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Laslo Boyd: Three shades of irony – the politics of Towson athletics

For the past few weeks, there have been numerous articles in the press about President Maravene Loeschke’s decision to eliminate two men’s sports at Towson University and about the involvement of two of the state’s top elected officials in the debate about the decision.

The surrealistic nature of this controversy is most evident when you consider three ironies that are at its core.

Let’s start with the first of three ironies: The individual who had the greatest personal impact in the selection of Maravene Loeschke as president of Towson University in 2011 is David Nevins, a member of the presidential search committee. He is also a former member of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents and a long-time insider and figure of influence at Towson University.

Shortly after Loeschke become president, she picked Nevins to chair the university’s Board of Visitors. Then, last fall, she named him to chair a task force charged with evaluating recommendations of Athletic Director Mike Waddell to eliminate men’s baseball and soccer.

The task force, in a one-page report, endorsed Waddell’s recommendations, albeit not unanimously. Nevins signed the report, but since then has been one of a number of individuals actively opposing the recommendations. Given this basic conflict between Nevins and Loeschke, you have to wonder why he hasn’t resigned as chair of her Board of Visitors.

That gets us to the second irony: Nevins, along with Gary and Mike Gill, has been pushing for years to upgrade the quality and competitiveness of Towson athletics. They have even been seen by observers as having significant influence on some key personnel decisions. The example most frequently cited was their enthusiastic backing of Pat Kennedy to be men’s basketball coach, a selection that turned out to be a total disaster both competitively and in terms of academic performance of the team members.

Gary and Mike Gill have been especially outspoken in their opposition to the decision to cut two teams and have been frequently quoted in the press. These three amigos have inaccurately challenged the university’s assessment of its Title IX responsibilities and have failed to provide financial alternatives to the decision that Loeschke has made.

They have, moreover, attacked Mike Waddell for not going along with their “vision” of the future of Towson athletics. It should be noted that under his leadership, the football program, after seasons of 2-9 and 1-10, has had back-to-back records of 9-3 and 7-4. Similarly, the basketball program under Waddell-hire Pat Skerry has gone from the worst in the nation to 18-13, the biggest turnaround in one year in NCAA history. In other words, these “supporters” of athletics have, ironically, gotten in the way of success rather than being contributors to it.

As strange as these two ironies are, the third may be even more bizarre. Two politicians who should know better have made ill-advised statements about the Towson athletics decisions. Gov. Martin O’Malley allowed himself to be moved by Comptroller Peter Franchot’s criticism at a Board of Public Works meeting to also raise questions about what was going on at Towson.

O’Malley followed up on that mistake by a public policy misstep of the first order. He inserted money in a supplemental budget, contrary to long-time state budget practices, to temporarily bailout the Towson baseball program. You do have to wonder who O’Malley has been listening to with respect to this issue. Showing that he can’t quite let go, last week he suggested that Towson create a Title IX task force to further study an issue that university lawyers, outside consultants, and Regents and USM staff have all carefully examined.

Still, first prize for bad judgment in this affair has to go to Peter Franchot. If you didn’t know better, you might think that he had changed his mind about not running for governor, given this delving into an issue so far outside his concerns.

The comptroller, during a radio interview, opined that Title IX was just an excuse for the cuts the university was planning. Title IX rules are complicated and even ambiguous, but people much more knowledgeable about them than Franchot have concluded that Towson may face legal exposure unless it takes remedial actions.

Franchot has also decided that it is his business to make recommendations on personnel at Towson and thinks that Waddell should be fired because there has obviously been financial mismanagement of the program. That’s another example of the comptroller making comments without knowledge of the subject and contrasts sharply with his silence about the much larger deficits in the University of Maryland athletic budget.

Waddell, knowing that additional state resources will not be provided, knowing that the history of fundraising for Towson athletics has been anemic, and not being willing to advocate another increase in student fees, is trying to figure out how to make the optimal use of existing resources, be as competitive as possible in the sports that Towson plays, and make sure that the university is fully compliant with Title IX. Sounds like good management to me.

You would think that the comptroller of Maryland would have more appropriate things to do than meddle in a decision about who should be the athletic director at a state university.

Laslo Boyd writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. He has held senior positions in higher education in Maryland and Massachusetts as well in the governor’s office here. He is the managing partner of Mellenbrook Policy Advisors and can be contacted at lvboyd@gmail.com.