UM system on course with Kirwan at helm

March 24, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

SHOULD WILLIAM E. "Brit" Kirwan become chancellor of the state's university system -- a near certainty -- Maryland can maintain and even accelerate its upward trajectory in higher education.

As compared with another looming possibility -- the promotion of an outgoing governor -- the advent of Mr. Kirwan amounts to being twice blessed.

A delightful synergy would be achieved if the General Assembly could restore most or all of the $34 million it cut from the system's budget. Money and personality, when added to official commitment, equal momentum. How long we have waited!

Mr. Kirwan has not said he will accept the Board of Regents' offer, but the prospects appear good that he will return to College Park, where he was president before leaving to become president of Ohio State University.

A mathematician with charisma, he has an ideal resume for Maryland. At the dedication of a performing arts center on the College Park campus late last year, he was the evening's not-so-secret star. He had come back to help dedicate a splendid facility started during his tenure. Even then, alumni and friends of the university were excited by talk that he might return as chancellor.

Many rejoice in the political symmetry. The man almost everyone calls "Brit" would return to take a job some had thought was politically earmarked for Gov. Parris N. Glendening. It was friction with Mr. Glendening and his allies that led Mr. Kirwan to take the Ohio State job. That and his view that Maryland did not respect higher education the way many other states, including Ohio, do.

Important changes in the political dynamics have occurred since then.

Mr. Glendening has taken himself out of the running this time, apparently for good. Had he not done so in some convincing way, Mr. Kirwan would not be openly considering a return. Only the governor's enduring interest in the post had been in the way.

To end the Glendening issue, sources say, several wealthy businessmen went to him with an offer: If we agree to support the Smart Growth center at College Park, will you accept a position there and renounce any further interest in the chancellorship? That agreement apparently has been made, and the regents have been negotiating in earnest with Mr. Kirwan.

The governor's power in this arena may have begun to wane as he moves along in his final gubernatorial year. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Glendening appointee to the regents, has cooled to the governor's candidacy in recent weeks. The completion of redistricting, in which members of Congress get new district boundaries, may have been a factor: Governors control redistricting, so they have the power to help or hurt incumbents. With that concern out of the way, the congressman may have felt more at liberty to be an independent operator.

Beyond that, the regents reportedly began to change their thinking as a group, worrying that Maryland's momentum could be slowed or stopped if it appeared to be a state where raw politics dictate to higher education. The regents knew this message was damaging. Their search committee was not getting as many applicants as a Maryland chancellorship should have attracted.

Mr. Kirwan solves their problem. He'll be a persuasive advocate for the system in Annapolis. The web of personal Maryland connections that make all human relationships work would serve him well: Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings was one of Mr. Kirwan's students at College Park. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, one of Maryland's most devoted Terps, now stands as one of Mr. Kirwan's most zealous advocates.

And the new man should be only minimally threatening to the humility-challenged corps of pampered men and women who run our universities. They're talented and energetic -- and a bit wrapped up in themselves. He'll likely be a good mediator -- but appropriately a champion of College Park, long-since designated the system's flagship.

As he sought recently to show Marylanders what an asset they have in higher education, the current University of Maryland President C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr. talked about the intangible quality of momentum.

It can't be set aside and then resumed, he said. A fall back in funding could hurt in many ways.

A major new commitment declared in 1988 when William Donald Schaefer was governor faded during a recession. It was restated by Mr. Glendening and by the General Assembly when revenue allowed. Since 1990, the system's budget has doubled.

That financial commitment, Mr. Mote said, attracts faculty stars, promotes government research grants and convinces top students that Maryland schools will challenge them.

And now, with the help of Maryland citizens who want to maintain this momentum, a newly energized system may have the leadership of a favorite son.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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