Fallout grows for University of Maryland, College Park, in aftermath of regents' response to player's death

As yet another University System of Maryland leader lost his post Thursday, consequences of the turmoil that followed the death of football player Jordan McNair began to materialize: The flagship institution’s main accreditation under scrutiny. Academic officials condemning a breakdown in integrity. A major donor withholding support.

Damage has been done, university leaders said. And they pointed most of the blame toward the system’s board of regents, whose chairman, James Brady, stepped down Thursday.

A day earlier, Brady had defended the regents’ decision to give football Coach DJ Durkin a second chance, despite McNair’s death and a team culture that may have contributed to it. In the face of that decision, University of Maryland, College Park, President Wallace Loh announced he would retire in June.

“What right-minded, highly qualified candidate would choose to serve as the next president of the university?” Geoff J. Gonella, chairman of the University of Maryland College Park Foundation Board of Trustees, wrote in a letter. “How confident can the faculty feel about their academic freedom?”

On Wednesday, Loh defied the regents’ decision and fired Durkin. But concerns that the upheaval could threaten the institution’s reputation continued to mount.

In another letter, the university’s academic leaders cited the risk to the school’s accreditation. The commission responsible for the stamp of approval that allows Maryland students to receive federal financial aid confirmed Thursday that it will review the university’s main accreditation at a meeting later this month.

“The violation of the independence of the university to manage its human resources and operations compromises the governance structure of the university, impacts our credibility and our ability to deliver the educational services for which we exist as a public land-grant institution,” said the letter, signed by Provost Mary Ann Rankin and all 15 campus deans. “It has already damaged the trust of students and their families, faculty, staff, alumni, donors and supporters.”

In a statement Thursday night, the regents said their aim has been “to make recommendations focused solely on the best interest of the student-athletes and the university.” They noted that none of the unpaid, 17-member group’s decisions were reached unanimously, “which demonstrates the complexity of the issues examined.”

They pledged to see through reforms that “will improve the well-being of student-athletes at the University of Maryland, College Park,” and the other 11 institutions that make up the state university system.

The frustrations within the student body were made clear Thursday afternoon on the steps of the College Park campus’ Main Administration Building, when a protest planned to call for Durkin’s resignation devolved into a debate over how to respond to what the students lamented as a lack of justice for McNair. When speakers from the Student Government Association called on students to support the football players by attending games, some in the audience began chanting “boycott” and “black lives matter.”

McNair died of heatstroke June 13, two weeks after he collapsed during a conditioning test. The tragedy has roiled the campus in the five months since, prompting the university to suspend Durkin in August and the regents to commission reports investigating McNair’s death and reports of abusive conduct within the Terrapin football program.

The release of the second of those reports this week sent university leadership into a tailspin, as Brady announced the reinstatement of Durkin and Athletic Director Damon Evans.

Academic leaders say those board actions interfered in the university’s independent system of governance. In their letter, they expressed concern it could have consequences far beyond the athletics department. The University Senate, an elected body of faculty, staff, students and administrators, has scheduled an emergency meeting Friday to “propose a resolution condemning the actions of the board of regents and reasserting the rights of academic freedom and self-governance.”

“If they can take such action regarding a coach, they can certainly do the same with a faculty member, a staff member, a department or program, or an administrator,” senate leaders wrote. “This goes to the very heart of shared governance: Who makes decisions on what is best for the university?”

Amid those concerns, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education is preparing to discuss the university’s chief accreditation at a meeting later this month in Philadelphia. The group is reviewing the university’s accreditation after renewing it just last year for the next eight years.

The commission requested what it calls a “supplemental information report” from the university Aug. 16, needed to address “recent developments at the institution which may have implications for current and future compliance” with standards concerning ethics, integrity and support of the student experience. At that point, Durkin had been placed on leave and the regents began their investigation into McNair’s death.

The commission could issue a warning, place the university on probation or terminate its accreditation — or it could take no action at all, said spokesman Brian Kirschner.

If the university lost its accreditation, students would no longer be eligible for federal financial aid. More than two-thirds of students at College Park are offered financial aid each year, with an average package worth $11,813, according to the College Board. About a third of students receive federal loans, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

It’s unclear whether the matter came before the commission because the body received complaints, or if it became aware of the upheaval through news reports or other means, Kirschner said. The body asked university officials for more information about the tumultuous series of events “to have a better understanding of what is going on, so the commission can make an informed decision,” he said.

It was the second time this year that the 29-member Middle States commission had requested an information report from the university. The first time was in January, related to reports of a Title IX investigation into sexual assaults. The commission accepted the report in June and took no action.

University officials did not respond Thursday to questions about accreditation concerns.

There were also signs the university could take a financial hit.

Gonella expressed outrage over the board’s actions, saying it damaged the University of Maryland College Park Foundation’s capital campaign to raise $1.5 billion. He said leaders of the university’s top fundraising organization were “deeply distressed that you have not only dented our momentum, but you may have dealt our efforts a fatal blow. The board’s reckless conduct failed to consider any of these factors and occurred with virtually no consultation with any campus stakeholders.”

Karen Levenson, a major donor to the university and an alumna from the class of 1976, said she won’t give more gifts given the “unacceptable” way the board handled McNair’s death — at least not until she feels confident there is clarity about the proper role of the regents.

Levenson, a co-chairwoman of the fundraising campaign launched this spring, founded the Do Good Institute at the university’s School of Public Policy with her husband, Bruce, a former co-owner of the Atlanta Hawks and co-founder of Gaithersburg-based United Communications Group, a business information and data provider. The $75 million initiative seeks to create a culture of philanthropy throughout the College Park campus.

In a letter obtained by The Baltimore Sun, she wrote that the Board of Regents stepped “outside its authority” in initially retaining Durkin and that she would halt future funding through the program “until such time as I am convinced the university will be governed in the manner I was lead to believe it would be governed when I made my commitment.”

In an email sent after Brady’s resignation, she told the Sun she hoped that would happen quickly, “so that we can resume our support of the Do Good Institute and the School of Public Policy.”

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A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the student chapter of the NAACP called for students to attend football games. The Sun regrets the error.
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