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Chancellor’s Medallion Awarded to Alumnus Freeman A. Hrabowski III

by Ashley Lawrence / Dec 21, 2022

Chancellor Robert Jones and Freeman Hrabowski III

Photo credit University of Illinois / Michelle Hassel.

In just the tenth occasion of the awarding of the Chancellor’s Medallion since being established in 1996, Education alumnus Freeman A. Hrabowski III, Ph.D. ’75, Education Policy, Organization and Leadership (EPOL), accepted the award at a ceremony and reception this fall while on campus facilitating working group meetings for the campus’ next multi-year strategic plan.

The Chancellor’s Medallion is the highest individual honor that the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign bestows. It was established in 1996 to recognize and acknowledge exemplary efforts made on behalf of the campus. Some of its previous recipients are household names such as Nugent, Holonyak, and Shelley.

Chancellor Robert Jones, who presented Hrabowski with the award, said it was the first time the medallion had been awarded to an individual whose impact on the campus has come from the outside-in—by way of Hrabowski’s profound and extensive reshaping of the landscape of American institutions of higher education.

“I would like everyone to understand that when you’re dealing with Freeman Hrabowski, it is increasingly difficult to find an award, an honor, or recognition that he has not previously collected. I realized this a year or two back, when I informally approached him to gauge his response to a possible nomination for an honorary doctorate from Illinois. He just laughed and told me that he already had one,” said Jones.

“To be sure, Dr. Hrabowski’s two Illinois degrees make him a member of our family. But his career pioneering new, innovative, and sustainable approaches to increasing participation and performance of underrepresented students, particularly in STEM fields, came after he had left us,” said Jones.

“We see the ideas, approaches and game-changing ideas of Dr. Freeman Hrabowski reflected in the success of the generations of students who are now pursuing degrees at UIUC. That is the kind of reach across geography, across disciplines, and across our nation’s higher educational system that has made Dr. Hrabowski a legendary academic leader and one of the most important educators of our time,” Jones said.

Accepting his award, Hrabowski reflected on his life and experiences on the Illinois campus as a math prodigy (having completed his master’s degree at age 20), as one of a handful of Black graduate students in STEM, and eventually as an untested doctoral candidate applying his statistics background to earning a Ph.D. in education policy, administration, and leadership.

“I came here to Illinois having been accustomed to getting goosebumps doing math,” Hrabowski quipped. “I came to this campus at age 19 to start my master’s degree, with only two or three other blacks in my classes, zero black professors. I had nobody who looked like me to talk to about mathematical theories,” he said.

Soon, however, Hrabowski found his niche as a “Stats Guru,” working with faculty mentors in the College of Education who realized the value of applying his statistical prowess to their wealth of social sciences research data. Hrabowski found he could easily apply things from statistics and evaluation to areas in educational administration, issues of academic performance, and more.

“My work has been shaped by my education here in statistics and evaluation, in large part. So every project I have had a part in, I tell people ‘don’t bring in the evaluators at the end, you start evaluation from the beginning: what is your goal, where do you want to go, how will you know if you have succeeded?’ I learned all of that here, I really did,” Hrabowski said.

“I want to thank all of you for giving this Black boy from Birmingham a chance to dream about the possibilities. To not just ‘make it’ but to excel. I am proud to be a product of Illinois.”

You never know, as an institution, he said, the difference that can be made.

“That is my challenge to you: to learn how to work with people different than yourself. Mix it up. It’s the challenge in American higher education. To make sure that when our students leave, they can lead and support and work with people of all backgrounds. At the University of Illinois, you are well on your way.”

As a longtime colleague of dean emeritus James D. Anderson, Hrabowski pledged a $10,000 lead gift to the Dr. James D. Anderson Fellowship in Education as he closed out his remarks. Hrabowski and his wife, Jacqueline Coleman Hrabowski, are generous donors to higher education having created the Freeman and Jacqueline Hrabowski endowed fund to support undergraduate students in the College of Education. The Hrabowskis have been generous supporters of the university throughout their careers.