Freeman Hrabowski, III looks like a proud papa scurrying around his office showing off pictures of kids he nurtured, now all grown up and doing big things. One is a photo of his son. The rest are graduates of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

“A basketball player who’s now trading coal at Constellation Energy… a young woman who now has a patent on Viagra… that’s the UMBC story,” says Hrabowski.

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It’s a story Hrabowski began narrating in 1992, when he became president of UMBC. Through his vision and leadership, the university has developed into a leading public research institution. In 2009, U.S. News and World Report named UMBC the #1 up-and-coming university in the country, where nearly half the students immediately attend graduate school. UMBC also leads the nation among predominantly white universities with blacks earning Ph.D.s in science and engineering – even ahead of MIT. Last November, Time magazine recognized Hrabowski as one of America’s 10 Best College Presidents.

The 59-year-old says his formula for success isn’t rocket science. He says the key is creating an environment that promotes diversity and dialogue.

“The healthy environment is one in which each side – the institution and the students – would say, ‘What else can we do to make sure students succeed?’ and that’s what we do.”

It’s what Hrabowski has been doing ever since he was a kid growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. He was a child-leader in the Civil Rights Movement, and at 12 years old, he led a group of children in a demonstration that landed them in jail.

“That experience has taught me to respect children, to know that children can think well. If we treat children with respect and expect the most from them, they will rise to the occasion… whether they’re 12 or 19,” says Hrabowski.

It’s a theory he’s tested for years at UMBC – and judging from the many faces of success around his office, it’s one that’s been proven to work.