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After Jordan McNair's death, Maryland lawmakers seek revamp of university system's Board of Regents

Arguing state higher education officials placed athletics over academics last year following the death of football player Jordan McNair, some lawmakers in Annapolis are now pushing legislation to revamp the university system’s Board of Regents.

Legislation sponsored by state Del. Ben Barnes of Prince George’s County and Sen. Sarah Elfreth of Anne Arundel County would require the Board of Regents to livestream its meetings on the internet; accept comments from the public; record all motions and vote tallies; and conduct any votes related to employment or termination of university presidents or the chancellor in open session.

The legislation also would add four new members to the 17-member board, including a student and appointees from the state Senate president and speaker of the House of Delegates. The bill also would subject the chair of the board to additional vetting from the state Senate.

The lawmakers say the goal of the bill is to bring increased oversight, accountability and transparency to a board they believe badly mismanaged the football program at the University of Maryland.

“You’re all familiar with the tragic death of Jordan McNair,” Barnes told a House of Delegates committee hearing on the bill Tuesday. “Compounding that tragedy was the mismanagement and dysfunction of the investigation by the Board of Regents. … The intent is to move us forward to provide additional oversight and accountability.”

The University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents came under fire last year over its decision to retain University of Maryland head football coach DJ Durkin despite the heatstroke death of McNair, an offensive lineman, and a subsequent investigation into the university’s football program that found pervasive problems. University of Maryland President Wallace Loh nevertheless fired Durkin a day after the regents reinstated the embattled coach.

“Like most Marylanders, we were shocked by the tone deaf decision made by the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents last fall to place athletics above academics following the tragic death of Jordan McNair at the University of Maryland, College Park,” wrote Barnes, Elfreth and Sen. Jim Rosapepe, who represents College Park, in a recent opinion piece for The Baltimore Sun. “The good news is that they recognized their mistake, apologized for it and corrected it. But more needs to be done to minimize such errors in the future and to strengthen the confidence taxpayers, students, parents and employers have in the board and our higher education system at large.”

Linda Gooden, the new chairwoman of the Board of Regents, testified Tuesday and Wednesday in favor of the legislation in House and Senate committees, saying the bill would “improve the way the Board of Regents operates” and ensure “greater transparency.”

Gooden replaced former chair James Brady, an ally of Gov. Larry Hogan. Brady stepped down last year, saying his continued presence on the board would be a distraction after he announced controversial personnel decisions following McNair’s death.

Jonathan Allen, student board president at the University of Maryland, also testified Tuesday in favor of the legislation. Allen said the board acted with “complete disregard for transparency” in its move to reinstate Durkin and other matters.

“Good governance requires a commitment to transparency, something we have not seen from the board in recent months,” Allen said.

At a Senate hearing on the legislation Wednesday, Elfreth said she was pleased the regents are agreeing to the increased oversight.

“I think we can all agree that some decisions that were made last fall … seemed to break the public’s trust,” Elfreth said.

McNair, 19, died in June, about two weeks after suffering heatstroke during a team practice.

An investigation commissioned by the university found athletics staff made a host of errors the day McNair fell ill — including failing to immerse the offensive lineman in cold water, standard practice for someone suffering heat stroke. Experts said that could have saved his life.

A separate investigation determined the football program “fostered a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.” It found a strength and conditioning coach attempted to “humiliate” athletes by throwing food, weights and, once, a trash can full of vomit.

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