At about 3:20 a.m. on Nov. 19, the day that the University of Maryland would publicly announce it had joined the Big Ten Conference, the student government’s top leaders released a formal one-page letter supporting the move.
Throughout that whirlwind day, U-Md. President Wallace D. Loh kept a printout of that letter in his suit jacket pocket. He referenced it when asking the University System of Maryland Board of Regents to bless the move. And he quoted from it when speaking at a televised news conference.
”If you will permit me,” Loh said in his closing remarks, “I will read just one sentence, because that student was able to write in one sentence what has taken me many, many minutes to say: ‘Although we mourn the traditions that would inevitably be lost, joining the Big Ten would fundamentally transform our university for the better.’”
This was not a piece of support that Loh had solicited. In the days leading up to the announcement, Loh quietly and quickly reached out to about two dozen of the school’s most powerful and valued liaisons, including politicians and major donors — but not students on his campus.
One student was briefed on the topic on the weekend the deal was reached: Steven Hershkowitz, a U-Md. graduate student who is the student member of the Board of Regents. Hershkowitz did not brief the student government, according to its leaders. When asked about his role, Hershkowitz wrote in an e-mail: ”I prefer not to be interviewed about this story anymore.”
What about the student government? Sure, on most campuses student-led governing bodies are occasionally questioned or mocked for appearing to lack true power. But these students are elected by their peers to provide a collective voice for the student body. University presidents typically consult the student body president, if not the whole group, in some way before making a major decision.
U-Md. Student Government Association President Samantha Zwerling said that Loh usually consults with her. “I don’t know what happened,” she said. Loh has said he was bound from widely discussing the potential conference change by confidentiality agreements.
“We didn’t have any inside knowledge about this,” Zwerling said. “We heard about it like everyone else when it broke online.”
As news of the potential conference change consumed Facebook and Twitter feeds, students looked for any proof it was true — and rumors swirled as to why administrators had reserved a ballroom in the student union for Monday afternoon.
Zwerling decided that the student government needed to do something. The full legislature wasn’t scheduled to meet until later in the week, but the SGA executive board’s dozen or so members had a meeting scheduled for Sunday evening. Zwerling scrapped her regular agenda and decided to focus on the Big Ten. She e-mailed members links to news articles to study and consulted with a few students who are “super fans.”
As they gathered in the student government office, the leaders of the student government debated what to do. Someone suggested starting a petition to get student input. Someone else suggested that they criticize the president for leaving students out of this important decision.
“We’re just going to sound like cranks if we do that,” Matt Arnstine, the SGA’s director of communications, recalls saying. “We decided: ‘Let’s get behind this now.’... We were all like: ‘What’s done is done. But we can have a say in how this money is spent going forward.’”
The executive board then voted to support the university’s move to the Big Ten and decided to draft an open letter explaining why.
It took more than six hours for the group to draft a letter that said everything they wanted to say: Support Maryland’s move to the Big Ten Conference, encourage an increased flow of money to the athletic department’s “precarious financial situation,” give a shout-out to the Big Ten’s academic consortium, urge the president to bring back some of the seven athletic teams he cut earlier this year, and check to make sure that the move “does not revolve solely around football or even athletics.”
They also included one line of criticism, which they said was watered down as the night wore on: “As we move forward, we ask that decisions that affect the entire University community be dealt with in a more transparent manner.”
At about 3 a.m. — long after the student union closed, and they were supposed to leave — Arnstine declared that they had to stop obsessing over grammar and wording choices. They needed to send the letter.
The final piece was copy-and-pasted onto student government stationary and mass-e-mailed (and tweeted) out. The 440-word explanation of why the SGA executive board was behind the move was likely the first lengthy written argument for the Big Ten that many students or faculty read outside of media reports.
Hours later, the University System of Maryland regents voted to approve the move. Students then waited hours for Loh to make the formal announcement at an afternoon news conference, flanked by coaches and administrators but no students.
Loh did reach out to the student government to thank them for the letter, according to the student leaders. Here’s a copy of the letter:
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog post referred to the SGA governing body as a “senate.” It is a legislature.
To read the full story about Maryland’s move to the Big Ten, check out this article that ran in The Post’s sports section last week: “Maryland to Big Ten: ‘It’s money versus tradition.’”