This institution encourages students of all races to get to know people from different backgrounds and to respect people as human beings. It’s great to see a UMBC alumnus serving as a role model in another state. I spoke to them after they faced some major challenges.