Chancellor's challenges

Post: As the new overseer of the state university system, William E. `Brit' Kirwan faces, among other issues, a budget crunch and a transition in the governor's office.

August 02, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

ADELPHI - For William E. "Brit" Kirwan, the state's new universities chancellor, it was a homecoming, but with a twist.

Kirwan made his debut yesterday as the new chief of the University System of Maryland, returning to the state where he spent the first 34 years of his career, including 10 years as president of the University of Maryland, College Park.

He drove the familiar route from Baltimore to College Park, but then made an unaccustomed turn - away from the Maryland campus, and toward the university system headquarters in Adelphi. The man who has spent the past 14 years in charge of huge campuses - Maryland and Ohio State University - found himself in a lone office building, ringed by woods.

"It's exhilarating and emotional to be back. There are so many familiar things," Kirwan said, after a welcome luncheon thrown by his new colleagues.

But, he added, "This is really a different role for me to play."

Administrators and faculty across the 11-campus system are eager to see how Kirwan, 64, manages the transition - from a take-charge college president to the leader of a system that delegates much power to campus presidents, and leaves the chancellor in the role of coordinator.

In an interview yesterday, Kirwan predicted he would adapt well. Nearing the final phase of his career, he said, he is ready to relinquish direct authority over campus affairs.

"I've been around a long time. I have a vast array of experiences and, hopefully, I can draw on these experiences to be helpful to the presidents and the regents," he said.

The fight for funds

Some things haven't changed since Kirwan left four years ago to lead Ohio State: Getting the money he thinks the state's universities needs still will be a struggle. Kirwan left for Ohio with complaints about Maryland's meager support for higher education.

Since then, the state has significantly increased the system's funding - by about 24 percent in the past two years - but amid falling revenues, support has again leveled off, at slightly less than $900 million.

"Making the case that higher ed has to be continued to be nurtured in a time of fiscal need is the most important challenge we face," said Kirwan.

Last year at Ohio State, Kirwan responded to budget cuts by proposing major tuition increases, including a 34 percent increase for new students. Under pressure from state leaders, he later compromised on increases of 19 percent for new students and 9 percent for returning students, with a guarantee that need-based financial aid would be expanded.

Yesterday, Kirwan said large tuition increases for Maryland students "can't be ruled out." The system broke its self-imposed cap of 4 percent tuition increases this year, approving a 5.5 percent increase for in-state students, and officials say a similar increase is likely next year.

"Nobody wants to raise tuition," Kirwan said. "But we have to protect the quality of our institutions and be able to accommodate the larger number of students we're expecting at a time of constrained resources."

Different style

Kirwan, who returned to Maryland partly to be closer to his children and grandchildren, will reside at Hidden Waters, the chancellor's mansion in Baltimore County. He will earn $375,000 a year, plus $100,000 annually to make up for the Maryland pension he'll lose by returning to the state payroll.

On his first day, it was clear how much Kirwan's style on the job would differ from that of his predecessor, the reserved and cerebral Donald N. Langenberg, who retired in April. At the luncheon, the gregarious Kirwan circulated smoothly, accepting hugs and kisses at every turn.

His outgoing nature should come in handy, because Kirwan will face a charged political landscape in Annapolis. Gov. Parris N. Glendening expressed interest in the chancellorship last year, before the system's Board of Regents picked Kirwan. Glendening has since endorsed Kirwan's selection.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democrat running to succeed Glendening, has picked retired Adm. Charles R. Larson, the vice chairman of the university system's Board of Regents, as her running mate - a move cheered by many university system supporters. But she is running neck and neck with U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican who has criticized Glendening's spending on higher education.

Kirwan was confident that he could sell the system to anyone. "There is a wide acceptance in the general population that quality higher education is an essential for the state," he said.

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