WASHINGTON — Maryland lawmakers questioned officials from the University of Maryland and the state’s university system about their actions after the death of a 19-year-old football player.
After a meeting that was sometimes tense, it was clear that members of the House Appropriations Committee weren’t done looking into how the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents operates.
At a hearing Thursday afternoon, current Board of Regents Chair Linda Gooden told lawmakers that the decision to keep the football coach in place was “a poor decision.” That decision was made in October, when James Brady was the chair of the board. He resigned after public outcry, and Gooden was named in his place.
State Del. Keith Haynes challenged the assertion in a report presented to the regents that the culture in the football program at the university was “dysfunctional” but not “toxic.”
Referring to the death of Jordan McNair, a freshman football player who died after suffering an apparent heat stroke during a training session, Haynes said, “To me, death is not a result of dysfunction — it rises to the height of toxicity.”
Del. Kirill Reznik said there had been reports that the board decided to keep football coach DJ Durkin because the coach had a bright future.
“I also suspect, as do you and everyone else here, that Mr. McNair had a bright future, and Mr. McNair’s future was no less valuable than Mr. Durkin’s,” Reznik said.
House Speaker Michael Busch told university Chancellor Robert Caret, “There’s no way I think you can prove to the general public of Maryland that the decision that the Board of Regents made was a good one.”
Busch said he was puzzled by the Board of Regents’ decision and referred to accounts that Durkin made statements to the board that persuaded them that he should be allowed to keep his job, saying, “I don’t know what Mr. Durkin could have said in a meeting to the regents that would convince them that he should stay on as the head football coach.”
Gooden told the House panel, “That was a mistake, and Dr. Loh took the exact right action and released him.” She also said that some board members felt strongly that they should recommend firing Durkin, but they were outnumbered, the Associate Press reported.
“We have come to understand the board’s personnel recommendations were wrong,” she said. “College Park’s football program needed new leadership, and that need should have driven our decision.”
Del. Ben Barnes inquired about the status of university President Wallace Loh, saying that media reports indicated Loh was forced to announce he would retire in June 2019.
“Are you saying that that’s not true? That the board did not force the resignation, and that the media accounts were wrong?” Barnes said.
Caret said in response, “The board really does not feel that a personnel decision that is made in executive session should be discussed in open session.”
Barnes, clearly frustrated, said back, “We’re here to have answers as to how you determined your decisions. If you’re not going to give us answers, what are we all doing here today?”
Caret repeated that he didn’t want to detail a personnel decision in the open hearing. Barnes replied, “If I’m not going to get answers, I guess I’ll just pontificate for a minute or two.”
Barnes then said he couldn’t understand why Durkin would be allowed to stay after McNair’s death, while Loh, who, in his words, “is in charge of a lot of things, including things that are going right at the University of Maryland,” would be forced out.
“It really sticks in my craw — it’s a head-scratcher,” Barnes said.
Loh said he told the members of the University of Maryland Board of Regents that he didn’t think Durkin should stay on as coach. “I said this will not go over well,” Loh told lawmakers.
He added that he told the regents, “A young man died — how many parents are going to send their kids to play football at the University of Maryland?”
Referring to Durkin, Loh said, “And I said, if you bring him back, quote, all hell will break loose.”
That’s exactly what happened, with donors threatening to pull funding and public protests about the regents’ decision.
Loh told member of the House Appropriations Committee, “I completely accept the fact that the board has authority to hire and fire presidents. It is also the case that, as president, I have the authority on personnel issues,” the Associated Press reported.
Loh told the committee that new board members should understand “that the principals are about shared governance, not micromanaging a campus.”
At the end of the hearing, Del. Maggie McIntosh, chair of the House committee, made clear that the examination of the football program’s operations and the governance of the University of Maryland wasn’t over.
She told Caret, Loh and Gooden, “Thank you for your attendance today. We look forward to working with you during the session and continue this conversation.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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