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Bill seeks to prevent 'tone deaf' decisions by Md. Board of Regents

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. 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.

Good government begins and ends with transparency and accountability. The same goes for good public university governance.

The General Assembly created the University System of Maryland and its governing Board of Regents in 1988. The laws that govern how the board is selected, operates and is responsible to the public at large haven’t changed in the last three decades. In creating the board, the General Assembly handed over the bulk of the authority and fiduciary responsibility of the majority of Maryland’s higher education institutions to 17 people most of the public doesn’t know. That’s a uniquely American tradition that began with Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia three centuries ago. We’re not arguing that fundamental structure should change. But when the board makes missteps that lead to a breakdown in that public trust, the General Assembly has an obligation to step in.

That’s why we are introducing legislation entitled “University System of Maryland — Board of Regents — Transparency & Oversight.” Our goal is not to reinvent the way we govern higher education in Maryland. Instead, this legislation is meant to improve and restore the public’s trust in the board’s ability to oversee its 12 campuses and serve 175,000 students.

The ideas aren’t new — they’ve been pulled from other states, the community and experts in higher education governance. The bill adds the Secretary of Commerce to the board to better integrate workforce development needs into how we train a large section of Maryland’s workforce. To increase diversity and expertise on the board, the bill requires the governor to appoint at least one member with a background in higher education administration, finance and diversity and workforce inclusion. To strengthen the student voice on the board, the bill adds a second student regent and increases their terms to two years in a staggered fashion, one year nonvoting and the other year voting. This follows the successful model used in the California systems and will give students more time to become oriented to their role and train under an experienced student member.

To increase stability, cooperation and accountability, the bill adds one member each chosen by the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate; requires the governor to submit his or her nominees for confirmation to the Senate together and during the legislative session; and, because the board chair is the leader of a $5.8 billion public institution, would require Senate confirmation of the board’s nominee for chair.

Working with student leaders at the University of Maryland, College Park, and other concerned citizens, we’ve also included a number of measures to increase public input and transparency. The bill will require the board to accept public testimony and to livestream and archive its six public meetings a year. It also requires the board to publish the motions and vote totals of both public meetings and executive sessions — including votes on hiring and firing university presidents and chancellors — in publicly available minutes.

This legislation is not a political power grab, partisan or otherwise. It’s about good governance. Both Democratic and Republican governors have appointed stellar regents, but certain decisions have given us and the general public room to be concerned. A little transparency and accountability will go a long way in re-establishing trust and ensuring Maryland continues to have the best higher education system in the nation.

Sen. Sarah Elfreth (Sarah.Elfreth@Senate.State.md.us) represents District 30 which includes Annapolis and South Anne Arundel County. Sen. Jim Rosapepe ( jim.rosapepe@senate.state.md.us) and Del. Ben Barnes (ben.barnes@house.state.md.us) represent College Park. Both Senators Elfreth and Rosapepe have served on the Board of Regents. All three are Democrats.

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