There’s little that William E. “Brit” Kirwan didn’t do during his 12-year run as chancellor of the University System of Maryland.
But his successor might have to do even more.
Kirwan, 76, announced Tuesday he will step down from USM’s top job as soon as the Board of Regents selects his replacement, capping off a career in higher education that spanned five decades.
He will remain at the helm until his successor is named.
Not only will Kirwan’s replacement need to maintain the level of prestige and culture of innovation achieved during his tenure, the next chancellor will have to balance the 12 institutions’ diverse priorities while navigating an increasingly complex higher education environment.
“Look, the reality is that Brit Kirwan has defined the role of USM chancellor,” said Javier Miyares, president of the University of Maryland University College, which primarily focuses on online education for non-traditional students. “He became a national spokesperson for the role of higher education. So we need a visionary who can lead us where higher education is going and who understands the many critical transformations taking place.”
Miyares has an intimate understanding of those transformations and how they affect the state’s schools. UMUC is struggling with declining enrollment due to increased competition as other schools in the state and across the globe crowd the online education market.
But at the same time, Miyares said, he understands the critical role that technology — including, but not limited to online courses — plays in the success of USM as a whole.
That example helps illustrate what some people said is a top challenge for the USM chancellor: balancing each institution’s unique strengths and concerns while establishing a unified overall direction.
“Our university system is extremely varied,” said Towson University President Maravene Loeschke. “You have small comprehensive institutions and massive research institutions all made up of different schools and colleges, all with different missions. You need someone to pull all that together, even while education is rapidly going in so many new directions.”
Loeschke and others also cited the need to keep college affordable, a difficult task for a chancellor in any political environment, and a near-impossible one without strong relationships with legislators.
Kirwan was adept at cultivating relationships with government officials — several of whom lined up to sing his praises Tuesday — and the university system reaped the benefits. The average tuition for undergraduate in-state students at USM institutions, once the nation’s sixth highest, now ranks 26th, according to USM officials.
“From the day Brit arrived, he was very effective at that,” said University of Baltimore President Robert L. Bogomolny. “His strong relationship with the legislature has allowed a clear discussion of the priorities and values of higher education. We desperately need the next chancellor to be able to do the same thing, particularly because I don’t see the funding being any more available than it is now.”
It’s also important to forge ties with the business community, several people said. Kirwan, who served on the board of the Greater Baltimore Committee, among other organizations, was well aware of their mutual goals, said Donald C. Fry, president of the GBC.
“You need a successor who recognizes that part of the role of the university system is to help build the workforce for our future economy,” Fry said. “You need to have a good relationship with the business community in order to recognize where the shortages are in the workforce, and then adapt the curriculum and the focus of the universities to help meet some of those needs.”
Kirwan joined the university in 1964 as an assistant professor of mathematics. He rose through the faculty ranks, becoming chair of the mathematics department, vice chancellor, chancellor and then president in 1988. He left the university in 1998 to accept the presidency of The Ohio State University, a position he held for four years, until his appointment as chancellor of the University System of Maryland.
During his earlier tenure as president of the university, Kirwan was credited with increasing emphasis on undergraduate education, recruiting top-notch faculty and setting diversity goals for minority students. He also led a restructuring of the school’s academic organization to a more traditional system of schools and colleges.
When he became chancellor at the USM, Kirwan pushed for collaborative programs among member institutions, strengthened programs in science, math, engineering and technology and led a drive that raised $2.1 billion to support scholarships, professorships, buildings and other projects.
Promoting programs and courses in science, technology, engineering and math has become the norm, given recent trends in the economy. But at least one person said it’s not critical that the next chancellor be the No. 1 fan of STEM programming.
“Of course STEM and of course entrepreneurship,” Loeschke said. “We’re all doing that. I would like someone who also values the arts and its place in learning other subjects, someone who is not so STEM-oriented that everything else is forgotten, because those programs are going to happen anyway.”
More important, Loeschke said, are hard-to-find attributes, like an interest in interacting with students and a genuine desire to see them succeed.
James L. Shea, chair of the USM Board of Regents, will appoint a committee to conduct an extensive national search for USM’s fourth chancellor.
“It is difficult to envision the University System of Maryland without Brit Kirwan at the helm,” Shea said in a statement. “Under his exceptional leadership, USM has established itself as a public higher education system focused on student success, and on service to the state, the nation and beyond. …He will be sorely missed, but he has built a strong system that will continue to flourish.”