ADELPHI – With family and old colleagues gathered around, former University of Maryland, College Park, President William “Brit” Kirwan Tuesday announced his return to Maryland as chancellor of the state’s university system, a move he said was “irresistible.”
Kirwan, who left College Park in 1998 to become president of Ohio State University, said the decision to leave Ohio after just four years was “agonizing,” but was aided by the fact that his children and grandchildren all live in Maryland.
“Although my decision to return Maryland was a professional one, my reasons were intensely personal,” Kirwan said at the University System of Maryland headquarters, where he introduced his wife, children and grandchildren one by one.
The University System of Maryland oversees 13 public colleges and universities in the state, including the flagship College Park campus, and the chancellor oversees the system. Kirwan was an early favorite to succeed current Chancellor Donald Langenberg, who is retiring at the end of April.
Kirwan was offered the job last week after a unanimous vote of the University System Board of Regents.
“This wasn’t a one-horse race but Dr. Brit Kirwan was, by far, the best horse,” said Regents Chairman Nathan Chapman Jr.
Kirwan is scheduled to assume the chancellorship on Aug. 1. Vice Chancellor Joseph Vivona will serve on an interim basis after Langenberg retires next month.
Kirwan’s return as chancellor struck some as ironic, given his outspoken criticism of the position during the 1990s and his lobbying for more autonomy for individual campus presidents. He even returned to Maryland within a year of leaving College Park to tell a gubernatorial task force that the university system bureaucracy was an impediment to campus advancement.
On Tuesday, however, Kirwan stressed that the system has changed since his time at College Park — in part due to reforms enacted in 1999 after the task force released its findings.
“I am keenly aware of the need for a high degree of autonomy for constituent institutions,” he said. “As chancellor, I will be an ardent defender of the (campus) presidents’ role in this regard.”
While Kirwan was president at College Park, academic standards and fund raising on the campus both increased. During his tenure, average freshman SAT scores at the campus increased 13 percent and the endowment more than tripled to $158 million.
At Ohio State, the university’s endowment has exceeded $1 billion since Kirwan’s arrival.
Kirwan’s departure from Ohio State follows a period of struggles with the Ohio Legislature over higher education spending. Some speculated this played a role in his decision to leave Ohio State so soon. Kirwan acknowledged those frustrations but said the financial climate at Ohio State has improved.
“I think we made enormous progress in changing the funding of higher education,” he said. “I leave with the sense that the institution is of one mind, with a resolve to become one of the nation’s best.”
The fanfare around Kirwan’s appointment follows months of controversy after outgoing Gov. Parris Glendening expressed interest in the job last November. Glendening withdrew from consideration shortly thereafter, following criticism about possible undue influence on the selection process by the governor, who appointed a majority of the current regents.
Glendening endorsed Kirwan’s candidacy in a March 18 letter to Chapman, saying, “There is no one who could be a more effective, more respected chancellor than Brit Kirwan.”
He echoed those sentiments Tuesday at an appearance with Kirwan in Annapolis, where he said Kirwan “is absolutely what our individual campuses and our entire system needs.”
Kirwan fielded several questions Tuesday about his allegiance to the College Park campus, given his service there as a mathematics professor, provost and president. His two children, William Kirwan III and Ann Kirwan Horton, graduated from College Park as well.
“I want College Park to be successful . . . but I will work hard to make every other institution just as successful,” he said.
Morgan State University President Earl Richardson called Kirwan’s appointment “a major asset to the university system.” As for the possibility of favoritism to one campus, Richardson said, “A man of his caliber rises above all of that.”
University of Maryland, Baltimore County, President Freeman Hrabowski agreed.
“We’re confident he’ll be a success in giving support to all of the campuses,” Hrabowski said. “He’ll be fine. . . . As a fellow mathematician, he knows how to solve problems. ”
Langenberg said Kirwan seems to understand the differences between the roles of chancellor and university president, but likely faces a trying adjustment period ahead.
He’s already starting to adapt, but it’ll be hard,” Langenberg said. “I went through that myself.”
Langenberg’s predecessor, John Toll, lauded the decision to appoint Kirwan.
I think he’s the ideal candidate for the job,” said Toll, who is now president of Washington College in Chestertown. “He knows the university better than anyone I know.”
While Kirwan agonized over the decision to return, his wife said it was never a question of if, but when.
“We were always going to return to Maryland,” Patricia Kirwan said. “The pull of family is very strong.” — CNS reporter Kelley Benham contributed to this report from Annapolis.