On the June 16 segment of “The Upside” presented by Jmore and The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, spoke about the pandemic’s impact on higher education, the civil rights movement past and present, and his own remarkable journey.

Dr. Hrabowski, 69, told Jmore Publisher Dr. Scott Rifkin about his role as a child marching for civil rights in his native Birmingham, Ala.

“I was not a courageous kid. I was a math nerd,” Dr. Hrabowski said with a laugh. “But I was sitting in church and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the guest speaker. He said, ‘If the children participate in this peaceful protest, all of America will understand that they know the difference between right and wrong and they want a great education and they will be able to go to better schools.’ That really struck a note with me because I wanted the best possible education.

“So I did go to the protest and I did spend a week — a horrific week — in jail. But It was also empowering,” he said. “The thing Dr. King gave us is one I want us to remember today. Tomorrow can be better than today, and each of us can be empowered to get involved in the world and to make tomorrow better for all the children and all the people. That inspired me in my life to be involved in education.”

Despite recent protests focusing on police brutality against African-Americans in the wake of the George Floyd tragedy, Dr. Hrabowski maintained that “our country has made progress. Having a UMBC, bringing students of all backgrounds, my becoming the president of a university — that could not have happened in the ‘60s. … And yet, we have so much work to do. …  Structural racism is alive. Just look at the criminal justice system, look at the violence in communities. Police brutality is one aspect of the problems we face. The fact is that whether we are talking about health care, the academic achievement gap, criminal justice or income disparity, we have a lot of work to do.”

Dr. Hrabowski spoke about the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, a program for minority students founded in 1988 with a grant from the Jane and Robert Meyerhoff Foundation.

Dr. Hrabowski said the program came into being after the Meyerhoffs approached him about ways in which they might help to African-American men.

“We talked about the paucity of African-Americans in science. At that point, under 1 percent of scientists at national agencies were black,” he said. “UMBC leads the country in the number of African-Americans who go on to complete M.D.-PH.Ds from Harvard, Stanford and [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology], and we are doing that for people of all races.”

Dr. Hrabowski shared the stories of several of UMBC’s graduates, including Kafui Dzirasa, a UMBC Meyerhoff Scholar who became the first African-American to complete a Ph.D. in neurobiology at Duke University. An associate professor at Duke, Dzirasa recently received the Young Investigator Award from the Neuroscience Foundation for his work on schizophrenia and bipolar illness.

Another Meyerhoff scholar, Kizzmekia Corbett, is leading a team of scientists working on a vaccine for COVID-19.

“This is history-making,” said Dr. Hrabowski. “We don’t hear of enough women creating vaccines, and a black woman? She is the leading scientist in the world!”

Beth H. Goldsmith, co-host of “The Upside” with Dr. Rifkin and incoming chair of the board of the Associated, asked Dr. Hrabowski about ways to help students who have challenges with distance learning.

“We have used flexibility,” he said. “The university has loaned computers to students who don’t have access to computers at home and has provided locations where they can access free Wi-Fi.  We have used this time to think about the meaning of community and the notion that we are all in this together. … We are working with individuals and in small groups to make people feel part of something. When people feel they are part of a community, they have the support they need to make it through. It gives them hope.”

Goldsmith asked Dr. Hrabowski about his predictions for universities and colleges opening this fall. While a small percentage of students will likely be on campus, he said, “The majority of our classes will be online again. We’re doing all we can to have social distancing. We’re listening very carefully to public health experts and the University of Maryland Medical School.”

Dr. Hrabowski noted that he believes that online learning will continue to be a major component of higher education, even after the pandemic is over.

“We’re trying to teach students to work with humankind all over the world,” he said. “There will be a hybrid of face-to-face and online learning.”

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