Inclusive Excellence: We Are Better Together

The following column by Gulf Coast President/CEO Mark Pritchett originally appeared in the January 19 edition of SRQ Daily:

Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III is a name you might not know. But his personal story is one you should hear. Hrabowski has been named one America’s Best Leaders by U.S. News & World Report and one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by TIME. Such accolades stem from a body of work that continues to be shaped by powerful experiences from his youth—experiences that continue to shape our country itself.

Today, Hrabowski is the long-serving president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Under his dynamic leadership, UMBC has transformed from a commuter school to a premier research and teaching institution, one with a national reputation for getting more students, particularly minorities, to enter, stay, and excel in science and engineering. Hrabowski is hailed for his scholarship on minority participation and performance in math and science; he advised President Obama on education.

Hrabowski also was a child leader in the Civil Rights Movement. He walked in the 1963 Children’s Crusade organized by Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham, Alabama. In fact, it was a talk by Dr. King at Hrabowski’s church, where the self-described “math nerd” sat in a back pew focused more on his homework than the evening service, that inspired Hrabowski to perk up and listen. He heard King say that if the children marched, the entire country would recognize the injustices in Birmingham, and the result would be that African-Americans could go to better schools. That led to the studious 12-year-old’s ultimate decision, with his parents’ reluctant approval, to march.

For participating in that nonviolent protest, young Freeman Hrabowski, along with many other youth, was jailed for five days—five days! Before throwing him into a paddy wagon, notorious sheriff Bull Connor asked Hrabowski (“little Negro,” he called him) what he wanted. The terrified child responded that all he and his fellow marchers wanted to do was kneel and pray for their freedom. Connor spat in his face.

To hear Hrabowski tell that story is to shiver, squirm, and seethe all at once. Look up an old 60 Minutes segment on Hrabowski to see for yourself. Better yet, come to Gulf Coast’s Better Together luncheon on March 8 to hear him share stories like this in person. Hrabowski will talk about indelible experiences from his childhood that have inspired his lauded work in education and informed his passionate perspectives on inclusion, determination, and leadership. He’ll also discuss the potent combination of academic access, supportive community, and innovative philanthropy that empowers UMBC students, from all backgrounds, to own their education and succeed in school and in life—whether they choose the sciences or the liberal arts.

One UMBC hallmark espoused by Hrabowski is the university’s culture of “inclusive excellence.” To those outside of academic or organizational development circles, the term might sound jargon-y. But as Hrabowski describes it, it is natural and obvious and exciting. Lack of opportunity, not talent, has traditionally shut out groups of students from careers in the sciences, he says. Meanwhile, to produce graduates in fields that are critical to creating jobs and working with others globally, we need more students from all backgrounds to pursue and earn advanced degrees. Integrating efforts that promote diversity and inclusion with the highest standards for excellence and achievement serves everyone. We are better together.

Here in Sarasota County, we have a focused collaboration to increase college access and success, particularly for students from underrepresented backgrounds, in our community’s Local College Access Network. Gulf Coast Community Foundation also just started an important conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion in nonprofit governance. In my next column, I’ll share more about this work as well as some recent a-ha moments I’ve had witnessing the power of inclusive excellence in unexpected places.

By the way, if you’re a college hoops fan (and still reading this!), UMBC might ring a bell. It was the bottom-seeded David that knocked off UVA’s Goliath in the first round of last year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. The first-ever No. 16 to topple a No. 1 in the tournament’s history. Hrabowski wrote about that monumental win a couple of days later for The Atlantic. As you might expect, he saw the audacious achievement not as a fluke, but rather as a natural outgrowth of UMBC’s philosophy of high expectations, hard work, mutual support, and active hope. For a university where the chess club is top dog, bringing the basketball team to the mountaintop is just another shining example of executing on inclusive excellence.

I can’t wait for all that our community can learn from Dr. Hrabowski in March.


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