The day after it was announced that University of Maryland President Wallace Loh would retire in the wake of a football scandal — but that the football coach would remain in College Park — state lawmakers called for a hearing to investigate the matter. They seemed to be responding to a massive wave of public backlash against the university system’s governing body, which made these personnel decisions.
“The tragic death of Jordan McNair and the unprecedented and unusual decision-making process of the University System of Maryland [Board of] Regents continues to raise more questions than answers,” Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch said on Oct. 31.
That hearing took place Thursday, but lawmakers seemed to continue raising more questions, without getting many answers.
Loh appeared before the House Appropriations Committee alongside University System of Maryland Chancellor Bob Caret and the newly elected Board of Regents chair Linda Gooden. She replaced James Brady, who resigned following the controversy.
The hearing signaled that the scandal that’s enveloped the state flagship will be top-of-mind for many in the General Assembly once the session begins. The lawmakers cautioned that the heatstroke death of 19-year-old offensive lineman McNair must not be forgotten in the ensuing drama.
They said it was clear the university had failed McNair. On the day he fell ill, athletic trainers failed to immerse him in cold water, which experts say is in line with best practices for treating heatstroke. Trainers also waited more than an hour to call 911.
Del. Ben Barnes, a Prince George’s County Democrat, asked pointed questions of Gooden and Caret. He asked whether media reports claiming that the regents forced Loh to retire were true.
Caret deferred, saying he didn’t feel comfortable discussing personnel decisions that were made in closed session.
“If you're not going to give us these answers, what are we all doing here?” a visibly frustrated Barnes responded. “It’s perplexing to keep a coach … but then terminate the president.
“It’s a head scratcher,” he said. “If you’re not going to tell us how you got there, I’m a little aghast at that.”
A similar scene played out when a delegate asked Gooden to provide a breakdown of how the regents voted when questioning whether to retain head coach DJ Durkin.
Even while pledging increased transparency, Gooden declined to discuss details of the regents’ decision-making. She told lawmakers that the vote wasn’t unanimous, but represented a majority. And she revealed she was not present at the meeting where the final vote took place.
Student Government Association president Jonathan Allen attended the meeting with a handful of students. He said he was concerned about the regents’ lack of transparency, which he said was “on display” again Thursday.
“The Appropriations Committee appropriately exercised its oversight authority in order to ascertain how the Board of Regents decisions were made,” he said. “Yet the committee’s questions were disappointingly met with no direct responses.”
Loh, when it was his turn before the committee, filled in some gaps on his thought process. The eight-year university president announced Oct. 30 his plans to retire, during a joint press conference with then-chair Brady. It was the same conference where Brady shared that Durkin would return to the sidelines, and athletic director Damon Evans would keep his job.
Loh said he had warned the regents that reinstating Durkin would cause, “all hell to break loose.” Despite that, he said, Caret informed Durkin and Evans that they would remain at the university.
“I made it very clear that, as president, I have the pulse of the campus,” he said. “I said, ‘This will not go over well.’”
Loh’s warning proved prescient. Donors balked, lawmakers issued scathing statements and students planned a protest calling for Durkin to be fired.
The president acted the next day and fired Durkin on Halloween.
Lawmakers indicated that they were now questioning the power and makeup of the Board of Regents. Many outraged people across the state felt the regents overstepped the boundaries of shared governance in how they handled College Park.
Del. Maggie McIntosh asked Gooden whether she still believes that 17 unpaid political appointees should run the university system.
"I do,” Gooden responded. “For the past 30 years we've gotten many things right. Clearly we got this one wrong. ... We stepped out of our lane."
McIntosh promised to continue the conversation moving into the session.