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Outgoing USM Chancellor William (Brit) Kirwan, left and Robert L. Caret, the man who will replace him, appear together at a news conference Friday. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

New USM Chancellor Caret faces a familiar challenge

Robert Caret’s official presentation Friday as the University System of Maryland’s incoming chancellor was as much introduction as homecoming.

Caret will be succeeding USM Chancellor William Kirwan next July following a three-year stint as president of the University of Massachusetts. But the New England native has Maryland roots that span decades: He spent more than 25 years at Towson University, rising through the ranks from faculty to provost to president.

On Friday, Caret thanked the search committee that selected him for bringing him and his wife, Liz, home – to spend more time with family and at the Chesapeake Bay house they’ve kept for a dozen years, and eat far better crab cakes than New England had to offer.

“I’m excited to return here,” Caret told a small audience of university system officials Friday afternoon in downtown Baltimore.

Among the many plaudits heaped on Caret during his introduction Friday were repeated references to his efficiency and cost-saving savvy – a resume that Caret will surely come to brandish as the state and its universities face falling revenues.

During his short time at UMass, Caret successfully sought more state funding for the university, freezing tuition for in-state undergraduates for two straight years. He also established a general education funding formula that made students responsible for half of their tuition and the state the other half.

Just this month, all of its dozen member institutions received orders from USM to brace for a nearly $1 billion state budget shortfall projected over the next two years. Spending freezes, hiring freezes, and pauses to plans for facility upgrades are among the measures on the table.

Board of Regents Chairman James Shea called it “an exciting time of transition for the system and the state.” Others had more downbeat descriptions, predicting a rocky next few years.

It’s Caret’s familiarity with the state and its players that seemed to bolster officials’ spirits Friday, and their vision of what’s to come after Caret takes the helm.

“He is not somebody you’ve imported from who-knows-where,” said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, in a phone interview.

“He’s a guy that knows people. He connects,” McPherson said. “He knows how the government and state work.”

Caret made no official promises for his budgetary plans Friday, hinting only that the “structure” of the university system could shrink, and reassuring his audience that he will not compromise academic quality for accessibility.

But he did speak some to the strategy he employed in Massachusetts in establishing the 50-50 tuition formula – a success that started simply, with a casual conversation over a cup of coffee.

The “power structure” doesn’t recognize how efficient education already is, Caret said. Soliciting support is a matter of bringing in leaders as partners, he said.

Caret also drew parallels between the state he’s leaving and the state he’s returning to, calling them both education states facing resource challenges.

Caret promised to work with Kirwan to wrap up the current budget cycle, something he also has to contend with back in Massachusetts.

In the future, he said, he will work to “turn the tide” of spending cuts, or at the very least mitigate them, and maintain the cost per graduate — even cut it — all while emphasizing higher education’s importance to all aspects of a flourishing state.

“We are necessary to the state of Maryland,” he said.