Recent examples, and an historic precedent from its own past, indicate the University of Maryland can move past a week that has led to questions about the university’s leadership and governance.
But the university should be prepared for the fallout from the death of football player Jordan McNair to become a part of its history and culture, similar to the legacy of former Terp basketball player Len Bias, the victim of a fatal drug overdose, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education.
“I don’t want to imply these issues go away,” he said. “What’s happened, as was the case with Len Bias, will be a part of the university’s history and culture. The institution will need to acknowledge how it came up short in this area.”
The week began Tuesday, nearly five months after McNair’s death, when the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents announced what actions it would be taking after having received two reports it commissioned — a medical report looking at what led to McNair’s on-field collapse at a practice in late May and a second investigation into a bombshell ESPN report alleging a toxic culture within the football program.
James Brady, the board’s chair, announced that football coach DJ Durkin and athletic director Damon Evans would keep their jobs. The university’s president, Wallace Loh, would retire in June after disagreeing with the board’s recommendation to keep Durkin.
That kicked off the first wave of backlash, as national headlines, sports talk shows, local politicians and community leaders, student groups and members of the football team questioned how Durkin could be allowed to return.
The next day Loh fired Durkin, going against the recommendations of the regents and creating another day of media and political attention as controversy became an issue in the governor’s race.
But it also raised serious questions about the board’s interference with the College Park campus. The board only has the authority to hire and fire campus presidents, but many felt it had pushed too far into campus affairs with its recommendations.
Those who took issue included university fundraisers who questioned whether a ‘fatal blow’ had been dealt to the school’s $1.5 billion capital campaign and academic leaders saying the board’s actions could affect the school’s accreditation.
Brady resigned from the Board of Regents late Thursday afternoon.
As the University of Maryland plots a course forward, it will have some precedent at other large universities to learn from, Hartle said, including Penn State University and Michigan State University.
“Any university that has a crisis that lands them on the front page of the nation’s newspapers … has a good reason to be concerned about fundraising and student applications,” he said. “The evidence is pretty clear that institutions may see a short-term downturn but that it will not affect the institution in the long run.”
He thinks that downturn could be particularly true in athletic fundraising, but that because of the university’s prominence within the state applications for admission may not see a hit.
At Penn State, the child sex abuse scandal surrounding former football coach Jerry Sandusky took down the university’s football coach and president. But the university has bounced back.
“Penn State moved very aggressively to recognize the culture that existed in the football program and the need for changes,” Hartle said.
Michigan State still finds itself grappling with the fallout from the conviction of Dr. Larry Nasser, an associate professor and sports physician at the school who admitted in court to sexually abusing scores of young women athletes.
As of press time, Loh had not given any indication he plans to reverse his retirement decision, despite calls from some corners for him to do so. His final months as president may give him the opportunity to institute the reforms the university needs that a new president would find difficult to execute, Hartle said.
The process that led to this point for the university has been filled with calls for greater transparency, but finding Loh’s successor may require the opposite, Hartle added.
“This is a case where being able to talk to people confidentially is very desirable,” he said. “The best candidates are going to want to be able to explore this without having their names made public.”