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Wisdom From One Of World's Most Influential People


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, I have some thoughts about the late godfather of go-go, Chuck Brown, in my weekly essay. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, to our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we speak with those who've made a difference through their work.

Today, we have with us education trailblazer Freeman Hrabowski. He is the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, or UMBC. He is widely credited with transforming the commuter school into one of the nation's top institutions for graduating students of color in science, math and engineering, the so-called STEM fields.

This year, he was named to Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world and Freeman Hrabowski joins us now in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Welcome to the program. I should say welcome back because...


MARTIN: ...we've had the pleasure of speaking with you before, but...

HRABOWSKI: Sure. Good to be here.

MARTIN: Thanks for coming back.

HRABOWSKI: Thank you.

MARTIN: Well, talk to me about this being named one of the 100 most influential people in the world. I mean, you've had other honors, but that's kind of a heavy one to put on your shoulders.

HRABOWSKI: My students ask me what that means and I tell them I have no idea. The fact is that our campus, UMBC, is getting a lot of visibility. It's a place where students come and live and grow and people are looking at how we're educating students of all races, quite frankly.

We have students from 150 countries and I think people want to know - what can we do to increase the numbers of students who are doing well in science and engineering, but also in theatre or in education. And we are preparing students for all those disciplines.

MARTIN: I want to talk a little bit more about your interest in arts and humanities.


MARTIN: But I do want to talk about the fact that you are kind of at the nexus of two of our most pressing educational concerns, which is - one is the so-called achievement gap.


MARTIN: I mean, the fact that students of color particularly...


MARTIN: When we say that, what we really mean is African-Americans and Latinos and Native Americans and also not just getting into college, but being able to complete college.


MARTIN: And we're also talking about maintaining our international competitiveness in the STEM fields, which...


MARTIN: ...you know, science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

HRABOWSKI: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: And I think, obviously, your success is of interest because you are at the nexus of both of those major concerns and you seem to have found a way to succeed at both those...


MARTIN: ...things.


MARTIN: And I just wondered if you could distill what you think the key elements of that success have been.

HRABOWSKI: Sure. The achievement gap does involve students of color in comparison to middle class whites, but it also involves, by the way, low income whites, whites with first generation college. And the challenge is - how do we help more of those students to become academically prepared so they can go to college and do well? And then how do we help their families determine the best places for them to make sure that they're not graduating with a great deal of debt and that they can get the jobs they need in order to do well.

And I would say several things. Number one, it takes researchers to produce researchers. Number two, high expectations and clear expectations. How do you go about helping students understand? How much do you have to work in order to do well? And, for us, what makes the difference is our American students of all races are seeing how hard people from other countries work, whether from Nigeria or China or India or Russia. You find that students who come from other countries tend to be far more disciplined. They really appreciate what it means to be in America and it shows in their performance and in their behavior.

And so students who are from this country, who were born in this country, quite frankly, are often inspired when they see just how hard human beings work.

MARTIN: Well, how do you unpack that? I know that there was a program which was originally for boys of color.

HRABOWSKI: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: You know, men of color...


MARTIN: ...has now been opened up to students of all races...


MARTIN: ...and genders, but part of that program is that you deprive them of their technology for a time. Right? They have...

HRABOWSKI: For a summer...

MARTIN: For a summer,

HRABOWSKI: Those students that are in my program, right, they go through a period of getting to know each other. That's the point - of getting them away from just using technology, but rather getting to know each other and dealing...

MARTIN: But you take away the Play Stations.

HRABOWSKI: Right. And they...


HRABOWSKI: ...build community among those students. You want students who can give each other support from all races and the model program now has students from all those backgrounds.

MARTIN: What about the college completion issue? I mean, this is something that has been in the news very recently. There was a truly disturbing story on the front page of one of the major newspapers that talked about how many students are leaving school, dropping out of school with massive debt...


MARTIN: ...but no degree.


MARTIN: And they are not well-positioned at all to pay off those debts. And so it's a very serious issue.

HRABOWSKI: It is a very serious issue, but when you look at the statistics, you find, first of all, that you have significant numbers of those students who are from for-profit institutions. And secondly, I think every family needs to look at the institutions they are considering. They need to look at how students who are similar to their sons and daughters such as themselves are doing in those institutions. They need to know what questions to ask.

For example, what percent of African-Americans who come to this institution actually succeed and graduate or what percent of black males or Hispanic males or whites who've never gone to college actually succeed? And then, what's the level of debt when somebody graduates?

MARTIN: But are the parents of a child - parents who have never themselves gone to college themselves really best positioned to ask those questions? I mean, don't institutions have some responsibility to these young people?

HRABOWSKI: They certainly have a responsibility. Those institutions should be telling people exactly what they cost, exactly what the graduation retention rates and exactly what the level of debt will be. So there is a responsibility institutions should have for not simply putting it on paper but for talking in depth with families about the situation based on the family's income level.

HRABOWSKI: I would also say that families should use different groups in the community who are in high schools; high school counselors or community college counselors, to get more information to understand what it takes.

MARTIN: What role do you think your own identity plays in the success of the institution? I mean I don't know, would the average kid look at a Freeman Hrabowski and think that could be me? I mean you graduated from college at 19. You had your doctorate at 24.

HRABOWSKI: You do your homework. I'm amazed, do you know that?


HRABOWSKI: Well, let me...

MARTIN: Reading is fundamental. So...

HRABOWSKI: I appreciate...


MARTIN: I'm just saying...


MARTIN: ...do you think your own - 'cause on the one hand people could look at you and externally think that is me.

HRABOWSKI: Right. Right.

MARTIN: On the other hand, perhaps they might think I can't do that. I'm not gifted in the same way that he's gifted. That isn't me.

HRABOWSKI: I appreciate what you're saying.

MARTIN: What do you...

HRABOWSKI: Let me say this. I think educators have a responsibility, as do adults, to help kids -young people - feel that we're all the same, we have the same fears. It's not about somebody being smarter than somebody else so much. It's much more so about attitude I'm convinced. And it's about how educators connect with students to help them feel we're in this together, we can do this.

MARTIN: How significant though, is it to have a diverse faculty?

HRABOWSKI: Yes. Oh, I think it's very important. I think people need to see some people who look like themselves. Now I will tell you, we have become the leading predominantly white university in the country in producing blacks who go on to get M.D., Ph.D.s, and the majority of our faculty members are white.

We have a presence now. We have brought in faculty members of color - men and women - in those different disciplines and it's great for the faculty to see, for the students to see those people. It is so important for faculty of all races to feel that it is an American responsibility to help students of all races - men and women.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Freeman Hrabowski. He is president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He's also been named to Time magazine's list of 100 Most Influential People in the World.

I want to talk about, a little bit more about the whole graduation rate issue, which is that the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that just a little more than half of full-time students are graduating with a B.A. within six years...


MARTIN: ...of starting college.


MARTIN: And I want to ask why you think that is, and is that something you are seeing?

HRABOWSKI: I think that we are seeing many students who drop in and drop out. Sometimes students transfer to other institutions because of certain programs, sometimes they leave the area and they go to other institutions. And so we have to look not only if they are graduating from that institution, but also from any institution. We now have the national data set to determine whether a student graduates from someplace in that period of six or seven years, not just from that one institution.

MARTIN: So is it a problem or not?

HRABOWSKI: I think it's a problem when students are dropping out and they have a lot of debt and they can't get a job. Yes, that is a real problem.

MARTIN: But, you know, on the other hand though, because college has become so expensive, because it's become kind of a gatekeeper...


MARTIN: ...for some many professions.


MARTIN: Many people argue about whether that's really necessary.


MARTIN: The cost of college has so far outstripped, you know, the pace of inflation and yet - and now people are looking sort of from a value-added perspective. On the other hand, USA Today is reporting that some universities are actually talking about charging higher tuition for certain programs...

HRABOWSKI: Right. Right.

MARTIN: ...particularly those in popular programs...


MARTIN: ...or programs in stem fields...


MARTIN: ...like math, science.


MARTIN: Maybe they feel that the cost of teaching is higher - or business, for example, which is particularly popular. What is your perspective on that?

HRABOWSKI: Well, there are two things. First of all, it's very important for families to look at the cost of college because when we say it's gone up so much it depends on the kind of institutions you're talking about and people lump all these institutions together.

I would say when families look at the costs of two and four-year institutions in our state, for example, public institutions, they are fairly reasonable compared to a lot of places, and particularly when compared to other kinds of institutions. So it's important for families to be specific when looking at the kind of institution. And we need to get that story out because if the media will only report the negative situations of how high it is, many families will become discouraged and decide they don't want to go to college. I think that's the worst thing we can do for people who are first generation college.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit in the time we have left about you're so known for the stem fields.


MARTIN: UMBC is so known for the stem fields.

HRABOWSKI: Right, right.

MARTIN: But you just made a major investment in arts and humanities.


MARTIN: In fact, the newest, isn't it the newest building on campus...

HRABOWSKI: Yes. That's exactly right. We're really...

MARTIN: ...is in arts and humanities building.

HRABOWSKI: ...thankful to the state and our governor and the legislature for - it's a $160 million building and it's in arts and humanities, and it focuses on our strengths. At the base of all of our education we believe that every student should have a broad liberal arts education.

MARTIN: Well, you realize why this is counterintuitive.


MARTIN: Particularly now as family budgets are under stress...


MARTIN: ...and institutions are under stress. People are saying...


MARTIN: ...you know, philosophy, why do I need that? You know, arts, why do I need that? I mean those are exactly the fields that I think a lot of people are questioning.

HRABOWSKI: It is, these things are more - these are more important than ever. We have to tell our, some of our techies who come in thinking all they want is computer science, and we're saying no. You need to know what it means to be human. You need to understand more about the arts because these are ways in which we express ourselves as human beings.

I'm speaking as a math teacher. I mean, this is based on 60 years of living. I am telling you when people go through struggling times, they don't look to math and science other than for health care, all right. They are looking at what happens in the humanities and the arts to understand the human experience. And when we go through these challenging times, go back to the '30s, go back to the FDR period. You know, when Eleanor Roosevelt talked about giving artists opportunities to paint and to express themselves in the arts it was because it helped people during the Depression to understand the significance of humanity.

MARTIN: Is that what you tell the parents of your computer science majors when they come in and ask why their kid has to do in arts required?

HRABOWSKI: Oh, we make it very clear that they can quite frankly be far more impressive in their work in computer science if they know how to write well and speak well. Employers want to know that a student can present well and clearly in standard English and interact with people and working groups. These are things you learn through the arts and humanities.

MARTIN: Have you ever failed at anything?

HRABOWSKI: Mm. Oh, yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. There have been many times when I have taken a snapshot of a situation and assumed I really understood it when if I had taken a few more minutes I would've been far wiser and could have been even more effective. When I fail or I make a mistake, I simply say I blew it, I'm sorry. I did my best and I need to try again. And it's amazing how forgiving people can be when you're honest, when you're transparent because they know human beings make mistakes. The key is to be honest and tell the truth.

MARTIN: Well, you know, we call this a Wisdom Watch conversation so you've been actually giving us some wisdom all along the way. But I did want to ask very specifically...


MARTIN: Before we let you go, you know, who knows who's listening. Maybe it's a young you.


MARTIN: Maybe it's a student who is on the fence whose parents are sure whether he or she should go to college.


MARTIN: Who knows. But is there some wisdom to that you want to impart?

HRABOWSKI: Sure. You know, I would say keep asking good questions. Listen to the stories of other people. Be inspired by their stories, but be inspired by your own story. All of us need to think back to the people in our lives who've made us who we are today. And I go back to my relatives in the Deep South; made all the difference in the world. I mean there's nothing like one's history, one's story.

MARTIN: Freeman Hrabowski is president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World. And he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Dr. Hrabowski, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HRABOWSKI: Thank you. This was fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.