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In reversal, Loh will remain University of Maryland president through June 2020

In a reversal, Dr. Wallace Loh will remain University of Maryland president through June 2020. (Ulysses Muñoz, Talia Richman / Baltimore Sun video)

University of Maryland President Wallace Loh will remain at the helm of the state flagship school through June 2020, a reversal that comes three months after he announced plans to retire at the end of this school year.

Loh’s scheduled departure was perhaps the most dramatic fallout from the football scandal that rocked College Park after the heatstroke death of 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair following a preseason workout in May. A pair of investigations found that McNair did not receive proper medical treatment and that the football team fostered “a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.”

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By November, the revelations had toppled a number of higher education leaders in Maryland: Loh announced his planned retirement; Loh fired head football coach DJ Durkin; and James Brady, chair of the Board of Regents, stepped down.

But recently, rumors have swirled that Loh — who has the steadfast support of a number of influential politicians — could end up staying on. New Board of Regents Chairwoman Linda Gooden announced Wednesday that the board has asked him to remain president through next school year.

The regents met in closed session Wednesday afternoon to discuss the search for Loh’s successor. That search will launch now, with a committee chaired by regent Gary Attman, a Pikesville businessman. Gooden, a retired Lockheed Martin executive, noted that these kinds of searches often take a year or more.

“The board and Dr. Loh mutually agreed that it is in the university’s best interest for him to continue leading the University of Maryland, College Park through June 2020 while the search for the new president proceeds,” Gooden said in brief remarks.

The extra time will allow for an “orderly transition” and enable Loh, 74, to follow through with several initiatives he is in the midst of: reforming the athletic department, hiring high-level university officials and continuing the capital campaign.

The university needs stability, Loh said in an interview, and he doesn’t want his successor left picking up pieces he’s left undone.

“The most important responsibility of the board is the successful hiring of a president and the most important responsibility of a sitting president is to ensure that the transition of leadership occurs very smoothly,” Loh said. “It is my job to make sure that happens.”

Loh’s salary was $675,000 in 2017.

The news about Loh’s future comes about a week after numerous power players in the state publicly encouraged Loh to stay in his role. Some in Annapolis and Washington have argued Loh was scapegoated unfairly and should be allowed to remain in College Park. They say his leadership has been vital in propelling the university forward.

At a recent brunch hosted by state Sen. James Rosapepe at The Hotel at the University of Maryland, several speakers voiced their support for Loh’s continued leadership. U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings said he “begged” Loh to remain. McNair’s family also has expressed confidence in Loh.

At the event, Loh wouldn’t give a straight answer about his plans.

“I very much appreciate his comments,” he said of Cummings’ remarks, “and I serve at the pleasure of the board.”

Gooden denied that pressure from Annapolis influenced the reversal. Even so, it was met with celebration from some lawmakers.

“The USM Board of Regents’ decision to ask Dr. Loh to stay and his agreement to do so is great news for Maryland,” Rosapepe said in a statement. “This news gives all of us hope that the Regents are refocused on the USM's academic and economic development mission, not distracted by the athletic program.”

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Still, a number of students have said the school needs fresh leadership. They see that as the only way the university can move past the McNair tragedy. Student protesters have called for Loh’s departure, saying he cannot be trusted after what happened on campus.

“Jordan McNair’s tragic death laid bare toxic football culture — but we also hope it will lay bare, and remedy, the pattern of negligence, disregard and disrespect for students propagated by President Wallace Loh,” a coalition of student groups wrote in a Baltimore Sun op-ed in November. “We need drastic institutional change.”

Gooden said the regents will hold Town Hall meetings beginning in March to hear from as many groups as possible. The search committee will include a student voice, she pledged.

The board will be hard-pressed to earn back the trust of some university students, including Maryland’s Student Government Association President Jonathan Allen.

“I have zero confidence in this board,” he said Wednesday. “Any observer could see that they have no idea what they're doing, that they have complete disregard for transparency or shared governance.”

When Allen met with Loh the day after he initially announced his retirement, he said: “So long as you are president of the university, I’ll continue to work with you to advocate for those I represent — the students.”

“That remains the same today,” Allen said.

The circumstances surrounding Loh’s retirement announcement were convoluted from the start.

In October, the university system’s 17-member Board of Regents spent hours behind closed doors, discussing the futures of three of the most powerful men in College Park after the release of a roughly 200-page report detailing widespread dysfunction within the athletic department and allegations of player abuse. All three — Loh, Durkin and athletic director Damon Evans — met with the regents in person.

Board members decided their priority was to return Durkin to the sidelines, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. Loh expressed deep reservations about this, the source said. Regents made it clear that either he could put Durkin back on the field, or they would act to replace him with someone who would, the source said.

At an Oct. 30 press conference, Brady announced that Durkin would be reinstated as head football coach. Loh announced that he would be leaving effective in June. The source said this move was at the insistence of the board. A day later, Loh moved to fire Durkin anyway.

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Loh has had a somewhat contentious relationship with this board in the past, sources have said. Some members were rankled by Loh’s decision to take “legal and moral responsibility” for mistakes made in treating McNair. His statements, according to a source, went against advice from the attorney general’s office and contributed to a lack of trust between him and the board.

The regents came under tremendous fire for their decisions related to McNair’s death, prompting Brady to resign.

System chancellor Bob Caret said the board and Loh have had “a very good relationship since day one when the new chair came on board and began talking with him.”

“The relationship is very solid and professional,” he said.

In the fall, many slammed the board for overstepping its role within a shared governance structure. Major fundraisers threatened to pull their support. Faculty signed indignant open letters.

The regents also announced Wednesday they had commissioned an independent review of the system’s governance structure and operation by the Association of Governing Boards and Colleges. The review is expected to be completed in March.

Caret said potential candidates already have started reaching out to him about the College Park job.

“Several have talked with me,” he said. “As soon as openings like this occur, people will call you just indicating they might be interested.”

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