The ironies, doubling or tripling up on themselves by now, have never been lost on Brit Kirwan:

He left the presidency of the University of Maryland five years ago in a huff over the state's lackluster financial support. As soon as he settled at Ohio State, the good times kicked off in College Park -- four years of plentiful funding, a leap in national academic rankings.

So last summer he was lured back to Maryland as chancellor of the entire university system -- just in time for the deepest budget cuts in a decade.

If these ironies haunt the gregarious mathematician, he seems never to show it. They've even become part of the joke he likes to tell on himself, with a broad smile and a mock sigh, about how he also just missed the Buckeyes' championship football season.

An endlessly cheery banter peppers his dogged campaign to salvage higher education funding in a darkening economic climate. And that mixture of bonhomie and tireless advocacy, many say, has helped William English Kirwan (his nickname is a twist on his middle name) restore credibility to a chancellor's office whose relevance, and $375,000 salary, had come under question during Parris N. Glendening's brief but controversial bid for the job in late 2001 while he was still governor.

"Walking down the halls of the State House, everybody stops and talks with him," Catherine R. Gira, president of Frostburg State University, said. "He's golden."

Yet the biggest trials for Kirwan remain ahead, with state legislators considering an even deeper round of funding cuts that could trigger mass layoffs and tuition increases when Maryland's public colleges have only recently shaken off a longtime reputation for mediocrity.

"I still don't know," Kirwan said recently, "whether we'll get out of this in a satisfactory way."

Back in the state where he began his academic career nearly four decades ago, Kirwan, 64, has enjoyed an effusive homecoming in his first eight months at the helm of Maryland's 13-campus university system. After a recent appearance at the College Park campus for a panel discussion on affirmative action, his exit was slowed by dozens of former colleagues, most greeting him with hugs.

Kirwan, for his part, seemed equally thrilled to see them, remembering all the names. "You've lost weight!" he exclaimed to one longtime administrator.

In some ways, it's a been a bit of a victory lap. Kirwan is credited with starting some of the initiatives at U-Md. that blossomed under his successor, C.D. Mote Jr., such as the small, specialized academic programs that have lured more smart, ambitious undergraduates to College Park. But Kirwan said he has noted a larger attitude shift since his last go-round in Maryland, a state that for years looked to private colleges to educate its best and brightest while maintaining low expectations for the public schools.

"There's a greater recognition of the importance of public higher education," Kirwan said. "One of the most gratifying things is the sense of pride people feel in our public universities."

All the gains of the past decade, though, are now at risk, he said. Four years of significant funding increases -- which Kirwan argues only made up for the recessionary cuts of the early 1990s -- came to a sudden halt last year as the state's economy stalled again. As a deficit widened, Glendening (D) and successor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) ordered midyear cuts totaling nearly 8 percent of the university system budget, resulting in a rare 5 percent tuition surcharge for the spring and furloughs of campus employees, among other cost-cutting moves.

Kirwan and the college presidents have grudgingly accepted Ehrlich's budget proposal to freeze funding for next year at this year's reduced level of just over $800 million. But with Ehrlich's revenue projections resting on his tenuous plan to legalize slot machines, the House of Delegates has approved a budget that would cut an additional $37 million.

Such a cut, Kirwan warns, would force the system to impose even steeper tuition increases and to lay off as many as 1,000 employees. There is, he said, "no more fat" to cut.

The fear spreading across the campuses was evident last week as the chancellor made one of his frequent trips to Annapolis for a budget hearing. A crowd of students from the University of Maryland School of Social Work was were there trying to lobby their legislators to hold off on further cuts. "If tuition goes up again, it would be cheaper for me to go to [the University of Pennsylvania], which is ridiculous," one student told Kirwan.

David J. Ramsay, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, wryly showed the chancellor a necktie emblazoned with colorful slot machines, a gag gift from someone on his campus. "I don't have the guts to wear it," he joked. Some gambling proponents have urged Kirwan to advocate slots as a way to preserve education funding, but Kirwan and other higher education leaders have refused to take a stand on the controversial issue. A slots bill was approved by the state Senate but faces strong opposition in the House.

Kirwan, meanwhile, circulated through the hallways of the Lowe House Office Building like the old class president at his college reunion -- talking Terps with a lobbyist, exchanging hugs and kisses with a Prince George's County delegate, pausing to soak up facts about the new dental school building under construction in Baltimore.

Though his budget hearing that day was postponed, Kirwan didn't regret making the trip. "He believes in physical presence in Annapolis," said Joseph Vivona, the system's vice chancellor for finance. "He attends every hearing to sit with the presidents. He's endlessly visiting with legislators -- lunching with them, breakfasting with them."

Yet Kirwan has tried to wrangle an even larger presence in Annapolis for higher education, traditionally limited to the chancellor and the presidents. A "Maintain the Momentum" campaign this year enlisted alumni and parents to lobby the legislature. Last week, students presented an electronic petition in support of higher education funding, the 20,000 signatures neatly identified by legislative district. And on Thursday, about three dozen faculty members held a protest in front of the State House.

James C. Rosapepe, a member of the university system Board of Regents and a former state delegate, argues that it's those voices -- and not the popularity of the chancellor -- that will determine how well the university system weathers the hard times.

"It's Brit's responsibility to lead the effort," he said, "but you've got to have followers."

William E. "Brit" Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, returned to the state on the edge of an economic downturn that threatens college funding.