UMD Board of Regents Fell Short in Its Duties

A suggestion to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan: When you appoint people to positions of great responsibility in the future, pay more attention to their qualifications and expertise than to their personal and political loyalties. Appointments have consequences.

Seldom is there a consensus on an issue such as there is on the attempt by the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland to pressure the president of the University of Maryland at College Park, Wallace Loh, to retain now-fired head football coach D.J. Durkin.  That consensus is that the board’s action was ham-handed and indefensible and has long-term negative consequences for the state’s flagship university.

Sometimes governing bodies make bad decisions, and there is nothing more to it. In this case, however, I believe there is more to it. The Board of Regents fell so far short of fulfilling its role as the guardian of the institutional mission and values that it raises questions about the qualifications of the individual regents. And those questions directly implicate Gov. Hogan.

Dr. Loh has presided over the continuing ascent of the university into the top tier of public research universities. Mr. Durkin, according to the report of the independent commission appointed to investigate the football program, oversaw an environment in which insults and humiliation were primary motivational tools. The commission found that the strength and conditioning coach hired by Mr. Durkin verbally and physically abused players.

The commission found no direct link between the culture of the football program and the tragic death of Terrapin player Jordan McNair. Mr. McNair died because of the negligence of the training staff assigned to care for the football players, according to a separate inquiry. That finding, however, was hardly an endorsement of Mr. Durkin’s stewardship of the football program.

Not only did the board overstep its bounds by trying to block Dr. Loh from firing Mr. Durkin, it apparently did so in the interests of winning more football games. According to a story in The Baltimore Sun, board members succumbed to the blandishments of Mr. Durkin, who told them that his team was on the verge of being able to beat teams like Ohio State and Penn State.

The university’s strategic plan states that, although “athletics play a serious role in the life of the university” by encouraging student growth, athletics lie “outside the academic enterprise” of the institution. The board made the unforgivable mistake of choosing the promise of success on the gridiron over the integrity of the university’s “academic enterprise.”

In my opinion, the most likely explanation for the error is that there were too many regents with no appreciation for a first-class university and how it should be run. Too many regents who should never been appointed to the board in the first place.

Thirteen of the 17 regents on the board when it voted to retain Mr. Durkin over the objections of Dr. Loh, and to show Dr. Loh the door, were appointed by Gov. Hogan. If there is a problem with the backgrounds and predilections of the individual regents, Gov. Hogan owns it.

Questions have risen about the quality of Gov. Hogan’s political appointments in the past. A nominee for the state school board withdrew after questions arose about the nominee’s personal finances and legal record. The state Senate refused to confirm Wendi Peters as secretary of the Department of Planning, with lawmakers citing her lack of relevant experience.  The Senate also declined to confirm the nomination of Dennis Schrader to be secretary of the Department of Health.

David A. Plymyer

In a letter earlier this year to The Sun, Del. Clarence Lam echoed complaints that I have heard from many quarters of state government. Del. Lam accused Gov. Hogan of introducing political partisanship into the hiring of new state employees and in the promotions of current state employees for non-political at-will positions in grade 18 or higher. Those traditionally non-political positions provide the expertise and institutional knowledge essential to state agencies.

Del. Lam obtained notes from a senior staff meeting at the state health department at which a new hiring process was described. The process placed “greater emphasis on using the Governor’s Appointments Office.”

According to the notes, hiring for technical positions such as laboratory scientists or doctors would proceed as before. The appointments office, however, would have “first crack” at filling positions such as legislative liaisons, communications officers and executive associates. The department would run a “parallel process” with the appointments office for positions including program managers.

The General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Fair Practices and State Personnel Oversight recently opened an investigation into Del. Lam’s allegations. Del. Adrienne A. Jones, House chairwoman of the joint committee, expressed concerns that applicants were being vetted for political affiliations rather than for merit. Those concerns are reminiscent of those raised during the administration of former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. – when Gov. Hogan was Mr. Ehrlich’s appointments secretary.

The impact of leadership focused more on politics than on an organization’s mission generally is not immediate. The effect is slow and corrosive, like the effect of corrosion on a bridge.

Everything looks fine from the outside until there is a catastrophic failure — a failure like the ill-fated decision by the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland.

— DAVID A. PLYMYER

The writer is a former county attorney in Anne Arundel County. He can be reached at [email protected] Twitter: @dplymyer

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