Laslo Boyd: Individual Tragedy Becomes Institutional Failure

Just-fired University of Maryland football coach DJ Durkin.

At the end of a chaotic day Wednesday, DJ Durkin is out as the University of Maryland’s football coach; Gov. Larry Hogan has sharply criticized the actions of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents despite having appointed most of them, and the public outcry over how the university handled the death of football player Jordan McNair keeps growing louder.

Athletics triumphed over academics on Tuesday when the Board of Regents told College Park President Wallace Loh that he would be fired immediately if he removed Durkin from his job. The Regents have from their first intervention mishandled the tragedy of Jordan McNair’s death last June after he collapsed during football practice in late May.  

Their action earlier this week — after months of dithering — will do lasting damage to a university that has climbed in national stature over the past three decades. It’s not an exaggeration to describe the board’s handling of the McNair tragedy as malpractice. How could a group of highly successful individuals sitting on the most prestigious board in the State of Maryland have gotten it so wrong?

This is a hard column for me to write. As a member of Gov. William Donald Schaefer’s office when the University System of Maryland was created by legislation in 1988, I have closely watched the enormous strides that public higher education has made in the years since. I have known all the presidents of the College Park campus and have admired the skill as well as the varying styles with which they have advanced the flagship institution.

Laslo V. Boyd
Laslo Boyd

I have also seen individuals come and go from the Board of Regents. While they have differed in perspectives, they have always cared for the best interests of the institutions under their charge.

There will be endless rumors, spinning and leaks about the dynamics of this board’s decision-making process. While you can certainly focus on the complexity of the issues involved, that’s not necessary. Sometimes the most obvious explanations are the most accurate.

A football player died in practice. Determining what happened that day was the first responsibility of the university. The second was to examine the broader context—the culture—of the way in which the football program operated. Those assessments were made pretty quickly. In response, President Loh, on Aug. 14, concluded that College Park was “morally and legally” responsible for McNair’s death.

That announcement, seen by some as a rare act of moral courage, was denounced by others as jeopardizing the university’s financial exposure. Three days later, the Board of Regents announced that it was taking over the investigation from the campus.

That action was a critical link in a chain of missteps. First, it was an entirely inappropriate role for a system governing board to decide to manage the internal affairs of an individual campus. Setting policy on athletics matters is within its purview; getting involved in personnel decisions and inquiries is not.  

It appears that the board did not understand until relatively late in its process that it didn’t actually have the authority to fire or to discipline the football coach or the athletic director.  And, when the board made those decisions the condition for the president to retain his job, the board clearly overstepped its authority. That is an ominous and dangerous precedent.

But even this discussion is a bit esoteric. A player died while under the supervision of the football coach and the athletic department. Why the coach and the athletic director weren’t held directly accountable and fired a long time ago will seem like a mystery to most outside observers. The case made by the regents for retaining them is far from convincing and seems like another instance of big money athletics being given more importance than the basic educational mission of the university.

Should Wallace Loh have fired the two of them months ago? Perhaps, but once the Regents took over the investigation, that was no longer an option. No one is flawless in this tragedy, but Loh certainly comes out looking much better than the other participants. Even though he announced Tuesday that he’ll retire in June, Loh did finally fire Durkin late Wednesday, contravening the Regents’ wishes.

Two officials who might have played a significant role were largely missing in action.  System Chancellor Bob Caret doesn’t seem to have influenced the discussions in any meaningful way. It’s hard to imagine former Chancellor Brit Kirwan being that passive. Similarly, Hogan, who appointed most of the members of the Board of Regents, seems to have been primarily interested in not having the controversy spill over into the gubernatorial election. Neither stands out for their leadership in this tragedy.

The public reaction to the board’s decision has been overwhelmingly negative, from campus protests, to local and national commentary, to reactions from other universities.  There were apparently real divisions between Regents as the process unfolded, but they must all bear a collective responsibility for the outcome. Repairing the damage that has been done will not be easy or come quickly. And that doesn’t even address the pain and shock that Jordan McNair’s family must be feeling.

Laslo Boyd is a political columnist and higher education consultant.

 

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