The direction of the University System of Maryland leadership continues to be a topic of great debate in the General Assembly.
On Monday evening, senators sharply questioned two current members of the USM’s Board of Regents who have been renominated for second terms about the aftermath of a football player’s death last year and about recent reports that the system’s chancellor, Robert Caret, sent an email to university presidents promoting an alumnus’ jewelry company.
The Senate Executive Nominations Committee eventually decided to unanimously recommend that the full Senate confirm Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s reappointment of Regents D’Ana E. Johnson and Robert D. Rauch, along with the nomination of former Montgomery County executive Isiah Leggett (D) to serve on the board – but not before some heated discussion.
Johnson and Rauch both declined to answer senators’ questions about the confusion among university leaders following the death last June of University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair days after an intense workout in summer heat. At first, the Board of Regents decided to retain the football coach and athletic director and accepted the early retirement of University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh. But then the board changed course and decided to adhere to Loh’s recommendation that the coach and athletic director be fired (and Loh eventually decided to stay on until his pre-arranged retirement date).
Last week, the Associated Press reported that Caret sent emails to university presidents urging them to consider selling university logo charm bracelets manufactured by a University of Maryland alumnus.
Johnson and Rauch both said guidelines about personnel decisions prevented them from discussing either matter with the Senate.
“It kicked us in the face and we got up and we said, ‘let’s fix it,’” Johnson said of the controversy that followed McNair’s death.
Sen. Edward Reilly (R-Anne Arundel), who represents Johnson in the Senate and who formally introduced her to his colleagues at Monday’s hearing, said he visited Johnson at her home recently to discuss these issues and she was equally tight-lipped in a private setting.
The reticence of the regents disturbed some of the senators.
“I was really uncomfortable with the answers that the two members of the Board of Regents gave,” said Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City).
Several senators complained about “a culture” of silence among university officials. But even lawmakers who have been harsh critics of the regents said Monday it would be unfair to punish these nominees.
“They know they screwed up big time – I think they’re trying to fix it,” said Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s), a former regent.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), a University of Maryland alumnus, said the nominees should not be penalized for the decisions made under the leadership of former regents chairman James T. Brady.
“They made mistake after mistake after mistake,” he said. “But I think we’re ready to move on.”
Senators pointed to legislation from Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) and Del. Benjamin Barnes (D-Prince George’s) to add members to the Board of Regents and impose certain reforms on the board as a partial solution. And they were effusive in their praise of Leggett, the newest nominee to the board, who in addition to his lengthy political career is a former dean and professor at Howard University Law School.
“Ike Leggett is part of the fix,” Rosapepe said.