students?” How can we get that passion to make it contagious to the point that others will say, “This is a big deal. This is as important as anything else we could possibly do.” That is the challenge that we face.
When Tom Cech became president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, he had been taking Meyerhoff students into his laboratory at the University of Colorado since the early 1990s. I will never forget the earlier time when Harold Varmus said to Tom Cech, “Freeman started the Meyerhoff Program.” Tom responded, “What is the Meyerhoff?” and Harold answered in his inimical way, “You mean you don’t know what the Meyerhoff Program is?” The next week, Tom Cech called and said, “Freeman, give me two Meyerhoff students next summer.” Every summer he has had two. When he became the president of Howard Hughes, I sent him an email message telling him where his former students were— at Harvard, Yale, Baylor, doing a M.D./Ph.D. degree, and so on. These students had gone to his lab and were fascinated by two things. The science was wonderful, but he was also a decent human being. It is a big deal for a kid to realize that a Nobel Prize winner can be a decent human being who cares about students. It makes all the difference in the world. He emailed me back saying, “Thanks, Freeman, but you forgot three, and this is where they are located now.” There is the vision—the idea of connecting— not just for a summer, but for a lifetime.
When I first got to UMBC we had a black student protest in the first week. Angry black students overtook the whole floor where the president’s office and my office were then located. There were TV cameras that looked right in my face, as if to ask “What are you going to do about it?” All of a sudden, I remembered the 1960s when we were the ones protesting. It hit me right then that I had become the administration. I remembered my president, years ago, saying, “Keep living, son, just keep on living. It will come around.” Now I was on the other side and I had become the man.
When I got to the bottom of the problem at UMBC, I discovered a number of reasons that the black kids were doing so poorly academically. The average GPAs were 1.9 for black males 2.0 for black females. So I decided to find out which of these kids were really smart. When I finally found the one who was considered one of the smartest of all, I asked the student (who was a chemistry major), “What did you earn in organic chemistry?” He said, a C. “What did you get in organic II?” Also a C. I said, “You are the best around here?” He responded, “If you are at UMBC and black and you get a C in organic chemistry, you are very smart.” That was the mind-set.
This kid had no problem getting into medical school because people knew that if you had a 2.7 in chemistry at UMBC and were black, you were really good. We would get them into medical schools without a problem. People were not thinking about Ph.D.s, but they knew they were really good.
That was the idea. Amazingly, when I went through the records, I could not find one African American who had earned an A in any upper-level science course in the history of UMBC. I have gone from one university to another challenging them to find the black students who got As. Usually they are from other countries.
I close with a story about Adam Freeman, the young man who was my first black student at UMBC to never earn less than an A in chemistry. Adam was finishing up. He had taken the GRE, scoring in the 99th percentile of the chemistry part—the best. He walked into the room as I was leading a focus group. I told him how well he had done, and all of a sudden, one person got up, then another person got up, and the entire room just started applauding, as if he were the best basketball player ever. Before I knew it, there was not a dry eye in the place. I saw big guys applauding with tears coming down. I looked at them, and I said, “It doesn’t get any better than this, when a young man or a young woman wants to be the best.”