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University of Maryland President Darryll Pines takes over amid ‘two watershed movements': racial justice and coronavirus

Darryll Pines took over as president at the University of Maryland, College Park this week.
Darryll Pines took over as president at the University of Maryland, College Park this week. (John Harrington)

When Darryll Pines was chosen to become the next president of the University of Maryland at College Park, people weren’t wearing masks, no Marylander had died yet of COVID-19 and George Floyd was still alive.

Pines, the former dean of the engineering school, took the job this week, and immediately embraced the two issues that have arisen to consume the public’s mind: the coronavirus and racism.

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“We are living in two pandemics, one associated with the virus and the other with injustice,” Pines said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun this week. “Each one shows how globally connected the world is. We are living in two watershed movements in time and space. As I embark on my presidency it provides clarity: The work that we do in higher ed matters.”

Pines, 55, said the university should focus more research on the virus, and on having a positive impact on people’s lives, as well as making sure that it can take action to address the issues of racism within the culture on campus.

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Just hours after Pines moved into his office on Wednesday, he outlined in a message to the community his immediate actions to address injustices and foster a better culture within the university. Pines called immediately for the naming of new residence halls for groundbreaking Black and Asian alumni, creating a new orientation program for students and staff, reconsidering campus police tactics and equipment, and improving diversity among students and faculty.

Student leaders said those priorities align with the issues they had been focusing on in the year ahead.

“I think he has done a good job from day one of leading with positive values that will create change quicker than in the past,” said Dan Alpert, student body president and a rising senior

Racially charged incidents have occurred on campus in recent years, including the killing of a Black student from Bowie State University. Students of color also have questioned the university’s commitment to diversity and inclusiveness in recent years. While the university has taken steps to counteract the issues, including a racial bias reporting system, only 10 percent of the undergraduate and graduate student body identifies as Black. The state is about 30% Black.

Student leaders said Pines’ initiatives to name dormitories after trailblazing Black and Asian alumni is welcomed, but they would like to see a larger conversation about the names of people who were slave owners on dorms that should be removed.

Rachelle Wakefield, a junior who is president of the Black Student Union, said she remains optimistic about Pines’ tenure. She is particularly pleased that there is an emphasis on looking at diversity and inclusion issues in the curriculum.

Her community also has been speaking about the policing issues in light of the protests that have swept the country this summer after Floyd was killed at the hands of Minneapolis police. So she is pleased that Pines started his tenure saying the university must look into policing policies and eliminate the use of choke holds and tear gas by campus police.

Darryll Pines, who is set to take over as president of University of Maryland, College Park on July 1, hands a fake diploma to senior Shane Lavner during a spontaneous neighborhood graduation ceremony for three River Hill High School graduates.
Darryll Pines, who is set to take over as president of University of Maryland, College Park on July 1, hands a fake diploma to senior Shane Lavner during a spontaneous neighborhood graduation ceremony for three River Hill High School graduates. (Photo courtesy of Dan Lavner)

Pines has talked about additional mental health counseling for students, which she supports.

“These are things we really care about,” she said.

Meanwhile, Pines takes over a university that will operate in a drastically different manner when students return.

Pines said 80% to 90% of students and their parents said in surveys they wanted to return to campus, so they are putting measures in place that would reduce the chances of the coronavirus spreading.

Besides social distancing and health guidelines, Pines said students will have to fill out a questionnaire each morning that asks them a series of questions related to their health. Students will be expected to adhere to a campus-wide social contract that stipulates acceptable behavior, such as wearing masks and taking temperatures.

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“We know it will be challenging for this age group of 18- to 24-year-olds,” he said.

What will happen when students contract the illness will depend, he said, on the number of cases and the advice of the local and state health departments. When one student becomes ill, they can be isolated in a dorm that is being set aside for that purpose.

Dormitories, however, will not be full, said Pines and a large number of the 10,000 students who live on campus will have to find space in apartments nearby this year. Double occupancy dorms will become singles, although there will be some suites with two people who will need to remain in a kind of “bubble” together, he said. With more students moving off campus and into apartments in the city of College Park, Mayor Patrick Wojahn said there will have to be more discussions between the university and the community.

“We need to establish good norms for protection in the community,” Wojahn said. “This is not going to be a normal year at the university. Tailgate parties and celebrations on the weekends that we often see are not going to happen.”

The mayor said he believes the strong relationship between College Park and the university will continue.

“I am optimistic that [Pines] understands the importance of a strong relationship,” he said.

Pines takes over for Wallace Loh, who was president for the past decade, taking the university through some turbulent times, including the deaths of football player Jordan McNair to heat stroke and freshman Olivia Paregol of adenovirus.

Pines credits his rise to college professor with access to good public universities. He began his tenure at the University of Maryland as an assistant professor in 1999, and became dean of the engineering school in 2009. His children attended College Park.

“We in higher education are hearing those calls for action and we are going to respond to build a more inclusive and multi-cultural campus,” he said. “I believe all students, faculty and staff should come to an inclusive safe environment so they can reach their potential.”

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