Last year, a federal judge directed the state to address the duplication of programs between the historically black schools and the rest of the university system. Though the university system was not named as a defendant, it will be affected by the outcome of those talks.
State Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat, has been critical of a "lack of parity" at the historically black schools. But she had praise for Kirwan.
"He did a tremendous job at the University of Maryland system, no doubt," she said. "You can't take that from him."
Several people who have worked with Kirwan over the years said his diplomacy and an energetic and friendly style have been among his biggest strengths.
"In the world of higher education you've got to move massive bureaucracies in the same direction toward the achievement of goals if you are to be successful," said David Nevins, a former chairman of the university system's Board of Regents. "Forging change is difficult and challenging, and that's what he's been great at, is getting people onto the same page and moving in the same direction."
Jay Zimmerman, chair of the Council of University System Faculty, said that even when Kirwan made decisions that faculty members did not agree with, they knew that Kirwan heard and considered their point of view.
"Sometimes faculty are a little more isolated; he is just an incredible communicator," said Zimmerman, a professor in the mathematics department at Towson University. "He is a person of tremendous integrity. He listens to you."
Samim Manizade, who has served as a student member of the Board of Regents this academic year, described Kirwan as a rare individual who is "incredibly wise and incredibly kind."
His ability to remember everyone's name is remarkable, said Manizade, who is pursuing degrees at Salisbury University and College Park.
The system on the whole is managing a decline in enrollment, a trend facing many universities around the country. Officials have pledged to continue to narrow the achievement gap between minority and white students and to increase the number of students who earn degrees.
M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, said Kirwan was one of the first leaders to bring national attention to the disparity in graduation rates between wealthy and low-income students.
Nationally, McPherson said, only 8 percent of students who come from the bottom income quartile graduate from colleges and universities. Eighty-five percent of students in the top 25 percent graduate, he said.
Kirwan's national prominence should make the search for a replacement easier, McPherson said.
"The great success of Brit will broaden the base of candidates," he said.
Kirwan said he hoped his successor would build on his accomplishments and move the university system toward goals of economic and workforce development.
He will miss the job, he said.
"You can't spend 50 years of your life working in an enterprise, one you care so deeply about, and not feel some pangs of regret about walking away," he said.
1964-1998: Assistant professor, associate professor and professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1977-1981: Chairman of mathematics department, College Park
1981-1988: Vice chancellor for academic affairs, provost, vice president for academic affairs, College Park
1989-1998: President, University of Maryland, College Park
1998-2002: President, Ohio State University
2002-present: Chancellor, University System of Maryland