Laslo Boyd: A Tough Act to Follow

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By: Laslo Boyd 

The recent announcement that Brit Kirwan, Chancellor of the University System of Maryland (USM), will retire as soon as a successor is named is, if not a surprise, nevertheless a dramatic development for higher education in Maryland.

By almost any measure, Kirwan has had a spectacular run as head of USM.  He is widely respected by key policy makers in Annapolis and has led the System through some challenging times.  On top of all of that, he is a nationally regarded leader in higher education.

The role of chancellor is not necessarily well understood.  He has no campus of his own, no football team, and little interaction with faculty or students.   Yet Kirwan is, in many respects, the face of public higher education in Maryland, the key spokesman and advocate, a person who travels in many circles throughout the state and nation.

Kirwan is, in the best sense of the term, a master politician.  The candidates for governor could all learn lessons from the skillful way in which he interacts with key officials, how he manages to make friends, but not enemies.   Moreover, his willingness to speak out on major issues, such as the challenge of keeping intercollegiate athletics in a reasonable balance with the academic mission of universities, demonstrates the kind of public leadership we don’t see enough of today.

Kirwan’s resume is dazzling with deep roots at the College Park campus.  He rose from faculty member in the Department of Mathematics to Provost and eventually President of the state’s flagship university.  He then took on the presidency of Ohio State University, which gave him even more exposure to the challenges of having a big time athletic program as well as the benefits of being a member of the Big Ten Conference.

Twelve years ago, he was entreated to return to Maryland to become USM’s Chancellor.  One irony of his taking on that role is that, as provost during the time that the system was being established by the Governor and General Assembly, Kirwan was among many at College Park who were highly skeptical about the reorganization.

Any earlier doubts have vanished as he has led USM with the right balance of leadership and deference to institution presidents.  His most important accomplishment has been to keep state dollars flowing at a time when many public universities in the United States were dealing with large, often draconian, cuts to their funding.

Students have also benefitted through the accommodation that he reached with Maryland officials to provide state dollars in exchange for flat or low tuition increases.  Maryland has gone from the sixth-highest tuition state among public universities to a ranking in the 20s during Kirwan’s tenure.

Kirwan also deserves credit for a major initiative, one of the few in the nation, to find efficiencies and cost reductions in the operations of the university system institutions.  The growth of higher education costs in this country exceeds the increase in every other sector, including health, over the last 20 to 30 years, but Kirwan has been a leader in trying to mitigate that trend.

Brit Kirwan will not be easy to replace.  The person probably first on many people’s minds as a successor, UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski, has already stated that he is not interested in the job.  He certainly has the ability and may change his mind, but I doubt he will.  Hrabowski has turned down lots of opportunities to leave for prestigious jobs and is absolutely committed to continuing to build on his successes at UMBC.

Moreover, even though most system heads come from the position of campus president, the job is totally different and not a good fit for many academic leaders.  Hrabowski is well aware of the discontent that his former mentor at UMBC, Michael Hooker, felt when he took over at the University of Massachusetts system.  Hooker was back at a campus, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, in less than four years.

Does the Board of Regents look nationally or inside Maryland for a successor?  The State has a strong national reputation as the result of advances under Kirwan and should be able to attract someone with an established track record of leadership.  It worth noting, however, that Kirwan had the advantage when he came back 12 years ago of already knowing many of the key political and business leaders in the state.

That the next chancellor will have a tough act to follow is true in another respect that has little to do with Kirwan.  There will be a new governor in Maryland around the time the next chancellor arrives.  There’s no evidence off the campaigning of various candidates that any of them have the same commitment to higher education that was demonstrated by Gov. Martin O’Malley.

O’Malley’s initial interest in higher education was undoubtedly sparked by the potent political issue raised by the large tuition increases under his predecessor, Bob Ehrlich.  To O’Malley’s credit, and with Kirwan’s advocacy, the Governor maintained that commitment after winning office and throughout his two terms.

The other looming challenge is the ongoing lawsuit in federal court brought by supporters of the state’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities ((HBCUs).  Although currently in mediation, the prospects for a negotiated settlement are very slight.  The likelihood of an appeal of the Judge’s final order after negotiations fail promises to drag the issue out for quite a while.

How a new chancellor navigates that charged and sensitive landscape, and how the person deals with a new governor who may see the lawsuit differently than O’Malley has, is but one of the major challenge facing whoever succeeds Brit Kirwan.

Make no mistake, the new chancellor will have a tough job.  Maryland’s public colleges and universities have come to be seen as one of this state’s major assets.  Making sure they stay way has to be the next chancellor’s top priority.

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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.