”It’s Cool to Be Smart”

Freeman Hrabowski is nurturing a new generation of African-American scientists and mathematicians. His lesson plan: high standards, hand-on help, and some killer chess.


Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), has a simple way to explain his goals. “When most people see young black men walking across a campus,” he says, “they think, There goes the basketball team. We want them to think, There goes the chemistry honors society.”


It’s more than a sentiment. As president of a relatively small (11,000 students) and young (founded 36 years ago) university, Hrabowski is nurturing a new generation of world-class scientists and mathematicians, the majority of whom are African-American. He recruits the top high-school students in the United States to attend UMBC as part of the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program. Launched in 1988, the program is one of the most successful of its kind. Ninety percent of its participants graduate in math, engineering, or the sciences, and 90% of those students attend graduate school.

The secret? Hrabowski’s exacting standards, his hands-on approach to teaching and mentoring, and an environment where, as he puts it, “it’s cool to be smart.” Instead of a football team, UMBC fields a chess team that has won five of the past six college championships.

If anyone can do something about the scarcity of African-Americans in the elite of technology, math, and science, it’s Hrabowski, who earned a PhD at the ripe age of 24. Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, he was often the only student in his class who not only enjoyed math but excelled at it. As a 13-year-old high-school junior, he visited the Tuskegee Institute and met a black college math professor who became his role model. “I envisioned having a PhD and teaching math and being a dean,” he says. “Every morning, I’d look in the mirror and say, ‘Good morning, Dr. Hrabowski.’ ”

Having made good on his own dreams (he became a dean at 26), Hrabowski, now 51, focuses on helping others realize theirs. Initially, UMBC recruited the best and brightest African-American males to be Meyerhoff Scholars. The program was later expanded to include top women and eventually top students of all races, but the emphasis still remains on African-Americans, who typically earn 2% of all PhD degrees awarded each year, despite the fact that they represent 12% of the population.

It’s not that African-American students aren’t interested in these subjects. They just don’t tend to major in them. Often, they don’t do well in introductory science and math courses, says Hrabowski, because many come from poorly funded public schools that didn’t prepare them for college. Also, those courses are often designed to weed out weaker students from prospective majors. When black students who performed well in high school are confronted with far more difficult material and greater competition, he says, many get discouraged and opt for a different major.


The summer before their freshman year, the approximately 50 Meyerhoff Scholars (chosen from about 1,500 applicants with an average SAT score of 1,300 or higher) attend the Summer Bridge program, a six-week college-preparatory boot camp. They take classes in science, math, and African-American studies and attend seminars on time management. The students live in the same dorm and study in small groups, a practice that they can continue until graduation.

From the beginning, the staff emphasizes what comes next: graduate school. During Summer Bridge, students are given a booklet that outlines courses, internships, research experience, grades, GRE or MCAT scores, and other requirements. They begin the first draft of their graduate-school application essay as freshmen. Hrabowski ingrains a sense of excellence and discipline in his students. “We’ve got kids who made A’s in high school without trying,” he says. “We’re teaching them what ‘hard work’ means. We’re talking about wanting to know as much as the professor knows. That’s the fire in the belly that they need.”

The strategy is working. When UMBC researchers compared the performance of early Meyerhoff graduates with that of students who had qualified for the program but gone elsewhere, Meyerhoff Scholars were twice as likely to graduate with an engineering, math, or science degree, and more than five times as likely to attend graduate school in those fields. So far, more than 80 Meyerhoff graduates are pursuing PhDs, and another 20 are working toward their MD/PhDs.

One of the first scholars to graduate from the program was Chester Hedgepeth, a math and science whiz from Salisbury, Maryland who chose UMBC over Harvard, Johns Hopkins, MIT, and Yale. In 2000, he became one of the first two African-Americans to earn an MD/PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. Although Hrabowski had told those first scholars that they were part of something special, Hedgepeth didn’t appreciate the program until he earned a B on a math test during his freshman year. Soon after, one of the Meyerhoff counselors approached him and persuaded him to get a tutor — a first for Hedgepeth, who went on to make straight A’s that semester.

“I realized that it wasn’t a program where they just give you money and you do okay in your classes,” says Hedgepeth, 30, who’s completing his residency at Harvard. “They were pushing me to do my best. It’s a priceless feeling, knowing that everyone wants you to succeed.”


Contact Freeman Hrabowski by email ( Read his winning Fast 50 entry. For more information on the Fast 50, click here.

Sidebar: Chess Kings

In December, UMBC tied for first at the Pan-American Chess Championships, the NCAA tournament of college chess. It was the team’s fifth title in six years. The ensuing celebration, where players enter wearing their team jackets and hoist their trophy, has become a tradition. There are cheerleaders, a marching band, and a smoke machine.

The man responsible for developing this chess dynasty is Alan Sherman, an associate professor of computer science. He became faculty adviser to UMBC’s chess club in 1991, the year after it finished 26th out of 27 teams at the Pan-Ams. Sherman realized that the only way to turn the program around was to recruit better players — the sort who were getting accepted into Harvard, MIT, and Yale. The problem was that they hadn’t heard of UMBC. So Sherman began offering full and partial chess scholarships as an incentive. In every issue of Chess Life, he runs a classified ad looking for students in the top 10% of their class with an SAT score of 1,400 or higher and a chess rating of 2,000 or higher.

The chess club is making a name for itself — and for UMBC. It has been featured in newspapers, on television networks, and on National Public Radio. “A colleague of mine went to a math conference in Arizona recently, and he was hoping that the people would know him from the great department at UMBC,” says Sherman. “But people came up to him and said, ‘You’re from that chess school, right?’ ”

About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug