Political outrage erupted Tuesday after the University of Maryland’s governing board announced that school president Wallace Loh would retire while the football coach and athletic director were keeping their jobs in the fallout from an investigation into the death of player Jordan McNair.
Elected officials in Washington and Prince George’s County expressed disbelief that Loh was the one official to leave in the wake of McNair’s death.
Some accused the university’s Board of Regents of putting athletics above academics — a criticism that board chairman James Brady said was “absolutely untrue.”
Still, the issue quickly crept into the race for Maryland governor.
“The University of Maryland has become a national embarrassment for putting the agenda of a few wealthy football boosters ahead of the health and safety of its student athletes,” said Ben Jealous, a Democrat who is challenging Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in the Nov. 6 election.
Hogan said he questioned whether the regents’ recommendations did enough to address concerns about the program but felt that the creation of an oversight board for the athletic department was “a positive step.”
Loh’s announced departure — while football coach DJ Durkin and athletic director Damon Evans will retain their jobs — angered several Prince George’s County officials who credit Loh with helping spur the school’s and College Park’s revitalization.
“I understand the backroom athletic program politics which led President Loh to offer his retirement,” said state Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a Prince George’s County Democrat, in a statement. “But he should stay and I’m urging him to do so. Academics need to come first. His decision can and should be reversed.”
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker praised Loh on Twitter, writing that the college president “has done more to unite the University & County in the last eight years than his predecessors over the preceding decades combined.”
Rosapepe, Sen. Paul Pinsky and six delegates who represent Prince George’s County wrote last week to the university’s governing board to praise Loh’s leadership and warn that his removal could damage the university.
Del. Erek Barron, a Prince George’s County Democrat, said the Board of Regents sent the “wrong message” by retaining Durkin and Evans, since it was the football program and the athletic department overseeing it that allowed for the conditions that resulted in McNair’s death.
McNair fell ill during a May 29 preseason workout, suffered heatstroke and was not treated with cold-water immersion, a technique that researchers say has a 100 percent success rate when done correctly. The former McDonogh standout died two weeks later.
“The university system had a teachable moment and they failed,” Barron said. “Ultimately it just seems like football takes precedence over academics.”
He said Brady made several “excuses” for Durkin and Evans that would not comfort parents considering sending their sons to play football at Maryland.
“Ultimately football is king,” Barron said.
U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen was also perplexed by the outcome.
“I do not fully understand the rationale behind this decision by the Board of Regents and will be seeking a more complete explanation,” Van Hollen said in a statement. “As we continue to mourn the tragic loss of Jordan McNair, the UMD community needs to have confidence that the health and safety of the students comes first.”
Hogan struck a similar tone, but did not directly fault the board’s recommendations.
“Many will understandably question whether enough has been done to address the serious concerns that exist among many in the College Park community — I am one of them,” the Republican incumbent said in a statement. “University leadership still faces the considerable challenge of restoring the trust of students, families, and faculty, and proving that there is and will be accountability for any actions that adversely impact student welfare and the standing of our flagship university.”
Jealous, however, said Hogan — who appoints board members — “should step in and call on [the board] to fire Evans and Durkin.”
Jealous said that the board “ignored the will of University of Maryland President Wallace Loh to fire Durkin and then threatened President Loh until he stood down.”
“I commend President Loh for taking responsibility for the Athletics Department’s mistakes and at least attempting to move forward without Durkin,” Jealous said. “The Board of Regents should drop their coercion and reverse course.”
Asked if he had recommended firing Durkin, Loh declined to answer.
Prince George’s County and College Park officials said Loh’s departure could slow progress being made to revitalize the college town.
In an interview, Rosapepe said Loh’s eight-year tenure at the university has been “transformative” for College Park and the county.
“For him to leave will be a huge loss for community development, economic development and the academic reputation of the university,” Rosapepe said.
College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn agreed.
“It’s a real shame,” Wojahn said. “Wallace has been a great partner for the city. His partnership and the investment he’s been willing to put into the city has helped to transform College Park.”
Barron said the regents ignored the impact Loh has had in expanding the university’s reputation as well as helping Prince George’s County and College Park thrive with the school.
“The school has been thriving under his watch,” Barron said. “And it’s been a boon for Prince George’s County.”
Still, Rosapepe said he is not giving up on trying to persuade Loh to remain before next June and to convince the regents “to beg him to stay.”
“I hope we can change his mind,” Rosapepe said. “But I can understand given the way the regents have dealt with this that he might decide he has better things to do than to work for people who don’t value academics.”