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On Balance

William "Brit" Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, describes initiatives that have positioned his system as a valuable partner to the state and that have, in turn, strengthened the state's support for research and development.

By Lynne Schaefer

Brit Kirwan's Problem-Solving Proclivity

*"Mathematicians are not happy with the status quo," confirms William "Brit" Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland since 2002. "They're always trying to solve the next problem." That may be why he was drawn to teach within that discipline for 24 years, and why he felt equally at home serving as president of two public research universities. Kirwan's focus today includes grappling with state and federal policy issues. His collaboration with Maryland's governor and legislature has helped earn the system credibility as a partner in pursuing economic vitality within the state. Kirwan's latest conundrum: "The rising chorus of people across the nation who question the value of higher education at a time when it has never been more important to have a college degree." That challenge, admits Kirwan, may take some time to resolve.

What innovations taking place at the University System of Maryland do you view as groundbreaking?

Our system was an early mover in academic transformation via course redesign. We were driven by the desire to improve learning outcomes and contain the growth in cost of education delivery. We have now redesigned some 40 courses across the system, and approximately 12,000 students enrolled in redesigned courses this past spring.

What is the broader benefit of this?

Before we allow a redesigned course to gain the system's stamp of approval, we have to show that the redesign can achieve the same or better results than traditionally taught sections of a particular course. For those we've approved, we've been able to demonstrate improved learning and, in many cases, reduced instructional costs, by about 20 percent on average.

We've also pursued innovation in technology transfer and commercialization of research. In fact, we recently changed promotion and tenure guidelines to give faculty credit for their intellectual property and to allow this to be a reason for them to obtain sabbatical leave—something that used to be reserved for basic research, applied research, or expanding one's capacity in the classroom.

What has been the impact of the system's Effectiveness and Efficiency initiative in introducing further innovation across the university?

The concept for what we now call E&E originated with our board of regents. In light of our current sluggish economy, some may forget that we had a recession earlier this same century. At the height of that recession, in about the 2003–04 time frame, our budgets were being cut dramatically and tuitions were rising at an alarming rate. Even for us they were growing by about 30 percent over several years. Like today, we were under a lot of criticism at that time from the public and from elected officials who complained that we weren't using our resources in the most effective way.

For starters, it's vital for CBOs to possess the intellectual interest and capacity to engage the institution's academic leadership as a partner.

Our board charged us with assessing how to become more cost-efficient without adversely impacting quality. And so we began to review every administrative and academic system to determine how to make our dollars go further. We consolidated a number of administrative functions. We began purchasing goods as a system and later brought in other entities in the state to create huge cost savings, most notably in energy purchasing and commodities.

And on the academic side?

In one example, we found that students in a number of majors had to earn beyond the traditional 120 credits. The board passed a policy that unless accreditation of a program required more, all majors would need to cut off credit requirements at 120. We also began requiring that students earn, on average, 12 credits outside the classroom. That had the net effect of increasing our classroom capacity virtually overnight. We also required faculty to increase student contact hours by 10 percent on average.


Since we launched E&E in 2004–05, the average time to degree completion in the system has decreased from 5 years to 4.3 years, while graduation rates across the system have risen. E&E has continued to evolve over the years. The course redesign initiative I mentioned is a current example of our ongoing efforts to be more effective and cost conscious.

In part, what made our initial effort so successful is that we made sure the external world knew what we were doing to hold down the growth in costs while protecting the quality of our academic enterprise. We went to our governor, to the state's legislature, and to the newspapers, and we said: "We've heard you, and here's what we're doing." This gave us real credibility with our state leaders that exists to this day, and that has made it possible for us to become a priority and a partner with the state in many other ways since then.

How would you characterize the system's relationship with the state today?

In one word: superb. We've worked hard to demonstrate to the state that its success is inextricably linked to our success. During the past decade in particular we have strengthened relationships with the state's leadership. For example, we partnered with Governor O'Malley in passing a bill on the creation of an $84 million seed fund called InvestMaryland. Its purpose is to make investments in start-up companies, new products, and new ideas coming not only from our universities but also from research labs and the private sector.

In this most recent session, we helped get another bill passed called the Maryland Innovation Initiative, which is a fund to help research universities with efforts to commercialize their intellectual property. Through these actions we are helping the state realize its enormous research and development potential, which will significantly benefit Maryland's economy and the state's job growth outlook. Because of our strong focus on workforce development, particularly in the STEM areas, and on R&D and technology transfer, we've been able to align major components of our strategic plan with the governor's priorities and the needs of our state.

What has been the return benefit to the system?

As we have worked to keep our institutions affordable, the governor and the Maryland legislature have, in turn, made investments in higher education that simply haven't occurred in most other states. For instance, if you go back to 2008 at essentially the start of the most recent recession and you look at the level of state support in absolute dollars, the state-supported portion of our budget is slightly larger today than it was in 2008.

Now, we are by no means flush. Like many states, we've had to make difficult cuts, and we continue to have resource needs that aren't being met. Yet, over the past five years, our tuition has gone up about 6 percent cumulatively as compared to the 10 percent or 15 percent per year in many other states. By comparison, we have fared rather well. I believe that is in large part due to the fact that our state leaders understand the value our higher education institutions contribute to the state's economy, and so they have worked with us to mitigate tuition increases.

You were among a small group of higher education leaders asked to the White House last winter to provide input to President Obama. What can you share about that conversation and where it might lead?

The president wanted ideas on what could be done at the federal level to help hold down college costs. I pressed two points. Because I am a strong advocate for course redesign and the use of technology to improve teaching and learning, I urged that his administration find ways to support investments in institutions that are willing to adopt these strategies—for instance, with targeted funding through the National Science Foundation or the Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. This kind of academic transformation requires an initial investment that may be difficult for many institutions to make, and so it's an area where the federal government could make a huge difference and deliver a strong statement that this is important.

What else did you advocate?

Something I know the president's education department is interested in doing but so far has not been able to get through Congress is a "Race to the Top" program for higher education. There are quite a few things we as a sector need to rethink and redo if we're going to achieve the degree completion goals the president has set. A program that would allocate funds based on commitments from states and from institutions to make changes in the way we do our business would certainly help move us in the right direction.

What characteristics must chief business officers bring to the table to help change the business model for their institutions?

For starters, it's vital for CBOs to possess the intellectual interest and capacity to engage the institution's academic leadership as a partner. In this resource-constrained environment, successful institutions will be those where the provost and CBO are seen as a team. More than ever before, today's successful CBO must be someone who brings a broad perspective on how to manage a complex fiscal enterprise and is as comfortable interacting with deans and faculty as he or she is with the bond houses on Wall Street.

LYNNE SCHAEFER is vice president, finance and administration, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.