University of Maryland Foundation to regents: You may have dealt 'fatal blow' to $1.5B fundraising campaign

In a strongly worded letter sent Thursday morning, the University of Maryland’s major fundraising group condemned the Board of Regents, expressing outrage over how they handled the aftermath of the death of football player Jordan McNair and damaged the group’s effort to raise $1.5 billion for the state’s flagship campus.

Geoff J. Gonella, who chairs the University of Maryland College Park Foundation Board of Trustees, said the university system’s regents have “wreaked havoc” and deliberately undermined university leadership by taking control of the investigation into McNair’s death, reinstating football coach D.J. Durkin and “evidently” forcing the retirement of university President Wallace D. Loh.

Thursday night, Loh fired Durkin, and influential voices including former University System of Maryland chancellor Brit Kirwan and former regents chair Jim Shea have called for the president to reconsider his announcement that he would retire. The Board of Regents announced Thursday that they would hold a special meeting at 2 p.m.

The foundation’s letter, addressed to regents chair James T. Brady, also said the regents have damaged recruitment and fundraising.

“Let us remind you that we are in the middle of a $1.5 billion campaign 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,” Gonella wrote. “We are doing all we can to assist the legislature in helping to fuel the continued advancement of this Flagship university in Maryland.

“And we are deeply distressed that you have not only dented our momentum,” he continued, “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.”

A spokesperson for the Board of Regents said Thursday that he wasn’t sure if the regents had received the letter yet. Brady had defended the board’s decision Wednesday before Durkin’s firing.

Gonella’s letter, copied to the governor, legislative and university system leaders, said foundation trustees support the call for public hearings to investigate the regents’ actions and “will actively participate in these hearings expressing our disappointment and outrage.”

Echoing similar sentiments in a statement Kirwan and Shea issued Wednesday night, Gonella said the regents have harmed the university system for interfering with personnel decisions below the level of president.

“Governing boards should not be hiring or firing football coaches on campus or any other personnel for that matter.” the letter said. “The Board’s flagrant violation of this principle has caused serious damage to the reputation of the Board of Regents and to all of Maryland higher education.

“The Board’s actions will seriously harm the ability of all Maryland campuses to recruit future presidents and faculty if this is the governance climate they will face. The damage by the Board’s conduct is very real.

“What right-minded highly qualified candidate would choose to serve as the next President of the university? How confident can the faculty feel about their academic freedom? How many high-achieving students will think twice about College Park for fear of meddling by a Board with an uninformed perspective?

“If the Board is determined to undermine the leadership of the campus and weaken its legislative Flagship status,” Gonella wrote, “it has taken a very good first step.”

The regents also received a letter from the provost and more than a dozen deans Thursday morning, similarly slamming them for what the academics called interference in personnel matters.

"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 Mary Ann Rankin, senior vice president and provost, and deans of various schools. "It has already damaged the trust of students and their families, faculty, staff, alumni, donors, and supporters."

The academics said Loh's leadership is "critical" during this tumultuous time at the university, and they encouraged the regents and system chancellor to "publicly affirm its support for Dr. Loh’s continued leadership of the state’s flagship university."

Baltimore Sun reporters Talia Richman and Scott Dance contributed to this article.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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