In academic circles, William E. "Brit" Kirwan is regarded as nothing less than a national treasure. It's not simply because of his profound impact on Maryland's colleges and universities or even that he's a master lobbyist who could talk Republican birds down from Democratic trees, if necessary, but that underneath it all he's a professor of mathematics. That's right. Before the Kentucky native was asking lawmakers for a bigger slice of the pie on behalf of the University of Maryland System, he was teaching undergraduates about pi and polynomials.
Yet it's that combination of keen intellect and easy charm that has served the 79-year-old former chancellor so well. He has raised education standards in Maryland because he had the knowledge to understand what reforms were needed and the skills to convince governors and state legislators to sign off on his plans. What was widely perceived as a good state system is now regarded as a top-10 candidate, mentioned in the same breath as North Carolina, Virginia and Michigan. Mr. Kirwan elevated the quality of learning while maintaining affordable tuition rates.
"Brit is simply the best informed educational leader in the country," says Clifford M. Kendall, former chairman and CEO of Computer Data Systems Inc. and a member of the University of Maryland College Park Foundation's board. "No one has had a more positive impact on Maryland higher education. He's why Maryland is perceived as one of the best administered systems in the country."
He's also folksy and down to earth with still a bit of a Lexington, Ky., drawl. He was more or less raised on the campus of the University of Kentucky, the son of a football coach who later converted to professor and eventually became Kentucky's president. But Mr. Kirwan is just as likely to recall lessons he learned on his uncle's farm or a part-time job as an insurance adjuster assessing hail damage to crops as anything he learned in a classroom. "Little did I know that these conversations about what was fair and reasonable with people who are far removed from academe would serve me so well," he says.
That's not to suggest that it has been easy. Mr. Kirwin was provost at the University of Maryland when the school suffered a major blow — the cocaine overdose death of basketball star Len Bias in 1986, which quickly raised questions about how Maryland's flagship school treated its athletes. Appointed the university's president three years later, he helped put a lot more "student" into the school's student-athletes and then turned his attention to College Park's overall standards. No longer would it be the "safety" choice for Maryland high school grads. In 2002, after being lured out of state to serve as Ohio State University's president for four years, he was appointed chancellor, elevating the quality and streamlining the business costs of the University System of Maryland's dozen state institutions from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore to Frostburg State University.
"He did it by bringing everyone together, governors, members of the General Assembly and school presidents," says James L. Shea, a former chair of the system's governing Board of Regents. "He's been a force of nature. He wins the respect and admiration of virtually everyone he comes in contact with."
He's doesn't show much sign of slowing down, either. Mr. Kirwan, a serious tennis player who for 57 years has been happily married to Patricia (she sat in front of him in seventh grade), last year took on the challenging role of chairing the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education. The board has been given the tough task of deciding how much money the state should be paying Baltimore and the 23 counties to support K-12 public education and how those jurisdictions should be held accountable. In Annapolis, no funding formula is more controversial. After two years of work, the commission's final report is expected at year's end.
Looking back at his years in Maryland, Mr. Kirwan is most gratified to see the system's 12 institutions aligned by a common set of goals and purposes with each recognizing its own role in advancing the state's interest. And he's proud to have helped bring great efficiency and effectiveness to the system, making sure every $1 invested in schools produced a $1 (or more) in value for the state. Finally, he's pleased to have shepherded the system through a recession without enduring the draconian cuts that diminished other schools.
He insists that the credit for all those things be shared with the many other people involved, whether in Annapolis or on campus, "since no one person brought about changes in the system." But those involved in Maryland higher education will tell you that few, if any, have ever done more than Brit Kirwan.
"Brit has covered it all," from academic standards to affordability to college completion, says Mr. Kirwan's successor as chancellor, Robert L. Caret. "If you ask anybody in the U.S. to name 10 leaders in higher education, Brit's name is going to come up every time."
Born: April 14, 1938, Louisville, Ky.
Education: Henry Clay High School, 1956; B.A., University of Kentucky, 1960; M.S., Rutgers University, 1962; PhD, Rutgers University, 1964
Career: Professor of mathematics, University of Maryland, 1964-1998; provost, University of Maryland, 1981-1988; President, University of Maryland, 1988-1998; President, The Ohio State University, 1998-2002; chancellor, University System of Maryland, 2002-2015; regents professor of mathematics at the University of Maryalnd, 2015-present
Civic involvement: Chairman of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education; current board member of the University of Maryland Medical Center, Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, Strathmore Hall Foundation and University of Maryland Foundation; past board member of the Greater Baltimore Committee, Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore, University of Maryland Medical System, Maryland Citizens for the Arts, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Maryland Chamber of Commerce, and the Washington Board of Trade; former chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, American Council for Education and Business Higher Education Forum
Family: Married to Patricia H. Kirwan; a son, William E. Kirwan III; a daughter, Ann Elizabeth Horton; five grandchildren