After Jordan McNair case, more tranparency needed at the Board of Regents

The aftermath of Jordan McNair’s tragic death during a University of Maryland football practice last year exposed a University System Board of Regents that operated like a secret club, making key decisions behind closed doors and having accountability to almost no one but themselves.

So out of touch and insular was the 17-member board that they were oblivious to vehement reaction by students, donors and lawmakers that would come after deciding to keep University of Maryland head football coach DJ Durkin, the man at the helm of what was revealed to be a toxic football program. It made one wonder if they were talking about the same case as everyone else and if they had forgotten a young man had died.

A botched and mishandled investigation into the incident did nothing to build good will and in fact resulted in animosity toward the board and national embarrassment to the university.

While the board did many things to make amends, including issuing an apology and replacing its chair, an image problem still persists, and the board needs to do something to restore it reputation and rebuild trust with the public.

Legislation sponsored by state Del. Ben Barnes of Prince George’s County and Sen. Sarah Elfreth of Anne Arundel County would go a long way in doing this by making the board more transparent and bringing more accountability to their decisions. The measure passed the House of Delegates 137-0 today, and we urge the Senate to follow suit.

It’s not too much to ask a public board accountable to taxpayers to do what the bill would require: live stream meetings on the internet, record all votes and motions and accept comments from the public. It’s mind-boggling that this wasn’t general practice already.

The legislation also calls for the board to hold any votes related to termination of university presidents or the chancellor in open session. They could still discuss such matters behind closed doors, just as say a City Council would do, but the public has a right to know where each board member stands on something that important.

Critics argue the public wouldn’t have the context to understand why votes were cast a certain way and that members might be reluctant to vote honestly in fear of public retribution. But if board members are making decisions for the right reasons, they should have no problem sharing them.

The lawmakers modeled the requirements after rules at other universities. If other institutions can be transparent, we don’t see why the Board of Regents can’t as well.

Also under the legislation, four new members would be added to the board, including a second student regent. We appreciate the concern that a board that large might become unwieldy, but the benefit of more perspectives outweighs it. Perhaps, the regents would have been more attuned to the anger students felt about McNair’s death and the emphasis the school was putting on athletics had there been more voices on the board, particularly from the 175,000 students it is supposed to represent.

The Senate president and speaker of the House of Delegates would also appoint two members, and the chair of the board would need the approval of the Senate. Currently, the governor appoints all board members, and it has been considered a plum patronage position. (Former chairman Jim Brady was a longtime booster of Gov. Larry Hogan, serving as a former campaign chairman and confidant, though even Mr. Hogan questioned the handling of the case and demanded the regents reconsider their decision.) The Senate president and House speaker could make politically-motivated appointments, too, but at least there would be some opportunity for checks and balances. And more scrutiny on the chair can’t hurt either.

We’re encouraged to see that the Board of Regents itself seems to have learned from its mistakes and the chaos that erupted around its handling of McNair’s death, and is pushing to change its practices. Linda Gooden, the new chairwoman, testified in favor of the legislation.

If the board had humbled itself in the first place, they might be in a different situation today.

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