On Kirwan

By Sharon Fries-Britt & Marvin Titus, UMCP/Higher Education

President Kirwan on McKeldin mall in 1994. Credit: John T. Consoli

President Kirwan on McKeldin mall in 1994.
Credit: John T. Consoli

Dr. William L. Kirwan is an extraordinary leader who brings superior intellectual and leadership capacity to his work with every constituency at the local, state, national and international levels! His influence over five decades in higher education is reflected in every aspect of higher education policy and practice nation- wide. His record of accomplishment is astounding and of the highest caliber. Even more important his work rests on a solid foundation from which many others have built programs and initiatives to improve educational excellence, equity, and social justice.

Any one of Dr. Kirwan’s many accomplishments as a mathematician and senior leader in higher education could stand alone as reason to admire and respect his work. We offer two examples that we believe have changed the nature of higher education. His Maryland’s Effectiveness and Efficiency (E&E) initiative, which was mentioned by President Barack Obama, became a model for changing the perspective of higher education with respect to its accountability to taxpayers. Launched in 2003, the E&E initiative forged a new way forward for the state, students, faculty, and administrators to work together to realize common goals and objectives. More specifically and relevant to the University System of Maryland, the E&E initiative resulted in a substantial increase in enrollment, need-based financial aid, and a reduction in students’ time-to-degree. Brit also recognized the importance of diversity in higher education and the important role that colleges play with respect to economic growth as well as social equity. He elevated this discussion at the national level, as evidenced by serving as chair of the National Research Council Board of Higher Education and Workforce and his presidential appointment to the Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

As impressive as Brit’s professional record is, what we both admire most about him is his generosity, sincerity, humility, ethic of care and astonishing ability to make others feel valuable. We have each enjoyed a personal relationship with Brit and like so many others we feel honored and blessed to have received his counsel. Even more awe-inspiring has been his willingness to accept invitations to lecture in our classes, to attend personal events in our lives, to share a conversation to simply catch up on the life of the university. He also had an open-door policy with respect to meeting in his office and making his staff available to students of higher education policy. On one memorable occasion, Brit was invited to guest lecture an evening class and appeared on crutches rather than cancel his lecture.

What is particularly remarkable about Brit is that with every level of increasing influence and responsibility over the course of his career, he continued to offer access and opportunity to fellowship with him. Certainly if he interacted with us in these ways, we know that we stand in a long line of individuals who felt equally attended to by him. This is a remarkable skill and ability for someone of his stature and responsibility. He is quite simply an amazing man who has modeled for everyone how to build capacity for excellence and grace in leadership.

We wish Brit the very best as he moves into his retirement; absolutely no one deserves it more! Several years ago a small group of us met with him in his office to gain his insights about issues facing leaders in higher education. As you can imagine it was a very memorable conversation. As a small token of our appreciation we gave Brit a paperweight carved out of red alabaster stone in the shape of a heart. At the time we simply said to Brit that he was the heart of the campus, system and the state. We add to that list the nation. Congratulations Brit, you are loved by all!



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