Laslo Boyd: A Chilly Welcome for USM’s Next Chancellor

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By: Laslo Boyd 

Over the past several years, Maryland has been an oasis for public higher education. While most states were slashing funding for their public colleges and universities in the face of staggering financial problems, Maryland almost alone avoided that temptation. Through a remarkable partnership between Governor Martin O’Malley, the Maryland General Assembly, and University System of Maryland Chancellor Brit Kirwan, funding continued to increase even as tuition rose far less than the national average.

Kirwan was the skilled advocate who made the case that public higher education is a critical investment if the state is to remain competitive in a world economy that increasingly values knowledge and creativity. The Governor and leaders of the Legislature made the tough decisions to maintain higher education as a state priority in the face of tough economic times.

One result that has greatly benefitted students and their parents is that the average tuition level that once was 6th highest in the nation has dropped to the mid-20s. While college affordability is still a real issue for many families in Maryland, the problem would be much worse if state tuitions had risen at the same rate as the national average.

Similarly, the state’s public institutions have been able for the most part to avoid the disastrous cycle of cuts and layoffs that have damaged so many universities in the country. The widespread gains in quality and prestige for Maryland public higher education that began in the last 1980s have been largely maintained as the result of state support.

It is in that context that the Board of Regents began a national search for a new chancellor to replace Kirwan, who earlier this year announced his plan to retire as soon as a successor was in place. The general expectation was that the position would be very attractive to top-flight candidates because of the record of strong state support for public higher education.

The search has been going on for several months and speculation is that a new chancellor will be named before the end of the year. The process has been remarkably free of leaks even as people guess about names.

Many observers are hopeful about the search process because the chair of the committee is Baltimore lawyer Rick Berndt. Berndt was an original member of the new Board of Regents after the 1988 reorganization, has stayed actively involved with the university system even after leaving the board, and is one of the most highly respected civic leaders in the State.

Based on Berndt’s role, I’m confident that the next chancellor will be a highly qualified and well-regarded educational leader. I’m also certain that the new chancellor will have a really tough and challenging job.

For one, Brit Kirwan is truly a tough act to follow. No one quite believes that he walks on water, but he certainly has had a remarkable career and record of success. He has been the public face of higher education in Annapolis and has been an important figure on the national stage as well.

Comparisons with Kirwan’s style in dealing with public officials will be inevitable and not an easy way for anyone new to start. Moreover, taking office with a brand new governor and significant turnover in the General Assembly will only add to the challenge. Kirwan has agreed to stay around in some capacity through June. That will help the new incumbent but also remind everyone that the new person is not Brit Kirwan.

More substantive however is the fact that the State’s fiscal situation looks really bad.  There’s a significant budget hole to close and it’s clearly not a one-time problem. The state’s spending commitments and its anticipated revenues are out of balance. For higher education, the risk is that its appropriation is one of the largest discretionary items in the state budget. That’s the case in many states and the reason that cuts have so often focused on public higher education.

The new Governor, Larry Hogan, has said little about his priorities other than his desire to roll back some of the tax increases of the last eight years. Should he succeed in that goal — and there’s no indication at this point that he will get the General Assembly to agree — the budget shortfall will get even larger.

There is no line item in the state budget entitled “Waste, Fraud, and Abuse.” While it’s irresistable for candidates to promise to cut those things out of the budget, it’s unlikely that Hogan will actually find much that falls under that description. Instead, he will have to make priority choices. As with the last Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich, Hogan may well find that the higher education pot is one of the easiest ways to reduce state spending even if it’s a bad policy decision.

In the last round of those cuts, tuition went up 40% at public colleges and universities. Eventually those hikes created such a political backlash that even Ehrlich backed off in his final year as governor. And it’s also clear that the issue hurt him badly in the 2006 election as Martin O’Malley hammered him about the tuition increases.

We know almost nothing about Larry Hogan’s views on higher education, but we do know that he will have to cut state spending. Interestingly, the person giving him advice on his first budget, former State Senator Bobby Neall, was one of the most knowledgeable and influential members of the General Assembly on higher education. If there really is a “Waste, Fraud, and Abuse” line in the budget, Neall will know where it is.

What a tricky and unpredictable political landscape facing the new chancellor.  Retirement must be looking better to Brit Kirwan every day.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.