Volume: 5 Number: 141_friday
December 17, 2004
On Second Thought - The Reluctant Leader
By MARK R. CHESHIRE
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
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
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
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
Higher education is obviously worth it. And so is
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
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
“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 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