William E. Kirwan, a veteran professor of mathematics, was credited with spurring the academic rise of the University of Maryland during his nine years as president. He left in 1998 to become the president of Ohio State University but was lured back this year as chancellor of Maryland's 13-campus university system. Kirwan spoke with staff writer Amy Argetsinger, who covers higher education.

Q You left the University of Maryland in 1998 and returned almost exactly four years later as chancellor. How did it feel to come back?

AIt was very exciting to be back home, and very gratifying to see firsthand the remarkable progress the university continues to make. I've spent most of my professional life at the university and have so many friends in the region.

What are the most significant changes that took place for the university system during those years?

There's no question that the increase in state funding has made a tremendous difference. . . . The advances at College Park have been pretty well documented, but there have been similar advances all across the system. At the University of Maryland at Baltimore, every college is nationally ranked. Salisbury and Frostburg have moved up significantly in the U.S. News and World Report rankings, as has Towson, and the University of Maryland Baltimore County has been listed as one of the hottest schools in America.

Now, though, the state is grappling with a deficit of $1.7 billion, which will require deep budget cuts. What does this mean for higher education?

It's too early to tell. Everyone is concerned. An issue for us is that the state's investment in higher education is relatively new -- it's not part of the tradition of Maryland -- and so therefore it's especially fragile. If there were significant cuts to the budget, it would really threaten the great advances we've made and would be very harmful to the future of our state. Clearly we have to be out there making the case and explaining to people the consequences of cuts to higher education.

What is the worst-case scenario, assuming higher education does take serious cuts?

We can look back to the early 1990s, when we went through another economic downturn, and look across the nation to see what's happening in other states -- layoffs, furloughs, tuition increases. There are not many other alternatives for universities.

What is your strategy for persuading state legislators to go easy on your budgets?

Our strategy is basically to remind people that higher education in this era is really the engine of economic growth and the ladder of opportunity for our citizens. In lifetime earnings, the difference between a high school degree and a college degree is about a million dollars. . . . But it's not only workforce development but also the transfer and commercialization of intellectual property. No region has yet established itself as the leader in biosciences and biotechnology, and I think that's exactly what Maryland can be. When you take the assets of the great research programs at Johns Hopkins and at the university system and the government labs, we truly have the intellectual wherewithal to become the Silicon Valley of the biosciences.

Tuition crept up a little higher this year than usual, though campus presidents remain concerned that the system is already one of the most expensive in the nation. Are there more increases ahead?

I recognize that with budget cuts, tuition increases will be inevitable. On the other hand, I've become very concerned about the inadequacy of the state's financial aid. We've seen an erosion in the Pell Grant, a disinvestment by states across the country in need-based aid. I'm determined that the system is going to find some way in its tuition considerations to ensure that access is protected.