IT IS perhaps fitting that University of Maryland, College Park President William E. Kirwan is leaving to become president of Ohio State University. Of all the universities mentioned at College Park as worthy of emulation, Ohio State appears to have been Dr. Kirwan's ideal model.
Now it appears Maryland's loss of Dr. Kirwan may color the university search committee's hunt for a new president. It has been said that the committee will look for someone who can transform Maryland into an Ohio State.
But, when looking for role models, the committee would do well to look to such Maryland institutions of distinction as the Johns Hopkins University and Goucher College, and such public institutions as the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina, and premier public universities in Midwestern states other than Ohio.
A top 10 school
There's no question that folks at College Park covet the place Ohio State holds at or near the top of a number of rankings of colleges and universities; it's considered a Top 10 school. But that image is largely the result of being an athletic powerhouse, having a gargantuan and seemingly unrestricted budget and awesome skill at generating federal research grants.
Ohio State has perhaps unfairly been thought of as harboring stereotypes making for the ugly American campus. The Columbus campus was the setting for the play "The Male Animal," which was co-written by alumnus James Thurber.
In the movie of the same name, staring Henry Fonda, the campus was portrayed as one that extravagantly worshiped its football team, excessively deferred to fat-cat alumni and tolerated wild fraternities and sororities.
Thurber's devastating little memoir, ''University Days,'' recounted the comic favoritism extended to Ohio State's semiliterate athletes. Other movies, such as ''Animal House,'' starring John Belushi, elaborated the hooliganish excesses of "The Male Animal."
Literary looks at the campus aside, it has not exactly been renowned for attractive educational assets such as superior graduate and undergraduate programs; serious journals, such as those at the universities of Michigan and Virginia; or a distinguished university press.
When I came to College Park in 1966, the university, under then-President Wilson H. Elkins and Academic Vice President Lee Hornbake, was establishing an infrastructure that emphasized learning but accepted the importance of athletics. This was a change from former President Harry ''Curly'' Byrd's favoring of football and fraternities.
Unfortunately, campus unrest in the late '60s and early '70s interrupted the momentum toward academic excellence.
For years, reorganization frenzies unsettled the flagship campus of the state's university system. For extended periods, permanent administrators, from chief executive officer to department heads, were rare.
Dr. Kirwan served longest in the succession of key College Park administrators after Mr Elkins and Mr. Hornbake.
Like other professors, I was grateful for the stability Dr. Kirwan provided. His youthful, smiling manner pleased almost everyone.
Dr. Kirwan became a master builder of College Park's image, spinning statistics or details that would favor us.
For example, there's no question that the SAT scores of entering freshmen improved markedly during his tenure, as he frequently mentions, but that happened at other state campuses, too, as many high-achieving students turned to state schools because tuition costs at private colleges skyrocketed.
Unfortunately, under Dr. Kirwan, the university's honors program was cut from four years to two and otherwise thinned down, although he did provide it with an attractive former dormitory.
Few graduates of that honors program are elected to Phi Beta Kappa, the academics fraternity that provides an authentic mark of a good undergraduate liberal education.
Search committee mission
In searching for Dr. Kirwan's successor, the search committee has an opportunity to appoint a person who will truly appreciate the university's academic potential in the heart of one of the world's most vibrant intellectual regions.
Many private and public campuses have demonstrated over time that it is possible to shelter with dignity winning athletic and intellectual enterprises and spirited student communities without flaunting rankings and without animal houses.
We should actively keep in mind other ideals than Ohio State in searching for a new College Park leader.
Morris Freedman is a professor emeritus and former chairman of the English department at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Pub Date: 2/05/98