It took decades and hundreds of millions of dollars to build the University of Maryland at College Park into what its website calls “one of the nation’s preeminent public research universities.”
But in less than a week, that hard-won prestige was tarnished by what was widely viewed as a botched effort to address the death of Maryland football player Jordan McNair.
In a seesawing sequence of events, the university system’s Board of Regents reinstated the suspended football coach DJ Durkin, prompting UM President Wallace D. Loh to announce his retirement. Then, amid widespread outrage over the regents’ actions, Loh fired Durkin.
And by week’s end, James T. Brady, the regents chair, had resigned.
While the exit of Durkin and Brady eased some of the immediate criticism, the fallout remains. A major donor says she’s cutting off what has been a multi-million-dollar stream of funding. Professors and deans said the regents’ interference with campus governance threatened academic freedom. And many in the Greater Terp Nation worry the damage could prove lasting.
“This is a major setback,” said Parris Glendening, the former governor and veteran University of Maryland professor. “Very real, long-term harm has been done to the university — to everything from fundraising to recruitment of top quality faculty and the recruitment of students.
“This was a net loss from every perspective,” he said. “It’s both process and outcome that is going to make the University of Maryland College Park an example of how not to handle a crisis.”
Now, say supporters of the school, the university needs to right itself — fixing what damage it can, and restoring its badly battered image. The stakes couldn’t be higher for the state’s flagship campus, whose chance to compete for the best students, athletes, faculty, programs and grants could be harmed by a lingering cloud.
“As an alum, it was really embarrassing,” said Keith Booth, a former star Terps basketball player.
“It was plain and simple what should have been done,” Booth said: Fire Durkin. But instead, the regents prolonged the pain of McNair’s death with months of investigation and the “national embarrassment” of holding no one accountable, he said.
The repair has to go beyond personnel, public relations executives said.
“They should not assume that firing the coach ends this,” said Jeff Hunt, a crisis communications consultant hired by Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal. “If they don’t have some way of bringing closure to this, it’s going to be an open wound that people keep picking at.”
Much of the focus has turned to the regents, the normally low-profile, 17-member board appointed by the governor to oversee the state’s 12 institutions of higher education. None of the regents responded to a request for comment for this article.
Baltimore lawyer Jim Shea, the board’s former chairman, was among many who denounced what he called the regents’ unprecedented interference in campus personnel decisions when they voted to keep Durkin.
Any hiring or firing decisions, beyond the appointing of college presidents, oversteps their authority, he said.
“That very much violates the principle of shared governance, undermines the president and most importantly, diminishes the job of the presidency,” said Shea, chairman emeritus of the Venable law firm.
Steven Fink, a crisis communications consultant and author, said the interference has to be addressed — and in fact, Gov. Larry Hogan, who appointed most of the regents, and state legislators have called for an investigation and public hearings.
“Shaking up the board is the right thing to,” Fink said. “The fact that the governor is involved just shows you how this has spiraled out of control.”
The outcry over the regents swiftly had fiscal ramifications: Alumna and donor Karen Levenson wrote the regents Wednesday night to say she was shutting her checkbook until she was certain that proper governance was restored. Levenson seeded the Do Good Institute, a $75 million initiative that sought to create a culture of philanthropy throughout the College Park campus and is a major funder of the university’s School of Public Policy.
Brady’s resignation was welcomed by many, but Levenson and others are awaiting more systemic assurances.
“What matters to me is that there be clarity with regard to the role of the board of regents,” she told The Baltmore Sun. “I am heartened by the governor’s statements and look forward to the results of the efforts he has promised to take.”
Levenson is co-chair of a $1.5 billion fundraising campaign announced this spring, the university’s largest ever. With major contributions from the likes of prominent alumni like Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, the campaign has already raised more than $900 million.
But now, the University of Maryland College Park Foundation, which launched the campaign, said the regents dealt “a fatal blow” to its efforts “to raise funds for the flagship of the system to bring the best and brightest students to College Park, hire and retain outstanding faculty, provide superb facilities, and to improve the surrounding community.”
Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, said fundraising may indeed take an initial hit. But addressing the problems exposed by this episode should help the university recover both its image and its donors.
“Over the long term, institutions that are responsible and transparent with addressing the problems will be fine,” he said.
Not long after the Penn State scandal broke in 2011, for example, the university reached a record $2 billion endowment, set an admissions record and continued to sell out football games — just as Hartle had predicted.
Such large institutions, he added, “are much more than their football teams.”
“It’s terribly embarrassing but the issue is: how do they respond,” he added. “I think Wallace Loh gets a lot of credit for his actions over the last week.”
It remains to be seen, of course, how the uproar ultimately affects student applications, the recruitment of faculty, and the search for a new president, should Loh retire in June as now planned.
Jim Lingberg, an alumnus, parent of a recent graduate and member of the Terrapin Club, was so frustrated by how long it took for someone to be held accountable for McNair’s death that he canceled his season tickets for the football and basketball team. McNair, 19, died June 13, about two weeks after suffering heat stroke during a team practice.
The training staff failed to use cold water immersion, a treatment experts said likely would have saved his life, university officials have acknowledged. Team personnel also failed to call an ambulance for more than an hour after the onset of McNair's symptoms, records show.
Officials said they were waiting for a consultant’s report about how staff responded to McNair’s symptoms, as well as a task force report on the culture surrounding the football program. They got the first report in September, the second on Oct. 19. Durkin had been placed on paid administrative leave pending those reports.
“I didn’t understand how they were going to send DJ Durkin into some parent’s house to say he is going to take care of your child,” said Lingberg, who works in banking and served on the university’s Parent/Family Advisory Council.
“I wanted to watch how it played out,” he said. “The reactions were poor from the beginning. They dragged it out, on and on too long, only to come to the wrong decision, as they found out quickly.”
Loh, he added, “tried to do the right thing but he wasn’t in control of the situation.”
Admissions officials at several high schools in the Baltimore region said their guidance offices were swamped on Wednesday — a deadline for applying to College Park — by students who wanted to go there. Wednesday went on to be the day Durkin was fired.
Glendening said he’s seen concerns among high school students up close: His 16-year-old daughter attends the McDonogh School, which McNair had attended, and students there have been closely watching events unfold. When Durkin was reinstated, albeit for a single day, Glendening said his daughter told him, “That’s outrageous.”
The university likely will be under great scrutiny in the coming months. Officials have talked about reforms of the athletic program, but no specifics have been announced. Until something is done, the university will continue to face serious criticism, crisis communications experts said.
“It’s just words until they can demonstrate something tangible,” said Michael Maslansky, whose crisis communications firm has offices in New York City, Washington and London.
What can’t be lost in all this, most would agree, is the legacy of McNair.
Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association, said Maryland has an opportunity to do what no state has done: convince its legislature to establish health and safety guidelines for college athletes, an area that is not regulated by the NCAA.
“The current players are still not safe and the future players are not safe at the University of Maryland,” said Huma, a former UCLA football player. “I can’t imagine a parent or recruit going to Maryland unless it’s as a last resort. I wonder if they feel safe. As if their lives don’t matter. That’s how I would feel as a player.”
His organization has been advocating for state programs for nearly 20 years and came close last year, when the California State Assembly passed the College Athlete Protection Act. But the measure stalled in a Senate committee, forcing Huma to try again next session.
The measure calls for enacting and enforcing health and safety regulations through an independent panel of experts. The bill calls for whistleblower protections and mandates reporting of incidents by all team employees.
“That means if I don’t report something I witnessed, then I, too, will be punished,” Huma said.
He said the regents’ decision to retain Durkin shows why institutions cannot be trusted to investigate themselves.
“There needs to be an independent state program to prevent these types of death and to punish and ban the negligent coaches and administrators,” he said. “Who is to say that the exact same thing won’t happen again sometime in the next season or off-season. This is really a leadership problem.”
Glendening said the regents need to hit a reset button and revamp the often secretive way they have conducted business.
“It’s a moment for transparency, although it’s almost too late at this point,” he said. Much of the ensuing outcry came from shock, Glendening said, because the regents operated behind closed doors, allowed little input from the public and simply announced their decisions.
“Someone’s got to stand up and say, ‘We’re going to commit ourselves to transparency and to be inclusive,’” he said. “We have got to bring people into the conversation.”
Additionally, he said, the regents have to “make a clear statement: that it was inappropriate to reach in and try to make personnel decisions.
“If they can’t do that, the governor is going to have to step in and make changes,” Glendening said, “because the damage is going to be so great.”