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Longtime University President’s Legacy: A Diverse New Generation in STEM



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

At 34, Dr. Corbett was the first Black woman to achieve such a feat, a groundbreaking development in the fight against the deadliest pandemic in recent U.S. history. But all she could think about was the man she had met as an 18-year-old freshman at the university, who immediately recognized her thick Southern accent and her potential to make history.

“I had to call someone who understood all that I had been through — what it meant to even get a Ph.D., what it meant to traverse this space,” said Dr. Corbett, now an assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “So I called Freeman.”

Dr. Hrabowski, who retired last week after leading U.M.B.C. for 30 years, is renowned in academic circles for transforming what was once a regional commuter school into the country’s strongest pipeline of Black graduates in science, technology, engineering and related fields.

The school’s Meyerhoff Scholars Program, whose alumni include Dr. Corbett, has served as a barrier-breaking model for colleges nationwide. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of California, Berkeley, are among those that 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, U.M.B.C. has cracked one of the most vexing conundrums in higher education — the lack of Black students excelling in the sciences.

For these achievements, Dr. Hrabowski acquired something like celebrity status over the course of his tenure. He has written four books, given thousands of speeches, made it onto influencer lists and seen hundreds of graduates go on to obtain professorships and other positions at some of the country’s most prestigious institutions.

But Dr. Corbett’s call that night was also a testament to a lesser-known but arguably as important part of Dr. Hrabowski’s legacy: serving as a mentor to a cross-section of leaders in science and academia, many of whom have come to emulate his style as much as his substance.

When the Howard Hughes Medical Institute recently announced a $1.5 billion program to support the next generation of diverse faculty in science, technology, engineering and math, it named the initiative the “Freeman Hrabowski Scholars Program” to make the mission clear, said Leslie Vosshall, its vice president and chief scientific officer. “If every institution took his recipe,” she said of Dr. Hrabowski, “didn’t change any ingredients, didn’t cut corners, that would transform STEM education in the United States.”

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

James P. Clements, president of Clemson University and an alumnus of U.M.B.C., recalled how Dr. Hrabowski had coached him for the interview that 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.”

Paula A. Johnson, the president of Wellesley College, met Dr. Hrabowski years ago as a young faculty member at Harvard, when he was receiving an honorary degree and she was assigned to act as his host. He had specifically asked for a professor of color.

“He is always thinking about his role, not just in terms of the honor he’s getting, but who else he can include and advance. He is continuously paying it forward, in big and small ways,” she said.

Starting this week, Dr. Hrabowski, 71, will continue that work in a number of advising positions, including as the inaugural centennial fellow at the American Council on Education, which represents 1,700 colleges and universities.

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

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Dr. Hrabowski came of age in the thick of the Jim Crow era. The notion that Black children didn’t deserve a quality education brought out the fighter in the self-described “fat, nerdy kid who could only attack a math problem” at a very young age.

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

Dr. Hrabowski has largely declined to discuss the details of what he saw and experienced in the Birmingham jail. Some of it will forever remain unspeakable, he said. But in an interview, he recalled a visit from Dr. King.

“What you do this day will have an impact on children not yet born,” Dr. Hrabowski remembered him telling the jailed children.

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

“Our parents and teachers and ministers insisted that we not define ourselves as victims — in spite of the overt racism all around us,” he said. “Rather, we were taught to believe in ourselves and to strive to be twice as good, because we knew the world was not fair.”

He went on to attend Hampton Institute, a historically Black college, earning a degree in mathematics at 19. In graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Hrabowski said, he learned “how lonely a student of color can be in a classroom.”

He received a master’s degree in mathematics and a Ph.D. in higher education administration and statistics there, and began his career 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 expense of offending adults, put him on U.M.B.C’s radar.

It was a young institution, the first campus in Maryland to accept all races, craving leadership that matched its ambitions.

When Dr. Hrabowski arrived at U.M.B.C. in 1987 as vice provost, one of the first questions he asked was why an aspiring research university was graduating only double-digit numbers of Black students with science degrees. It was 20 years after integration, and the average Black G.P.A. was barely 2.0, compared with 2.50 for white students; there was at least a 20-point gap between the graduation rates for the two races.

The following year, he convinced the Maryland philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff to financially back his quest to prove that with the right guidance and resources, Black students could excel in science in large numbers at a predominantly white university.

“It had not been done before in the nation,” Dr. Hrabowski said. “People did not think it was possible, because they had not seen it.”

The two co-founded the Meyerhoff program, which has since graduated more than 1,400 students, most of them African Americans, in science and engineering. Its graduates, who receive financial scholarships, academic guidance, research experience and mentoring, fan across the nation to the most prestigious doctoral programs and prominent research spaces.

There is no longer a graduation gap between Black and white students at U.MB.C., but Dr. Hrabowski doesn’t want to be remembered only as the “guy who produced Blacks in science.” He 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 was to create and model a culture of “inclusive excellence” — in which all students are supported in the ways they need to succeed.

The U.M.B.C. campus has grown to 675 acres to incorporate $1.2 billion worth of construction, a separate research park with more than 120 biotech labs and cybersecurity companies. But on a recent day, it wasn’t the glitzy new buildings that Dr. Hrabowski gushed over. It was the campus’s main thoroughfare, Academic Row, where more than 100 flags represent the nations of origin of the school’s roughly 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.

Kaitlyn Sadtler followed her sister there from a rural suburb in Maryland. She had never thought about becoming a Ph.D.; she was just grateful to get into an affordable state college. But she now has advanced degrees from Johns Hopkins University and M.I.T. Dr. Sadtler is leading a 10,000-participant N.I.H. study on Covid-19 antibodies at the National Institutes of Health, where Dr. Corbett helped design what became the Moderna vaccine.

But reflecting on her time at U.M.B.C., Ms. Sadtler, pointed to memories that had little to do with science: her half-Japanese roommate who coaxed her into eating rice, which she had vowed to never eat again after being raised on Minute Rice; and the beloved Black president who knew every student’s name and major.

“I come from a very white area, so I like to say U.M.B.C. started my education on multiple levels,” she said. “I was getting exposed to new things, but I didn’t ever feel uncomfortable or out of place.”

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

In 2018, the school faced a class-action lawsuit accusing it of violating Title IX, the federal law that prevents sex discrimination, by working with county law enforcement officials to cover up reported sexual assaults. The lawsuit roiled the campus, spurring student protests and drawing furor from alumni.

Dr. Hrabowski was invited to a meeting on campus that September, with an unusual request: Do not speak.

Instead, he was asked to listen as female students discussed their history with sexual harassment. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2020, but the issues it brought to light remained a subject of intense scrutiny and led to changes at the university.

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

He has drawn on the few fraught episodes of his tenure to help guide other presidents navigate their own challenges.

David A. Thomas, president of Morehouse College, turned to Dr. Hrabowski a few years ago, when he was starting an online degree program at the university. It spurred contentious debate among faculty who were concerned it could diminish the Morehouse brand.

He took an initial vote on the measure, and it passed by a small margin. Dr. Hrabowski told him to “keep the debate going,” Dr. Thomas recalled. The final vote was more than 70 percent in support.

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

Dr. Hrabowski’s successor is Valerie Sheares Ashby, a chemist and the former dean of Duke University’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. She became U.M.B.C.’s first female president on Aug. 1.

Years ago, Dr. Sheares Ashby got a solid vote of confidence from Dr. Hrabowski, who would become one of her most trusted mentors, before she had even led 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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Adnan Syed of ‘Serial,’ Newly Freed, Is Hired by Georgetown University



Adnan Syed, who was freed in September after he spent 23 years in prison fighting a murder conviction that was chronicled in the hit podcast “Serial,” has been hired by Georgetown University as an associate for an organization whose work mirrors the efforts that led to his release, the university has announced.

Mr. Syed, the subject of the 2014 podcast and pop-culture sensation that raised questions about whether he had received a fair trial after being convicted of strangling his high school classmate and onetime girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999, will work for Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative.

Mr. Syed, who was 17 at the time of Ms. Lee’s death in Baltimore, has steadfastly maintained his innocence.

The university said that Mr. Syed, now 41, will help support programs at the organization, such as a class in which students reinvestigate wrongful convictions and seek to “bring innocent people home” by creating short documentaries about their findings. The program, founded in 2016, “brings together leading scholars, practitioners, students and those affected by the criminal justice system to tackle the problem of mass incarceration,” according to its website.

Georgetown University, which is in Washington, said that in the year leading up to his release, Mr. Syed was enrolled in the university’s bachelor of liberal arts program at the Maryland prison where he was incarcerated.

“To go from prison to being a Georgetown student and then to actually be on campus on a pathway to work for Georgetown at the Prisons and Justice Initiative, it’s a full circle moment,” Mr. Syed said in a statement. “P.J.I. changed my life. It changed my family’s life. Hopefully I can have the same kind of impact on others.”

He added that he hoped to continue his education at Georgetown and go to law school.

The new job this month culminated what has been a remarkable year for Mr. Syed, whose case has again received widespread public attention after a flurry of recent legal activity.

In September, Mr. Syed was released from prison after a judge overturned his murder conviction. Prosecutors said at the time that an investigation had uncovered various problems related to his case, including the potential involvement of two suspects and key evidence that prosecutors might have failed to provide to Mr. Syed’s lawyers.

In October, prosecutors in Baltimore dropped the charges against Mr. Syed after DNA testing on items that had never been fully examined proved Mr. Syed’s innocence, officials said.

Ms. Lee’s family filed an appeal with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals after prosecutors dropped the charges.

On Nov. 4, the court said in an order that the appeal could be heard in court in February.

Marc Howard, the director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative, said in a statement that Mr. Syed’s “commitment to the program and to his education was clear from the moment he stepped into the classroom.”

He added that Mr. Syed “is one of the most resilient and inspiring people I’ve ever met, and he has so much to offer our team and the other students in P.J.I. programs.”

In a Georgetown University article about the hiring, Mr. Syed said that he was in disbelief when he first saw a flier for the program.

“It became this domino effect to see us be accepted,” he said. “It made it become something real in the eyes of others, that there are opportunities. There can be a sense of hope: a sense of hope that things can get better, a sense of hope that I can work hard and still achieve something, a sense of hope that I can still do something that my family will be proud of.”

His attachment to the school was evident on Sept. 19, when he walked out of prison for the first time since he was a teenager.

Amid a throng of reporters and his supporters, Mr. Syed walked down the courthouse steps in Baltimore, smiling. He gave a wave.

And in his hand, he carried a binder with a Georgetown sticker. His graded papers and tests were inside.

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At Berkeley Law, a Debate Over Zionism, Free Speech and Campus Ideals



“Supporting Palestinian liberation does not mean opposition to Jewish people or the Jewish religion,” the group said in a statement to the Berkeley law community. Members of the group did not respond to messages seeking an interview.

After learning about the bylaw, Mr. Chemerinsky met with the university’s Hillel rabbi and spoke with several Jewish students, but, aside from concerns within the law school, the reaction was relatively muted, he said.

That changed, he said, after Kenneth L. Marcus, the civil rights chief of the U.S. Education Department during the Trump administration, wrote about the bylaw in September in The Jewish Journal under the explosive headline “Berkeley Develops Jewish Free Zones.”

Mr. Marcus wrote that the bylaw was “frightening and unexpected, like a bang on the door in the night,” and said that free speech does not protect discriminatory conduct.

The article went viral.

Mr. Chemerinsky said he learned about Mr. Marcus’s article, which he described as “inflammatory and distorted,” while he was in Los Angeles for a conference. Mr. Chemerinsky said he typed out a response to the article, which was appended to it, and then didn’t think much of it. That afternoon, he was deluged by emails. At an alumni event that night, the law school’s perceived hostility to Jews was “all anyone wanted to talk about.”

In an interview, Mr. Marcus, a Berkeley law school alumnus, said that he was contacted by law students there who were concerned about the bylaw. He said he spent weeks trying to support them and wrote his article after Berkeley did not “rectify the problem.”

Not allowing Zionist speakers, he said, was a proxy for prohibiting Jews. The provisions, he said, are “aimed at the Jewish community and those who support the Jewish community,” even while acknowledging that the policy could allow Jewish speakers and bar those who are not Jewish.

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‘Better Defined By Their Strengths’: 5 Ways to Support Students With Learning Differences



“People with learning differences are human,” wrote Deanna White, a neurodiversity advocate and parent learning coach in response to a question we posed on LinkedIn. “Unique individuals and wonderful humans that are better defined by their strengths. So stop focusing on the weakness.”

We invited our social media followers across Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter to weigh in on the most effective way schools can better support students with learning differences.

Responses ranged from shifting educators’ mindset—like highlighting student strengths—to more far-reaching changes that would require schoolwide or district support.

Focus on students’ strengths

There are many ways of encouraging students to play to their strengths, as educators Winston Sakurai and Phyllis Fagell demonstrated in an August 2022 article by Education Week Assistant Editor Denisa Superville.

They detailed how they shared their own learning struggles as a way to connect with their students. Their personal successes show students, who may be struggling academically or socially, that anything is possible.

Here’s what other educators had to say.

1. Help them understand their learning strengths and challenges and growing them as strong self-advocates.

2. Devoting time and money to developing teachers’ abilities to differentiate.

– Amy S.

By having high expectations and giving them exposure to high-quality materials and experiences, even ones that seem “above them.” They will shock us with their insights every time.

– Angela P. 😒😒🥴

Meet students where they are

In a 2015 primer on the topic, EdWeek Assistant Editor Sarah D. Sparks wrote about how “differentiated instruction”—the process of identifying students’ individual learning strengths, needs, and interests and adapting lessons to match them—became a popular approach to helping diverse students learn together. Respondents largely agreed.

Time to work with every student. If you can meet with a child for a bit of time to help with exactly what she or he needs, it might ignite both learning and understanding.

Alison K.

So many ways…start with environment, a.k.a. The Third Teacher.

  • Reduce obstacles

  • Increase supports

  • Meet kids where they are

(h/t @drncgarrett)

Matt R.

Small class sizes, strong positive teacher/student relationships, differentiated instruction, and reflection.

Yvonne E.

Smaller class sizes

In a 2017 Opinion essay, former teacher Marc Vicenti wrote about “the daily wear and tear on educators when trying to juggle a full teaching load and meaningful relationships with lively young people who all have different needs and experiences.”

“We can either choose to be less effective in our practice or exhaust ourselves—neither of which is beneficial to students or our own well-being,” he wrote.

Smaller class sizes are one way of mitigating the risk of burnout while working to meet each student’s needs.

Small classes, small schools, local control. I am the principal in a pretty small school in a small community and I know every child, and every family and we can build programs to meet our students’ needs. A country run or state run school system can’t do that.

Ryan G.

Increase funding to actually lower the student-to-teacher ratio. This allows teachers to give more time to the individual.

Cathleen W.

Fewer standardized tests

Standardized tests have long been criticized for narrowing instruction and for holding all students to the same standard when “students enter school at varying levels and learn and grow at different rates.”

The backlash against standardized testing renewed interest in alternative ways to evaluate students’ learning progress, like “performance assessments—the idea of measuring what students can do, not merely what they know”.

STOP standardized testing.

Dawn W.

Fewer standardized or timed tests, teaching to mastery, not according to a schedule.


Give students a voice

Sometimes it’s best to go to the source to discern how to best tackle an issue. Giving these students a voice can not only empower them in their learning, but also help educators understand how to have the biggest impact.

Ask them how they learn and what helps. Give them a voice!

Grisel W.

Yes! Listening to what students need and giving them a voice is something we need to do for all students, but especially those who need more help in the classroom.

Victoria D.

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