UMD President Wallace Loh has fired football coach DJ Durkin, a university spokeswoman confirmed, one day after he was reinstated by the Board of Regents. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun video)
Big donors are threatening to bring the University of Maryland’s $1.5 billion fundraising campaign to a halt. Faculty and deans are worried about the future of academic freedom on campus. Students are protesting. An “altercation” between members of the football team broke out at practice Tuesday. And that may prove only the beginning of the damage wrought by the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents’ decisions this week that led to the brief reinstatement of football coach DJ Durkin despite the death last spring of offensive lineman Jordan McNair and the announced retirement of UM President Wallace Loh. The stunning news Wednesday that Mr. Loh had decided to fire Mr. Durkin anyway and the resignation Thursday of University System of Maryland Board of Regents Chairman James Brady may have stemmed the bleeding, but we are still a long way from restoring the school’s reputation or public trust in the governance of Maryland’s system of public universities.
The heart of this story is a tragedy — the completely avoidable death of a young man. Mr. Durkin’s firing doesn’t compensate for a team culture in which McNair was pushed to the point of heat stroke or a dysfunctional athletic department that wasn’t prepared to respond to his collapse. And this week’s events indicate that the problems at College Park extend far beyond the athletic department. The regents’ actions sent a message to the country that all the effort and investment that has been poured into elevating Maryland into the top ranks of public universities was a sham and that those governing the system exhibit a profound moral bankruptcy. Fixing that now becomes the top priority of Maryland’s leaders. Here’s what we need to do:
Mr. Brady’s resignation is an important symbolic step, but it does not erase the stain on the regents. The remaining members of the board, all 16 of them, need to explain how they voted in the matter of Mr. Durkin and why. We know the vote was not unanimous. Those who objected privately need to do so publicly. We need to know that there are people with a modicum of common sense running our university system. And those who advocated for the decision (other than Mr. Brady, who has been voluble on the matter) need to make clear whether they recognize that they just made an abominable mistake and to explain how they came to it. We suspect that after the near universal condemnation of the Durkin decision, there are others on the board who must now realize that they have failed in their duty to safeguard the University System and do not represent the interests, views and priorities of the state. Anyone who continues to believe the board did the right thing should now resign as well.
The regents need to heed the call of the University of Maryland College Park Foundation and make a public statement reaffirming the principle “that the governing body’s role is limited to setting policy, appointing a president and holding him/her accountable, and that presidents have full authority to manage their institutions, including personnel decisions.” Without that, we will have difficulty recruiting quality presidents or lower-level staff.
The University System also needs to consider the relationship between the regents and the athletics department at College Park. Is the VIP treatment they get at games breeding an unhealthy closeness to that school's sports program? More broadly, are the regents’ too College Park-centric? At least seven of the 17 members are UM alumni.
Finally, we need further consideration of Mr. Loh’s future at College Park. Outside of the McNair family, he emerged as the most sympathetic figure in this drama, but he bears ultimate responsibility for an athletics department riven by infighting, poor communication and, by some accounts of the football team, a culture of bullying and intimidation. As Governor Hogan observed Thursday, Mr. Loh could have fired Mr. Durkin months ago but did not. Why? Mr. Loh was also a driving force behind the university’s move from the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Big 10, a move that may have had its most profound impact on the football team. Was that the right decision, and did he do what was necessary to prepare the athletics department for the change? We need an open, transparent process to determine whether he should stay or go.