Ohio St. holds out hope for Kirwan

Students and faculty want him to stay, but understand Md. pull

March 21, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Alarmed over reports that William E. Kirwan would leave Ohio State University for Maryland, the student government president asked Kirwan directly over breakfast: Are you going?

Kirwan looked OSU senior Ryan Robinson in the eyes and said, "Don't worry. Don't worry."

That was last fall, and Robinson stopped worrying. Now, as Kirwan mulls over whether to leave the Ohio State presidency to become chancellor of the University System of Maryland, a whole campus is on edge.

Already in the midst of a stressful finals week, students and professors took the news of Kirwan's possible departure as a blow to their university and its ambitions and as a setback for the substantial gains made during his brief tenure since leaving the presidency of the University of Maryland, College Park.

In just four years, they said, he has improved academic programs and standards, attracted star professors, raised piles of money, paid more than lip service to diversity and made the state's anemic funding of higher education a marquee issue for the state's Democratic Party.

Clearly, they don't want him to go.

"I hope you don't get your story," Professor David Frantz bluntly told a reporter. A frequent tennis partner, Frantz said he'd be "incredibly dismayed" if Kirwan left. But Frantz realizes that Maryland offers something Ohio can't - family.

Kirwan's son and daughter live in Maryland. His son has two children, and his daughter has one on the way.

"If you know him and know how much family matters ... that would be the single biggest draw," Frantz said. "To go back, have a great job, be with his family, who could blame him? Look at it this way: Why wouldn't he do it?"

David L. Brennan, chairman of the Ohio State Board of Trustees, agreed that Kirwan's Maryland connections were a factor but said yesterday that he still held out hope Kirwan would stay in Columbus to finish the job he started. The trustees have "done everything we think is appropriate" to try to keep Kirwan, he said.

The trustees hired Kirwan in 1998 with the understanding that he would finish his career at Ohio State, said Brennan, who was on vacation in Florida.

"He's not made up his mind yet. I don't think we're going to lose him," Brennan said.

But he said he wouldn't begrudge Kirwan if he decides to take the Maryland job.

"He has strong family ties in Maryland, that's what tugging at his heartstrings, and I'm not sure we can compete with that," Brennan said.

For his part, Kirwan isn't saying much. He and his wife, Patti, will spend spring break next week at their home near Deep Creek Lake, where he is expected to come to a decision.

In a brief interview yesterday, Kirwan said, "I've made a rule that I won't discuss this publicly or make any decision about it until commencement is over and my wife and I have some time to do some thinking and decide what we think is right for us."

A genial, soft-spoken man with a direct manner, Kirwan, 63, quickly endeared himself to the Ohio State community. He goes to football and basketball games, lectures and seminars - and, people point out, he doesn't leave early.

A prolific e-mail correspondent, he returns most messages he receives, at all hours of the day and night. He helped the university complete a $1.23 billion fund-raising campaign. And he has taken on with gusto causes that aren't always politically popular, such as raises for faculty members and domestic-partner benefits for staff.

"He's given everything he had to give," said Provost Edward Ray. "No one could ask more of him." Perhaps that's why, even among the fiercely loyal Buckeyes, it's so hard to find someone who's angry with Kirwan for considering the Maryland job. He's appeared to have earned their trust - and they know the job has not been easy.

"No sensible person could fail to understand why he would be thinking about [leaving], and it has nothing to do with not caring about us or promoting his career," Ray said. "This is at a more personal level."

The faculty applauded when Kirwan stood up to Republican Gov. Bob Taft. Last month, just a few days after Taft said he wanted to limit state university tuition increases to 9 percent, Kirwan announced a 34 percent jump.

Kirwan later compromised at 19 percent, but he had made his point that Ohio State needs more money to deliver on its slogan, "Do Something Great."

By pushing the funding of higher education to the forefront, Kirwan has given the Democrats here something to latch onto, lawmakers say.

"Higher education funding is the issue for the Democratic Party in the state of Ohio," said state Sen. Tim Ryan. "It'll be at the center of this year's governor's race."

Even Ohio State students don't blame Kirwan for their higher tuition bills. On a gray afternoon yesterday, two freshmen tossing a football around a grassy quad said the tuition increase wouldn't be needed if the Legislature ponied up more money.

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