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Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
Historical Focus on Race
BOND: Dr. Hrabowksi, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership. We’re pleased to have you with us today.
HRABOWSKI: Thank you.
BOND: I want to begin with some questions about Brown v. Board of Education. I know you were three years old when the decision was handed down, but did you have any consciousness or, as you grew older, have some feelings about what it might mean?
HRABOWSKI: Sure. I certainly did not at three, but I did shortly after that because my parents were talking about where I would go to school and I went to the first grade fairly early and it wasn’t a joke, but it was a statement made about Brown and that Brown doesn’t make a difference, because there was no choice. For years in Birmingham, the schools were still segregated and so one heard all the time that Brown hadn’t made a difference in Birmingham and finally, it was in high school when I was probably in the tenth grade that the first school was integrated and that was a traumatic experience because families -- white families came out when the black children were to go into the high school there in Birmingham and, unfortunately, they threw rocks. They were violent and it was at that point that my parents said they would not put me in that situation, but that was my experience with Brown throughout.
The only time I had a chance to think about integrated education was in the summers. My parents sent me to Massachusetts to see what it would be like to study in class with white children and so I studied in Springfield, Massachusetts, but Brown and Birmingham until I was in the tenth grade meant that nothing was going to change. People didn’t think that at that time we’d ever see schools changing or integrated in our city.
BOND: Now, all these many years later, do you have some feelings about what it has turned out to mean?
HRABOWSKI: Yeah, I think that we can say with some certainty that large numbers of young people in our country of all races have had a chance to see what it’s like to study in classrooms with children who are different from themselves. With that said, though, we do know that there is a movement towards -- back to more segregated situations than ever before. Some use the word hyper-segregation and so, unfortunately for millions of children of all races, everyone else in the classroom looks exactly the same.
BOND: Now, how do you think over this period of time Brown impacted your life? I know you described how you didn’t get an opportunity to consider an integrated education until much later, but looking back over your life, what has this meant to you?
HRABOWSKI: There’s no doubt that we are better when we have a chance to study with people from all types of backgrounds and it was really in graduate school at the University of Illinois after my Hampton experience of preparing me for grad school that I was in class with whites. I was typically the only black in the math class, for example, and that would not have happened if the University of Illinois, like other major universities, had decided to bring in many more people of color. And that doesn’t mean they became 20 percent black, but at least we had some blacks there at that institution and other places and that was a good experience for me. Not that it was always comfortable or easy. It was a challenging experience, not so much intellectually. It was great intellectually but it was socially very difficult because most people at that time were not accustomed to seeing people different from themselves in the classroom.
BOND: You said in a law lecture some years ago that you considered the Brown decision precursors of the nation’s civil rights movement and you yourself at a very young age were involved in this movement. How do you connect the two?
HRABOWSKI: Right. I think we began to think about the possibility of the races coming together in school as a result of Brown and it did happen in some places. I just happened to be in one of those really strongholds on segregation but even there, we talked about it and we looked at what was happening in other cities but I think that the country, people in general began to think about the future and the fact that the future might hold more and more people coming together in different ways, getting a chance to study together or work together. And as a result, I think of the possibility of that happening, more and more people were ready, emotionally and psychologically, for a change, particularly blacks. They could see this could be done. It seems, I mean, it seems to me when I think back, as I reflect on experiences with my parents, they could see that it was possible that life could be better, that blacks could have more opportunities, if they were willing to push and fight for those things. And it seems to me that Brown was an important foundation builder for those kinds of things.
BOND: So even though the decision itself had no immediate effect on you, is it fair to say that it sort of tilted you toward participation in a movement you did not even know was about to occur?
HRABOWSKI: Oh, that’s exactly right. I mean, you’re absolutely right. Even for my parents, you know, we all are influenced by our parents and my parents before Brown wouldn’t have thought about the possibility and my parents were always wanting the best. My mother actually led a protest in 1948 for the equalization of teacher salaries in Jefferson County, Alabama. She was very proud of that, and they fired her. She was such a good teacher, though, shortly after that the Birmingham City Schools picked her up, but she was always proud of the fact that she led that fight and she was always saying, “Just how do we get to the point where teachers who’re all teaching children the same material will be paid the same amount of money?” It’s hard for people to believe that there was a substantially lower salary range for colored teachers than for white teachers, so they were aware of the injustice, I mean, and had worked in their own ways to make a difference.
BOND: What did she do to protest this?
HRABOWSKI: Oh they had -- oh, literally, as she told me -- I’ll never forget. She had a group of them that wanted to speak to the Board of Education at that time and she was the spokesman and my mother was always comfortable speaking up and out, and she said she was young and smart and dumb at the same time and never knew they would fire her as a result, but they did. But she always knew she had done the right thing and it did bring the matter to the attention, so we were always listening. I was always listening to my parents talk about these issues and reading the paper and so probably when I was five or six, I remember Brown because they were saying he still wouldn’t have a chance to go somewhere else. I actually went to her school and the point was "How do we supplement the education, how do we make sure he has the books he needs?" And most important, it seems to me as I recall, she and he were always talking about what kind of college would I attend and quite frankly, they always said Morehouse which is where I didn’t go, but this is what they --
BOND: Hampton is an excellent school.
HRABOWSKI: Oh, I think so. I know so. They just thought it was so far up north. You see, everything is relative. To them, Virginia was way up north when you live in Birmingham.
BOND: Right. In Atlanta, Morehouse is close by.
HRABOWSKI: And Dr. [Benjamin] Mays.
HRABOWSKI: Dr. Mays. Everybody thought about Dr. Mays and you want your son to be influenced by Dr. Mays.
HRABOWSKI: Very much so.
BOND: Both of your parents are teachers. What did they teach?
HRABOWSKI: Right. My mother was a teacher all of her life, I mean, from college days. Mother taught English. Mother was actually an elementary teacher but she also did a specialty in English. Later on, she taught math also, so she did middle school English and math. And my father taught everything. It was a time of the one-room schools down in lower Alabama. By the time he came to Birmingham, he said colored men couldn’t make any money teaching, so my father became a laborer in a steel mill even though he’d gone to college. My mother and father had met at a place called Alabama State in the ’30s. And he worked three jobs, but in addition to the three jobs -- the steel mill job, the railroad job and with the funeral home there -- he did the reading and writing for his white supervisors who didn’t even have a high school diploma I don’t think, but they couldn’t read and write. It’s amazing how people were not necessarily literate of any race, and they used him behind the scenes. They would pay him side money. He’d be home at nighttime doing something, whatever report they had to do. I remember I would try to understand why he was doing it and I would hear him and my mother talking because she’d be saying, “You need to have that job,” and he would just say, “Just leave it alone,” you know. And he’d just get that extra money.
BOND: Because the possibility of him having that job was beyond --
HRABOWSKI: No, you would not have a black man as a supervisor in a white company. No, no, no, no. But he also -- I should say he also worked with the people in the steel mill to help people for years get GEDs and then my mother started working in the GED program so they worked five jobs between them to give me the best they could. But he was working with folks to get them with reading and math skills so he was still teaching in the steel mill and getting them to go back to get their high school diplomas and then he’d get them to my mother who was teaching in the GED program because they could just do a little better with that kind of -- and then in many cases, some went on to college.
BOND: So in some ways your parents are a preparation for the kind of work you do today with kids putting them into a science curriculum?
HRABOWSKI: Oh, yeah. My dad loved math. My mother loved math. My own philosophy about teaching math is based on my mother’s experience with something called The New Math in the ’60s. Most people were afraid of it. What she came to understand as an English type was how important reading was to teaching mathematics because math problems are typically story problems. Kids will say, “Give me the equation. Don’t give me the word problem,” because they don’t know how to read and translate from the words to the symbols, so I was her guinea pig throughout that ’60s so we’d have -- she’d have poetry up on the walls and she’d have word problems up and we’d be memorizing Zora Neale Hurston and doing word problems and she’d give me prizes -- blueberry pie, a Big Mac, whatever, as time went on, so I was getting fatter and smarter all the time.
BOND: Back to your mother for a moment and her protest against unequal pay for black teachers, how’d this develop? What happened? Were there lawyers involved?
HRABOWSKI: You know, I took it for granted. You know how when you get older and you remember stories and you never took the time to ask all the questions? I don’t even know the details. I just know it was always a big joke among her friends and the teachers. They knew she was the leader of the protest. She always had the big mouth. She was willing to say -- now, I know they never got to the point of lawyers and things like that. They wouldn’t even have understood things like that. I know that she was fired. I know that she always said with great pride that she was fighting for other teachers. And I know that they were all proud when finally -- whenever it came in my childhood, there was that equalization. Now, when that occurred, I don’t know, but for years, that was a point that her friends would talk about.
BOND: Your parents obviously had an enormous, enormous influence on you, but other than they, who touched you and pushed you forward when you were a young man and as you get older? Who did this for you?
HRABOWSKI: Sure. Sure. It would be the teachers and ministers. My minister, John Porter, at 6th Avenue Baptist had a major impact on my life, not only in terms of speaking but in giving me opportunities to be a leader in the church with the youth fellowship and something called the BTU --
BOND: Baptist Training Union.
HRABOWSKI: -- Baptist Training Union, yeah. And had been the president of the choir even though I can’t sing. And, you know what, and what the church did that was so wonderful was to reinforce good values, what we saw as appropriate values for children -- respecting authority, supporting each other, knowing the difference between right and wrong, wanting to do well in school. And in my church, when kids would do really well, the whole church would recognize them. And those of us who’d get 4.0, we’d get a standing ovation. Oh, oh, it was just -- I mean, every time they’d say, “There comes Freeman with that 4.0,” and oh, I’d work all year to get that standing ovation. It was just incredible and so it was a great experience -- and so the people in the church starting with John Porter, my minister, for sure, and then my principal, George Bell, whom I’ve often talked about.
George Bell was a mathematician and he was not a big man but he had a booming voice, and he could call a kid from down the hall and you’d would go, “Oh, my God, there’s Mr. Bell.” But he’d come into the classroom and put a math problem on the board. Anybody who could solve the problem could get a nickel. Whew, a nickel.
BOND: A lot of money.
HRABOWSKI: I could get five Tootsie Rolls. And everybody knew, everybody looked to me to see if I could solve it. And we’d have the whole day to bring him the solution. And it was an incredible strategy for getting people excited about mathematics. It really was. Then I’d work sometimes with other kids. Then it got to be a dime as it got more -- oh, a lot of money then. But he was to me the essence of true education and what it should do for people to get people excited about ideas. He was the one who had to handle the situation when you were suspended from school as a result of having gone to jail with Dr. King.
HRABOWSKI: Make no mistake about it. Dr. King and all the people who were involved in that movement, like one Julian Bond and the others, all those young educated people who came to our city who were articulate and eloquent and sincere and rebellious enough to say, "Life can be very different from this, very different from this." That was another world opening up.
Now, I will say this. There were people who were impressed but also frightened. Very frightened. I mean, middle class people particularly, not because they weren’t proud of all these young smart people of color -- colored people -- but -- from other places -- but they didn’t know what it would mean in terms of the repercussions because the thought was, they’re going to leave here.
BOND: And we’ll still be here.
HRABOWSKI: Yes, we’ll still be here, and will we still have our houses, will we still have our jobs, so there was all of that. I mean, everybody today can act as if, oh, Dr. King was wonderful and all that, but there were a lot of people who were saying this man is getting above himself. You know, because of the mindset, if you get my point.
BOND: What about people who were not famous and well known like the people you’re talking about now, but people in your neighborhood, not your family, not your teachers, but were there people like that?
HRABOWSKI: Oh, yeah. Mr. McCarthy was one of the principals around the corner whose daughter, Cheryl McCarthy, is in -- works for one of the New York papers now. My piano teacher, who became a dean at Alabama A&M, was incredible because she was teaching me discipline and getting me to understand that just because I liked math I shouldn’t think I shouldn’t be able to do music, you know. So she was pushing me to practice, for example. But also I would say neighbors up and down the street were influential because they treated me as if I were their own and would talk to me, would punish me, would praise me, would feed me. I was always going to somebody’s house to eat. I love to eat. And so if I smelled a pie or something else, I’d say, “What you got in there?” “Come on in, Freeman.” So there was that village and so those people -- it was a protected environment and there were a number of people -- everybody was hard working, fine Christian people and I just think of all the neighbors in that area.
I will say my math teacher in my school, Mr. Hill, was also -- and Mr. Whitehead was the chemistry teacher and he was great. He was young and smart. I think he’s still teaching in Atlanta now and he was impressed that I’d been to Massachusetts and had had the chemistry before so he’d use me to kind of help with the work and it was great to have a chance to work with children who may not have had as strong a background, but he was excellent. Really was.
BOND: What do you remember about particular events, either historical like the Brown decision which happens at a young, young age for you, or personal like your participation in the Birmingham Children’s March? How did these affect your notions of American society, not just the Birmingham, the segregated Birmingham world of your youth, but the larger world? How did they affect that?
HRABOWSKI: You know, the larger world for me was the other big middle class community in Birmingham. It was Tannersville and Smithville. Smithville was where Angela Davis lived and her folks, you see. And those were the two worlds I knew, so the larger world, it was nothing about whites. I mean, that was another universe. That may as well have been Mars. I mean, you’d see things downtown, but you didn’t even think that they were connected in any way. I did always wonder what it would be like to be in class with white children because we were being told in so many different ways through TV and the media that we were not as good and I wanted to show I could do as well as anybody else, and so I was thinking about that. I really was, because we saw the hand-me-down books and we saw that our schools were not as good. Didn’t have the money, quite frankly. We saw that our teachers cared a great deal, but -- and so the larger world was still very remote to me. It never occurred to me that I would be sitting in class with white kids or that I might be president of a predominantly white university.
BOND: But then you go to Massachusetts and you have this experience.
HRABOWSKI: Oh, and it was intellectually, academically rich and socially devastating because they would never speak to me, not even the teachers. Nobody would speak to me. I came to understand -- I was thirteen -- I’ll never forget my mother having me read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It is an awful feeling for a child to feel ignored completely, invisible. It was worse than being hated. I didn’t exist.
BOND: That you’re not even important enough to be hated.
HRABOWSKI: Oh, yes. I mean, there would be times when somebody in a math course, in a literature course, in a chemistry course, somebody would -- the teacher would ask a question and nobody could answer it, and I’ve have an idea and I was so curious and just this fat little kid loving it, I’d raise my hand to try. And nobody else would have their hand up. And he would just ignore me, over -- he, in two cases, and a she -- always, and even the kids. I mean, I started off being -- I mean, southerners speak. We speak and so I’d come in, “Hey, how you doing? I’m Freeman,” and they looked at me like I was crazy -- and I learned from that first day -- they kind of smiled. They were not nasty. They were not mean. They just weren’t comfortable.
BOND: You were the only black child?
HRABOWSKI: I was the only black child in those classes and yet I could see the level of rigor was more impressive than I’ve ever seen before. It was great. I loved the academic work, and the teacher was fair, critical but fair, and that was okay. Didn’t get any praise when I did really well, but very critical -- but I learned from it. It taught me to be tough. It taught me -- but I’ll always remember that feeling and it taught me so much about life and preparation and thinking about my philosophy of education. The worst thing we can do to children is to ignore them or make them feel like they’re not special, because you never forget that feeling. A child never forgets that feeling.
The only thing I had going for me I should say is that my teachers in Birmingham were saying, “Boy, you are special. You can do anything. You just have to be twice as good.” That’s the term we always used.
BOND: Yeah. What do you know about your parents discovering this Massachusetts program and what they -- how they got you to it?
HRABOWSKI: One of my godmothers was an educator there in Massachusetts and had taught there with my mother in Birmingham and had moved there, gotten married there. And she had suggested that if Mother wanted us to have -- she was going to send my cousin and me -- my mother and father wanted us to have the integrated experience and the reason, first of all, was that there had been opportunities for children of color, colored children, to go and live in the North to go to integrated schools. One such person who did it was Angela Davis and her sister. And our families were close. And so the question was whether or not my parents were going to send me and there were wonderful programs, Quaker programs, Friends School and places, and Mother was very impressed that people would be willing to do that, but quite frankly she was not going to leave her child’s education to anybody whom she didn’t know and especially white people, not because she didn’t think they were good people. She just didn’t know their ways, you see, and or how I would be raised, that kind of thing. And so I was bothered because I wanted to go and see if there’s a better way. I wanted to see it and know it and so the compromise was that her friend said, “Well, let them come for the summer,” and so my cousin and I went and, “Let him have this experience here,” and it was very helpful, very helpful, in many ways. It strengthened my math and science background. It reinforced the importance of literature and reading, something I did a lot of with my mother anyway, but it showed me how rigorous the work was. It showed me how well prepared some of those children were. But it also showed me I could do it, too.
BOND: That despite the fact that you came from a circumstance not as well prepared as theirs, you could equal them or surpass them?
HRABOWSKI: Well, the reason was that my mother and father had done a lot of supplemental work at home. I was reading Dostoevsky in middle school. It made a difference. I was embarrassed that I was forced to do it. I mean, when my mother would punish me using Raskolnikov, the character, you know, and others would say, “What is she talking about?” I’d act like didn’t know what she was talking about I’d be so embarrassed, but she was trying to get me. She knew the importance of reading. She figured that if she could get me to read great books, I mean, just wonderful literature from Russian authors to Thackeray to the Harlem Renaissance, she did the whole range, and so what she was doing -- she was using me as a guinea pig. What she’d do in her classroom she’d have me do at home and it was great, so I was better prepared than the typical colored child coming in because I’d had that home background. That helped.
Now, I still was not at the level of some of those children to start with, but it was great to have the bar set higher because what I had was not about brain power. I don’t mind working as hard as necessary. I’ll kill myself to get there. That was what the teachers had given me so I knew if I could just keep working hard I could get there and that made the difference.
BOND: Now, some time along the way you meet this Ph.D., and -- tell that story.
HRABOWSKI: Oh, yes. That was the summer at Tuskegee University and it was a National Science Foundation program and he would do it -- he’d come in and throw out a problem that was much harder. Mr. Bell’s problems you could solve in a day. This guy would come in -- this was a program that summer in mathematics and the kids came from -- they were the smart kids from the south, from Montgomery to Atlanta and Richmond, I remember. And then there were all these really smart kids from the Northern schools and some from private schools, some very prestigious private black schools and then private white schools and they were really well prepared. They were better prepared than we were. The difference, first of all, I have to tell you, was they felt fairly ordinary about themselves. They did not feel they were really special because in those very prestigious places they did well but they were not outstanding. We were the best in our little schools and that’s when I began to understand that sometimes even if you don’t have as strong an academic background, if you have been made to feel like the leader, the special one, you’ll go far beyond what people ever expected, so we were much harder working, much more humble quite frankly, than they were and in the end, we ended up doing quite well.
I tell you that because when the professor came in and he started coming in -- he was a dean at Tuskegee -- to give us a problem just to see what we could do, it became clear after a few days that he gave us problems that we necessarily could not solve in twenty-four hours which was unheard of. You know, you’d think you’d do it like that [snaps fingers] and we’d be working on it together and somebody was calling him Doctor. I said, “What kind of doctor is he?” thinking physician, and they said, “He’s a Ph.D.” “What’s a Ph.D.?” “It’s as high as you can go. That means you know a lot.” People look up to you and I said, “Ah ha, that’s -- " Because I knew I didn’t want to be a physician because I don’t like blood.
BOND: Yes, that would be a barrier.
HRABOWSKI: I’d already said, no, I don’t like working with dead people and I don’t like blood, so I can’t do a physician thing. No, I don’t want that, but I did -- I loved teaching children to read and compute and to think. And I always was trying to figure out how to get students to stop being so bored by this world and that’s what he did. He came in and we were fascinated. This man could be so smart. He could talk for a moment, frame a question, and say, "Here’s the question for you." And then walk out. And it was as if he was saying, "I dare you to be smart enough to get it." Oh, I got goosebumps every time. I just got to the point I just- I admired this man so.
BOND: So much so that you began looking at yourself --
HRABOWSKI: In the mirror every day I said that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to inspire people and show them just how challenging it can be to do this stuff so every morning when I’d get up, I’d look in the mirror and I said, “Good morning, Dr. Hrabowski.” I looked at my fat little face. “Good morning, Dr. Hrabowski.” And so when I was in college and my girlfriend, who’s now my wife, heard me do that, she said, “What did you just say?” And I had to admit to her that I said that. She said, “You know, you really are crazy.” True story.
BOND: How’d you feel when you got your Ph.D.?
HRABOWSKI: You know what, it’s amazing -- when you’ve worked on something for so long -- you’re numb. Honestly. I really was. It was just great to be finished. I mean, that’s the part about a Ph.D. Everybody who goes through it, you know, you’re just grateful to be finished. It takes years to reflect and it’s been over thirty years, thirty-three years, so 1975, and I did have the challenge of people holding me back because they said I was too young and just one of the really smart people said, “Give him a chance to go ahead and defend,” and they let me out. But --
BOND: How old were you?
HRABOWSKI: I was twenty-four when I got it or I could’ve been twenty-three. Somebody was bothered that I was so young and just said I needed to reflect more. It was interesting, but what I will tell you is that it was the journey that was much more significant than getting there. It was like a -- because it did teach me to think critically at another level and to work on a problem and look at it from different angles. The same in many ways, the same problem I’ve been looking at now for almost four decades and that is -- how do you get more people of color to excel in math and science and engineering? And how do you get a society to believe they can do it?
BOND: Is that how -- focusing on this idea for four decades, is that how you choose the career path that you’ve chosen?
HRABOWSKI: Oh, very much so. Very much so.
BOND: That the idea drove you to say, “Here’s one way I can solve this problem.”
HRABOWSKI: Oh, yes. In undergrad school, very few of us were majoring in math and my -- the best prepared students in math and science at Hampton were from other countries, were blacks from other countries. They were far superior in their -- the rigor of the education they received, unless they’d come from a prep school in New England or some place or really good place, and so it was clear to me that even then we needed more people and then when I got to Illinois and we’d seen a few at Hampton and it was great and everybody knew if you majored in math and science you were smart and serious, that was great. But then I got to Illinois and you just didn’t see people. There were no professors of color in any of these disciplines and nobody in the classroom and faculty were surprised to see me in there and in different ways -- well, nobody was mean-spirited. They just were surprised and weren’t accustomed to it and made comments.
BOND: Go back to your earlier years again. I’m interested in how you developed your leadership skills. Where do you think that began for you?
HRABOWSKI: Sure. It began in elementary school when I was ahead of my group because they started me when I was four in school. And a great story about the colored superintendent of schools who was my godfather, Dr. Hays. He was another of my heroes. You know, there was a colored superintendent and he was the one who hired my mother. He knew she was a rebel but knew how smart she was and he supported her and got her into the Birmingham City Schools. And so he became my godfather when I was born, a couple of years after that, and what happened was that my mother, first of all, said I was born in the classroom. She hid the fact that she was pregnant for a long time because once you became pregnant, you couldn’t continue to teach. And my mother and father had been married ten years and amazingly -- so she taught almost up until the last month or two and so she always said, “You were born in the classroom. You were born to teach.” I was told that all my life and she always wanted me not to become a principal. She thought the highest job you could have would be either be a high school principal and she said, “Too much stress. Stay in that classroom. Work with those children. Born to teach.” So that's --
And the key is that even as a first and second grader, I was given two or three kids to work with because I’d already gone through the work and I learned teaching and leading as very similar processes, the idea of connecting with people and it sounds silly to say I could be five and teaching, but I literally was -- It was about words and little problems and I just got -- I was so bored they had to do something with me, and I loved helping somebody else get to be good. My job was always to take some of the slowest kids and make them really good and get them to believe they could do it and this was great and so starting then I was --
BOND: And you did this at Hampton, too?
HRABOWSKI: I did this from age five, all of my life, all the way throughout high school and then in college, I was always leading the tutoring group and then at Illinois I really -- I had a big tutorial center I started for black kids at the undergrad level and statistics at the grad level.
BOND: What about other non-academic occasions where you had a chance to say, “I can do this. Other people will pay attention and follow me”?
HRABOWSKI: That’s the first really big one, and the changing experience, no doubt, no doubt, was when Dr. King and others came to Birmingham and when he asked the children to go to jail and when I wanted to go from the beginning. Because Mother and Daddy had me at the Alabama Christian Movement meetings every night. I didn’t want to be there. What kid wants to be there? So I’d be in the back of the room, as I’ve told before, doing math and studying, and -- but you hear people talking and you can’t help but listen after a while and you like the song, so you’re doing your math and [sings], “Ain’t gonna let nobody,” you’re singing along with it. You’re -- you’re just in it without even knowing. It’s like people doing the rap stuff, you know, if it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, using the bad language, it becomes a part of you. Well, all of that was a part of me so when he said he wanted the children to go, why, we’d been here every day. We’d been listening to it so why can’t I go? Because they said I couldn’t.
BOND: Your parents said you couldn’t? I’m sure they did.
HRABOWSKI: Oh, after the first day. It’s only now in recent years that I’ve thought back on it and really understood and I thought to myself, now, would I have let my son go. You’re trusting your child to be in that jailhouse with white people who don’t like you anyway and don't -- certainly don’t like your children, so that was what they were thinking about more so than the fact that employers had told -- the Board of Education had made it very clear that people would lose their jobs. They had those rumors go out, you know, you’re going to lose your job if your child goes to jail, so they were talking about it but more important than their jobs, I was their prized asset. Me. The child. And their point was that I couldn’t go and it was, and I told you before, but I really did call them hypocrites. Now, you know, at that time, you really don’t do that. You do not disrespect your mama, especially your daddy, though, you know, 'cause Mama could be a little more lenient when Daddy in the wrong, but you don’t do your daddy. And they were not pleased and told me to go to my room, go to bed, and I did and it was early the next morning that they came in after spending a sleepless night and told me I could go. They did.
So I did go and scared as I could be there, of course, and that experience taught me that you really don’t have to be traditionally courageous to do something that has some meaning, because I was not courageous. I wanted to be helpful because I wanted better schools. And I wanted to be able to drink out of the water fountain and go to the bathroom and all the basic stuff and go to Kiddyland, you know -- and not be seen as second class. I knew that. I knew how they thought about colored children. And so the point is that I did go and I led my group because I was older than -- I was in a higher grade than other children, remember that.
HRABOWSKI: So I was a little more mature and I was going to where they were taking the kids under a certain age although I was a high school kid, you see, and I could take the children and I did and what’s interesting is that I was as nervous -- and I did lead the group and have to speak to Bull Connor who was there. I was so scared.
BOND: And what happened to your interchange with Bull Connor?
HRABOWSKI: Oh, Lord, let me tell you. My heart was pump, pump, pump. The only thing that kept us going and I’ve told this to students. I was singing those songs -- [sings] “Let nobody turn me around, turn me around.” It was just amazing and that gave you courage to keep going, but you get up there and there’s this guy with this red face -- ooh, I remember, ooh- And he said, “What do you want, little nigra?” Oooh, I’m just shaking. “Suh, suh,” as in sir, you know, “We want to kneel and pray for our freedom.” And that’s when he spat on me. Yes, he did. He [makes spitting sound] spat on me, picked me up. Just pushed me towards the paddy-wagon and they threw us all into the paddy-wagon. It was all within -- very quickly. He was so angry and he was also angry because there were people taking pictures, you see, and it was embarrassing his city and all that.
BOND: He must have had some understanding that "these children are making me angry and I can’t let children make me angry."
HRABOWSKI: Yes, and yet, you know, he was- If I were to think about it, I am sure -- this will sound odd for me to be saying. He hadn’t thought about being mean to those children. He was angry at people for setting up a situation. He was angry at the embarrassment for Birmingham. He was out of control, if I’m to look back at it, but let me say, at that time and for years, I just saw him as a terrible man, an awful -- for years, I hated him.
HRABOWSKI: It took me years to get over the hatred that I felt because we got to the jail, the place, and they were awful to us there. And they put us in with the bad boys. We were not bad boys. You know, bad boys are the ones that have the knives. We don’t have any knives. We don’t cut people and things like that. And they encouraged, they encouraged a bad experience for us.
BOND: How’d the bad boys treat you?
HRABOWSKI: It was not good, except I was very -- I was using every kind of way I could to keep up with my kids because I had these kids and everybody was crying for their mama -- “I want my mama,” you know, and I’m feeling the same thing and trying to be a big boy. And they had Bibles there, I remember that. And I would read the Bible a lot. Any time it would get really tough and somebody would say they were going to -- or begin to do something to my children, I’d start reading aloud -- “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” Everybody respects the Bible, and I got that, so I could -- and I would have my kids singing songs. They’d leave them alone doing that. And I was constantly, especially with those who were really scared, and trying to keep one or two who were ready to fight from getting into that, but it was -- you think about an unsupervised situation with children with guards who were clearly with different points of view, I’m sure, but clearly not giving us support. It was not good.
BOND: And these other inmates who are clearly rough, rough guys --
HRABOWSKI: And it was not good. It was not good. And -- but I will tell you this, from all of that, because I’ve blocked it out for a long time. I really did. What it taught me, more than anything else, was that children can make decisions at an early age to affect the rest of their lives and that we sometimes assume that children really can’t think well, but a twelve-year-old, an eight-year-old, can think much more clearly than we think. They need teaching and training, but I’m saying they can really appreciate the difference between right and wrong and can make decisions and so it helped me to appreciate the need to give respect to students, whether they are twenty or twelve, and not treat them like little people but rather as thinkers. The more you can elevate people by just giving them that support and expecting more from them, whether in mathematics or in thinking about life, the more they’ll come up to the occasion.
BOND: Yet some people came through this experience you did, or who were contemporaries even if they weren’t engaged in the same way you were, dedicated their lives to this kind of political activism. Someone you knew at that time, Angela Davis, even though she becomes an academic, also maintains this kind of -- you know, pushing forward. Why do you think you took this path and others took another?
HRABOWSKI: It’s interesting. Angela and I were both fortunate to be children of middle class parents, and the essence of middle class in America at that time -- your mother’s a teacher, so often, and I think we’re all affected, influenced by our experiences, whatever they are, and for her and for many others who grew up with me, the idea was education was critical, was absolutely critical. What we have in common is everybody was saying education makes the difference so that clearly was there. Now, the fact that she might’ve taken a different path during a period when things were very turbulent and I’ll never forget how supportive Birmingham, black Birmingham, was of her every day during that period. I mean, there was never a time when any of us felt anything other than "let’s protect and support Angela Davis." That’s the difference between white and black America. We knew she was a wonderful person, that she may have been trying to support somebody, but we knew who she was and everybody -- and we knew her family, you know -- somebody’s people, you see. And what am I saying? I’m saying that circumstances can be such that you are involved with people, you’re helping people, people are involved in whatever activity, prison or whatever, and you give support and you move in that direction.
My direction was different just because of circumstances. It was always- I’ve always been, high school, college, grad school, going to teach at a university, so I’ve always been primarily in universities and trying to get universities to reach out to communities to get involved in that way but did not have the same kind of path as others who might have moved out of the institution, out of the universities, to do more social activism and those kinds of things.
BOND: Now, is Condoleezza Rice a contemporary?
HRABOWSKI: Yeah, she’s a dear friend.
BOND: And you knew her growing up at the same time?
HRABOWSKI: She was a little girl.
BOND: I think it remarkable that you, Angela Davis, and Condoleezza Rice knew each other at some period in your lives.
HRABOWSKI: Yes. Yes, and Condi was about four years younger. Her father was my high school counselor, wonderful, wonderful Rev. Rice, intellectual, who also liked sports, who was just an incredible thinker who could push you to think and use humor with it in very interesting ways. But he was there and Mr. Bell, my principal, was the uncle of Alma Vivian Powell who also grew up in Birmingham and so all of that Birmingham connection is very interesting. But -- and the point I make to people all the time is that people assume that "oh, if they’re black, they think this way" or "if they’re black and middle class, they have these points of view," not realizing that we are thinkers. Educated people will have different points of view about many things and can even agree to disagree and still be very close. People do that within the same family. Husbands and wives maybe belong to different parties, but people forget that broadly when thinking about middle class black people growing up in Birmingham, for example, that we can be very close, supportive and yet have different points of view on different things. What we had in common in all those situations -- the power of education to transform lives and that’s a theme you’re going to find in any of those families.
BOND: And it’s remarkable to me that your parents have been teachers, Condoleezza Rice’s father was a counselor, Colin Powell’s wife’s uncle is involved in education. There’s, you know -- there's a Ph.D. thesis hidden here some place.
BOND: Let’s move on. Let me ask you -- what do you see for yourself as the difference between vision, philosophy, and style? How do these three interact for you?
HRABOWSKI: Sure. Vision for me has everything to do with how we see the world today and how we might envision the world if things were as we wanted them to be. It’s both. Being able to see clearly what is the case and then being able to see what is possible and somehow looking at the gap between the two. It’s all a part of envisioning, and then one’s vision is how do you go from where you are, because you see it clearly, to where you want to go.
One’s philosophy is, from my perspective, the ethical core of the person. What is it that you value? What is it that is critical when you think about themes that help to shape who you are? If someone were to ask me the question what is my philosophy of life, what is my philosophy of education, I could very easily say that my philosophy focuses on building relationships with people characterized by trust and authenticity and my believing in the fundamental goodness of people -- that we can bring from people that goodness, that we all have all kinds of sides and can be all kinds of things or people if we’re not encouraged to be our best, whether in education or in life.
And then style has everything to do with how we approach reaching the vision and interacting with others. What is our approach? Is it more consensus building? Is it more dictatorial? Is it with humor? Is it serious all the time? My own style is characterized, I believe, by intensity and informality at the same time.
BOND: How do you handle these seemingly conflicting --
HRABOWSKI: Right, but if you can get people to relax and believe that you’re authentic and sincere, you can get the best from them and you can understand how they can be helpful in shaping a vision because that’s the point I should make -- any -- from my perspective, vision has a lot to do not with an individual’s sight, but with the ability of someone to work with a group, whoever the group, to have that collective vision. And that’s a part of the style aspect in terms of consensus building.
BOND: Now, has your vision changed over time? You had one here and then it changed in some form or fashion, and if so, how?
HRABOWSKI: Sure. My vision for myself has changed. My vision for my -- I think in each case it’s broadened, but been refined in different ways for myself, for the institution, as I think about the country. There are changes. There are differences. For the University, for years we have seen our institution, UMBC, as a place that is a major resource for this region and for producing all kinds of leaders from the sciences to the arts, but we’ve been growing in national stature and now more than ever, we’re seen as a national model for public universities as one of the few examples in the country of excellence in diversity -- diversity meaning international and domestic diversity -- and as an extraordinarily entrepreneurial place with dozens of companies that we’ve created here. So, it becomes a model that we talk about, that I talk about around the country that has national implications.
For myself, for years I was focused on the academic side and truly interested in seeing how to support building excellent programs at the institution where I was working and making UMBC the very best academically in terms of research and teaching and all that’s still very important. Then we added on the entrepreneurship part and research part and entrepreneurship, and so I became more of a business person getting connected with corporations and understanding much more about partnerships between companies and the University and most recently for me personally, my work with foundations with the issues of poor and working-class people in understanding the challenges that they face has become an important part of what I’m doing.
BOND: So would it be fair to say there’s not so much a change in vision but a modification and an expansion, a broadening?
HRABOWSKI: That’s right. I would say a broadening of it, yes. And even refinement in understanding with greater specificity things I’ve always believed about what’s possible and how I might go about doing things and through all of that, I should say I still am convinced we can help many more Americans become excited about mathematics.
BOND: It was a challenge for me, I’ll have to say.
HRABOWSKI: It’s because you didn’t have the best teachers. One of the things that you need to know is that that problem is that kids who’re good in math and science who become teachers for the most part are accustomed to being told they’re smart and they are. They’re bright and they were taught that either you’re good in math and science or you’re not. Now, you can be smart in English and history or something else, but either you are in math or you’re not. And that’s just not true. It’s not true. Some people may grasp concepts more quickly. That doesn’t mean they’re going to be the deeper thinker but we tend to think if you can do it like this, it necessarily means you’re smarter. That’s just not true.
BOND: My teacher -- chemistry teacher in Morehouse was Henry [Cecil] McBay. He was famous, well known all over the country. And at the first class in a big lecture hall with a big blackboard at the bottom, he held two pieces of chalk and he said, “I’m here and you’re here,” and he ran down to the end of the blackboard and said, “At the end of the semester, I’ll be here and you will be here, here, here, and here,” and he adequately predicted where I would be. But let’s move on. Now, you’ve said that you want it to be cool to be smart and you want everybody to do the best they can and you’re not above correcting people for using bad grammar and as we’ve been walking around this campus, you speak to everybody, say hello to everybody. I cannot believe you know them all, but you clearly know more people than I think would be typical. Do you know what effect this has? Can you measure what effect this has?
HRABOWSKI: I have no doubt that people watch what presidents of colleges do all the time and those actions of leaders have an impact on other people. I do work to know a lot of students and even when I don’t know them, I want them to know I care by the questions I ask, by taking a minute just to look at someone and it does make a difference. Leaders can do so much more through their actions than they can through their words. Words are important but actions are even more important and I do know that large numbers of colleagues, faculty and staff have said to me over the years, "You know, you’re right, we should be connecting with our students more. We shouldn’t just assume that it’s okay to walk by people without connecting in different ways," and that a part of this community that’s important, a really important part of it, is relationships. The importance of connecting with students and other colleagues to let them know that what they do is important and that they matter. I am always thinking about how much my teachers did for me in school -- in elementary, middle, and high school -- in saying I matter and how little I got that one summer and how that one summer sticks with me when they were telling me through their actions I didn’t matter and that -- it’s amazing how we’re all shaped by our childhood experiences and my point for today and the University is that I know my colleagues care about these students. I see it all the time.
BOND: Well, I don’t know if this is a reflection of this. I’m sure it is. The three of us coming here for the first time found people incredibly welcoming and asking, “Are you lost? Do you know where you’re going? Can I help you?” And that’s not to be expected everywhere, and it’s much appreciated.
HRABOWSKI: And I should say, that is UMBC and it’s not just about me. What’s really important for me to say is that there’re so many people here who’re just smart and caring and they exude that. You get that feeling they want to help and it makes a difference. People want to be here, you know. And they don’t take this experience for granted because every place is not like this.
BOND: Well, I don’t want to give you extravagant praise, but I think it does trickle down, in this case. Let’s shift gears again. Some people characterize making of leaders in three different ways. One is great people cause great events. Movements make leaders. Or the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the times. Does one of these fit you?
HRABOWSKI: The latter two would fit in that no doubt being born in 1950 and being a child in the ’60s when Dr. King and others said we want children to go to jail made a big difference in my life. It really did. I was fortunate to be -- have been born at the time that I could be a part of that experience, to observe, to watch, to participate, and to do a small part. Just, I mean -- it was very important. And so you see, after that event, people used me to talk about the experience because many of the children who were in jail were from the projects. There weren’t a lot of middle class kids who had had the advantages of educated parents who went. There were a few of us but for the most part, the people who went were the folks who had the most to gain from their point of view. The people who didn’t go, in many cases, were worried, understandably, that they might lose things. They were wonderful people, but they were worried. They were telling my mother, “You sure you’re going to let -- he went to jail, you’re going to leave him in there?" You know, and so what am I saying? I am saying that I had the opportunity to speak and reflect on that movement for years.
When I went to Hampton, the president wanted me to talk about that experience -- Jerome Holland, who became ambassador to Sweden -- when I became very involved in leadership activities on campus, and he was a superb fundraiser and he knew how to bring me out. I mean, just as one of these boys from the South, to talk about the experience, I mean -- and so it was great. They’d take me to New York to speak and so I was having all these experiences throughout high school and college, all of which prepared me to talk about what I really believe and to say to people this is something you ought to think about. This what leaders do, if you think about it. We talk about what we really believe and we try to pull people into that work.
BOND: Does your legitimacy as a leader -- is it grounded in your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or is it your ability to articulate the agenda of a movement?
HRABOWSKI: It’s a great question. I think it’s somewhere involving those things and more, though. I think that true leaders have to be able to understand the people to be led or the group and the cause and to struggle with those people in developing a vision. We’ve had to struggle here in determining who can we be and how can we be excellent at something given the circumstances here. It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about one or two people. There were a lot of people who worked to come to this point of where we are, so, first of all, it’s being able to work with people to struggle, to come up with the vision you want to have. That’s not obvious itself, first of all. Then secondly, then it becomes a matter of how do you express it with enthusiasm and authenticity. How -- and how can you get others to buy into that vision and so it’s the combination of working to develop and build a consensus, then being able to represent people, and finally, being able sometimes to push to go to the next level and just to sort of determine what is the next level for an institution, for a race, for a country.
BOND: Describe, if you will, the development of the Meyerhoff Program and how it came about and what it’s turned out to be.
HRABOWSKI: Sure. The Meyerhoff Program is the result several of us talking about the challenge we face on this campus of blacks not doing well in science. This is a campus that produces a number of doctors and scientists, at that time, primarily white and Asian, but very few blacks and we were interested in finding funds to help us and fortunately, Robert Meyerhoff, Robert and Jane Meyerhoff, had an interest in the issue of black males and wanted to understand why everything they saw on TV other than basketball had a negative bent to it and Bob Embry, the head of the Abell Foundation, knew about my interests, knew about the Meyerhoffs’ interests, and suggested that I call them and I did and we had great conversations and we ended up marrying the two ideas. But what’s interesting is that I did not want to have it only for black males, because I knew I’d be criticized, and Bob Meyerhoff said, “This is my money, this is what I want to do. All right. Do you want to do it?” And so we did it and I’m so glad he forced me to do it, not because I didn’t think the black male issue was important. I just wanted to do something for black women, too, and what it did was, and I did get attacked by some groups, white women’s groups, I should say.
Black women were wonderful in saying we need more programs like this because we see how black males are not doing as well as our daughters, so it was very interesting. But this is what I want you to know. The program led to our talking about the issue of the black male. The next year we got federal funds so, of course, we brought women in and that was good, too. But we began to understand the need for specificity in talking about the issues because that effort led to, amazingly, the campus rethinking its view about a program like Meyerhoff.
Some of my colleagues were not happy with the idea of doing something specifically for African Americans so we had to work on getting people to understand the need for such an initiative because they didn’t think it was fair and it took showing them the graduating classes for that next year, the class where there were no blacks with above a 3.0 in science. And the question was, well, is that because you think they can’t do it? And that began the conversation and so it took building allies that led to --
And what finally became the case was a two-pronged approach -- one part that said we need students who can succeed. We need to think about who can succeed, since most will not have as strong a background as the others. And two, and this was the really sensitive point-what is it that we as faculty may not be doing that we should be doing because the tendency is to say what the students are doing wrong.
BOND: Talk about a protest that was involved in the early part of this.
HRABOWSKI: You should know that every spring I found out in my first year here in ’87, as I came up the elevator and got to the tenth floor of the President’s Office and I was Vice Provost, the floor was covered with people -- African Americans, a few white students being supportive, and I’m shocked. There’re TV cameras and there’s this big protest and I’m thinking the last time I’d seen a protest was when I was a student at Hampton as a part of the leadership and I’m thinking, "Oh, my God, I’ve become the man." I was the administration. And I asked a secretary, “What is this?” And she said, “Oh, don’t worry, this happens every year at UMBC.” It was springtime and there was a protest. And when we got to the bottom of it, students said the place had been racist about some things and we tried to figure out what that meant and we talked about the issues. There was an incident that we went through. But when I examined the records of the students, what I found was that the average black male GPA was a 1.9. The average black female GPA was a 2.0 and the primary reason students were not succeeding was that many wanted to be doctors and had done poorly in chemistry, you see.
Now, I went through the white GPAs and the Asian GPAs and found that the whites had about a 2.5 and 2.6, the Asians, 2.8, 2.9. We then did focus groups on the students and found that the Asian students studied more than the white students who studied more than the black students. Now, then I did -- when we did the focus groups, what the black students would say, “Well, it was racism. "Well, I studied as much as anybody else and I got a D and everybody on both sides of me, white, got As and Bs and the teacher’s white,” so there was the racism, you see.
BOND: Ipso facto.
HRABOWSKI: That’s exactly right. There must be some prejudice here, right? Just not understanding they’d come from different high schools where the level of rigor was very different from what they found in other schools and as a result, students were not as well prepared. That was the issue. They were not as well prepared and didn’t know how to study and weren’t working with other people.
At the same time, my colleagues began to see that they needed to do more to give support, including, quite frankly, more feedback to students, not waiting until midterm to having the test, having a chemistry tutorial or something. Now, all of this we began to look at at the same time that I was saying, "But there are special issues these black students are facing, issues involving their feeling ordinary, issues involving their thinking they’re not smart," and that’s when I began to talk about those issues with people and that led to my meeting they had with the Abell Foundation. At the same time, the Abell Foundation head, Bob Embry, had been talking to Bob Meyerhoff who had been interested in the issue of black males and the fact that there was such negativity on TV. He got us together. Bob Meyerhoff and his wife were absolutely fascinated by the idea. They wanted to make a difference for black males and we were able to marry the two ideas and in spite of my protest at first about doing it only for black males-I want to give them credit -- we did it the first year for all black males and then the next year for women and that began the program.
But there were all kinds of other issues in terms of leadership in terms of, particularly getting the campus to have positive feelings about what we were doing. Sometimes people think it’s unfair to do something for a particular group. It’s only when you can use everything from data analysis to focus groups to people talking about the issues to bringing some allies along to looking at the issues that you can make a big difference.
BOND: In effect, you had to create a conversation that endorsed this idea before you could put the idea into motion.
HRABOWSKI: Before, yes. Because we had begun to get letters from people as we began to reach out to schools to say we’ve got this program for black males and there were people who liked it and other people who didn’t like it and there were differences of opinion. And what I had to explain to a number of my white women friends was that the issues they were concerned about with white men were different from the issues for black men. Black men were not in positions of power. There was not -- you didn’t find large numbers of men, black men, in science at all. Women had actually even then begun to have larger percentages in med school unlike what we had seen in other groups. And black women were very helpful, quite frankly in saying, "No, we need some things for black males specifically because we’re seeing that women are doing well and the men are not, so we like this." I had parents of daughters saying it, too, but it was a very sensitive matter that I had to learn how to talk about in such a way that I wasn’t offensive to anybody when they were bothered by these things.
Now, since that time, we have developed the Meyerhoff program that has black men and women but also whites who have an interest in these issues, but we still talk with specificity about each group and about their needs.
BOND: And I think this just shows how hard it is to talk about race-specific issues or programs and that naturally leads to a question about race consciousness. How does race consciousness affect your work? Do you see yourself as a leader who advances issues of race or issues of society or are these the same? Is there such a thing as a race-transcending leader?
HRABOWSKI: I think it’s silly to think that somebody’s going to be race transcending in America. If one knows history, it is naïve to think that anybody can be race transcending. That doesn’t mean that one can’t relate to all kinds of people, but the pink elephant in the room is race. Make no -- we cannot -- nobody can tell me that they can just not think about race ever. No. It just doesn’t happen. Now, with that said, the theme for me is authenticity. I love my students of all races. And we can talk about all kinds of issues.
This is a campus, one more, than can talk about the sticky issues of the day -- what does it mean to be an African American in this group, what does it mean to be a low-income white student in this group, or a woman in science in this group? I would say that we have to find ways of being able to be honest. I could play a game here and say, “Oh, yeah, we want to not have to talk about it,” but I know race will always, in my lifetime, be important to my students. They need to understand there will always be people who will judge them initially on the way they look, in different ways, whether they look polished and middle class, whether they are white or black or woman or male or whatever, and that those don’t have to be limiting factors, but they are factors that must be taken into account. And it is -- I’ll just give you one example of this campus talking about these things.
I was speaking in Howard County to a group of teachers about issues of children of color. And we finished and a young white woman got up and said, “Dr. Hrabowski, you didn’t mention the fact that we’re all white in the room." She said, "And this is a challenge that we’re working on here, but I’m the youngest in the room and my class is 70 percent of students of color but all the teachers are white. How do we deal with that?” And she says, “How do we deal with the fact that people aren’t comfortable talking about that?” And by this time, every face in the room is red, very red. And I’m just loving it. And I said, “Where’d you go to college?” -- being very serious with her -- “Where’d you go to college?” And she said, “Oh, you don’t know, Dr. Hrabowski, I’m one of yours.” We talk like this at UMBC. But it was clear others were not accustomed to being that honest about a fundamental point. And that’s not that a white person can’t be a great teacher for kids of color, but that person has to be able to talk about those issues, you see, because they are issues. I mean, as much as you might love that child, these are issues the child has to deal with and you’ve got to be --
So, what is my point? I’m saying that when I think about my own leadership, people here would say -- I would hope they would say, "He cares about all the students of all types. He will ask students about their backgrounds.” We have a lot of students here from mixed backgrounds. A lot of kids are out of the military, one parent is from Europe, one parent might be black. I mean, all kinds of interesting mixtures and we talk about it. Well, how do you discuss that because how it’s viewed in one country is different from here. A young woman can say to me, “I am French.” And I say, “But here they would just say you are a lovely black woman.” And she can say, “But I don’t like that. I don’t want to be that,” and we can discuss what that means, and so the fact is we Americans have not learned how to talk with comfort about issues of race in mixed company.
It seems to me that leaders of all races in our colleges and universities should feel some responsibility for setting a tone that will encourage people to say what they really think. I’m not interested in people simply telling me what’s politically correct. You know. When a student wants to say, “Well, didn’t you get that job because you were black?” I want the student to ask me that question. I won’t be insulted by that because if that’s what you really think, how can you ever have a different point of view if you’ve already made your mind up and you just remained quiet? Tell me what you think and let’s talk about it. We need that kind of discourse far more than we seek right now in our country.
BOND: You know, you can’t know this, but you’re predicting questions I want to ask and the next is, do you have a different leadership style when you deal with groups that are all black, that are mixed, or all white, as in the example you just used?
HRABOWSKI: That's very interesting. I’m going to change the question slightly and then I’ll answer yours. When I’m dealing with a student, I’m just giving myself. I’m just authentic. I’m just me. That’s my greatest strength, just to be able to be sincere with people and I care about people and I certainly care about my students and I can connect with them because our emotions are so much the same whether a student is concerned about his or her girlfriend or about a boyfriend or about a parent or about not doing well in school, we have the same issues -- our health, or not being comfortable speaking in front of people. These are just issues, right?
When it’s a group, it will depend. I still give authenticity. The style may change. If I’m speaking in a black church it’s going to be very different from when I’m speaking at the National Academy of Sciences. Good speakers, effective speakers, want to connect appropriately to their audiences and audiences expect different things. If I’m speaking in a church or an all-black situation, in most cases, they’re going to want me to speak with some emotion, much more so, all right? When I’m speaking to a group of scientists, regardless of color, they’re going to be less respectful of the emotion. They want to know the facts, the analysis, you know. So it just depends on the group is what I’m saying. The message may be the same, the approach may change between a group of twenty-one-year-olds and I’m thinking twenty-one-year-olds versus fifty-year-olds, so you change your approach to some extent depending on the group. In every case, people will feel my passion. Even when I’m being analytical, it’s still going to come through. I can’t stop it.
BOND: In a book called Challenging the Civil Rights Establishment, the authors quote William Allen and he writes of “a danger in continually” -- and these are quotes -- “thinking in terms of race or gender. Until we learn once again to use the language of American freedom in an appropriate way that embraces all of us, we’re going to continue to harm this country.” Is there a danger of divisiveness when we focus on the concept of black leadership?
HRABOWSKI: I don’t think so. Well, there's -- we always have division. Let’s start there. Yes, people were divided already, I mean, clearly. But any time I hear somebody say going back to something, once again, American freedom, for all people, yeah, right. People have had different definitions of who all people would mean for years, for centuries. We know that because some people just a hundred years ago would’ve been talking about the freedom to vote for everybody, so women and blacks, you know, so -- and that we are a wonderful country that is far from perfect. We are constantly struggling to be better and I do think that most people are decent human beings, I really do. But I think we are all the products of our experiences, our childhood circumstances, and the prejudices that our parents transmitted to us. We all have prejudices -- of course we do. And so our challenge it seems to me is to continue to educate people in such a way that while they can recognize the differences among us, whether it about how girls learn or between blacks and whites, how girls learn in science versus English or whatever, there are differences. There’re biological differences, to appreciate the strengths of every group, to be able to talk about ways in which we are similar and at the same time, to understand the challenges that every particular group faces.
Low-income white children face many challenges in this country and are less likely now than several years ago to go on to college. That is an issue, you know. Middle-class black children face the challenge of cultural perspective of popular culture and of people feeling comfortable using the word “bitch.” And the way they think about women, so we’ve got issues with every group. Right now on the campus today, we’ve got the problem that too few young women are majoring in computer science of any race in our country. The numbers have gone down so there is a need for leaders to be able to talk with some specificity about different groups.
The Hispanic population, the least well-educated population in terms of college degrees -- only about 11 percent -- and a part of the issue has to do with helping families to know what a difference this college education will make. Blacks will always say they want their kids to go to college. We have that as part of our culture. Whether we do the things we need to do it or not, we’ll say it, you see? So every group has different issues that we need to think about and effective leaders, whether it’s the president of a country or of a university, will have to be able to speak with some specificity about how we help each group to go to the next level.
BOND: As a black leader, do you have an obligation to help black people? Is there a point at which that obligation might end and you can pursue your own professional ambitions?
HRABOWSKI: I have mixed feelings. I am what the old-timers would call a race person. Make no mistake about it. And I can say this to whites very comfortably, very comfortably. It doesn’t take away from my ability to be supportive of my students or my white colleagues at all, but just as we were with a woman president today and she’s going to always help women, there’s no doubt I need to be -- I know I’m always a role model for students in general and for African Americans, young African American males and females. They’ll say, "Well, if he can do it, I can do it!" And so I have been taught by my parents that of those to whom much is given much is required. I am supposed to be supportive of people in general and I’m especially supposed to reach out to the poor black children and do whatever I can to give them support.
Now -- now, with that said, I have colleagues who are scholars, who are African Americans, and we’ll talk about these issues. Some feel as I do, but depending on where they were born, when they were born, what their disciplines are, others don’t necessarily feel that way and while I may argue and say, “I want you to think about this,” I finally believe that they have the right to decide how to live their lives, so when somebody finally says, “Freeman, that’s not my issue,” I will say, “I grieve about that, but I give you that right. That’s your right. I don’t give you that right. I accept the fact you have the right to live your life as you want to.”
Now, I am such a pushy educator, I’ll still keep working to get some of those young people because these are often young people who grew up in -- young meaning under fifty -- who’ve grown up in a different period who now are wealthy, who think, "Well, I made it myself," and they don’t even understand that the reason they were able to do so well was because their parents were educated because of what happened during the civil rights movement and Brown and those kinds of things that they got those advantages. They don’t see that. They just think, "I worked hard," and so you’ve got those issues even in our race and I’m saying, but you can’t force anybody to do anything. It has to be because the person believes it, senses it, and has that sense of obligation. So that’s what I mean when I say a mixed answer. I know for me and mine, we should be concerned about these things forever, and I’ll work to get others to think about it, but I wouldn’t want to force anybody because that’s not authentic. That wouldn’t be authenticity.
BOND: What do you see as your greatest contribution as an African American leader?
HRABOWSKI: On two levels. This campus is doing so well. Everybody’s looking at the fact that all of these students are learning how to work with each other and excel, and -- whether they’re in, again, in the humanities or in science and when they go out, they can speak with pride about coming from this middle-class place where we produce leaders who can excel, against people from anywhere. And that’s a great thing for this region and for the country because we don’t have enough places that have thought carefully about excellence among all groups and getting people to connect and mix it up and be able to be leaders of that type, so that’s a broad -- that's a broad part of what I hope will be my contribution with my colleagues for the University.
For me personally, my own research and the work we’ve done on producing black scientists -- we’ve now become the leading predominantly white university in the country and when the new study comes out, going through 2008, we produced more blacks who get Ph.D.s in science and M.D./Ph.D.s than any university, black or white, in the country. So we now have students who are up at Harvard and Stanford and Duke, and people who are doing cutting-edge research who will be the leading black scientists in the country. Now, add to that whites in that program who not only will be leaders but who can talk about race, can talk about race with comfort, who will be professors. How many professors have had a chance to think about "how do you talk about race and poverty and gender in science?" And that’s been the work that we’ve been doing in my own research and it is far more inspiring to me now than ever before.
BOND: What kind of leaders does contemporary society demand? What -- how will our future problems demand different leadership styles?
HRABOWSKI: Yes. I think first of all leaders will need to have a much stronger focus on interdisciplinarity than ever before, whether they’re scientists or humanists or social scientists. Problems won’t be solved simply through looking through the lenses of one discipline. We need to be able to have people who can talk across disciplines more than ever, first of all, and so the style will have to be one that’s open to areas beyond one’s expertise, a style that helps to bring people from disparate backgrounds together to -- and to create a tone in which people can have this robust dialogue about problems of poverty or race in our country in a setting or in different settings that will allow us to chip away at the problems because the big problems can’t be solved like that.
The issue of the human genome has been something we’ve been working on for so many years and yet we’re making progress in that, you know, in bioinformatics, but the question of how to educate poor children. The reason we talk so much about No Child Left Behind is because millions of child of all races are indeed being left behind and we’ve become comfortable even saying it -- No Child Left Behind -- and -- but the typical American would say, “Yeah, but a lot of them are being left behind,” but we haven’t gotten to the point of saying, “And this is unacceptable.” There’s the problem. How do we get to the point where Americans say this is unacceptable and bring the level of rigor to the work involving race and poverty that we have brought to anti-cancer strategies. Big difference in the kind of rigor we use in education versus health care.
BOND: Well, how can we foster the more effective leaders for the future?
HRABOWSKI: I think colleges and universities can be far more effective than we’ve been in thinking deliberately and proactively about leadership, about the sticky issues of the day -- education and poverty and race -- and about developing settings in which people can learn from other leaders, can pick apart and analyze what leaders do and don’t do, and finally, I think we clearly will at some point decide in colleges and universities and in our society to think differently about how to have a conversations about race. We have not figured it out. We really have not figured it out. I can give you so many examples during this election when it’s so clear people think so differently and people don’t know how to even begin to get people to come together without having this [gestures] immediately.
We in education have to teach people how not to simply want to get their point of view across, but how to listen more carefully than we do right now, if you think about it, how to listen more carefully.
BOND: Well, you’ve done a great deal toward this here at UMBC. Thank you. Thank you for being with us today.
HRABOWSKI: Thank you for challenging me to think.