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USM chancellor's message to political candidates: work with us [Commentary]

As I look back over my 12 years as chancellor of the University System of Maryland (USM), one of the developments in which I take the most pride has been the USM's genuine partnership with state leaders in Annapolis.

Now that the primary is over and the election looms, I encourage candidates for office across Maryland, especially those running for governor, to commit themselves to upholding this partnership. It has served our students, the state and the citizens exceptionally well.

During the past several years, the USM worked to align its goals with those of the state, establishing a true partnership that helped advance our mutual priorities. This is particularly evident in our work together to cut costs, improve access and affordability, and enhance competitiveness and workforce development.

Ten years ago, the economy was sputtering, state funding was uncertain, and tuition at USM's institutions was subject to unpredictable spikes. In consultation with state officials, the USM launched its Effectiveness and Efficiency (E&E) Initiative. This systematic re-engineering of our administrative and academic functions demonstrated the USM's commitment to radically improve stewardship of our funds. The state, recognizing that the USM had taken the first step with this new, value-driven approach, responded with additional funding, and our partnership was born.

Under Gov. Martin O'Malley, this effort came into full flower. To date E&E has removed more than $460 million in direct cost from the USM's budget and saved millions more through cost avoidance. In recognition of this success, Governor O'Malley and the General Assembly made higher education a funding priority.

Hand-in-hand with E&E is the remarkable effort the state and USM undertook to keep tuition affordable. For a four-year span beginning with the 2006 to 2007 academic year, the state provided sufficient funds to freeze tuition for in-state, undergraduate students. In the years since, the annual increase for in-state, undergraduate tuition has been held to a modest 3 percent. As a result Maryland's tuition — once the 7th highest in the nation — has improved to 26th nationally. Combined with our refocusing on financial aid based on need — which has doubled during the past eight years — our emphasis on affordability is making higher education a more realistic option for more of Maryland's young people.

At the same time, USM's commitment to quality and national eminence has only grown stronger. Between highly regarded national publications such as Kiplinger's, The Princeton Review, Diverse Issues in Higher Education and U.S. News & World Report, you will find literally every USM degree-granting institution singled out for recognition.

The impact that this alliance with the state has had across the USM has been significant. Enrollment in the system institutions has risen by almost 25 percent, surpassing the 150,000-student mark for the first time ever. The number of bachelor's degrees awarded each year has risen by more than one-third to more than 23,000. Systemwide our students' time-to-degree is near an all-time low, and the graduation rate is near an all-time high. Perhaps most importantly, over the past eight years the number of juniors and seniors enrolled in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) courses across the USM has increased by 72 percent. Today the USM is responsible for approximately two-thirds of the STEM degrees awarded in Maryland. This means more well-educated and highly skilled gradates for the demanding jobs in the innovation economy.

The USM-state of Maryland partnership has been an economic force as well as an educational one. Recent years have seen a boom in ambitious state programs, led by InvestMaryland and the Maryland Innovation Initiative, that unite Maryland's universities, federal labs and the business community. Together Maryland and the USM have worked to unleash the incredible economic impact of our universities.

It is certainly no coincidence that after this sustained period of support for higher education, Maryland stands as an economic leader. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce named Maryland the top state in the nation for "Entrepreneurship and Innovation" for two years in a row. Maryland's unemployment rate is well below the national average. Maryland is one of the top three states in the nation for economic mobility according to the Pew Center on the States. And several entities — the Milken Institute, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, Fast Company and others — rank Maryland among the top five states in the nation in terms of the innovation economy.

Not long after my appointment as chancellor, I made a number of speeches in which I noted that public higher education is the state's economic engine, the ladder of opportunity for its citizens and that it contributes immeasurably to our quality of life. My 12 years as chancellor and the partnership we have cemented with the state's leadership have served to amplify this fact dramatically. On behalf of the USM, the students we serve and the citizens of Maryland, as new leadership steps forward, I hope this partnership is not simply valued or maintained but is celebrated and expanded. Maryland's future as an educational and economic powerhouse is in the balance.

William E. Kirwan is chancellor of the University System of Maryland. His email is bkirwan@usmd.edu.

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

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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