UMBC’s Habrowski: Who sent him to serve the world?

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First things first. I need to state, right up front, that I am the father of a student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Thus, I am quite familiar with this rather unique campus, which, while operating with a title that sounds like a commuter school, is actually an unusually diverse and proudly nerdy honors campus. UMBC is turning into an important story in Baltimore, in Maryland and in higher education, in general.

You can’t come anywhere near UMBC and its honors programs without learning quite a bit about President Freeman Hrabowski, who has led the school through two decades of remarkable growth. You may have heard about Hrabowski on “60 Minutes,” or read about his work for President Barack Obama on education issues, or notice that Time named him one of the world’s 100 most influential people. The man the students call “Doc” is many things, starting with the fact that he is a skilled chess player, a total science nerd (there’s that word again) and a world-class motivational speaker.

The Baltimore Sun recently ran a massive — and I do mean massive — profile of Hrabowski and it included, of course, the quote that is most often associated with the man’s work. This mantra states: “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes destiny.”

If that refrain sounds like it would work in a pulpit, that’s because it would work in a pulpit — especially in an African-American church.

Hrabowski, you see, talks a lot about character and, especially, the importance the role of character in strengthening African-American families and the communities in which they live. I dug into the Sun piece hoping that it would yield information on the roots of Hrabowski’s views on morality and character and, in particular, this religious background. In the end, I was disappointed.

We do have hints, however, and one solid hook.

He is renowned for his big ideas; educational heavyweights such as MIT and Stanford have been to Catonsville to study the methods with which UMBC churns out elite black graduates in the sciences. How, they want to know, has a 46-year-old university, founded to serve commuters, cracked the code to one of American education’s most vexing problems?

Hrabowski’s mother believed he was sent to better the world, and he has spent a lifetime trying to meet those expectations. Everything about him seems outsized compared to his university system peers, from his celebrity speakers agency to his lucrative positions on corporate boards.

Note that, even though this is a paraphrased quote, it appears that his mother used the word “sent” when talking about her son’s work in this world. Hold onto that thought.

Any good news profile needs to address the past and, in this case, the story includes quite a bit of detail about the forces that shaped the young Hrabowski. This passage — as you would imagine — jumped out at me.

Asked about his mentors, he starts with his parents.

Hrabowski — the name comes from his grandfather’s grandfather, a Polish slave master — grew up in a segregated section of Birmingham populated by teachers, lawyers and educated laborers. Condoleezza Rice’s father came from the same neighborhood (the former secretary of state appears in several candid photos around the Hrabowski home), as did the family of activist Angela Davis.

Hrabowski’s grandmothers both heard Booker T. Washington extol, from horseback, the importance of sending black students to college. As a result, his parents graduated from Alabama State College when few blacks studied past high school. Hrabowski’s father worked three jobs, earning extra money by helping his less educated white supervisors with reading and writing. His mother taught eighth-grade English and sold insurance on the side. Theirs was a household of constant work, where ideas served as currency. …

Hrabowski’s parents encouraged dissent, as long as it was well-reasoned and courteously expressed. When the city’s black youths rallied to protest the jailing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1962, his parents prevented him from going the first day, fearing the police dogs and fire hoses. He told them they were hypocrites. They relented.

The 12-year-old Hrabowski spent five days in jail, where authorities threw him in with the tough kids. But one of them had been taught by his mother, so he was protected.

The event proved transformative for Hrabowski, because from then on, someone was always asking him to get in front of people and talk about his experiences. In that realm, he cites his pastor, John Porter of Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, as his chief influence.

Porter was a bear of a man who spoke passionately but briefly, limiting his sermons to three chief points.

“He was the best speaker I ever knew,” Hrabowski says.

If you are looking for the role of religious faith in the UMBC leader’s life and career — including his emphasis on morality, character and strong families — that reference is all you are going to get in this piece. The pastor vanishes. The church of his past vanishes. Is there a church in his present? There is no way to know, of so it seems.

However, the point of view of Hrabowski’s mother appears again at the very end of the story, in an anecdote told by his wife, Jackie.

Pay close attention:

When she thinks back on the 15-year-old Freeman, what strikes Jackie Hrabowski is how fully formed he was. She was almost three years older, but he was the one who knew everybody, who disarmed any room he entered with a well-timed joke. And for all his affability, he was serious, generally eschewing campus concerts for more library time.

“He always had a strong sense of self and self-worth,” she says, preparing a chicken salad sandwich in the kitchen of the couple’s airy Owings Mills home. “I got that from him. I was just a country girl, but he had always gotten the message, ‘You’re special.’ And he had worked to live up to that.”

Jackie tells a story, explaining why she has chosen to be with him, step by step, in his relentlessly public existence. Whenever the Hrabowskis visited Birmingham as newlyweds, Hrabowski whirled off to greet a succession of old friends, leaving Jackie feeling abandoned at the family house.

“Darling,” Hrabowski’s mother told her, “you have to understand that he was sent here for a bigger purpose than to be your husband. He was sent here for the world.”

OK, stop and think about this. I am left with one question, a question that the Sun team knew was important — since this is the final passage in this long feature — yet there is no evidence that this question was pursued.

This journalistic question can be stated quite bluntly: Who sent Hrabowski into this world for a larger cause?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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