Despite the turmoil now enveloping the University of Maryland, experts say there will be plenty of people who want to succeed President Wallace Loh, who has announced he will retire in June.
The search for a new president for College Park is expected to “begin as soon as possible,” Board of Regents chair James Brady said Wednesday. If the board follows past practice, it will vote in the next several weeks to appoint a search committee and hire a national search firm, university system spokesman Mike Lurie said.
“This is a great university. Ambitious and skillful leaders will look upon this as a really wonderful challenge to take the school past a difficult time,” said Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonpartisan organization that advises university boards on policy and governance.
Poliakoff doesn’t expect the board to have difficulty finding good candidates despite the controversy surrounding the heatstroke death of 19-year-old football player Jordan McNair in June and the recent showdown between the Board of Regents and Loh over whether to keep the university’s football coach and athletic director.
Though Loh, 72, will be leaving at the end of the school year, head football coach DJ Durkin and athletic director Damon Evans will remain in their positions, university officials said Tuesday.
Although the regents do not have control over hiring of coaches, they made it clear to Loh that if he didn’t put Durkin back on the field, they would act to replace him, said a source with knowledge of the situation.
The actions followed a pair of investigations overseen by the regents. The first investigation found that staff failed to immerse McNair in cold water, which experts say is the best practice and could have saved his life. The second investigation found that the department “lacked a culture of accountability” and was plagued by frequent turnover, dissension and infighting.
The issues that have been raised with McNair’s death won’t go away or be glossed over by candidates, according to Rick Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, which works with presidents and boards.
“Every search has its own challenges and issues,” said Legon.
Candidates for the job will delve into the athletic department issues. “It is not that they won’t think about it and discuss it, but I don’t think it will be a problem” in getting good candidates, Legon said.
“There are a lot of great institutions and middling institutions who have had crises in trust that have befallen them and have...attracted outstanding individuals who think they can continue to move the institution forward,” he said.
Boards have often considered people like Loh who come from a traditional academic background, but Poliakoff said they can also make more unconventional picks, such as former governors, senators or business leaders. When the University of Colorado was rocked by a series of scandals in the early 2000s, the university picked a former U.S. Senator, Hank Brown, as its next president in 2005.
“I think the board has to be expansive in its thinking,” Poliakoff said.
One of the questions that remains is whether the Board of Regents will find a replacement for Loh by the time he leaves this summer. While the end of an academic year has been the traditional time for changing of college presidents, Legon said that is not always the case today.
If no replacement is found, the regents would be likely to appoint an interim president, which is usually the provost or someone with institutional experience, after Loh leaves, Poliakoff said.
Poliakoff believes the regents should go slow, take a careful look at its vision for the future, and consider what kind of person would implement the vision.
“The board needs to have a listening tour. Every board member needs to be involved...It would be a great mistake for the university to conduct a search for a new leader with any haste,” Poliakoff said. “Especially at a time when the University of Maryland has been roiled by a terrible tragedy and a scandal.”
The normal procedures call for the chancellor of the system to nominate a committee of about 12 to 15 people — including alumni, students, professors, foundation staff and community members — to do the search. The regents then vote on the committee.
Poliakoff and Legon agree that the university has a lot of attributes that would make it a plum job to seek.
“I think that it has an outstanding reputation as a research university. It brings in a substantial number of research dollars — folks who are directing their career in higher education will find that extremely compelling,” Legon said.
The university also has support from the state government at a time when many state flagship institutions around the country have been losing funding.
The regents and the next president, however, will have to address whatever hits to the university’s reputation it has taken because of the scandal, Legon said.