In the wake of University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair’s death from heatstroke following a preseason workout in May, a slate of top university officials were let go, resigned or announced their retirement — including university President Wallace Loh, who said in October that he would retire in June.
University System of Maryland officials said they would begin searching for Loh’s replacement “as soon as possible,” and could form a search committee within weeks. They promised transparency.
But three months later, and less than six months from Loh’s scheduled departure, the system has yet to form the committee and has shared little information about where the process stands.
And Loh, for his part, will not answer a key question: whether he still intends to leave.
At a post-holiday brunch Sunday hosted by state Sen. James Rosapepe at The Hotel at the University of Maryland in College Park, several speakers supported Loh remaining as president — none more strongly than Rep. Elijah Cummings, who said he “begged” Loh to stay.
Asked how he responded to the Baltimore Democrat’s plea, Loh said only: “I very much appreciate his comments, and I serve at the pleasure of the board.”
University spokeswoman Katie Lawson has declined in recent days to comment on behalf of the university, on Loh’s intentions for the future or the university’s search for his replacement. Like Loh, she noted only that Loh “serves at the pleasure of the Board of Regents,” and referred all questions to the University System of Maryland.
Mike Lurie, a university system spokesman, also declined to comment on Loh’s future status at the university, or make university system officials available to discuss the issues. He also declined to comment on reporting from the website Inside Maryland Sports and WTOP-FM in Washington last week that Loh has raised the idea of staying in his position beyond June. He said Loh’s future at the university “falls into a personnel area” and was not something he can comment on.
Lurie did acknowledge the system had not started its search for Loh’s replacement, but said in a statement that system officials “are in the process of speaking to as many stakeholders as possible to better understand the needs of the institution and how a search can best be structured to ensure the selection of the candidate best qualified to continue moving the university — and our state — forward.”
Lurie said the system would “share next steps in that process as they are decided.”
Jonathan Allen, the student body president, said the response he has received from the system to questions about the future of the university’s leadership has been insufficient for months.
“Right now, the student body and the campus community have been left in the dark,” Allen said. “These searches should be held expeditiously, using their own words, and this is all but that.”
If Loh does attempt to stay on at the university, the decision could be met with mixed reviews.
His clashes with the regents through the McNair scandal created complicated power dynamics among university system leadership, and his choice to accept “legal and moral responsibility” for McNair’s death went against advice from the state attorney general’s office. Loh also received criticism for poor oversight of the football program after a task force named by the regents found “a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out,” and poor oversight of the athletic department overall when it was revealed his office had never implemented a 2017 proposal to place the school’s athletic training staff under the supervision of the university system’s medical school in Baltimore.
Harry Geller, an elected member of the board of trustees for the University of Maryland College Park Foundation, said he believed the university should stick to the plan for Loh to depart in June, and he is concerned that the university system hasn’t taken steps to make that happen.
“They came to this resolution in October, that he was going to leave. What are they waiting for?” Geller said.
He said “the whole McNair situation, as tragic as it was for that poor kid, was mishandled, and that hasn't changed,” he said.
Student protesters also have called for Loh’s departure — and are still calling for it.
Katie Brown, 31, a communications doctoral candidate and graduate assistant who has helped rally student voices, said there was “no evidence to suggest the university is headed in the right direction” under Loh — who she believed “prioritizes development over the actual mission of the university” and has ignored racism on campus, devalued diversity initiatives and allowed “horrible conditions for graduate students” to persist.
She pointed to the heatstroke death of McNair, who was black, and the fatal 2017 campus stabbing of Bowie State University student Army 2nd Lt. Richard Collins III, who was also black and whose killing is being investigated as a hate crime. Weren’t they enough for Loh to be removed, given they both happened on his watch? she asks.
“I don’t know what it takes for someone to no longer be trusted in that position,” Brown said.
However, Loh’s leadership of the university, has been lauded by allies in Annapolis and the McNair family.
“I begged him to stay,” Cummings said when he took the microphone. “Dr. Loh … no matter what you do, my brother, your fingerprints will be on this area, and the University of Maryland, for centuries.”
“I don’t know what you’re going to do,” Cummings said, looking at Loh, at which Rosapepe broke in with, “He’s going to stay!” — drawing applause from the gathering of state and local politicians, university officials and area residents.
Billy Murphy, an attorney for the McNair family, said they and many others in Maryland would welcome Loh staying on.
“The overwhelming sentiment in the public is to ask him to continue, and that’s how the McNairs feel,” Murphy said.
“Dr. Loh will go down in the history of the University of Maryland as one of its finest presidents,” Murphy said. “He has a commitment to high moral values and ethics, he has stepped up to the plate magnificently in what would ordinarily be an impossible situation, and he did the right thing.”
Murphy’s law firm, Murphy, Falcon & Murphy, took the procedural step in September of putting state officials on notice that the McNair family might sue, but no suit had been filed as of Monday.
Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan, did not respond to requests for comment from Hogan on Loh’s future at the university.
Loh’s salary was $675,000 in 2017.
In October, after the September report found failures in McNair’s treatment by university staff and amid a political storm, Loh announced his retirement, and the Board of Regents announced that Durkin and athletic director Damon Evans would keep their jobs. When that drew outrage, and more political criticism — including from the governor — there was a startling reversal, and Loh fired Durkin.
Then-chair of the Board of Regents James Brady said the search for Loh’s replacement would “begin as soon as possible.” But then Brady resigned himself.
On Monday, Brady declined to comment.
Lurie said at the time that if the board followed past practice, it would vote in the next several weeks to appoint a search committee and hire a search firm.
Lurie said Friday that if Loh were to retire prior to his replacement’s being named or arriving on campus, another university official — such as Provost Mary Ann Rankin — could serve as interim president.
Brown, the graduate student, said she was not surprised by the latest calls for Loh’s retention, in part because she never trusted his retirement announcement.
But it would be horrible, she said, if “A huge scandal plays out, and this guy, without any input from the community, is still going to manage to get out of it? That is incredibly frustrating and does not bode well for the future.”
Allen, the student body president, said he believed Loh should stay on as president, at least until his replacement arrived.
He also said system Chancellor Bob Caret should respond to inquiries he has sent asking about the status of the search. The lack of a response to date, Allen said, “shows the system’s continued lack of transparency.”
Lurie declined to comment on Allen’s concerns. Caret said in September that he still had faith in Loh, and would not “leave anyone in place that I don’t believe can make the right decisions” running the university.
“There are too many things that can go wrong,” he said.
Baltimore Sun editor Amanda Kell contributed to this article.