Introduced by Rice University President David Leebron as a “powerful example of how a focused vision can make an impact on generations of students,” educator Freeman Hrabowski wowed the audience at the Jan. 31 President’s Lecture Series with passion, poetry and wit.
Hrabowski is president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). At the helm of UMBC since 1992, he is a national voice for minority participation and performance in science and math and has the ear of President Barack Obama as the chair of the newly created President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African-Americans. A child leader in the civil rights movement and an acquaintance of Martin Luther King Jr., Hrabowski was prominently featured in Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary, ”Four Little Girls,” on the racially motivated bombing in 1963 of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church.
Beginning with excerpts of poetry by William Carlos Williams and Maya Angelou, Hrabowski built his presentation in Duncan Hall’s McMurtry Auditorium around the importance of dreams and possibilities for Americans. “The way we think about ourselves, the language that we use, the way we interact with each other in a university, in a community, in a society, will determine and reflect the values that are most important, and we, in many ways, will become like that which we love,” Hrabowski said.
America has work to do in advancing the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines and the educational opportunities across all races, he argued. “The unfortunate assumption in our country is that most people can’t do math and science, and we move in that self-fulfilling prophecy way,” Hrabowski said.
He evoked King’s belief in the power of hope and optimism to change the status quo. “The dream we must have has to focus on wanting all of our children to love to read, to love to express themselves and to write in English, to love to solve problems and to want to be smart,” Hrabowski said. “The fundamental purpose of education is to teach children and others to dream about the possibilities and then to help them acquire the skills and the values they need to reach the dreams.”
Hrabowski said UMBC, founded in 1963, has been a “50-year experiment, an experiment in America that asks this question: Can you have an institution that attracts people from all types of racial and ethnic backgrounds who can come in and excel?”
To achieve a successful outcome to this ongoing experiment, Freeman has instituted a range of programs to spur achievement and success at UMBC, especially for minorities in the STEM disciplines. Engaging minorities in science and engineering requires focused efforts, he said. “When you get to science and engineering, we have too few Americans; and when you get to minorities, you’re talking about even fewer; and when you talk about women in areas like computational sciences, the numbers continue to go down.”
For educators, addressing these challenges requires King’s skills and approach and, at UMBC, it meant instituting best practices, Hrabowski said. “The idea of building community on the campus became very important. It meant mutual support among students. It meant building trust among them. It meant high expectation. It meant talking about what collaboration and group work could lead to. Finally, it meant very careful and deliberate involvement of researchers, because fundamentally it takes researchers in any discipline to pull people into the research.”
The goal of the President’s Lecture Series is to bring to campus a variety of stimulating speakers on a range of topics, enhancing the intellectual life of the Rice community and the university’s neighbors throughout Houston. For more information about the series, visit www.ruf.rice.edu/~events/pls.