Regents’ Chairwoman Backs Reform Legislation for Embattled Board

University System of Maryland Board of Regents Chair Linda R. Gooden at a November 2018 hearing in Annapolis. Photo by Brooks DuBose/Capital News Service

A bill to expand the University System of Maryland Board of Regents and explore additional oversight reform has support from the board’s new chairwoman.

Linda R. Gooden, who was elevated as the chair in November following public outcry over the regents’ response to the death of University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair, told the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday that the board supports the legislation from Del. Benjamin S. Barnes (D-Prince George’s) and Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel).

“The University System of Maryland Board of Regents is pleased to express our support for House Bill 533, which we believe will improve the way the USM Board of Regents operates, ensuring greater transparency for stakeholders throughout Maryland,” Gooden said. “We are currently engaged in the process of rededicating and refocusing ourselves on the role of the governing board. We’ve rededicated ourselves to the principles of shared governance.”

A hearing on the cross-file, Senate Bill 719, is scheduled for Wednesday.

The measures would expand the Board of Regents membership to include the Maryland secretary of Commerce, one member appointed by the president of the Senate, one member appointed by the speaker of the House and a second student member.

Del. Benjamin S. Barnes (D-Anne Arundel, Prince George’s)

The state’s secretary of Agriculture already sits on the board, so the addition of the Commerce secretary reflects the state’s changed economy since the establishment of the regents, Barnes said.

The bill also adds new specific qualifications for members appointed by the governor.

Under the legislation, those members would have to include one person with a background in higher education administration; one person with a background in finance; and one person with a background in diversity and workplace inclusion.

“These are important measures to just broaden the diversity and the background and the scope and the membership itself,” Barnes said.

He said the move to add a second student member is based on the practice used in California; each student member would serve for two years, sitting as a voting member for one year of the term.

Gooden said that provision of the bill was the only one which caused concern among the board, citing the responsibilities of the student member to govern, attend classes and, in many cases, hold a job.

The legislation also imposes additional transparency initiatives, including a time for public testimony at all meetings of the board, live-streaming of meetings and public vote tallies for decisions made in open and in closed board sessions.

The regents were in crisis last fall after a majority recommended the reinstatement of University of Maryland football coach DJ Durkin and Athletic Director Damon Evans, who had been suspended in the wake of McNair’s post-practice death last spring. University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh followed the board’s recommendations but simultaneously announced that he would retire in June. Loh then decided to fire Durkin the next day. Former regents chairman James T. Brady resigned amid public outcry over the recommendation to retain the coach and trainer.

Loh and the regents announced just weeks ago that the university president would ultimately stay in his role until June 2020.

Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery) asked Gooden on Tuesday how that decision was reached, whether in open or closed session, and what the vote of the Board of Regents was on Loh’s continuation.

Gooden said Loh decided to stay in his position through mutual agreement with the board following a closed-session discussion, but since there was no vote to remove him from his post originally, there was no vote to bring him back on board.

“I guess then we need Delegate Barnes’ legislation on transparency,” Korman responded.

Jonathan Allen, student body president at the University of Maryland College Park, testified that the Student Government Association supported the bill, particularly the focus on transparency.

Allen said the regents have met 15 times as a full board in the current fiscal year, but 10 of those sessions have been closed to the public and public minutes are available for only one meeting.

“Incidents over the past few months have demonstrated the University System of Maryland Board of Regents’ complete disregard for transparency and shared governance. In its handling of personnel decisions at the University of Maryland, the board failed to consult with campus stakeholders and grossly overstepped its authority,” Allen said. “The recommendation to reinstate then-coach DJ Durkin and the three-month silence on the future leadership of the state’s flagship institution underscored the importance of communication with regard to major decisions that impact the campus community.”

Allen also thanked Gooden for an apology she issued once elected chair and for her support of the bill.

Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel)

Barnes said while mistakes were made, they’ve been acknowledged and the focus of the bill is moving the university system forward. He thanked Elfreth and Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s), who are both former regents themselves, for their help in crafting the bill. The Senate bill has 31 cosponsors.

A final provision of the bill would establish the Workgroup to Study Oversight of USM to review oversight policies, compile information on the governing structure of university boards nationally, and review best practices. A report is due to the General Assembly by Dec. 31.

Gooden said the regents are undertaking other efforts at openness as well. The board has partnered with the Association of Governing Boards for the first external review in 20 years.

The university system is also due to file a report by March 1 to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which launched an accreditation review following investigations into McNair’s death.

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