Near the end of UMBC president Freeman Hrabowski’s TED Talk, he cites a quotation by Aristotle:  “Excellence is never an accident.” That’s a solid summary of Hrabowski’s rousing lecture about how he and his UMBC colleagues have taken an unremarkable school and made it into a cutting-edge institution — and, incidentally, the nation’s top producer of African-American students who go on to get PhDs or MD/PhDs. Watching the video, it’s easy to see why Time has named him one of the ten best university presidents in the nation.

If you’ve managed to avoid TED Talks until now, it’s enough to know that they’re brief (15-20 minute) lectures by passionate folks who are at the top of their game, and who have an inspiring story to tell. Hrabowski begins by talking about what it was like to grow up in Birmingham, Alabama, and how his participation in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “children’s crusade” landed him in jail at age 12.


Hrabowski describes himself as passionate about school from an early age, and part of his goal at UMBC is to bring out that love of learning in students, especially those from underrepresented groups. His four tips for producing stellar students from populations that have struggled with academic success are:

  • Have high expectations — but don’t put too much stock in test scores. Hrabowski mentions one applicant who didn’t have great test scores, but who had not missed a single day of school from kindergarden to her senior year. UMBC accepted her; she now has an MD/PhD from Hopkins, where she’s on the tenure track.
  • Build a community among students. Science and engineering programs often have the reputation of being cutthroat, but that doesn’t really help anyone. At UMBC, students are taught to work in groups in order to build trust and support.
  • It takes researchers to produce researchers. UMBC faculty are working scientists who pull students into their research projects, giving them the kind of hands-on lab experience that inspires a deeper commitment.
  • Faculty need to get involved with every student. Hrabowski tells the story of a professor who noticed that a student seemed bored in class. Instead of shrugging the student off as hopeless, he worked with fellow faculty and administration on a plan to get the student more engaged. That student went on to get an MD/PhD from Duke.

Hrabowski’s talk was just released this month, and already has nearly 55,000 views — so what are you waiting for? Go watch!