In the uncomfortable hours after a fierce backlash over the University System of Maryland Board of Regents’ decision Tuesday to reinstate the University of Maryland football coach, Chancellor Robert L. Caret got a phone call.
On the line was College Park President Wallace Loh, who told him he was going to go against the regents’ instructions and fire football coach DJ Durkin. Caret said Loh gave him time to intervene.
“At that stage, it was his decision. I respected his right to make it one way or other. I did not try to stop him,” said Caret, who had become the unseen intermediary between the board that oversees all 12 campuses of the university system and Loh, head of the system’s flagship school.
He quickly called the chairman of the regents, James Brady, and told him what was about to happen. In the next few hours, all the internal turmoil that had roiled the university after the death of 19-year-old football player Jordan McNair — the calls for heads to roll, the messy decision-making and the anguish of McNair’s family — would be on public display.
Caret, 71, is a man often caught in the middle. His bosses are the 17 regents, but he also must advise and support the presidents at each of the campuses in the system.
In times of crisis — and this clearly was one — he often will talk out a problem or issue with a president, citing the pros and the cons. But he also respects their right to make their own decisions, he said. He has been a college president twice and was head of the University of Massachusetts system for four years before taking over as chancellor at Maryland in 2015. He hopes his experience carries some gravitas, but ultimately the presidents decide.
Paid $785,696 in compensation in 2017, Caret could have played a more public role in this affair. However, he said, when the regents took control of the investigations into McNair’s death and the alleged “toxic culture” within the program, everyone agreed that Brady would be the only spokesman.
So, Caret said, he let Brady do the public speaking, and he tried to support the board by providing research data and advice. Brady declined a request for comment Friday.
Others say Caret could have been more of an active negotiator.
Caret said that what has been lost this week, among the stunning turns of events, is that the top goal “was to come up with a series of actions we could take to improve the program and to guarantee the safety of our athletes.”
William E. “Brit” Kirwan, who led the university system from 2002 to 2014, said the chancellor’s role is to serve as “the main interface” between university presidents and the regents, and the conduit for all interaction, oversight and directives. When university presidents are hired, the board makes a decision based on the recommendation of the chancellor, who manages the search process, he said.
“There’s a very direct reporting line from the president to the chancellor to the board,” he said.
While he said he had no direct knowledge of what role Caret has played amid the recent turmoil, Kirwan said the board’s actions to order Durkin’s reinstatement amounted to “an egregious violation” of widely accepted principles of governance.
“Had this been allowed to stand, this would have put the University System of Maryland in a very compromised position within higher education and have made it essentially impossible to recruit high-quality presidents not just at College Park, but anywhere,” Kirwan said. “This would just be so far out of the norm for how good institutions are supposed to be run and managed.”
University of Maryland Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski said he has appreciated Caret’s leadership. “His approach has always been to listen carefully to what we are doing and to the accomplishments and the challenges we are facing,” he said.
Caret asks good questions and most importantly, he said, shows confidence in the administration and faculty to solve their own problems.
Caret wouldn’t confirm whether he agreed with Loh’s decision to fire Durkin, saying his decision not to intervene was not a confirmation he approved or disapproved.
Back in September, during an interview with The Sun, Caret said he still had faith in Loh.
“I am not going to leave anyone in place that I don’t believe can make the right decisions to run the place,” Caret said. “There are too many things that can go wrong.”
One of Caret’s most important next steps could be to oversee the selection of a new president for College Park. Loh has said he will retire in June, though some have called on him to reconsider.
Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance contributed to this article.