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UMD needs 'complete rebuilding' of policies in wake of student deaths

The University of Maryland reported three additional cases of adenovirus, one week after a freshman at the school died from complications related to the disease.

As a Terrapin alum, the wife of a current University of Maryland graduate student and the proud parent of an incoming University of Maryland freshman, I have actively followed the University of Maryland’s crises this past year: severe dormitory overcrowding, the wholly preventable death of a student athlete, mold-ridden dorms, an adenovirus outbreak and the potentially preventable death of a student infected by adenovirus. Bad things will inevitably happen on any college campus, but it is deeply disturbing when one of the country’s most prestigious public universities is so reluctant to admit and learn from its past mistakes.

The Washington Post ran a front page report of the University’s response to the adenovirus and mold growth, including a detailed timeline of student Olivia Paregol's unsuccessful struggle with a particularly severe strain of adenovirus.

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Prompted by the publication of that article, University President Wallace Loh sent a letter to current students focused on defending the University’s reaction. It included a link to “compiled information... about adenovirus, mold in residence halls, and other issues.” I followed the link, expecting to see steps being taken to address these crises and prevent future recurrences. Instead, I found a reiteration of the University's defense, containing just two vague sentences concerning future mold remediation.

I was immediately struck by the notion that the University of Maryland is still stuck in the past rather than managing for the future. As horribly tragic as they are, the tangible and intangible costs of past actions and inactions, right or wrong, can unfortunately not be changed. What can change is that the lost lives and other consequences can serve as sobering lessons that help drive a complete rebuilding of University systems, practices, policies and procedures to minimize the likelihood of another University of Maryland family having to suffer a loved one’s needless death.

What would this type of voluntary reform look like? I suggest it should include the following:

  • Formation of a community-based advisory committee comprised jointly of students, parents and alumni to be actively engaged in future operations management, policy creation and crisis management.
  • Publication of specific details for all current mold issues, including exact building locations, types and levels.
  • Distribution of more detailed, dormitory-specific plans for dealing with current and potential mold issues, including operational procedures, timelines, remediation completion testing and periodic future monitoring schedules. (Current plans can be found on the University of Maryland website, but they do not reach the level of detail required for full disclosure and transparency.)
  • Creation and dissemination of clear health management and communication policies that both (1) encourage increased, HIPPA-compliant data sharing by students and off-campus health practitioners with University officials and (2) provide students, faculty and staff with early notification of the confirmed campus presence of potentially life threatening or permanently life altering illnesses.
  • Complete review of all related campus operational and communications policies, through a process that empowers participants to thoroughly overhaul portions as needed.
  • Demonstration of the University of Maryland’s commitment to learn from past incidents and support for a culture of transparency via the incorporation of these incidents as case studies in business management, sports management, civil engineering, public communications, environmental science, journalism, public health and public policy courses.

I greatly appreciate and respect that the University of Maryland may have acted within the letter of the law and definitely sought guidance from both state and county officials. That does not mean the actions taken were in the best interests of the student body, however, especially in hindsight. Rather, the fact that the University of Maryland continually references these talking points indicates that the University places too great an emphasis on limiting its legal and financial liabilities and not enough on fulfilling its duty of care.

Christie Berman can be reached at coms.c@bermanhome.org.

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