Regents have open mind in search for next chancellor

In the search for the next leader of the University System of Maryland, stakeholders are looking at a range of candidates, possibly a household name, a well-known CEO, a top government official — someone with star power.

Someone like Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has been profiled on "60 Minutes" and named among Time magazine's "Most Influential People in the World." University officials approached Hrabowski early in the search, according to sources familiar with the process, though Hrabowski insists he is not interested in the job.

As the search continues, a 10-member committee charged with finding the next chancellor is developing a list of candidates for review by the Board of Regents, which will make the final selection. The committee, working with executive search firm Witt/Kieffer, released this month a list of leadership qualities they're seeking, including financial acumen and the ability to sustain the system's national reputation.

With Hrabowski putting himself on the sideline and no obvious internal candidates, several regents said they are open to considering nontraditional leaders who did not follow a conventional academic career path.

"To me it doesn't have to be an educator," said Regent Francis X. Kelly Jr. "What I'm looking for is a leader, a strong leader who can build and keep relationships with a diverse constituency — and someone that's going to have the vision to meet the challenges of the next 10 years. I envision major changes in higher education in the next 10 years, driven by budget constraints and technology advancements.

"My mind is very open," he added. "I'll know it when I see it. I'm not wedded to a stereotype."

While personality is key to heading the 12-institution university system, several regents said they are hoping for a visionary who can aggressively tackle 21st-century challenges that could threaten the growth and success of the state's public colleges. The university system has a $5 billion annual budget, nearly 15,000 faculty and staff members, and 168,000 students.

The system, which includes all but two of the state's public universities, faces a number of hurdles, including heightened pressure from state leaders to rely on non-state sources of revenue.

Also, as higher education costs have escalated nationwide, enrollment at some state universities is declining. And the Internet, which has for years been reshaping business and the media, is reshaping education by creating more competition for brick-and-mortar universities.

William E. "Brit" Kirwan, who has held the post of chancellor since 2002, announced in May that he would step down as soon as his successor is found, citing his age, 76, and a desire to spend more time with his family. He was president of the University of Maryland, College Park before taking charge of the system.

The application process will close Sept. 5, and a new chancellor is expected to be named this fall.

Hrabowski, who has led UMBC to national prominence in his 22 years as president, said he would not be considered as a candidate for the chancellor's job.

He said he has been wooed over the years by "public and private institutions" with "invitations to discuss possibilities" but that he has long been happy to stay at UMBC, where he earned a salary of $428,800 last year.

"My decision to not be considered has more to do with my commitment to UMBC than anything else. I think the chancellor's position is a great opportunity," Hrabowski said. "Each person has to decide what's important to him or her. ... It's simply a personal choice."

Across the country, many state university systems have plucked leaders from the ranks of college presidents or chancellors of other systems. But many are choosing "nontraditional" candidates from outside academia, Maryland Regent Tom McMillen noted.

"They may have had success in the government. They may have had success in the military," he said. "That should be one of those areas [in which] hopefully the search can be open-minded."

Kirwan also said he thought a nontraditional leader could be successful.

"I don't think it has to be someone from higher education, but it would be someone who could get respect, because of their accomplishments, from the academic community," he said.

Jay Zimmerman, a Towson University professor and former chair of the Council of University System Faculty, said he is open to the idea of a nontraditional candidate "if I could be convinced that the person truly understands" academia. But "that's much harder if they don't have an academic background of some type."

The chancellor of the University System of Maryland helps set the agenda for a diverse set of colleges: the flagship College Park campus; Baltimore-area schools such as Towson University and UMBC; historically black institutions like Coppin State and Bowie State universities; and the more rural campuses of Frostburg State and Salisbury universities.

The chancellor is the primary go-between for the college presidents and the governor-appointed Board of Regents and is expected to advocate for the system in Annapolis and nationally.

Kirwan, who has an annual salary of $518,000, is widely known for his diplomacy, something crucial for a job that requires weighing the desires of government officials in Annapolis, college presidents, student groups, faculty, regents and other stakeholders.

The number of university system colleges in the Baltimore area — there are five — creates an environment in which the institutions sometimes compete for students, top faculty and state funding.

Program duplication has been a concern among the state's historically black colleges, which have an ongoing lawsuit challenging state approval of similar programs at traditionally white colleges.

But some say the concern is not limited to the historically black institutions, and that colleges in the system, particularly in Baltimore, too often try to duplicate the efforts of other schools instead of doubling down on their strengths.

"Too many of our institutions aspire to be College Park-like. We don't need more than one College Park. What we do need, in a time of limited resources and virtually unlimited demands, is to run our institutions more efficiently," said David Nevins, a former regent and a Towson alumnus.

"We're clearly moving to a time of much more limited resources, with more significant demands," he added. "More and more people are having conversations about 'is college worth it?'"

State officials have for several years increased public funding for the university system while capping tuition increases at 3 percent annually for in-state students. Meanwhile, many observers credit Kirwan with redesigning courses to include more online elements, helping to rein in tuition increases and focusing on the needs of low-income students.

"Whoever it is has a very hard act to follow in Brit Kirwan," said Regent Gary L. Attman. "But he's moving on, and I'm hopeful we'll find someone else who's equally outstanding."

Officials on the search committee said maintaining state financial support and finding new sources of revenue, including from philanthropic sources, will be among the next chancellor's top priorities.

Of six "leadership priorities" the search committee outlined, three relate to the system's revenue and spending. The other priorities are maintaining student achievement and attracting and retaining top leadership talent.

Some officials worry about competition from for-profit online colleges and traditional colleges in other states that are expanding their online degree programs.

The Maryland Higher Education Commission has approved requests by numerous for-profit online institutions to operate in the state in the past year, and some worry that the competition will only increase. Coppin President Mortimer Neufville called the issue the "greatest challenge" for the university system.

"If Boston College wants to expand here, what will be the state's position?" he asked.

Patrick Ronk, the Student Government Association president at College Park, said he hopes the next chancellor continues Kirwan's advocacy for more funding for higher education from Annapolis and elsewhere, someone who works to "make sure that higher education isn't funded only on the backs of students."

The government and politics major said he would like that leader to be "a people person — someone who understands politics, how things get done."

"Whoever the search committee ends up picking should be an advocate for students," he added. "In the end, the USM exists to serve students, to help educate students."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad