Insights for Higher Ed Presidents: A Fireside Chat with Brit Kirwan:

Changing Higher Ed Podcast 184 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Dr. William E. "Brit" Kirwan

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Changing Higher Ed Podcast 184 | Insights for Higher Ed Presidents: A Fireside Chat with Brit Kirwan
Changing Higher Ed Podcast | Drumm McNaughton | The Change Leader

5 December · Episode 184

Insights for Higher Ed Presidents: A Fireside Chat with Brit Kirwan

30 Min · By Dr. Drumm McNaughton

Perspectives of a long-time R1 / AAU president that current presidents can put into use to overcome current challenges in higher education.

Dr. Drumm McNaughton invites Dr. Brit Kirwan back to the podcast to discuss the dynamic and challenging landscape of higher education. They discuss many of the high-stress challenges higher education presidents are facing today. 

With more capacity than students and issues like political interference, the decline in public trust, and the threats to academic freedom, the higher education president’s role is more stressful than ever before. 

Dr. Kirwan shares his wisdom on the evolving landscape of higher education. His perspectives are a guiding light for current presidents and leaders in the field, offering strategies to navigate and overcome the myriad of challenges facing Higher Education.

Key Topics: 

Political Incursions in Higher Education:

Financial and Enrollment Challenges:

Maintaining Academic Independence:

Leadership in Challenging Times:

Higher Education’s Role in Society:


With a synthesis of the perspectives shared, the podcast offers practical solutions and insightful strategies for enduring the evolving crises for Higher Education Presidents. The guidance provided is essential for navigating the complexities of modern higher education and leading institutions towards a prosperous future.


Final Thoughts for Higher Education Presidents:

Kirwan emphasizes the importance for higher education presidents to remain actively engaged and involved in meaningful pursuits post-retirement. 

He highlights the necessity of thoughtful planning for life after presidency, underscoring the benefits of leveraging years of experience to make impactful contributions.

This advice is coupled with reflections on the rewarding nature of choosing and focusing on areas where one can be most helpful, drawing from the wealth of knowledge and experience gained throughout a career in higher education leadership.


About Our Podcast Guest

Dr. William E. “Brit” Kirwan is chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland (USM).  He is a nationally recognized authority on critical issues facing higher education. He served as chancellor of the University System of Maryland (USM) for 13 years (2002-2015), president of the Ohio State University for four years (1998-2002), and president of the University of Maryland, College Park for 10 years (1988-1998). Prior to his presidency, he was a member of the University of Maryland mathematics faculty for 24 years.


Dr. Kirwan is the past chair of, among other boards, the American Council for Higher Education, the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, the American Association of Colleges & Universities, the Business Higher Education Forum, and the National Research Council Board on Higher Education and Workforce. He also served as the co-chair and chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics from 2004 to 2016. Presently, he chairs a Statewide Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, which has been asked to make recommendations to the Governor and General Assembly to enable Maryland schools to perform at the level of the world’s best school systems.


Among Dr. Kirwan’s many honors is the 2010 TIAA-CREF Theodore M. Hesburgh Award for Leadership Excellence. Considered one of the nation’s top higher education honors, this award recognizes outstanding leadership in higher education and contributions to the greater good.  In 2009, he received the Carnegie Corporation Leadership Award, which included a $500,000 grant to support USM academic priorities. Dr. Kirwan was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002 and inducted into the Baltimore Sun’s Maryland Business and Civic Hall of Fame in 2017.


Dr. Kirwan received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of Kentucky and his master’s and doctoral degrees in mathematics from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, in 1962 and 1964, respectively. 

About the Host

Dr. Drumm McNaughton, host of the Changing Higher Ed® podcast, is a consultant to higher education institutions in governance, accreditation, strategy and change, and mergers.


Changing Higher Ed Podcast 184 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Dr. William “Brit” Kirwan

Drumm McNaughton: Brit, welcome back to the program.

Brit Kirwan: Drumm, it’s always great to be with you.

[00:00:07] Drumm McNaughton: looking forward to this. We’ve been doing a lot of work together, had some really good engagements with some clients, and we’ve gotten to understand each other’s philosophies a lot better, I think, and it’s amazing. For a young guy like you, you really are on top of things.

[00:00:29] Brit Kirwan: Flattery will get you everywhere.

[00:00:31] Drumm McNaughton: Thank you, sir. I appreciate that. You, you’ll bring in the next engagement. No, just kidding. For those folks who don’t know you, give us a little bit of background, if you would that, I think that’d be helpful. So people get to understand who the guy named Britt Kerwin is that, that I know and I really like.

[00:00:51] Brit Kirwan: Okay, well, thank you very much. Yes, I’m a mathematician. I had the great good fortune to, graduate from college, the University of Kentucky. in 1960, just at the height of the great consternation in our country over Russia getting ahead of us the Soviet Union getting ahead of us, because they had launched a spacecraft and we weren’t ready to do that, and there was a sense that we’d lost our way in terms of STEM and math education.

And so, the government created the National Defense Education Act, which provided very generous fellowships for individuals who could win one of these awards and go off to graduate school, and get a Ph.D. in a STEM field, including mathematics. And I got one of those and went to Rutgers University and got my Ph.D. in mathematics and went to the University of Maryland in 1964, planning on a Ph. D. career as an academic teaching and doing research, which I love doing, but it came time for me to be chair of the math department, which I did for a few years. And all the, all of a sudden I’m getting nominated to be the institution’s provost and became the provost of the campus. I remember a colleague telling me when I went off to be the provost of College Park that I would never come back to the department. I said, Oh, you’re that’s ridiculous. Of course, I will. I’ll be provost for a few years. I’ll come back cause doing research and teaching, that’s my passion. That’s what I want to do. But of course, he proved to be right because I then became president at College Park and serve that institution for 10 years. Feeling that maybe it was time for me to turn the reins over. I think 10 years is about the right time. 10, 12, whatever for somebody to be president of an institution. So, Ohio State came calling and I went there and had a wonderful experience, but lo and

[00:02:58] Drumm McNaughton: Including a National Championship.

[00:03:00] Brit Kirwan: Yes, and football and lo and behold Maryland came calling back and calling me back saying they wanted me to come back and be chancellor of the University of Maryland system. So, in 2002, I did decide to return to Maryland and had a wonderful 13 year career as chancellor of the University of Maryland system.

It’s a 12 campus system with, of course, College Park being its flagship and, since that time, I’ve I stepped down in 2015, but I’ve been very active in a lot of different things. I’ve chaired a very important commission for the state, at the request of the governor and the general assembly. I’m quite involved in a organization that’s trying to change the way how and what math is taught at the collegiate level.

I’m on the university’s hospital board. I’ve been chair of a campaign for College Park. And then I find time to work with you on a number of engagements. So it’s been a, been a very active, but very, very enjoyable life. And I think I’d offer some comments to presidents who are nearing their end of their tenure about how important it is to find things that are, that are meaningful to you to get engaged in once you step down as president. I think it requires a significant amount of thought. I think oftentimes presidents will retire and then worry later what they’re going to do, but just, I think staying active, staying engaged, staying involved is not only healthy, but it leads to such a sense of reward where you can draw upon your years of experience and try to be helpful in circumstances that you to get involved.

[00:04:54] Drumm McNaughton: Well, it’s, it’s giving back to the community that has given you so much.

[00:04:59] Brit Kirwan: Yeah. So it absolutely has, some people often ask what job did you like best? And the answer is the one I was doing at that moment. And I’d have to say that the, the year since I stepped down as chancellor have been among the best years of my life, because I feel like I am making a contribution and there is a freedom to pick and choose what it is I’m going to do. And when you’re a president or a chancellor, you do an awful lot of things. You wonder if they’re really productive and if it’s worth spending your time on, but it’s just the nature of the job. But the joy of being able to really pick and choose and then focus on where you think you can be most helpful, there’s a lot to commend that.

[00:05:45] Drumm McNaughton: Yeah. Well, I have a story for you. I’m sure, the name Hayes. What, what was his first name? Football coach at

[00:05:52] Brit Kirwan: Oh, Woody, Woody Hayes. Oh, he’s part of my yes history.

[00:05:59] Drumm McNaughton: Well, if you recall, there was a certain game back in, I think it was new year’s E

[00:06:06] Brit Kirwan: That’s the worst day of Woody’s life.

[00:06:08] Drumm McNaughton: yes,

[00:06:10] Brit Kirwan: never let that down.

[00:06:11] Drumm McNaughton: I was there for that game. I

[00:06:13] Brit Kirwan: Oh, you were there.

[00:06:13] Drumm McNaughton: I was there.

I was I was a new ensign in the Navy. I’d graduated from the Naval Academy. I would stashed at VP 30, which was patrol squadron 30 there in Jacksonville. And a bunch of us went to the game and when that happened, we looked at each other. It’s like, did that really just happen?

[00:06:33] Brit Kirwan: Right. Well, I was, I, well, I saw it on television and I couldn’t believe it happened, and it’s really a shame because that’s how people remember Woody, but he had so many wonderful values and just so admired by the players that played for them when I was president of Ohio State, they were, I’d get meet a bunch of these players and there was a reverence for him, the, the respect they had for them and what they learned from him and how, how much he added to their, who they are as a person now.

And it’s interesting in, these ridiculous financial packages that coaches have in this day and here he is an iconic, despite that bad incident, an iconic figure in coaching. And he was a professor of military history at Ohio state and he earned a professor’s salary.

He didn’t have all this, these big buyout contracts and cars and things like that, he was just, he earned what other professors at the university earned. And so unfortunately, we’ve moved a long way from having that kind of perspective on what kind of resources should be invested in our intercollegiate sports at these big power five schools.

[00:07:53] Drumm McNaughton: And we’ll talk about that in a little while about power five and where it’s gone and what’s happened, etc. In many respects it comes right back to some of the challenges we’re seeing in higher ed which is really the focus of today’s conversation. A lot of financial challenges that are going on, just got off a webinar with an organization that you and I both are part of the Association of Governing Boards, and they’re talking about how institutions, there’s more capacity out there than there is students to fill. It’s going to get worse with the enrollment cliff.

[00:08:32] Brit Kirwan: Yeah.

[00:08:32] Drumm McNaughton: We’re having difficulties.

[00:08:34] Brit Kirwan: Well, and, and that’s only one of them. The challenges are myriad when you look at higher education today, and I’ve said this on a number of occasions, I stepped down as chancellor in, 2015, and the nature, and the challenges facing college presidents and chancellors today, it’s a sea- change.

 It was a difficult job back in 2015. It is just a monumentally more difficult job today. And it’s not one thing. There are the physical challenges and they’re huge, and there’s the enrollment challenges, but the political incursions into our institutions, has been, a sea change in just the last five or six years. Politics getting involved in ways that just couldn’t have even been imagined a decade or so ago. And the issues on our campuses and the tensions on our campuses, protest and demonstrations and so on and so forth. It’s it’s just it’s almost endless what institutions and presidents are having to deal with today that just make these jobs unbelievably difficult and not surprisingly the tenure of college presidents and chancellors continues to to decline. And it’s understandable.

[00:09:59] Drumm McNaughton: Yeah, well, it it makes me wonder why anybody would want to do this job.

[00:10:03] Brit Kirwan: Well, I saw a poll not so long ago that asked was a poll of provost about whether they would consider becoming a university president. Now it used to be that if you were a provost, the natural thing was after a few years you would be get into a search and probably become a president,somewhere.

But it was a surprising number, maybe over 50 percent of the provosts, saying that they had no interest in becoming a university president. And they’re watching what those presidents have to go through. And it’s, it’s not surprising.

[00:10:41] Drumm McNaughton: Well, it it really isn’t, besides the fiscal challenges and the political ization, one of the folks that you and I have spoken with and worked with, Kevin Gustowitz, there at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He’s considering Michigan State University, the presidency there, they’ve had their challenges, but the rumor mill has it, and I don’t know if this is true or not, but the legislature in North Carolina wants him out for some reason, I don’t know if he’s not conservative enough or, whatever it was, but, this is that incursion of politics into higher education instead of people focusing, “what’s the best thing for our students”?

[00:11:27] Brit Kirwan: No, you’re, you’re absolutely right. We see it. It’s a perfect example that you mentioned in North Carolina. least it’s been reported that he’s already announced that he’s stepping down as chancellor at UNC. Whether he’s going to Michigan State or not is yet to be determined. I know he’s the sole finalist for the position. It’s not clear whether he’s sitting on an offer or hasn’t been made an offer. I, I just don’t know, but, it’s clear that he’d run the course. Because of the politics in North Carolina, but, we’ve seen it play out in Florida in very dramatic ways. President University of Florida got into a huge controversy over whether or not law faculty could testify before the general assembly andthe president got crosswise between, got caught in a crossfire, I should say, between the governor and the faculty, and, he’s gone. And then we see what happened at New College in Florida where the governorgot rid of the board and brought

[00:12:27] Drumm McNaughton: Blew up the board.

[00:12:29] Brit Kirwan: Yeah.

[00:12:29] Drumm McNaughton: He blew it up.

[00:12:31] Brit Kirwan: Yeah. And the new President at Florida was, of course, a prominent congressman senator, maybe

[00:12:37] Drumm McNaughton: Yeah. Ben Sasse.

[00:12:39] Brit Kirwan: Right. And of course that upset the faculty.

[00:12:43] Drumm McNaughton: At least he has his PhD though.

[00:12:45] Brit Kirwan: Yes, he does. Yeah. We see it playing out in Texas. But I was still have strong connections in Ohio and I was back there for an event and learned that there is a Bill in the legislature there, which has passed, I believe one body in the state house but is being considered on the other. And it would basically strip out any institutions ability to engage in activities related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Those words as I understand, it couldn’t even be used. And it’s, it’s got people on the campus at Ohio State quite upset, justifiably so, but it’s just yet one more example of the politicians and political forces really trying to reshape our higher education institutions.

And, I, I think for the most part, one of the reasons we have had, such a strong, historically strong system of higher education, is that have had this independence. There has been a respect for the academic freedom and, the right of universities to operate under principles that insulated from local politics. It hasn’t been perfect over the years, but it’s worked pretty well, but that seems to be eroding in many, many states. And I think it, it’s a huge threat to our system of higher education, which has been the bedrock of our great economy in America.

We are, have been the thought leader in science and technology. We’ve had the best educated workforce. And all of this, we’ve done this phenomenal research coming out of our universities, and it’s really been the bedrock of building the strength, the economic strength of our country. And I’ve just never in my lifethere’d been a time when I was so worried about the future. in large part because the harm that’s being done, to, to higher education in so many statesin the country. Yeah. I saw a poll. Did you see that there was a Gallup poll that was done recently about the American’s confidence in higher education?

[00:15:24] Drumm McNaughton: I saw that.

[00:15:25] Brit Kirwan: Yeah. And it’s really quite shocking. They compared 2015 with 2023 and back in, in 2015, almost 60 percent of the people polled said they had either a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in higher education. In 2023 that’s down to 36%,

[00:15:50] Drumm McNaughton: Mm

[00:15:51] Brit Kirwan: almost cut in half. In a period of just eight years.

 We started the conversation earlier about the financial crisis that we’re feeling, the lack of confidence in the public about higher education because of all these issues that are at work is I think in some way contributing to the financial crisis because in many states, there’s been a very sharp decline in support of higher education and that’s contributing to this fiscal crisis.

Now, of course, as you pointed out that we’re, we were coming to an enrollment decline and that also contributes to the fiscal issues, but it’s just a it’s just a very troubling time for us and the threat to higher education and the harm that can happen to our country if we don’t maintain this renowned system of higher education is deeply, deeply troubling.

[00:16:52] Drumm McNaughton: It certainly is. I wonder myself, you’ve got Florida who, the governor there told his attorney general to sue the Department of Education about a law that he wanted passed and had passed in Florida about changing accreditors. This was I believe directly related to SACS and our friend Bell Whelan down there, who holds institutions to a very high standard. We were talking before we came on the air today, we were talking about another institution that’s on warning right now from SACS. So he sues the Federal government about the law. There goes more than that, though, trying to dictate what is taught in colleges.

[00:17:41] Brit Kirwan: Right.

[00:17:42] Drumm McNaughton: There’s a question that I have is, how can governments go against the First Amendment where, you shall not legislate any law that prohibits freedom of speech?

 Isn’t that what’s happening?

[00:18:01] Brit Kirwan: That is one of the great ironies for me is that a lot of these forces complain about the absence of free speech on our college campuses and that the more conservative student groups aren’t allowed to have speakers and so on and so forth. The speakers get shouted down and the one hand, then on the other hand they try to pass restrictions and regulations on what professors can teach the classroom. And basically, as I understand it, the principle established in Florida, and I think this is it started in Florida, but it’s creeping across our country, is that, you can’t teach things that will make students feel uncomfortable.

[00:18:49] Drumm McNaughton: Oh, my.

[00:18:50] Brit Kirwan: I think that’s the, the standard that’s being set in, in K through 12 in Florida, but it’s it’s seeping into higher education as well. So, that means that you can’t really talk about the horrors of slavery in the US or the terrible, travesties that occurred after the Civil War whenReconstruction ended.

[00:19:11] Drumm McNaughton: Or diversity, equity, inclusion in today’s society.

[00:19:15] Brit Kirwan: Today’s society. So this intrusion of politics into higher education is of all the problems we’re facing, it’s among the most if not the most troubling because it really threatensthe foundation of our higher education institution.

And, it is reflective of what’s going on in the larger society, of course, the great division in our country right now, is something I don’t think it’s at a level that you and I have never witnessed in our lifetime.

[00:19:53] Drumm McNaughton: Now, it, it, to me, it goes back to the civil war, that kind of divisiveness.

[00:19:58] Brit Kirwan: Right? But the fact that this is now coming into our education system at all levels, and in particular to our universities, it’s an existential threat to the quality of our higher education, our education system, but in particular, our higher education.

[00:20:20] Drumm McNaughton: I have an interesting perspective on that. I remember going through Navy, Naval Academy, things like that. And we were always told that one of the major differentiation points between ourselves and the Soviets is they had a game plan that they would always follow. And they didn’t have the critical thinking and the innovation to be able to deviate from that.

Where as the US forces, they pushed the command, right down to the battlefield commander, it was up to him or her to be in, back then it was just him, to make the decisions there and one of the reasons that the Soviets didn’t want to come up against us was because we were so unpredictable. Now if we follow the playbook that we’re seeing at colleges, you can’t teach this, you can’t learn to think for yourself, you have to think in this particular way. Makes me a bit concerned that we’re losing that ability to innovate. We’re losing that ability to think independently, to come to our own decisions.

[00:21:38] Brit Kirwan: Right. Well, it’s more than a little bit,

[00:21:43] Drumm McNaughton: Well, you know me. I tend to be a little bit of an understater

[00:21:47] Brit Kirwan: But it actually is reminiscent, sadly, of what went on in Nazi Germany. Where textbooks got rewritten or burned and similarly, I think in the Soviet Union, that revisionist history.

[00:22:05] Drumm McNaughton: Of course, we have none of that going on right now, do we?

[00:22:08] Brit Kirwan: But I think when you look at our traditions, we had some ugly things in our history, but for the most part, we’ve been able to expose them and talk about them and try to address them.

But what we see a lot of places in our country right now, an attempt to whitewash the past and createa new revisionist historyin the United States. There was this ridiculous comment, I forget, by some, political figure talking about the benefits of slavery to slaves, that they learn skills that would be, important life skills

[00:22:52] Drumm McNaughton: Yeah, I read that one too. I was horrified.

[00:22:56] Brit Kirwan: Right, right.

Anyway, it’s it is troubling and I, I, and I think the difficult thing is what to do about this? What is the, how do we, how do we reverse this trend? What is it gonna take for us to get back on track? As it were and restore, the higher education to being able to operate as a source of truth and investigation and debate and inquiry and I, I just worry that in too many places in our country right now, we’re losing that capacity. And it is true. It had to be fair. It isn’t everywhere in our country. I see here I am in Maryland, I don’t see any threat to our higher education institutions by political intrusion. I think that’s the case pretty much across the Northeast and parts of the West, et cetera. But,in too many placesthere is this intrusion of politics that as as I say, an existential threat to our higher education system and therefore I think to the great country we are privileged to live in.

[00:24:12] Drumm McNaughton: Yeah, I, I think you’re absolutely right. When I think about what we can do, I think it’s really something people need to stand in the truth And it’s, it’s not just one side. We, as parents, or in our case, grandparents or great grandparents, what are we teaching our kids about tolerance? What are we teaching our kids about listening to opposing views? When you get students who don’t like what a speaker is saying, who turn their back to them. Yeah, they can do that. Do it silently. But when you scream the speaker down, just because you don’t like what he or she is saying, that’s not only rude, it’s showing a lack of willingness to listen to others perspectives.

[00:25:05] Brit Kirwan: Yeah.

[00:25:05] Drumm McNaughton: And that’s what, to me, that’s what academic freedom is. Listening and keeping open to finding where the research takes you.

[00:25:14] Brit Kirwan: Yeah. And I, on this score, I think this is a pretty universal problem across all of higher education. This isn’t restricted to certain states. We saw the horrible Incidents at MIT recently where you know, the, the conflict between the Palestinians supporters and Israeli supporters. And the administration tried to step in and do something, and now everybody’s mad at the administration because they blew it and and something similar happened at Penn.

[00:25:45] Drumm McNaughton: Yeah.

[00:25:46] Brit Kirwan: And even Harvard. And so, this management of divisiveness and conflict on our college campuses is it’s a pretty universal issue for college presidents and not all of them are handling it as well as we would like to see.

[00:26:04] Drumm McNaughton: Yeah, it definitely is. Well, Brit, this has been a wonderful conversation. We’ve not solved the problems of the world, but we certainly talked a bit about them.

[00:26:13] Brit Kirwan: We ought to, we ought to come back and talk a little bit and not just wring our hands, but talk about what might be done to address these problems.

[00:26:22] Drumm McNaughton: Let’s do that after the first of the year. I, really enjoyed our conversation. We won’t do three takeaways and that other stuff. To me, this was just a fireside chat with someone who’s been around the block at least once or twice, and, how things change. So thank you for

[00:26:39] Brit Kirwan: Sure, Drumm, always a pleasure to be with you and look forward to our next conversation.

[00:26:44] Drumm McNaughton: Likewise, my friend, take care.

[00:26:46] Brit Kirwan: Okay.



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