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USM report says top leaders were ‘unprepared’ for McNair crisis

USM report says top leaders were ‘unprepared’ for McNair crisis

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Robert Caret in 2014. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)
Robert Caret in 2014. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

The University System of Maryland Board of Regents was “unprepared and ill-equipped” to handle the fallout from the death of a football player, leading to a reputational hit for the system, a review of the system’s governance found.

As part of the board’s failure of crisis leadership, Chancellor Robert Caret’s role was “marginalized” during the system’s response and some of that marginalization may have been due to a “dysfunctional relationship” with the board’s then-chair James Brady, the review said.

The board received Friday the results of the review it commissioned in January into the system’s governance structure following its response to the death of University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair in 2018.

That fallout included Brady’s resignation, the early retirement of University of Maryland, College Park President Wallace Loh, later rescinded, and state legislation passed this year aimed at reforming the board. The episode also led to campus turmoil and widespread dissatisfaction among alumni and faculty.

The announcement of Loh’s retirement, timed with the announcement that then-football coach D.J. Durkin would be reinstated against Loh’s wishes, led to one of the fall’s most tense episodes when faculty, staff, students and fundraisers expressed concern about whether the board was overstepping the bounds of its shared governance of the university.

This month, Loh told the university’s Senate that a standard of the university’s accreditation had been violated because the independence of the university was questioned, the Diamondback reported.

The board asked the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges to conduct the review of the system’s governance structure operations. Regents said it was a review that could be done regularly, but that it became clear that the review was necessary after the events of last fall.

The review was led by the association’s president, Rick Legon. The review team included Terrence Taggert, the former chancellor of the Minnesota State University System and the University of Maine System, and Kevin P. Reilly, president emeritus of the University of Wisconsin System.

As part of its report, the AGB team interviewed more than 50 stakeholders including the regents, the system’s university presidents, state legislators, including Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Bush, Gov. Larry Hogan’s chief of staff, university and system staff and others.

The report includes recommendations on improving board leadership, system cohesiveness and system transparency.

Legon, Reilly and Taggert presented their findings to the full board at its regularly scheduled meeting Friday at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Their top-line takeaway was that while the system maintains a strong standing in the academic world and around the state, its reputation took a hit during the fallout from McNair’s death.

“We heard consistent support and urgings that the system and the board must consider an active strategy to reconnect to multiple communities across the state in order to rebuild trust and confidence,” the report said. “This might have been the most essential message we heard from many with whom we met.”

Caret is another figure whose reputation may have suffered during the fallout from McNair’s death.

Brady served as the system’s most visible public-facing spokesman during last summer and fall. The AGB review interviewed some people who said that Brady’s visibility and Caret’s marginalization may have been due to the pair’s “dysfunctional” relationship.

“We were told that his relationship with the former chair was best described as dysfunctional, and that some lingering, residual effects from that relationship have spilled over to relations with the current board,” the report said. “Some interviewees felt that the chancellor was marginalized during the tragedy and its aftermath.”

The report also noted that Caret’s reputation has been further hurt by “relatively minor gaffes,” possibly referring to a report that he promoted Pandora jewelry to university heads in other states.

But Friday, Taggert said Caret’s national reputation remains strong.

“I’ve happened to know him well for a number of years,” he said. “He is one of the strongest chancellors in the country and widely respected.”

Many regents asked the reviewers questions about broader governance issues, including whether the system’s bylaws were adequate and how to achieve “systemness” without being heavy-handed with member universities.

But Isiah “Ike” Leggett, the former Montgomery County executive who was attending his first meeting as a member of the board, worried that the reputational damage to the system was being understated.

“It is an understatement in saying that we took a hit related to the death of a young man at the University of Maryland,” he said.

At the same time Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, wondered whether there might be an urge to react too strongly to one incident.

“We know that we can handle things better in the future, but I think it’s important to be able to say there is a level of strength in the board right now, working with the presidents and the chancellor, and with the legislature and the governor, that we can build on as a foundation. That we can work to be better of course,” he said. “These were particular incidents and we need to put that in the context here as we talk about who we are.”

Legon said that problems from the fall were an opportunity for the board and the system.

“Sometimes it takes an incident to demonstrate where there are risks in governance and holes in governance,” he said. “I think what the report suggests is that while the incident was an explosive one and there’s a lot of disagreement to how the board engaged and didn’t engage and we’ve all shared our views on that, I think it did point out that governance needs to be better and never waste a crisis.”

In particular, Legon emphasized to the board the need to develop crisis leadership rather than just crisis management. He compared crisis management to plugging the holes in a leaking ship, the actions that need to happen during a crisis.

But crisis leadership “is a well thought-out plan” that leaders have already thought about before a crisis happens, he said.


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