House lawmakers on Thursday blasted top University System of Maryland officials for their lack of transparency and overreach in a controversial decision last month to retain the University of Maryland football coach and athletic director, while accepting the university president’s resignation.
University System of Maryland Chancellor Robert Caret and Linda Gooden, the newly appointed chairwoman of the Board of Regents, repeatedly told the House Appropriations Committee that their initial decision, months after the death of University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair, was a mistake. But they provided few details about how their vote to recommend retaining coach DJ Durkin and Athletic Director Damon Evans, was the right thing to do – which infuriated several legislators.
“We’re here to have answers about how you’ve made your decisions. If we’re not going to get answers, then what are we doing here?” asked Del. Benjamin S. Barnes (D-Prince George’s), whose district includes the College Park campus.
McNair’s death two weeks after collapsing from heat stroke following a team workout on May 29 sparked two external investigations — both eventually overseen by the Board of Regents — into the circumstances surrounding his death and allegations of a “toxic” culture in the Maryland football program. Durkin and Evans were suspended in mid-August, and the team’s strengthening coach, Rick Court, resigned under pressure – though he received a hefty payout.
When the Regents met in late October to discuss the football program, they recommended that University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh retain Durkin and Evans, prompting Loh to announce that he would retire at the end of the school year. A day later, Loh reversed course, firing Durkin and Evans – but not rescinding his decision to take early retirement.
“We agree [retaining Durkin] was a poor decision,” said Gooden, who has served on the board for almost a decade before becoming chair on Nov. 7.
“It was not a unanimous decision. When the entire board looked at the entire body of work, they believed [Durkin] could move forward. That was a mistake. Dr. Loh took the exact right action and released him.”
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) asked how the Board of Regents could have concluded that Durkin would be retained, while Loh was essentially penalized.
“I don’t know what [Durkin] could have said [to the regents] that could have convinced them that he should stay on as head football coach,” Busch said, praising Loh for his “courageous decision” to fire Durkin.
Caret and Gooden declined to say what the board vote was to recommend that Loh retain Durkin and Evans – though Gooden conceded that she had not been there – or whether Loh had been forced to retire early.
“You’re not going to like this answer,” Caret said, citing rules about discussing personnel matters to explain his silence.
During his testimony, Loh said that even though the vote from the Board of Regents was technically a recommendation, he felt he had no choice but to carry it out.
“I completely accept that the board has authority to hire and fire a president,” Loh said. “So, when there is a recommendation to the president — well I’m not so sure under the circumstances … whether I really had a choice in the matter.”
Loh said the directive surprised and dismayed him – both because he thought any decision to retain the coach and athletic director would not be well-received on campus, and because he felt the regents were out of line.
“In all my eight years [as College Park president], I’ve never encountered anything like this,” he said.
House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie L. Mcintosh (D-Baltimore City) predicted that lawmakers would introduce legislation in the upcoming General Assembly session to “increase transparency” among university officials and try to force members of the Board of Regents to explain their votes on controversial matters.
McIntosh further questioned whether the board — an institution that has been in place for three decades — was even capable of fulfilling its duty to oversee the universities and colleges within the system.
“For past 30 years we’ve got many things right,” said Gooden, who took over as board chairwoman following the recent resignation of James T. Brady in the wake of the football controversy. “Clearly we got this one wrong. … We stepped out of our lane and it didn’t serve any of us well.”
This story was written by Brooks DuBose of Capital News Service and Josh Kurtz of Maryland Matters.