Volume: 5 Number: 141_friday

December 17, 2004

On Second Thought - The Reluctant Leader


Editor in Chief of the Daily Record

Copied with Permission of The Daily Record

Like so many professionals who rise to positions of leadership, William E. Kirwan started his career wanting no part of administration.

When he joined the faculty of the University of Maryland, College Park as an assistant professor of mathematics in 1964, Kirwan actually harbored disdain for administrators, he recalled during an interview this week.

Forty years later, Kirwan is not just an administrator. He’s the administrator. As chancellor of the University System of Maryland, he oversees the state’s 13 public universities and research centers. From Frostburg State University out west to Salisbury University out east and everywhere in between, Kirwan is, to borrow a little campus argot, the man.

And we are lucky to have him. Not just current and future students. All of us.

Those of us in the “real world” sometimes dismiss college administrators and professors as being out of touch with reality. This type of grousing is usually touched off by some news story about the latest course in the oeuvre of actor Keanu Reeves (and yes, whoa, this class actually happened).

This is unfair, of course, but the perception lingers like a Reeves performance. “Speed,” anyone?

But Kirwan provides considerable, persuasive evidence that not everybody in academia is too focused on abstractions to see what’s going on around them.

While learning for learning’s sake is invaluable, Kirwan recognizes that college instruction is becoming an increasingly important player in the U.S. economy.

For the last half century, there were two primary career paths in the United States. One, go to high school and then get a good-paying manufacturing job. Two, go on to college and get a good-paying white-collar gig.

That first path is disappearing in this country, Kirwan observed. However, the second path is actually grower broader in this country.

“The U.S. niche in the world of today and tomorrow is value added through knowledge and creativity and innovation. The role of universities in fueling that spirit has become a very important dynamic in our society,” he said. “It’s not surprising that when you look at those regions in the country that are successful, they are … in the presence of high-quality universities. That’s a pattern.”

Maryland is in a particularly good position to capitalize on this shift. We’re the most educated state in the union. Our schools are among the best. Consequently, Maryland receives more research funding from the government on a per capita basis than any other state, which contributes to our continued excellence.

But the future of Maryland’s universities truly hangs in the balance. Because of a gaping budget hole, the state has cut funding by roughly $120 million during the last two years. Meanwhile, costs are up by more than $100 million. Not a good formula.

To make the math work, Kirwan had to make painful tuition increases of more than 30 percent and excruciating job cuts — more than 4 percent in all.

And he’s worried that Maryland is in jeopardy of losing its competitive edge.

“We are, I think, at risk of impacting the quality of our institutions by the inability to invest in them, by compromising access and affordability because of the consequent increases in tuition that have occurred,” he said.

In recent weeks, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has signaled that he is working to find more money for the system.

Kirwan is rooting like a rabid Terps fan at a basketball game for the Ehrlich administration and the General Assembly.

Higher education is obviously worth it. And so is Kirwan.

Even though he says that his day-to-day life was most enjoyable when he was a math professor, there’s no mistaking his commitment to students and the state.

Kirwan is 66 years old now. He’s been an academic since Lyndon Johnson was president, yet he clearly possesses the passion of a novice, particularly when talking about the transformative power of an education. It all started with his father.

When Kirwan was born, his father was coach of the University of Kentucky football team. During World War II, the school stopped playing, so he went back to school, earned a Ph.D. in history and joined the faculty of Kentucky, eventually rising to president.

“I admired his life so much. There’s something about being around a university, with young people and ideas, the intellectual dynamism of universities, that I found very appealing,” he said.

He brought that passion back to Maryland in 2002 after a four-year turn at Ohio State University. He always knew he’d be back, he said. He and his wife, whom he met in seventh grade, had to get back to their kids and three grandkids.

Fortunately for us, Kirwan’s extended educational family includes thousands of kids, and more are on the way.

Read The Daily Record Q&A with Kirwan

Contact: Anne Moultrie

Phone: 301/445-2722
E-mail: amoultrie@usmd.edu