The death of University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair generated a “crisis” that revealed the Board of Regents and the university’s administration “do not have a clearly articulated and transparent governance structure,” according to The Middle States Commission on Higher Education.
The accrediting agency moved last week to place the state’s flagship university on “warning” status, meaning it found the school out of compliance with the commission’s standards. The decision puts the university’s accreditation in jeopardy, a potentially devastating action because without accreditation, students can’t benefit from the federal financial aid.
While Middle States does not appear to have ever gone through with revoking a state flagship’s accreditation, the warning is nonetheless a chilling message on the state of affairs in College Park.
“The trust between the Board of Regents and the UMD administration, faculty, staff, and students has been damaged,” agency officials wrote in 10-page report outlining why they found the school to be out of compliance. “The UMD governance structure should collaboratively identify actions to restore trust between the different elements of the UMD governance structure and clarify the roles, responsibilities, and accountability of each component of the governance structure.”
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Student Government Association President Ireland Lesley said it’s vital the university be allowed to retain its autonomy, adding that many students in College Park were frustrated by how McNair's death was handled.
“I’m hoping the board of regents and the university take this very seriously because even though it’s a warning, the consequences it would have for students would be disastrous,” she said. “It’s important the administration and board of regents ... think very critically about how we got here and how we can make sure it never gets back to this point ever again.”
While a warning might sound ominous, commission representative Brian Kirschner said it’s a sign the regulatory entity feels the university can come back into compliance within the correct time frame.
The university remains accredited while on warning, but must host a commission liaison in the fall to discuss the commission’s expectations. The university must submit a monitoring report by March 1, 2020, after which another team of experts will visit the university, commission chair Margaret McMenamin said in a statement.
McNair’s death exposed deep-rooted issues in how the university and its overseers operated.
The 19-year-old offensive lineman died last summer after suffering heatstroke during an outdoor practice in College Park. Trainers failed to place McNair in an ice bath — a treatment that experts say is 100 percent effective when done properly — or take other life-saving steps.
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Media reports after his death labeled the Maryland football team culture as “toxic” and brought a national spotlight to the botched response. University of Maryland President Wallace Loh launched twin investigations into what happened that summer day and what the team’s culture was like.
The University System of Maryland’s 17-member Board of Regents, the governing agency for the state flagship and other public universities, quickly took over the two probes. That decision was one of many that the Middle States representatives scrutinized during their campus visit.
Interviews with campus officials and regents raised concerns, they said, about whether there was a transparent governance structure that provided sufficient independence to University of Maryland leadership. In their report, Middle States representatives expressed worry about whether the set-up allowed for undue interference with the university’s day-to-day operations and personnel decisions.
Specifically, Middle States questioned the decision-making behind a news conference during which then-Board of Regents chair James Brady announced that then-head football coach DJ Durkin would continue to lead the Terps from the sideline, while Loh would step down at the end of the year. After the news broke, there were widespread complaints that jeopardized fundraising efforts and prompted indignation from academic leadership and the University Senate.
The announced plans didn’t end up sticking: Loh reversed course and fired Durkin the next day. Brady then stepped down, and was replaced by Linda Gooden. Finally, the board decided it would keep Loh on through June 2020.
Gooden’s first act as chair was to apologize for the way the board bungled its responsibilities. She conveyed that same sense of remorse to the accrediting agency.
“Board Chair Gooden directly communicated that the decision to recommend the retention of the Head Football Coach was a mistake, although indicating that the Board had the right to make the recommendation,” the Middle States report reads.
Representatives from the accrediting agency disagreed, saying that assuming control over the investigations and subsequent personnel moves “inappropriately removed authority from the President.”
In interviews with board members and university administrators, representatives from the accrediting agency found stark disagreements about the events that transpired after McNair died. There were conflicting viewpoints, the agency found, about the right of the regents to make personnel recommendations and how various political interests influenced the board’s decisions.
They found the school out of compliance with Standard VII, which requires universities or university presidents, “operate as an academic institution with appropriate autonomy.”
Still, the Middle States representatives also noted that the Board of Regents should be applauded for taking steps to improve. Gooden commissioned an assessment of the board’s governance structure and implemented new training for board members — evidence, the accrediting agency determined, of a “renewed commitment” to their governance standards.
The Maryland General Assembly pushed the regents to go further this spring. Prompted by McNair’s death and ensuing scandal, the governor signed a bill that adds more spots on the board and requires the regents to make certain meetings available to the public by live and archived video streaming.
Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a Prince George’s County lawmaker, said he was baffled that Middle States was wading into the scandal now, after reforms were made in Annapolis.
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“If they wanted to help solve the problem, they should've been there in October when everyone else was trying to solve the problem,” he said. “It’s like the battle is over and they show up to shoot the wounded. It doesn’t seem constructive.”
Kirschner said the commission was abiding to a thorough process that takes takes several months to complete.
In a joint statement Friday, Gooden, Loh and Chancellor Robert Caret said they are “committed to working together to ensure that the governance structure clearly specifies the roles, responsibilities, and accountability of each constituency and that these are in full alignment” with Middle States’ standards on governance. “Progress towards full compliance is already underway and will be completed by March 1, 2020,” according to the statement, which is when the next monitoring report is due.
In 2016, Frostburg State University was placed on warning status after the accrediting body determined it needed to improve how it assesses learning and use those results to better its curriculum. The Western Maryland school is now in compliance.
Two other Maryland universities had their accreditation withdrawn — Baltimore International College and Sojourner-Douglass College.
Just three schools appear to join Maryland in being on warning status. College Park is by far the largest and most high-profile.
Baltimore Sun reporter Lillian Reed contributed to this article.