A Career's Worth of Change

After 25 years leading two major universities and a public higher ed system, Brit Kirwan has retired. In an interview, he discusses online education, historically black universities and other key issues.

July 14, 2015
U of Maryland
Brit Kirwan, retired chancellor of the University System of Maryland

ADELPHI, Md. -- William (Brit) Kirwan has been a top university administrator over nearly three decades of vast change in higher education.

During that time he's seen the rise of online learning, a change in the funding dynamic of public colleges, an increased emphasis on obtaining a college education and much, much more. The 77-year-old Kirwan retired last month from his 13-year chancellorship of the University System of Maryland.

He is being replaced by Robert L. Caret, former chancellor of the University of Massachusetts System and former president of Towson University, one of 12 institutions in the Maryland system.

Before leaving office, Kirwan sat down with Inside Higher Ed, discussing his tenure and some of the issues facing higher education nationally and in Maryland.

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Before becoming Maryland's chancellor, Kirwan was president of Ohio State University and the University of Maryland at College Park, the system's flagship, where he taught mathematics earlier in his career. As chancellor, Kirwan was credited with shepherding Maryland through an era of affordability and experimentation with online learning. He's also an outspoken critic of college athletics.

Below is an edited and abridged interview with Kirwan.

On how historically black universities (HBUs) are struggling:

It’s a huge conundrum. I have great admiration and I’m in awe, really, of what HBUs have meant to our nation. For a large proportion of the African-American population, there was no other opportunity for higher education, and the contribution to our society from the graduates of HBUs is phenomenal. Even today they disproportionately produce graduates who go on to get professional degrees, but now there is this intense competition for high-ability African American students ….

What has evolved over time is that HBUs are [facing] competition for students that in decades past would just normally have gone there. I don’t know what the answer is. It’s an enormously complex problem. On the one hand HBUs could never understate or downplay their heritage, because it's been too important to our nation and to the African-American community. On the other hand, there has to be a way in which they can become appealing to a broader array of students.

The answer is finding high-demand programs that can be placed at HBUs that would be attractive to students ….

We’ve seen, in a modest way, this work successfully in the system. The University of Maryland Eastern Shore is an 1890 land-grant institution. They have an applied doctorate in leadership, a pharmacy program and they used to have a two-plus-two engineering program with College Park. We’ve now established a four-year engineering degree. We’ve seen a significant -- at least in the context of what's happening at HBUs nationally -- uptick in non-African-American enrollment.

On current and former lawsuits by Maryland’s public HBUs that, in part, claim program duplication is hurting their enrollment:

There were three claims. One was that they were underfunded. Two was that their mission had been unduly restricted. And the third was that there was unnecessary program duplication. The judge ruled against the plaintiffs in the coalition case on the funding and the mission; the judge did rule that there had been unnecessary program duplication.

The whole issue of program duplication, in this day and age, has become very difficult to address because there are all these online programs. So what’s duplication if you can go on the web? Nothing can turn off the web in a state where an HBU has a program. If an HBU has a business degree and you can go online and get a business degree, how can that be prevented?

What I agree with is that we need to build up the program inventory at HBUs, and I would be very supportive of special allocations of funds to create some high-quality, high-demand programs at these institutions. Focusing on duplication is what was maybe appropriate in a different era, but not what is appropriate in this day and age of ubiquitous dissemination of programs.

On the Maryland system supporting three HBUs -- Coppin State University, University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Bowie State University:

There’s a niche, a role for these three. With UMES being an 1890 land-grant on the Eastern Shore, which is dominated by agriculture, there’s clearly a role.

Bowie -- which is positioned right in the environment of [the National Aeronautics and Space Administration] and the [National Security Agency], and with the government striving mightily to increase the diversity of the work force -- has all sorts of partnerships with the NSA and NASA. Prince George's County is the most affluent African-American jurisdiction in America, and Bowie is in many ways right in the heart of Prince George's County. It has the potential to become an ever more vibrant university.

Coppin, which has certainly struggled in recent years, is right in the heart of West Baltimore. The very distressing events in Baltimore in these last several months are highlighting the need for a real community renaissance in the city. Coppin is right in ground zero of the area that needs to be rebuilt. It being an urban HBU right in the center, where there's going to be a lot of attention, gives Coppin a real chance to play a significant role in what I hope will be renaissance in Baltimore.

On the prevalence of mergers and partnerships among colleges:

Across the country we’re going to see schools that, in my opinion, just won’t be able to make it anymore. We’ll certainly see stronger collaborations, maybe mergers.

One example that the board and I and state leaders have been very focused on is collaboration among the University of Baltimore, the Community College of Baltimore City and Coppin ….

For example, UB was for many years only an upper-division school. It did not have freshmen or sophomores, so all of its students came from community colleges or from some other institution where they had their first two years of education. [Years ago] they started taking freshmen and sophomores, but they don't have science departments. You can't get a college degree without meeting some general education science requirements. They don't have the facilities to teach biology, chemistry and the basic science courses.

Coppin has a brand-new, beautiful science building, so there’s a new partnership between UB and Coppin where the lower division sciences will be taught by UB and Coppin faculty in the Coppin building and it will be open to students from both institutions. It’s a very encouraging example of collaboration between two universities.

On more colleges struggling financially:

The institutions that are at greatest risk are small liberal arts colleges that are private and don’t have an endowment, because they have to live on tuition. In some instances they’re probably reaching the point where they can’t really raise tuition at the rate they need to.

But all of higher education, maybe with a few exceptions -- like the Harvards of the world, with gigantic endowments -- is going to be in for a very difficult time in the coming decade. University leaders and boards are not doing enough to come to grips with what universities will be facing in the coming years.

On income inequality in college:

I worry a lot about … the enormous disparity of college completion based on family income. The greatest social problem facing our country is this disparity and what the consequences are as a nation.

In a different era, back when I was graduating high school, there were lots of good jobs for people with a high school degree. Maybe it shouldn't be this way. Maybe there ought to be apprenticeship programs, but we don't have them in this country by and large. Our colleges and universities have become, in effect, the gatekeepers for access to good jobs and a high quality of life.

Only 9 percent of kids coming from the lowest quartile of income ever get a college degree. Only 17 percent of those kids from the second quartile of income ever get a college degree. The difference in lifetime earning between having a college degree and not having a college degree is over $1 million. There’s no way out of poverty without a college degree.

What is America? America is the land of opportunity, the upwardly mobile society. We are that no more. It rings hollow. Our nation and our universities have got to come to grips with this problem, and I don’t think enough is being done to address this issue. Obviously we need to get greater public investment in higher education to address this issue, but higher education has to do its part. Higher education has got to become more focused on the ability to deliver lower cost, high-quality education.

Too many university leaders and governing boards are burying their heads in the sand on this issue.

On U.S. News and World Report’s undergraduate rankings:

It is an abomination. It has so distorted priorities and what we need from higher education in America today. If you’re able to drive down costs and improve outcomes, your rankings are going to go down because there's such a disproportionate amount of the ranking based on [spending].

The best thing that could happen is if in some force could come in and buy U.S. News and put it out of business, or at least change the criteria on which they rank institutions.

On federal research funding (which has declined by about $20 billion since 2009):

We are at great risk of squandering what has been the competitive advantage for America in the global economy, and that is the power of our research universities and their ability to be at the absolute leading edge of discovery and innovation. The decline in federal support for research at a time when other major economic powers -- China, Japan, Europe -- are making greater investments in their research enterprise is a great threat to the United States.

How it can be that the leaders in Congress can’t see how shortsighted it is not to sustain the great American research universities is just hard to understand.

On the changing mix of funding for Maryland’s public universities:

The three main sources of revenue for the University System of Maryland are tuition and fees, state support, and federal. The state … today spends the same amount per student as we did a decade ago. But a decade ago 75 percent of the funds came from the state, 25 percent came from the student. Today it’s 50-50 ….

We were the first system to really address cost containment …. We did it in a very public way and made the state aware of what we were doing and built a partnership with the state that is rare today in higher education. From 2006 to 2014 tuition in the system for in-state students went up, over eight years, 12 percent cumulatively.

This wasn't done by the state mandating a tuition freeze. We had the relationship with the state where we had enough credibility with the state -- and this was both Republican and Democratic governors -- that we could say, "Here’s the tuition we need in order to make things work next year and meet our obligations to the state." The governors chose to buy down tuition.

One of the things that has been a hallmark in Maryland is at a time when so many universities and university systems are at war with their state governments, we've had through three different administrations a very good and collaborative and productive working relationship.

On socioeconomic and racial diversity:

I’m very proud of the work that the system has done on an initiative we call closing the achievement gap, where we established a goal that by 2015 the gap and completion rates on an institution-by-institution basis between underrepresented minorities and low-income students would be cut in half and eliminated over the course of a decade …. We’ve had enormous progress. At three or four of our institutions there is basically no completion rate gap at the present.

The diversity at College Park is really quite remarkable these days, if you look at these flagship campuses. The New York Times wrote that College Park is the only university -- public and private -- in America with more than 14 percent African-American students, and those students graduate at a greater than 70 percent rate.

On enrollment issues at the system’s online college, University of Maryland University College:

University College has had a huge rebound in enrollment. They grew enrollment 15 percent last year and they have a phenomenal president -- Javier Miyares -- who has done a tremendous job of turning around the enrollment issue there.

They in the system are by far the most sophisticated in using data analytics …. With their business operations they spent 20 percent less on marketing and had a 20 percent higher yield. How did they do that? Well, they brought the power of analytics to bear. Where should they place their ads? They sort of restricted where they did that.

On the future of online education and its role in a large university system:

Highly interactive online education is going to become an ever increasingly important reality in higher education. It offers the potential to find lower cost means of delivering high-quality education. Two things have come together that excite me about highly interactive online learning. One is the advances in cognitive sciences. We know now so much more about the brain and how people actually acquire information, what the tricks are to get people to imprint information in their neurons.

The second is the power of intelligent software. When you combine the learning sciences with so-called adaptive learning, there is enormous potential to drive down the cost of education and improve learning outcomes ….

There will always be the traditional online courses like University College offers, and more and more of our institutions will put degree programs online. All of that is good because it’s making higher education more accessible and hopefully reaching the low-income and working adults who need the benefits of a college degree.

But what I find especially exciting and encouraging is the potential for this highly interactive online learning to change some of the outmoded teaching and learning paradigms in our traditional campuses and classrooms and improve learning outcomes.

We ran an experiment in partnership with Ithaka -- it’s a not-for-profit in New York City dedicated to using information technology to advance higher education -- where we took a highly interactive Statistics 101 course developed by Carnegie Mellon and we offered it at several of our institutions. Some students took this Carnegie Mellon Stat 101, some students took the traditional sections. They all took the same final. In every case the students using this learning platform did as well or better than other students.

On the future of MOOCs:

I know MOOCs had their rise in fame and then they crashed. I’m actually a fan of MOOCs. Not necessarily MOOCs as they’re currently being delivered, but there’s enormous potential for MOOCs in traditional college settings. Not only can you build the MOOCs using the learning sciences, but it enables you -- since students are interacting with a workstation -- [to] collect data. And you can find out exactly where they’re having difficulties so the professor can immediately improve …. This is creating what we’re calling the flipped classroom.

All of these developments, which are at a very nascent stage, have tremendous potential to move toward what is the holy grail: lower cost and higher quality education.

On managing a university system with a prominent flagship university:

Some systems are more successful than others. We have hit the right balance in the system between institutional autonomy and system control.

I give a lot of credit to the board, because they’ve been very insistent that each institution in the system has to have a mission statement -- I know that sounds kind of bureaucratic -- that describes what its niche is and its contribution to the overall system. And institutions don’t move off that mission unless there's some formal process to do it.

A lot of places you see [institutions] wanting to become comprehensive research universities. That’s not going to happen in this system because that’s something that’s watched very, very carefully.

We’re also helped in this system because the Legislature that created the system was very precise about what the role of each institution in the system was to be. In the case of College Park, the language was quite remarkable because it says College Park is the flagship campus. It is to be a research university that is to compete at the highest levels of public research universities in America. We actually have the language in the statute that gives special emphasis and direction to College Park.

If you look at their funding base, for example, they get the largest per-student funding by a wide margin because of the cost of an education at a top-rate institution. Maryland has gotten it right. The founding legislation. The rigor of the attention to the mission to avoid mission creep.

And we’ve hit this harmonic balance between the role of the board, the role of the chancellor and the role of the presidents. The presidents report to the chancellor, the presidents and the institutions have to be responsive to the system's strategic plan. But they have a lot of autonomy to pursue their own hopes and dreams.


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