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Men with a mission [Editorial]

The announcement this week that University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan is retiring after 12 years on the job comes just as the state is preparing to welcome another gifted leader in the field of higher education, former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, as the new president of the University of Baltimore. Over the years both men have distinguished themselves as educators and public servants of uncommon ability and proven accomplishment, and we wish them both success as they embark on the next phase of their careers.

As head of the state's system of 12 public colleges and universities, and as president of the University of Maryland-College Park from 1989-1998, Mr. Kirwan was instrumental in overseeing Maryland's rise to national prominence in higher education. He pushed for important changes in the way courses were taught in order to improve graduation rates; instituted a massive redesign of the science, technology, engineering and math curriculums to meet the state's need for skilled employees in those disciplines; and encouraged schools to expand the use of online courses and devote more resources to enhancing the quality of classroom instruction.

Mr. Kirwan was also among the first state university system heads in the nation to focus on efforts to close the achievement gap between low-income and minority students and their more affluent peers. He recognized early on that the rising cost of post-secondary education had become a significant barrier to advancement not only for the poor but for families of modest means as well, and he worked tirelessly with the governor and state lawmakers to limit tuition increases that were putting college out of reach for thousands of Maryland young people.

When Mr. Kirwan took over the system in 2002, Maryland's public colleges and universities had a reputation for being overpriced and academically underperforming. Today, thanks in no small part to his efforts, they are widely recognized as offering one of the best values in the country for a family's educational dollar.

Mr. Kirwan was able to achieve so much because he combined extraordinary vision and a thorough command of the issues with an outgoing, genial manner that helped him communicate effectively with the public and with policymakers of all kinds.

In that sense he was every bit as skillful a politician as he was an educator — something he has in common with Mr. Schmoke, a Baltimore native who went on to graduate from Yale and Harvard Law School. After serving three terms as Baltimore's mayor from 1987 to 1999, he was named dean of Howard University's law school in 2002 and currently holds the post of interim provost and general counsel at the school.

Mr. Schmoke was elected mayor at a time when the city was struggling to adapt to the massive cuts in federal aid to cities instituted during the Reagan administration, and much of his first two terms were devoted to plugging the holes punched in the municipal budget by those policies. Yet early on he helped launch an adult literacy campaign to make Baltimore "The City that Reads," and in 1992 President George H. W. Bush honored his efforts with the national Literacy Award.

When he arrived at Howard, the once fabled law school where the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was trained had fallen into financial and academic disarray. As dean, Mr. Schmoke oversaw a remarkable revival of the school's reputation and fortunes to the point where it is again a force to be reckoned with in the world of legal education. We believe Mr. Schmoke will bring the same energy and insistence on excellence to the University of Baltimore, many of whose students are the first in their families to attend college.

Mr. Schmoke's ideas for creating more collaborations between the university and the city are just what the school needs to build on the momentum of his predecessor, Robert L. Bogomolny, who not only achieved much in that regard himself but who also improved the school's academic programs, infrastructure and fundraising activities. Mr. Schmoke is a worthy successor to carry that mission forward, and we have every confidence his efforts will be rewarded with success both for the school and the greater Baltimore community.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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