With Loh, Durkin debacle, regents do incalculable damage to the University of Maryland

The series of events that led to DJ Durkin’s return to the sidelines as the University of Maryland’s football coach and the announced retirement of the school’s president, Wallace Loh, are nothing short of a disgrace. Members of the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents can insist all they want that academics, not football, are the most important considersation where the state’s flagship university are concerned, but their actions send precisely the opposite message. In fact, what they have just conveyed to all those who attend the school and their parents, UM alumni and donors is that nothing — not a president who raised the school’s academic profile (and $1.4 billion) and not even the completely avoidable death of a young man — is more important than the football coach.

University of Maryland president fires football coach DJ Durkin »

We say this not to come to Mr. Loh’s defense. Had he been fired over the dysfunction in the athletic department that led to Jordan McNair’s death, we would have considered that entirely justified. Whether a “toxic culture” existed in the football program or not, there is plenty of evidence of infighting and blurred lines of authority within the athletic department, an atmosphere in which abusive practices went unchecked and basic precautions that could have saved McNair’s life weren’t taken. Mr. Loh may not have been aware of any of that, but it is nonetheless his responsibility.

There is no question, however, that Athletic Director Damon Evans and Mr. Durkin should have known of the problems and should be held responsible. We don’t know what Mr. Durkin told the regents when he met with them last week, but their full-throated backing of him afterward is nothing short of astonishing given the evidence uncovered in a report they commissioned of verbal and physical abuse of players. The report may have stopped short of saying the problems in the department caused McNair’s death, but in a functional football program that took proper precautions to protect its players, he would be alive. The coach clearly bears responsibility for that. No matter how credible he may have seemed to the regents, there’s no escaping that fact.

Yet the regents insisted that Mr. Durkin must return to the sidelines immediately, whether Mr. Loh likes it or not. Regents Chairman James Brady said in an interview with The Sun’s editorial board that the regents were convinced that Messrs. Evans and Durkin were capable of making sure “that the values of the University of Maryland are recognized and followed through on.” By that, he says he means “respect for other human beings and dealing with people in a manner reflective of that respect.” But anyone looking at it from the outside could be excused for concluding that the values at hand center on winning football games above all else.

Beyond the moral questions posed by the regents’ actions in light of McNair’s death, the board has created a dynamic in which the state’s flagship university will be ungovernable. Mr. Loh reportedly argued for Mr. Durkin to be replaced, and the board responded by intimating that if he wouldn’t reinstate the coach, they would find a president who would. With that, the regents made clear that they, not the campus president, are in charge — a clear violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the rules governing Maryland’s public universities. Any higher education leader with a modicum of sense wouldn’t come within a mile of applying to be Mr. Loh’s successor, and that has implications far more important than the football program.

The University of Maryland is one of the most important economic engines of the state; it is responsible for producing much of the highly educated population that is Maryland’s chief competitive edge. Winning football games might make some boosters happy, but churning out computer science majors, biomedical researchers and engineers is what drives the state forward. But with their interference in this case, the regents have shown that their priorities are precisely backward.

The board met multiple times, reviewed two separate reports and deliberated for hours. They didn’t arrive at this decision lightly, which makes it all the more baffling that they could wind up with an outcome so diametrically contrary to their mission to safeguard Maryland’s higher education system.

At the risk of politicizing something that shouldn’t be, we have to agree with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous: If the regents won’t reverse course, Gov. Larry Hogan needs to step in and demand that they do. We would go a step further and say he should call for them to resign if they don’t. Mr. Hogan clearly isn’t thrilled with this outcome, having issued a statement in which he questioned “whether enough has been done to address the serious concerns that exist among many in the College Park community.” But he needs to recognize that the regents have not only failed to resolve the concerns related to McNair’s death, they have magnified them. Ultimately, someone needs to make clear to the university, the state and the rest of the country that the regents’ actions do not reflect our values or our priorities, and the governor is the only one who can do it.

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