William E. ‘Brit’ Kirwan is retiring as chancellor of University System of Maryland


Dr. William "Brit" Kirwan, chancellor of Maryland University system, speaks in this file photo. (James M. Thresher/The Washington Post)

William E. “Brit” Kirwan is retiring as chancellor of Maryland’s public university system after a 12-year tenure known for his campaigns to expand access to higher education and use technological innovation to rejuvenate staid lecture courses.

Kirwan said Tuesday he will stay on until the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland chooses a successor. Kirwan, 76, said he plans to spend more time with his wife, Patricia, and their family after a career in higher education that spans a half-century. “Time to pass the baton,” he said.

The system encompasses 11 universities, from Frostburg State in Western Maryland to Salisbury on the Eastern Shore, as well as academic centers at Shady Grove and elsewhere. Its flagship is the University of Maryland at College Park.

A mathematician and former president of U-Md. and Ohio State University, Kirwan has national stature as an advocate for higher education reform.

One of his passions is an initiative to use computer interaction to redesign dozens of undergraduate courses, from biology to psychology, that had often failed to connect with students because he said they grew bored listening to professors. The new courses, featuring an expansion of online instruction and in-class discussions, often boosted class size and student engagement while saving money and raising grades.

“The passive, large lecture method of instruction is dead,” Kirwan told The Washington Post last year. “It’s just that some institutions don’t know it yet. We do.”

James L. Shea, chairman of the Board of Regents, said he hopes the board can find a successor by mid-fall.

“It’s hard to find his combination of political skills — state and federal — plus being a bona fide academic,” Shea said. “Big shoes to fill.”

Since Kirwan became chancellor, enrollment in the university system has risen 24 percent, exceeding 153,000 students last fall. The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded each year has grown 36 percent to more than 23,000.

U-Md. has grown in international prominence as a research institution since 2002, while the University of Maryland Baltimore County has drawn national attention for undergraduate teaching and research. The University of Maryland University College has become the nation’s largest online public university. Towson and Salisbury universities, among others in the system, have evolved as regional draws.

But Coppin State University in Baltimore has struggled.

The university system also drew some criticism after its Board of Regents held unannounced meetings in November 2012 to discuss U-Md.’s move from the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Big Ten, a switch that had significant consequences for athletics and startled many fans. The state Open Meetings Compliance Board in February 2013 found that the board violated a state law requiring public notice of its meetings.

For the most part, Kirwan successfully navigated the politics of higher education and state funding in Annapolis. Early in his tenure he showed a Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., that the system was working to cut costs. That helped persuade Ehrlich to support a state funding increase in 2006. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), Ehrlich’s successor, supported levels of state funding that enabled a public university tuition freeze for a few years. Tuition more recently has risen at a rate of about 3 percent a year, lower than increases found in other states.

“Public higher education in Maryland is getting more support than ever before from elected officials, corporate leaders and the broader community,” said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of UMBC. “We are so much better off now because of Brit’s leadership.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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