The legacy of a longtime university president: a diverse new generation in STEM

Baltimore — Late one night in the fall of 2020, when Kizmekia Corbett learned the vaccine he helped design Highly effective against the coronavirus, there was only one person she wanted to call: Freeman A. Harbowski III, longtime president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Dr. Corbett was the first black woman at the age of 34 To achieve such a feat, an unprecedented development in the fight against the deadliest pandemic in recent US history. But she could only think of someone she met as an 18-year-old freshman at university, who immediately recognized her thick Southern accent and her ability to make history.

Dr. Corbett, now an assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases, said, “I had to call someone who could understand what I went through – what it meant to do a PhD, cross this space. What’s the point of doing it?” at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Dr. Herabowski, who retired last week after leading 30 years at UMBC, is renowned in academic circles for transforming a regional commuter school into the nation’s strongest pipeline of black graduates in science, technology, engineering and related fields. Huh.

The school’s Meyerhoff Scholars Program, whose alumni include Dr. Corbett, has served as a barrier-breaking model for colleges across the country. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of California, Berkeley, are among those who have replicated it.

As the nation’s top producer of Black undergraduates who go on to complete a Ph.D. In the natural sciences or engineering, UMBC has cracked one of the most troubling puzzles in higher education – the lack of outstanding black students in the sciences.

For these achievements, Dr. Harbowski achieved something like celebrity status during his tenure. He has written four books, delivered thousands of speeches, made it impressive lists And saw hundreds of graduates hold professorships and other positions in some of the most prestigious institutions in the country.

But Dr. Corbett’s call that night was also a testament to a lesser-known, but arguably important part of Dr. Freeman’s Legacyto : serve as a mentor

A cross-section of leaders in science and education, many of whom have come to imitate his style as much as his essence.

When recently Howard Hughes Medical Institute $1.5 billion program announced To support the next generation of diverse faculty in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, it named the initiative the “Freeman Hrabowski Scholars Program” to articulate the mission, said its vice president and chief scientific officer, Leslie Voshal. “If every institution took their prescription,” she told Dr. Harbowski, “didn’t change any of the content, didn’t cut corners, that would change STEM education in the United States.”

College and university presidents across the country point to “Freeman lessons” that are drawn up in classrooms and boardrooms every day.

Clemson University president and UMBC alumnus James P. Clements recalled how Dr. Herabowski trained him to interview, which led to his first presidency at West Virginia University. “I wouldn’t be a college president if it weren’t for Freeman,” he said, “and 14 years later, he’s still coaching me.”

Wellesley College President Paula A. Johnson had met Dr. Harbowski years earlier as a young faculty member at Harvard, when he was receiving an honorary degree and was appointed to serve as his host. He specifically asked for a professor of color.

“He is always thinking about his role, not only in terms of the respect he gets, but who else he can join and pursue. He is constantly pushing it in ways big and small,” he said.

Starting this week, 71-year-old Dr. Herabowski will continue that work in several advisory positions, including the inauguration. centenary companion on the American Council on Education, which represents 1,700 colleges and universities.

“There are many ways to think about impact, and some of them are more glaring than others,” said council chairman Ted Mitchell. “Freeman has really reached into all our hearts and asked us to remember what education is. He has been the moral guide for all of us and that is what makes him the most influential leader of higher education in our generation.”

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Dr. Harbowski came of age in the thick of the Jim Crow era. The notion that black kids didn’t deserve a quality education brought the fighter to the fore at a very early age in the self-described “fat, slovenly kid who could only attack a math problem.”

He was 12 when he participated in the historic Children’s March inspired by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. He was among hundreds of boys and girls who were arrested when they marched for equal rights, and spent five days in prison.

Dr. Harbowski has largely refused to discuss the details of what he saw and experienced in Birmingham Jail. Some of it will remain inexplicable forever, he said. But in an interview, he recalled a meeting of Dr. King.

“Whatever you do on this day will have an impact on children who are not yet born,” Dr. Harbowski recalled telling them to children in prison.

Dr. Harbowski credits his perseverance to his upbringing in Birmingham in the 1960s—from the small but vibrant middle-class neighborhood that molded him and other black leaders, including Angela Davis and Condoleezza Rice, to his church, where three out of four had The funeral was held for Black girls who died after a white supremacist terrorist attack.

“Our parents and teachers and ministers insist that we do not define ourselves as victims – despite the open racism around us,” he said. “Rather, we were taught to believe in ourselves and strive to be twice as good, because we knew the world was not fair.”

He attended Hampton Institute, a historically black college, earning a degree in mathematics at the age of 19. In graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Harbowski said, he learned “how lonely a student of color can be in a classroom.”

He holds a master’s degree in mathematics and a Ph.D. There he began his career in Higher Education Administration and Statistics, and in Higher Education Administration. Later, he moved to Coppin State University, a small, historically black school in Baltimore, where his reputation as a change agent who championed students even at the cost of humiliating adults earned him UMBC’s radar. kept on

It was a youth institution, the first campus in Maryland that accepted all races, craving leadership that matched their ambitions.

When Dr. Harbowski arrived at UMBC as vice provost in 1987, the first question he asked was why an ambitious research university was only graduating the number of black students with science degrees in the double digits. 20 years after integration, and the average Black GPA was barely 2.0, compared to 2.50 for White students; There was a difference of at least 20 points between the graduation rates for the two races.

The following year, he convinced Maryland philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff to back his quest to financially prove that with the right guidance and resources, a large number of black students excel in the sciences at a predominantly white university. can do.

“This had not been done before in the nation,” said Dr. Harbowski. “People didn’t think it was possible, because they didn’t see it.”

The two co-founded the Meyerhoff program, which has since graduated more than 1,400 students in science and engineering, most of whom are African American. Its graduates, who receive financial scholarship, academic guidance, research experience and mentorship, are admirers of the most prestigious doctoral programs and leading research locations across the country.

UMBC There is no longer a graduate-level gap between black and white students in the U.S., but Dr. Herabowski doesn’t want to be remembered simply as “the man who produced blacks in science.” She is equally proud that the school produced the first black speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, who was also the first woman to hold that position.

From the time he became president in 1992, his goal has been to build and model a culture of “inclusive excellence” – one in which all students are supported in the ways they need to succeed.

The UMBC campus has grown from 750 acres of farmland to include a separate research park with $1.2 billion in construction, more than 120 biotech laboratories and cybersecurity companies. But in recent times, Dr. Herabowski’s new buildings weren’t as bright. This was the campus’ main street, Academic Row, where more than 100 flags represent the nations of origin of the school’s approximately 14,000 students.

“It’s hard for a black president to say, ‘I care about all races’ and be heard,” he said.

But he was.

Caitlyn Sadler followed her sister there From a rural suburb of Maryland, He never earned a Ph.D. did not think of becoming; She was grateful to be admitted to an affordable state college. But now she has an advanced degree from Johns Hopkins University and MIT’s Dr. Sadler is leading a 10,000-participant NIH study on COVID-19 antibodies at the National Institutes of Health, where Dr. Corbett helped develop the modern vaccine.

But reflecting on her time at UMBC, Ms. Sadler pointed to memories that had little to do with science: her half-Japanese roommate who persuaded her to eat rice, which she picked up on Minute Rice. After leaving had vowed never to eat again; And the dear black president who knew every student’s name and head.

“I come from a very white area, so I like to say that UMBC started my education on many levels,” she said. “I was exposed to new things, but I never felt uncomfortable or out of place.”

Twenty-six years into Dr. Harbowski’s efforts to build an inclusive community, he received a painful reality check.

In 2018, the school faced a class-action lawsuit alleging Violation of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination, by working with county law enforcement officials to cover up reported sexual assaults. The trial created a ruckus on campus, student protests erupted and alumni created a ruckus.

Dr. Harbowski was invited to a meeting on campus in September with an unusual request: don’t speak.

Instead, they were asked to listen as the girl students discussed their history with sexual assault. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2020, but the issues brought before it remained the subject of intense scrutiny and led to changes in the university.

“It was a very dark moment,” said Dr. Harbowski. “We may have been in compliance with the law, but it became clear that we needed to do a lot more.”

He has drawn on some horrific episodes of his term to help other presidents navigate their challenges.

Morehouse College President David A. Thomas turned to Dr. Harbowski a few years ago, when he was starting an online degree program at the university. This sparked contentious debate among educators who worried that it might undermine the Morehouse brand.

He took an early vote on the measure, and it passed by a small margin. Dr. Thomas recalled that Dr. Harbowski told him to “continue the debate”. The final vote was over 70 percent in support.

Dr Thomas said, “Without consultation with Freeman, I would have taken the first vote with a lot of skepticism and said that we got a positive result.” “But I think we benefited from continuing the conversation. That was a ‘Freeman lesson.'”

Dr. Harbowski’s successor is Valerie Shears Ashby, a chemist and former dean of Duke University’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. She became the first woman president of UMBC on 1 August.

Years ago, Dr. Sheares Ashby gained a solid trust from Dr. Harbowski, who became one of her most trusted advisors, before she even headed a department. At the end of their first meeting, he turned to the young faculty member and said: “You’re going to be a president — a great president — someday.”

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