Update: The University of Maryland fired football coach DJ Durkin Wednesday evening after 24 hours of backlash against the Board of Regents’ recommendation
that Durkin be reinstated.
It came after the campus community, local politicians including Gov. Larry Hogan, and local and national media criticized the regents decision to keep Durkin and athletic director Damon Evans while apparently nudging President Wallace Loh into retirement next year.
In a letter to the University of Maryland community, Loh said the backlash on campus led him to reject the regents’ recommendation that he keep Durkin.
“Since returning to campus after yesterday’s press conference, I have met with the leadership of the Student Government Association speaking on behalf of numerous student organizations; the Senate Executive Committee; Deans; department chairs; and campus leadership,” Loh wrote in that letter. “The overwhelming majority of stakeholders expressed serious concerns about Coach DJ Durkin returning to the campus.
“The chair of the Board of Regents has publicly acknowledged that I had previously raised serious concerns about Coach Durkin’s return. This is not at all a reflection of my opinion of Coach Durkin as a person. However, a departure is in the best interest of the University, and this afternoon Coach Durkin was informed that the University will part ways.”
Loh also indicated that he will keep with his plan to retire next year, saying he will devote the remaining months of his presidency to reforming the athletic department.
The decision followed a day of fiery reaction against the Board of Regents decision from all corners of campus, including students, faculty and staff.
Faculty and staff also took the time to commend Loh’s leadership at the university during a time where he was a prolific fundraiser and worked to deepen ties with the campus’s College Park and Prince George’s County communities.
Much of the opposition is to Loh’s retirement, reportedly over the University System of Maryland Board of Regents’ insistence that he not fire Durkin over a football program that a commission found “fostered a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.”
The commission report was one of two requested by Loh and taken over by the Board of Regents after the death of football player Jordan McNair following a May practice.
James Brady, the board’s chair, has defended the recommendation to keep Durkin and athletic director Damon Evans despite evidence of dysfunction within the department’s leadership.
Chancellor Robert Caret has not spoken publicly about the report since it came out last week and has not spoken about the decisions of the Board of Regents.
Students had planned to rally in front of the university’s main library Thursday. It’s unclear whether Loh’s decision to dismiss Durkin will change that.
Campus faculty also took issue with the way Loh’s retirement came about and a perceived interference in the campus by the Board of Regents, which only has the direct authority to hire or fire a university president.
“I do believe that there is a broader concern here about the model of campus governance and what it means about the Board of Regents and what they are willing to do with campus decisions that are being made,” Jack Blanchard, a professor in the psychology department said. Blanchard also serves as chair of the faculty affairs committee of the University Senate, but said he was speaking only for himself.
“When I’ve spoken to staff and faculty here in the department, my sense is that there is confusion about the final decision and especially the loss of our campus president,” he said.
Blanchard was also worried that the regents’ decisions would blow back on a university that was not involved in the decision-making process.
“I hope that people understand that this was not the decision of the University of Maryland, College Park,” he wrote in an email. “This was the unilateral decision of the Board of Regents that was forced on our campus (at the expense of our President). … I fear that the Regents’ have made an ill-informed choice that rather than leading to healing will result in even more hurt and turmoil.”
Blanchard is not alone in questioning the board’s decision. Politicians at the state and federal level have been critical. Next month, the state legislature will hold a hearing, asking the board to explain that process.
Among the reasons for the political outrage were Loh’s efforts to strengthen ties with the community, including the redevelopment of Route One in College Park, and a significant uptick in fundraising.
Last year, the university announced a $219 million gift from the A. James and Alice B. Clark Foundation, among the largest ever to a public university.
Another notable gift was Brendan Iribe’s $31 million gift, mostly to support a new computer science building on campus. At the time, it was the largest contribution in school history.
“President Loh was very very focused on fundraising and external relationships,” said Brian Darmody, the university’s associate vice president for corporate and foundation relations “I think his message was one of community and strong support for research and engaging.”
Giving under Loh improved beyond financial contributions, Darmody added. He also encouraged people to get involved with their time and skills.
A lot of that can be seen in the strengthening of the university’s ties with College Park. Among Loh’s efforts to extend the campus beyond its physical borders, he also spearheaded the effort to build a charter school, College Park Academy, where he led the board.
(The charter academy’s) academic record has been pretty amazing,” Darmody said. “He spent a lot of time on that and fundraising for that. Was that tens of millions of dollars, no. But I think people appreciated that kind of effort.”
The next president will also be able to reap the rewards of some of the seeds Loh planted, Darmody said.
That includes the construction of the light rail Purple Line that will connect the campus directly to Montgomery County in the west and the rest of the Metro system to the east.
“This is going to be a really attractive place for the next president to build alliances with alumni, continue to bring more companies here,” Darmody said. “A lot of the seeds President Loh planted still haven’t grown, but will grow.”