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Education Government & Politics

University of Maryland Uproar: Is This the October Surprise?

University of Maryland students hold a moment of silence Thursday for football player Jordan McNair, who died earlier this year after an intense practice. Photo by Albane Guichard/Capital News Service.

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan’s close ties to the University System of Maryland — a body now in full public meltdown following the resignation of Board of Regents chairman James T. Brady — is proving to be a nettlesome distraction for a governor who otherwise appears to be on cruise control in his bid for a second term.

Brady resigned at a closed-door meeting of the board on Thursday, citing a desire not to be a “distraction” as the University of Maryland, College Park continues to grapple with the post-practice death of football player Jordan McNair, an offensive lineman from Randallstown who collapsed in May and died two weeks later.

In a statement, Brady noted the achievements the system has made in recent years, and he praised his colleagues for their handling of the controversy.

“I respect the many people – including elected leaders, members of the public and members of the board – who disagreed with the recommendations a majority of this board ultimately made,” Brady wrote.

“These were difficult decisions, based on information included in reports stemming from two investigations and a great deal of thought and deliberation.”

The controversy over McNair’s death came to a head this week when the Regents recommended reinstating football coach DJ Durkin and Athletic Director Damon Evans, who had been suspended in the wake of the scandal in mid-August. University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh followed the board’s recommendations on Tuesday but simultaneously announced that he would retire in June, in apparent protest. Following an outcry across the state, Loh decided to fire Durkin on Wednesday.

By law, the Board of Regents operates independently. The 17-member panel is selected by the governor, whose nominees must be confirmed by the state Senate, long controlled by Democrats.

But in turning to Brady to serve as chairman, Hogan tapped one of his closest and most trusted allies — a longtime Annapolis insider who had served governors of both parties, chaired Hogan’s 2014 campaign and was co-chairman of his transition team following the Republican’s upset victory.

Hogan has other close allies on the board. Former state Sen. Robert R. Neall, a former senior adviser to Hogan who now serves as secretary of the Department of Health, also serves on the panel, alongside Louis Pope, former chairman of the state Republican Party and a former vice-chairman of the Republican National Committee. Another member of Hogan’s cabinet, Agriculture Secretary Joseph Bartenfelder, is also a regent.

In addition, Hogan’s brother Patrick, a former state delegate from Frederick County, was chosen just months into the governor’s term to serve as the university system’s vice chancellor for government relations — its chief lobbyist.

So, when the crisis surrounding the university flared publicly this week, drawing national media scrutiny, Hogan could rightly call attention to the university’s independence from state government.

But his close ties to the most powerful people in the system — and the fact that he has appointed a majority of the Board of Regents — meant he had no way to avoid direct engagement in a raging controversy less than a week before Election Day.

“They were trying to play this cautiously,” said one close observer who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

“They were going by their traditional playbook of standing back and then intervening when things go poorly and looking like they’re saving the day.”

Hogan’s struggle to balance respect for the university system’s independence with a need to show leadership in a crisis was on display during a 48-hour period during which he made a series of public statements, each one building upon the one before.

On Tuesday, Hogan issued a written statement that said in part: “Many will understandably question whether enough has been done to address the serious concerns that exist among many in the College Park community — I am one of them.”

Shortly thereafter, several prominent Democrats — including gubernatorial hopeful Benjamin T. Jealous and U.S. Rep. Anthony G. Brown, Hogan’s opponent four years ago — issued statements that slammed the Board of Regents in vigorous terms.

After that, Hogan took the board to task with more forcefulness.

“I am deeply troubled by the lack of transparency from the Board of Regents, and deeply concerned about how they could have possibly arrived at the decisions announced yesterday,” he said on Wednesday.

“I share the concerns of many Marylanders and believe very strongly that more must be done to restore the public trust. I am calling on both the University System of Maryland Board of Regents and President Wallace Loh to reconsider their decisions and to schedule a public hearing to address these issues in an open and transparent manner.”

Hogan concluded: “The University System of Maryland has let down the University of Maryland community and the citizens of Maryland, and now is the time to fix it.”

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun in Baltimore on Thursday morning, before the meeting at which Brady resigned, Hogan said, “I was shocked and disappointed by the decision of the Regents. I have no idea how they arrived at their recommendations.”

He said he was “glad” that Loh “finally took some action.”

Hogan also called for “public hearings to get to the bottom of this. … The last thing we’re gonna do is try to politicize the process four days before an election and try to play politics, as some people are trying to do.” He did not identify the individuals to whom he was referring.

After Brady resigned, Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chassé released a brief statement thanking Brady for his service.

“The governor believes that the university system must move forward in an open and transparent manner to restore public trust in Maryland’s flagship university,” she said.

A close observer of state politics characterized the governor’s evolving statements this way:

“People may not have paid much attention to [Jealous’ statement], but I’m sure that Hogan and his campaign staff were paying a lot of attention.”

“The Hogan people must have thought, ‘Oh shit, we gotta get on top of this. The entire state is united around Wallace Loh and we’re tied to Brady.’”

Repair work needed

Brady’s resignation is unlikely to quell the controversy surrounding the board’s apparent decision to force Loh to reinstate Durkin and Evans. That decision was so unpopular with students, alumni, commentators and political leaders that Loh quickly fired Durkin, risking retaliatory action by the board in the process.

It was Durkin who hired strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, a man at the center of serious allegations that the Maryland football program’s culture was “toxic.” And there are unanswered questions about whether team trainers used state of the art techniques in responding to McNair when he collapsed after running wind sprints. Or whether emergency care was summoned in a timely manner.

Evans, as AD, supervises the entire department.

“How could a group of highly successful individuals, sitting on the most prestigious board in the state of Maryland, have gotten it so wrong,” Laslo Boyd, a former acting state secretary of Higher Education wrote this week in a Maryland Matters op-ed.

“Athletics triumphed over academics.”

Interviews with half a dozen people with knowledge of how the institution operates shed some light on how the Regents could have made a decision that would spark student protests, draw condemnation of politicians of all stripes and lead to the resignation of its chairman.

This much seems clear:

— Board members operated in a bubble, somewhat oblivious to outside — particularly student — opinion and were blindsided by the public’s reaction to their decisions.

— A significant faction on the board “loved” Durkin, a source said, and wanted him back, believing he held the key to the football program’s resurgence after years of mediocrity.

— Brady and others harbored negative feelings about Loh because of his decision to change the name of Byrd Stadium to Maryland Stadium, in response to student protests.

According to one account, the board considered a “Saturday Night Massacre” – a Nixon-era reference – giving Loh the boot if he failed to rehire Durkin, then appointing an interim successor who would agree to do so. It wasn’t necessary. Loh, deciding not to cause additional turmoil to an institution that has already seen its reputation tarnished, decided to do the deed himself.

For a few brief moments, Durkin was back in charge, preparing his team to take on Michigan State at home on Saturday.

When public uproar ensued, and members of Congress and other political leaders immediately urged Loh to reconsider his decision to retire, he then decided he had enough public good will to re-fire the coach, knowing he risked the ire of the Regents by doing so.

A source with insight thinks it is likely that Loh will decide to remain at Maryland beyond his announced June 30 retirement date.

Remaining Regents Face Scrutiny

Given Hogan’s call for public hearings and the unease among students, the board has challenges ahead of it given the decisions widely perceived as missteps.

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education is reportedly reviewing the university’s standing, a move that risks the ability of students to receive financial aid.

A backup punter was reportedly punched in the face by a teammate on Thursday, requiring stitches and suffering a dislocated shoulder. The attack was said to have come from a belief that the punter had been a whistleblower following mistreatment by coaches.

And a group entrusted with raising funds for the school said the board’s actions may have dealt a “fatal blow” to efforts to raise $1.5 billion.

Geoff Gonella, chairman of the University of Maryland College Park Foundation Board of Trustees, wrote in a letter to the regents board chairman before Brady resigned that the Regents’ action “may have dealt our efforts a fatal blow.”

The board had undermined “the authority of the campus leadership” and violated “the integrity of shared governance principles, including autonomy and independence,” he said.

The board’s move also “has caused serious damage to the reputation of the Board of Regents and to all of Maryland higher education,” Gonella wrote. “The board’s actions will seriously harm the ability of all Maryland campuses to recruit future presidents and faculty if this is the governance climate they will face.”

The university’s provost, Mary Ann Rankin, and deans from every academic department released a joint statement Thursday morning, charging that the board overstepped its authority in recommending Loh keep the head coach.

“There was no excuse for them not to have a well-thought-out decision,” said Del. Dereck Davis (D-Prince George’s), a University of Maryland graduate.

“I am a sports-loving guy, but it just seems to me that athletics and the desires of boosters outweighed any moral or ethical obligations that the regents should have shown towards the university.”

He added, “Dr. Loh, being sacrificed, that says a lot about the values of college athletics over its core mission of educating students. … It’s just disappointing all the way around.”

Dozens of students held a “Justice for Jordan” rally on campus Thursday to express their anger toward the regents. Many expressed ambivalence about the football program and some suggested boycotting games for the rest of the season.

“We are not in opposition to the football team,” said junior Alice Smith. “We do not hate those people, we know they are students too. But we want to see change for them. We want things to get better for them. And I do not think going to the games is going to help.”

Political Ramifications

Hogan’s attempts to keep politics out of the current discussion fell on deaf ears Thursday. This controversy clearly was not the “October Surprise” he might have expected – especially since it was caused, at least to a degree, by his allies on the Board of Regents.

“I’ve never heard of an October surprise against your own candidate,” said a top Maryland political strategist.

Could the death of a young African-American man entrusted to leaders at the state’s flagship university bring a swell of black voters out to the polls to vote for Democrat Benjamin T. Jealous?

In the wake of Brady’s resignation, Jealous released a statement Thursday night that referred to the former Regents chairman as “Larry Hogan’s right hand man,” but then quickly pivoted to a more general message.

“Ultimately, both the Regents and the university can only regain public trust and rebuild our flagship institution’s reputation by developing a new culture, brick-by-brick, that prioritizes the health, safety, and academic interests of all students over the interests of football boosters,” he said. “That goal must guide the search for a new football coach and it must guide the selection of a new Board of Regents Chair.”

In an interview Thursday, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, a Maryland resident, said the furor over Maryland football could damage Hogan politically.

“This was not leadership,” Perez said. “Ultimately, the buck stops with the governor.”

The Hogan campaign did not respond to a request for comment Thursday night. One national Republican strategist who has worked in Maryland suggested that “it’s way too late” for any fallout from the College Park controversy to have any impact on the outcome of next week’s election, especially with a week of early voting in the books.

Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said he would not be surprised to see Democrats attempt to exploit the crisis, but expressed doubt that they would be effective.

“If you’re in the final week of the election and your candidate is down in the polls, you’re going to look for whatever you can to motivate your voters,” he said. “You try everything and just hope it sticks.”

Eberly added: “I would fully expect them to try to see if they can’t use this, however, I have a really hard time seeing this turn into an October Surprise.”

Danielle E. Gaines and Josh Kurtz contributed to this story. This story also contains reporting from the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service.

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University of Maryland Uproar: Is This the October Surprise?