Amid an investigation into the culture of the University of Maryland’s football program, power players in the state are preemptively mobilizing to defend President Wallace Loh. They say they’re worried he is being made a “scapegoat” and they say black Marylanders support Loh for renaming the stadium that honored segregationist Harry “Curley” Byrd and taking “moral and legal” responsibility for the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair.
State Sens. Jim Rosapepe and Paul Pinsky, along with six state delegates who represent Prince George’s County, wrote last week to to the University System of Maryland’s governing body, praising Loh’s leadership and warning that his removal could damage the university.
“We urge you to fix what’s broken, not break what’s working,” the lawmakers wrote to the regents.
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker also said he is advocating for the board to retain Loh. Baker said he’s discussed with Gov. Larry Hogan how Loh has “raised the quality of the university.”
Baker said he’s heard talk that some on the board are targeting Loh because of a lingering grievance over the removal of Harry “Curley” Byrd’s name from a stadium on campus because of Byrd’s segregationist history.
This week, an extensive independent review of the University of Maryland’s football program determined it “fostered a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out” — but stopped short of calling the program “toxic.”
The Baltimore Sun obtained a copy of the roughly 200-page report, which the University System of Maryland’s governing body has not released.
The football program has been under increased scrutiny since the death of 19-year-old Jordan McNair, who suffered heatstroke during a May 29 practice in College Park. The investigation into the state flagship’s football program, which is being overseen by the regents, was catalyzed by explosive media reports that described coaches as bullying, demeaning and intimidating certain players.
The report did not contain personnel recommendations.The regents have been discussing whether to retain head coach DJ Durkin, university President Wallace Loh and athletic director Damon Evans.
Rosapepe, a Democrat representing College Park, issued a statement in support of Loh on Thursday. He then released the letter he and the seven other lawmakers sent a week prior.
“The people that are trying to get rid of Dr. Loh do not have an academic agenda,” he said in an interview. “They have a cronyism and sports agenda.”
The lawmakers’ letter says they “share everyone’s concern about the mistakes which led to the tragic death of Jordan McNair.”
“The University’s athletic program should be an opportunity for teamwork and pride, not a lethal danger,” the wrote. “And we encourage you, drawing on the reports of your consultants and advisors, to identify problems in the athletic program and fix them.
“However, we’re concerned that some in the media who care more about athletics than academics are suggesting that the University’s academic leader, Dr. Wallace Loh, should be made the scapegoat,” the letter stated. “Few mistakes could do more damage to our state’s future. Dr. Loh has led the University to ever higher academic achievement and contributions to the economic development of Maryland through creation and dissemination of knowledge.”
In addition to the two senators, the letter was signed by state Dels. Barbara Frush, Joseline Peña-Melnyk, Ben Barnes, Tawanna Gaines, Anne Healey and Alonzo Washington.
Prince George’s County Executive Baker said, “If you look at his leadership, it’s the best I’ve ever seen of a president with his relationship with the state and the surrounding communities. … It would be a tremendous loss to the state and the county to see him leave.”
Baker said he and many black Marylanders supported Loh’s role in renaming the stadium and continue to support Loh now. After it was revealed that athletics staff made a slew of errors on the day McNair fell ill — including failing to immerse the teenager in cold water, which could’ve saved his life — Loh publicly took legal and moral responsibility for mistakes leading to McNair’s death.
“With the incident with the football player, that was the single bravest act of courage I’ve seen of a leader,” Baker said. “He said, not only are we responsible, we are morally responsible. It often appears African-American lives are not held in high esteem and Dr. Loh took responsibility. I think he deserves credit for it.”
Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks, who won the Democratic primary for County Executive, also is advocating on Loh’s behalf.
“Dr. Loh has been a really good partner for many of us in the county. He has been really open to developing a relationship that assists with public safety,” she said, adding that he partnered with county officials on implicit bias training for police.
Alsobrooks praised Loh’s response to the McNair case. “It’s refreshing for a leader to accept accountability. What we’re seeing across the country is a lack of accountability. We need more people who don’t duck and hide. I think he’s been compassionate. What we need now more than anything in this country is truth and wisdom and compassion.”
Congressman Steny H. Hoyer said McNair’s death is an “item of critical concern to me and to the University.”
“Such an event should never happen again, and there must be accountability for those who allowed this tragedy to occur,” Hoyer said. “I would urge the Board to not remove President Loh, who I believe has added very substantively to the University’s status as an academic institution and who took important steps to ensure the McNair family got answers. I believe he will continue to take steps to address this situation and change the culture of the Athletic Department. I believe it is not in the best interest of the University of Maryland College Park to have President Loh leave at this time.”