Laslo Boyd: An All-Star-Retirement Party for Brit Kirwan

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By Laslo Boyd

The party last Saturday night was huge-750 attendees.   It brought together
leaders from the political, business, and educational communities of
Maryland.  It was bipartisan-speakers included Republican Governor Larry
Hogan and Democratic Senators Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin.  It allowed
the guests to mingle in a place that most of them never thought they'd be-on
the floor of the Xfinity Center at College Park.   And it raised a lot of
money--$3 million-for the newly established Brit Kirwan Center for Academic
Innovation.

But mostly it was an expansive and richly deserved celebration of the
extraordinary career of William E. "Brit" Kirwan, who retires at the end of
June after more than 12 years as Chancellor of the University System of
Maryland, following earlier stints as President of the University of
Maryland and of Ohio State University.   Those are the resume landmarks.
What all the speakers, many of whom have known and worked with Kirwan for
decades, emphasized was his passion and commitment to higher education.

The evening was itself another testimonial to that commitment.  Kirwan
initially resisted the idea of a retirement gala, but agreed if it was a
fundraiser for a University System of Maryland center that focused on
teaching and learning.  First authorized by the Board of Regents in 2012,
announcing at the Gala that the Center for Academic Innovation would be
named in honor of Kirwan was the best going away present he could have hoped
for.

The Center brings together faculty and leaders from across USM to identify
ways to improve student success, share findings and best practices, evaluate
the feasibility of various approaches, and scale up the most promising
models.  It is dedicated to removing barriers to college completion by using
academic innovations to increase access, affordability and outcomes.  Those
innovations could include more strategic use of technology to deliver course
content, more use of peer support, achieving an optimal balance of
face-to-face and online instruction, and better tracking of individual
students' progress throughout a course.

While the Kirwan Center, hopefully, will thrive, Kirwan will also be
remembered and appreciated for many other accomplishments.  Starting as an
academic in the College Park Department of Mathematics, he has over the
years demonstrated remarkable political skills.  Those skills have been
incredibly useful both inside and outside of the university setting.  
Going from a department chair to provost, skipping the normal career step as
a dean, was early evidence of his unusual talent.  When he became president
at College Park, he was able to perfect the tricky balancing act of keeping
the faculty happy while still spending much of his time as an outside
advocate for the university.

His years spent in what many in Maryland might consider the wilderness, as
president of Ohio State, enhanced his national reputation, gave him
experience in another academic and political culture, and exposed him to the
environment of the Big 10, which would prove pivotal after his return.

Just how highly regarded Kirwan is may be best demonstrated by the large
number of different people who claim credit for having lured him back to
Maryland to serve as Chancellor.  Regardless, their confidence was fully
rewarded.

For many observers, Kirwan's most remarkable achievement was convincing
state policy makers to maintain funding for the University System in the
midst of the worst economic times since the Great Depression.  He was able
to make the case successfully that the State's public universities are a
critical asset to Maryland's economy and to its long-term competitiveness.
While most other states were slashing higher education budgets, Maryland not
only maintained its commitment but did it in such a way as to prevent
tuition increases for students.

If he wanted to, Kirwan could probably develop a thriving business in
retirement as a consultant to politicians.  He's as skilled as anyone I've
ever seen.  If you are talking to him in a crowded reception, you are
certain that he is focused entirely on you and that he is your best friend.
His bubbling enthusiasm is a thing to behold.

Interestingly, on an evening that was dominated by speakers come to praise
Kirwan, his own remarks were entirely about sharing credit with others.  He
voiced gratitude for all the terrific people he has worked with.  We could
use a lot more of that approach from our public figures.

As prominent as the many speakers were, the one who struck a chord in the
same way that Kirwan did was the student representative, Martin Mann.  He is
currently a Staff Sergeant in the US Army Reserve who will be graduating in
May with a degree in Social Work.  Before starting his academic program, he
spent a year in Iraq as a combat medic and then was in Afghanistan for 18
months between his junior and senior years.

His path in life has not been easy, which made his remarks all the more
inspirational.  And in honoring an academic leader who is most associated
with large public research universities, the choice of a non-traditional
student speaker was an important acknowledgment of the role that higher
education will increasingly have to play in the future.

It would take a much longer column to describe all the areas in which Brit
Kirwan has been an outstanding educational leader, including his service on
numerous national boards and commissions and his involvement with the thorny
issues of intercollegiate athletics.  Ultimately, any effort to honor Kirwan
would have great trouble matching up to his accomplishments, but the Gala
last Saturday night did remarkably well at meeting that challenge.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.