Kirwan draws tears at UM and cheers at Ohio State Midwestern 'tradition of public support' of universities praised

January 06, 1998|By Marego Athans and Mike Bowler | Marego Athans and Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Within a few hours yesterday, William E. "Brit" Kirwan rode an emotional roller coaster from tearful farewells at the University of Maryland, College Park to enthusiastic welcome at his next campus, Ohio State University.

Kirwan, 59, officially accepted the presidency of the 54,000-student Ohio State last evening at a news conference here.

After carrying around a tissue and bidding sad farewells at College Park, Kirwan boarded an Ohio State plane and flew west, where he charmed a room packed with 150 deans, trustees, professors, students and the media at a news conference at the Fawcett Center on the Ohio State campus.

Wearing a red Ohio State tie, patterned with little O's, a red "O" pin and the engaging smile that helped make him so popular in College Park, Kirwan told the group that his goal was to make Ohio State a top-flight university known for its research, distinguished academic programs, successful ties with businesses in the community, and diversity.

"I'm convinced it is the destiny of this university to be admired across Ohio and around the world," Kirwan said.

He held up a buckeye, a poisonous nut that serves as the school symbol, given to him weeks ago by student government president John Carney, a search committee member, with the plea: We want you to be one of us.

Kirwan vowed last night to keep it on his desk.

"John this buckeye will remind me every day I'm here on whose behalf I'm working: the students and citizens of Ohio," Kirwan said.

Asked his view on Ohio's support of public universities, Kirwan said that coming from Maryland -- where he had to lobby constantly for funds -- he is no stranger to lobbying the legislature.

But he emphasized a key difference. Public universities in the Midwest generally enjoy greater public support than in the East because they do not have to compete with prestigious private universities, he said.

"In the East, particularly in the Northeast, the great universities evolved as private institutions," Kirwan said. "There was not a tradition of public support for public universities. There is some of that feeling in Maryland. Patti [his wife] and I are products of the Midwest. We know there is a philosophy in the Midwest. The great universities in the Midwest are [generally] public universities," he said.

"It's a philosophy and a spirit that I look forward to being a part of," he said.

The audience, their eyes fixed on Kirwan, broke into frequent, hearty applause as he spoke.

He said the key factor that clinched his decision to leave a long career at Maryland was the people in Ohio -- particularly the board of trustees, the search committee and the greater Ohio State community.

"The loyalty, excitement and commitment to allocating the proper resources to the school was exhilarating," said Kirwan, a Kentucky native and an alumnus of the University of Kentucky. "The only thing I can compare it to is Kentucky basketball."

Kirwan spent the morning in College Park meeting and telephoning colleagues and friends. "I needed a few tissues," Kirwan said. "This place has captured my heart and soul for 34 years."

As he symbolically ended his nine-year presidency of Maryland's flagship university -- he won't formally sever ties until early next summer -- Kirwan had nothing but praise for the state he is leaving and the bosses for whom he has worked.

"This is not a decision made out of frustration," he said. "The goals I wanted to accomplish have been accomplished."

But in a news conference and later interview in his campus office, Kirwan made it clear that he had been troubled by what he called the "long-term decline" in state funding of the university.

In Ohio, Kirwan said, he will be the only president answering to a board of trustees, "and I'll enjoy that a lot."

The College Park flagship campus competes with 10 others in the University System of Maryland. Two other campuses, Morgan State and St. Mary's, are independent of the system.

Although there are 13 public campuses in the Buckeye State, each has its own governing board. Ohio State, the second largest public university in the nation behind the Austin campus of the University of Texas, is far and away the most prominent.

At the 33,000-student College Park campus, where he's been a professor and administrator since 1964, Kirwan had worked to ++ improve academic quality, attract prominent professors and increase research funding.

His new job puts him in charge of a $1.6 billion budget, more than double College Park's $779 million. He will also get a hefty raise, from $217,000 to $275,000.

News that the popular president was departing came as a shock at College Park. Some employees wept as they read a campuswide e-mail message Kirwan dispatched yesterday morning.

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