Regents offer post to Kirwan

Former UM president weighs return to Md. as system chancellor

March 20, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

The state university system's Board of Regents has offered its chancellorship to William E. Kirwan, who left the presidency of the University of Maryland, College Park four years ago partly out of frustration with the very system he is being asked to lead.

Kirwan, president of Ohio State University, will not decide whether to take the post until after a commencement in Columbus on Friday, Ohio State spokesman Lee Tashjian said yesterday.

Kirwan, who for months disavowed any interest in the Maryland job, expects to weigh the offer while at his family's vacation home at Deep Creek Lake during Ohio State's spring break next week.

"How he characterized it to me is that he is the primary candidate ... but he is not going to get into the mode of seriously considering this until after Friday," Tashjian said. "His intention is to take a few days of careful consideration and see where he comes out."

The selection of Kirwan, 63, prompted relief in Maryland, where the regents had been struggling to complete a search distracted by Gov. Parris N. Glendening's interest in the $345,000-a-year job.

The offer startled many in Columbus, where Kirwan arrived in 1998 with the intention of carrying out a long-term overhaul of the huge Ohio State campus.

Despite the delay on a final decision, officials in both states said they anticipated that Kirwan would accept the offer, noting his strong ties to Maryland, where he arrived as a mathematics professor 34 years ago. As chancellor, Kirwan would oversee the 11 branches of a state university system whose reputation has been rapidly improving in recent years.

Word of the regents' choice to replace Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg, who retires next month, won cheers among those who worked with Kirwan at College Park, where he was president from 1989 to 1998.

"He would be returning to a very different kind of job than the one he had here, and I think he knows that, but he would be grand at it," said Marvin Breslow, a retired College Park history professor and former faculty senate president.

"No one has to show him where Annapolis is," Breslow added. "We'll be able to capitalize on a level of experience and knowledge of the state that will be good for higher education and for the system. This is good for everybody."

In Ohio, Gov. Bob Taft, university trustees and other officials expressed disappointment at the offer, saying they had expected Kirwan to see through reforms he's been pushing at the 54,000-student campus.

The governor "thinks very highly of President Kirwan and hopes he'll stay here," said Joe Andrew, a spokesman for Taft. "It would be a great loss to the state."

Tashjian said a Maryland regent called Kirwan late Monday after a conference call among board members, who had interviewed two other finalists earlier in the day. Sources identified one of the finalists as Princeton University professor Gene Budig, a former president of Major League BaseBall's American League, the University of Kansas and the University of West Virginia.

The selection comes after a process that lasted months longer than planned and that garnered more attention than most chancellor searches thanks to an injection of political intrigue.

In November, Glendening expressed his interest in the position in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, only to withdraw his candidacy a week later when critics said it would be unethical for him to seek a job filled by regents he appointed.

But the governor continued to haunt the process as some potential candidates held back from applying on the assumption he wasn't completely out of the picture.

At the same time, Kirwan was repeatedly mentioned as an ideal candidate by several leading state lawmakers, including Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman and Del. Howard P. Rawlings, both Baltimore Democrats. Kirwan outwardly dismissed their endorsements, saying he was happy at Ohio State.

But sources in Maryland and Ohio say Kirwan has encountered some of the same challenges at Ohio State that he invoked in leaving College Park, including unsupportive state lawmakers and tight budgets.

When Kirwan left for Ohio State, he pointed to the university's $1.6 billion budget - more than double College Park's and nearly as large as that of the entire Maryland system - as part of its appeal. Ohio State had few rivals for state support, whereas College Park had to contend with the other 10 branches of the state system.

But Ohio State now finds itself facing budget cuts even more stringent than those confronting the Maryland system. Ohio State may cut as many as 800 full-time positions next year in response to a reduction in state funding that will leave a $71 million hole in the university's budget.

Kirwan has proposed tuition increases of 18 percent for incoming freshmen and 9 percent for other students to make up the shortfall - upsetting students and prompting lawmakers to consider reinstating a limit on tuition increases.

"The university presidents in Ohio are having a hell of a time getting funding out of the Legislature. Quite frankly, I can see how a president would get really frustrated," said state Sen. Tim Ryan, a Democrat. "I don't know for what reasons he may be leaving, but I could see that being a big reason."

Still, students and officials said they had assumed Kirwan would want to finish the job he was brought in to do at Ohio State, raising the reputation of a school whose academic credentials have lagged behind its size. Just a few weeks ago, they said, the governor in his State of the State speech highlighted Kirwan's plan to upgrade the university's academics.

"Obviously, there's a great deal of concern," Tashjian said. "People don't want to lose their leader right in the midst of things when we have our best momentum."

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