From Tuskegee's Booker T. Washington to Morehouse's Benjamin E. Mays, Black college presidents have often been visionaries who led by example. A new set of contemporary university presidents are carrying on this long tradition, and the University of Maryland-BaltimoreCounty's Freeman Hrabowski III, Ph.D., is among them.
At the university, Hrabowski oversees an innovative, nationally recognized program that has supported dozens of talented Black students who are majoring in science-related fields. President Hrabowski is one of his students' best role models.
Hrabowski grew up in Birmingham, Ala., in the middle of the civil rights movement. His politically active parents took him with them to meetings and rallies. In 1963, at age 12, he participated in the Birmingham Children's March. He was one of hundreds of children arrested during the protest and spent five days in jail before being returned to his family.
But when the children were released, the Black community treated them as heroes, and the television coverage of police officers turning dogs and water hoses on children galvanized many White Americans' sympathy and support for the movement. The courage of children accomplished what adults could not accomplish.
He was a brilliant student, went to college early and graduated from Hampton Institute with highest honors in mathematics at age 19. Hrabowski then went on to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for his master's and doctorate degrees. His goal as a university faculty member has always been to help other young people succeed. At the university, where Hrabowski has been an administrator since 1987 and president since 1992, he got his opportunity.
In 1988, the university received a grant from The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Foundation to address the shortage of Blacks in the sciences and engineering. The grant allowed the university to create a scholarship and mentoring support program for outstanding Black students who planned to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in mathematics, science, engineering or computer science.
The university is not a predominantly Black institution, but it quickly gained a national reputation for its impressive Black leader and its critical mass of smart Black students. As one professor put it in an interview, "If you see a group of Black students walking together on a college campus, your first thought might be, 'Oh, there goes the basketball team.' Here you think, 'There goes the chemistry honors club or the chess team.' It's just a different attitude on campus."
Today there are nearly 200 Meyerhoff Scholars at the university. Instead of being limited to Black students, the program is now open to all high-achieving high school seniors who have an interest in pursuing doctoral study in the sciences, and who are interested in the advancement of minorities in the sciences and related fields.
"It's not enough to be passionate about science, experienced in science and good," Hrabowksi has said, "but one has to have the confidence to believe she or he can succeed."
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund.