Kirwan re-emerges as chancellor candidate

Board of Regents nearing decision on head of Md. system

March 19, 2002|By Alec MacGillis and David Nitkin | Alec MacGillis and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The state university system's Board of Regents is on the verge of selecting a new chancellor, and William E. "Brit" Kirwan, former president of the University of Maryland, College Park, has emerged as a leading candidate, sources said yesterday.

The regents were expected to discuss naming Kirwan - now president of Ohio State University - in a meeting held via conference call last night after interviewing at least one finalist yesterday.

Kirwan, 63, who for months has disavowed any interest in returning to Maryland, said through an Ohio State spokesman that he was unaware that he is a finalist for the $345,000-a-year post.

"He was surprised and said, `I know nothing about this at all. Where I am now is where I was the last time'" people asked, Ohio State spokesman Lee Tashjian said last night. He said Kirwan was at a meeting in Chicago.

People close to the search said Kirwan has been discussing the job with the Maryland board for several weeks. He is said to have the support of a majority of the regents, many of whom are closely allied with the College Park campus, where he was president from 1989 to 1998.

The regents are seeking a replacement for Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg, who is retiring next month.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the House Appropriations Committee chairman who has championed Kirwan, said yesterday that those involved in the search told him a "chancellor announcement was about 24 hours away."

The sudden flurry of activity punctuates a search that for months has shown few outward signs of progress and been beset with more political intrigue than most high-level academic hirings.

In November, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a former University of Maryland professor, expressed interest in the chancellor's job in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Glendening withdrew his name from consideration a week later, after critics said it would be inappropriate for him to pursue a position being filled by the regents - all of whom he had appointed.

The regents extended their deadline for filling the position until next fall, as some potential applicants held back out of concern that Glendening could still emerge as a favored candidate.

While Chairman Nathan A. Chapman Jr. did not rule out the possibility that the Board of Regents could reconsider Glendening at the close of its search, support for the governor started to wane last month, sources said.

Kirwan, meanwhile, repeatedly denied having any interest in returning to Maryland, even after leading lawmakers mentioned him on their list of potential chancellors.

"My position hasn't changed. I'm certainly very happy here," he told The Sun in December. Ohio State "is a great institution with a huge national profile. It's not quite the football power that the University of Maryland is - that's a joke - but things are going extremely well here."

However, sources have said that Kirwan hinted privately that he was not completely content at Ohio State and that he and his wife spoke occasionally of wanting to return to Maryland, where they still own a house.

It was only four years ago that Kirwan left the presidency of Maryland's flagship university for Ohio State, to the dismay of faculty and students in College Park and to celebration in Columbus.

He arrived at Ohio State in January 1998, wearing a red Ohio State tie and displaying a buckeye - the poisonous nut that is the school's symbol - given to him by the student government president.

"This buckeye will remind me every day ... on whose behalf I'm working: the students and citizens of Ohio," said Kirwan in a room packed with deans, professors, trustees and students.

Kirwan said the move was motivated by Ohio State's vast resources, by a desire not to overstay his welcome at College Park and by the challenge of having to deal with Maryland's complex higher education bureaucracy.

As president at College Park, Kirwan noted, he had to compete with a dozen other branches of the state system for public funds, and for the attention of the regents and system chancellor. Not only that, he had to compete with private institutions such as the Johns Hopkins University for local prestige.

Ohio State, on the other hand, is governed by its own board of regents, looms over its state's higher education landscape and receives the majority of the state's university funding.

When he took the job, which paid $275,000, in 1998, Ohio State's budget was $1.6 billion - more than double College Park's and nearly as much as the entire Maryland system's. The student body at Ohio State numbered 54,000, second-largest in the country, compared with College Park's 33,000. And its endowment was $700 million, 14 times the size of College Park's.

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