Wallace D. Loh arrived at the University of Maryland eight years ago as a decorated academic and political adviser. He announced Tuesday he will retire at the end of this school year, his career ended by a sports scandal even as elected officials reacted with dismay and with some saying the wrong person was taking the fall for the death of a football player.
Loh’s announcement struck many state lawmakers as exactly the wrong response to the athletic department’s woes. DJ Durkin, the football head coach who has been on administrative leave since Aug. 11, will return to the sideline, the school said Tuesday, while Loh will retire when his contract expires in June.
The university’s Board of Regents had urged Loh to allow Durkin to return and Athletic Director Damon Evans to continue in his role, according to four people familiar with the situation. But Loh, in a meeting with regents last week, explained why he felt the school needed to move on from Durkin.
With a week before Election Day, the developments at the university quickly became an issue in the governor’s race, with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous calling on Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who appointed the majority of the board of regents, to “step in and call on [the board] to fire Evans and Durkin. It is not enough for the leader of our state to simply shift blame and throw his hands up, yet ultimately do nothing.”
Hogan said his administration was not a part of the board’s decision-making process but “will be pushing for assurances that the issues outlined in the report will be effectively addressed.”
Loh, 73, had strong support from state lawmakers, some of whom spoke out in recent days to urge university officials to stand by his leadership. But the June death of 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair set in motion events that led to Loh’s departure. At a news conference Tuesday, Loh said he would not leave the university while it was still facing such challenges. “I am proud of the shared legacy we have created,” he said, but for now he is focused on ”helping to navigate this great institution through the storm."
Several state and local lawmakers responded with distress at news of Loh’s departure. “Simply awful,” said Del. Erek L. Barron (D-Prince George’s), who played football for U-Md. “Football shouldn’t take precedence over academics. Football shouldn’t be driving a decision that affects an entire university.”
“I’m still in shock,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), vice chairman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee and one of eight Prince George’s County lawmakers who wrote a letter last week to the Board of Regents on Loh’s behalf. “It’s just astounding that the university president will be gone and the coaches are still on the sidelines. . . It seems upside down.”
Pinsky said Loh has made numerous strides during his eight years at the state’s flagship university, including improving academics, raising the university’s profile and increasing donations to the campus.
“I haven’t agreed with every decision that he’s made, but he’s a good thinker and thoughtful guy,” Pinsky said.
“Quite honestly, I am appalled,” said Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker, III. “I saw the board of regents siding with bringing back the coach over the family, the McNair family, over the president who had done the right thing,“ by taking moral responsibility for the death.
“It’s a very sad day in the history of the University of Maryland. I think the board of regents obviously got it wrong," Baker said.
Sen. Jim Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s) said, “I understand the back room athletic program politics which led President Loh to offer his retirement,” he said. “But he should stay and I’m urging him to do so. Academics should come first. His decision can and should be reversed.”
James T. Brady, chairman of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, said at a news conference Tuesday that complaints that athletics had taken precedence were absolutely untrue, and that academics are the reason the university exists. “The idea that academics is not foremost at the University of Maryland is absolutely and unequivocally wrong," he said.
McNair collapsed during a training session in late May and died 15 days later.
Loh and Evans acknowledged that athletic trainers failed to give McNair proper treatment on the scene. Evans said trainers did not take McNair’s temperature or immerse his body in ice water, steps that experts said could have saved his life.
McNair’s death June 13 led to subsequent reports about problems in the Maryland football program, including a damaging ESPN story about allegations of an abusive culture within the program.
Loh had taken steps to address the crisis. Durkin was placed on administrative leave. Strength and conditioning coach Rick Court resigned days later. Investigations were launched into McNair’s death and into the climate of the football program. Loh met with McNair’s parents Aug. 14 and apologized for the lapses.
“The university owes you an apology,” Loh said he told the parents. “You entrusted Jordan to our care, and he is never returning home again.”
As scrutiny intensified, others noted an action Loh did not take: In 2017, he rejected a proposal by his athletic director at the time, Kevin Anderson, to overhaul how health care was delivered to athletes. The proposal called for athletic trainers to report to the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore and to be autonomous from influence by the U-Md. athletic department.
The medical school is separate from the campus in College Park. Loh declined to adopt the proposal because he was concerned about ceding medical personnel decisions to another institution, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the situation. But whether that proposal or any other would have prevented McNair’s death remained unclear.
“You cannot draw a line between organizational structure and the death of student-athlete Jordan McNair,” Andy Pollak, chairman of orthopedics at the medical school, said in a statement Aug. 17.
On that day, the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents voted to assume control of the two investigations U-Md. had launched in response to the football crisis. That escalated the stakes for the system and for Loh. As president, Loh reports to the board.
Jim Shea, who was on the board of regents for a decade, serving as chairman from 2012 to 2016, was concerned that regents were trying to make personnel decisions for an individual campus, a route he said could deter potential presidents from considering the job.
Shea said Loh has a solid base of support, but it isn’t because Loh has been reluctant to make tough decisions. “He’s a strong personality -- he’s a change agent," Shea said. "He’s got courage and he’s willing to think through difficult problems and listen to people, all of which are terrific qualities.”
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) praised Loh for promoting academics on the campus, improving the donor base leading to the construction of several new buildings on campus and “doing a better job of relating with the town than any other president that I can remember.”
“He leaves a good legacy,” Miller said. “His legacy in sports is challenged.”
Loh and members of the board clashed over the president’s push to rename Byrd Stadium to Maryland Stadium, stripping the building of the name of a former school president who opposed racial integration, and over 2016 legislation that created a merger between the University of Maryland, Baltimore and the flagship University of Maryland campus in College Park.
Loh took office at College Park in November 2010 after stints as provost at the University of Iowa, dean of arts and sciences at Seattle University, vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and dean of law at the University of Washington. He also was a policy adviser for Gary Locke (D) when he was governor of Washington.
Loh’s life story spans three continents: He was born in Shanghai, moved to Peru at a young age with his father, who was a diplomat, then immigrated to the United States after high school and became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Fluent in Chinese and Spanish, Loh is a legal and public policy scholar with a doctorate in psychology from the University of Michigan and a law degree from Yale University.
When Loh was hired, leaders of the University System of Maryland hailed him as a leader with a unique background who could bring a global perspective to the flagship school. In November 2017, Loh received a $75,000 raise, for an annual salary of about $675,000.
Under Loh, the university has grown modestly in enrollment and maintained its reputation as an ambitious research institution. U-Md. had about 40,500 undergraduate and graduate students in fall 2017, up about 8 percent from fall 2010. The university continued to become more selective in that time as the volume of undergraduate applications soared. About 7 in 10 undergraduates at U-Md. are from Maryland, but many families within the state are angered when in-state applicants with strong high school records are turned down.
In September, U.S. News & World Report ranked U-Md. 63rd among national universities, tied with George Washington University and the University of Connecticut. Among public universities, it was ranked 22nd, just ahead of Clemson and Texas A&M universities.
Loh pushed to expand U-Md.’s fundraising, aware that flagships need more private support in an era of tighter public funding for higher education. He landed a record $219 million gift in 2017 from the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation to expand scholarships, endow faculty positions and make other investments.
During his tenure, Loh cultivated relationships with governors and legislative leaders from both major parties. He knew that support from Annapolis was crucial to the school. “I like to say, my job as president of the flagship is the most political nonpolitical job in the state,” Loh told The Washington Post earlier in 2018.
Loh is known for strengthening U-Md.’s ties to neighbors in Prince George’s County and elsewhere in the region. He backed the Purple Line, a light-rail transit project that would connect the university to Silver Spring and Bethesda. He also supported redevelopment of the Route 1 corridor in an effort to bring more of the flavor and vitality of a college town to Baltimore Avenue on the east side of campus.
In academics, Loh has presided over major growth in College Park’s prestigious programs in computer science and engineering while also seeking to maintain the quality of programs in humanities, social sciences and other fields.
Loh was known to be methodical in decision-making. His first move in a controversy was often to form a committee. Then he would wait for the report. But he could move quickly in a crisis.
In 2015, an uproar flared on campus over an email from a student that was full of racial slurs and offensive language about women. The student was a fraternity member. Loh fretted one night that the issue was blowing up. “I said, ‘Uh oh. This is going viral,’ ” Loh said at the time. He put out a statement denouncing the language. But he later concluded that the email did not violate school policies and was protected by the right to free speech under the First Amendment.
In athletics, one of Loh’s major legacies is U-Md.’s move from the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Big Ten. When he announced the leap in 2012, many alumni and fans with allegiances to the ACC were irate. But going to the Big Ten helped secure significant national television exposure for U-Md. and more money for athletics.
In 2015, Loh tackled a sensitive racial issue: the name of the football stadium. Critics had long denounced the name of Byrd Stadium because it recognized a 20th-century university president who was an ardent supporter of racial segregation. Harry Clifton “Curley” Byrd led U-Md. from 1935 to 1954.
After hearing from all sides, Loh said he recognized that while Byrd was crucial to the development of the modern university, he knew that African American alumni and students would read in the name of Byrd Stadium “a racial message hidden in plain sight.” With Loh’s support, the system’s Board of Regents approved renaming it Maryland Stadium.
Loh appreciated the perils and marketing opportunities of intercollegiate sports. He often referred to athletics as “the front porch” of the university, something that people would recognize in watching college football or basketball on television. “It is not the most important part of the house,” he said in 2014, “but it is the most visible.”
But Loh also knew that big-time sports could produce big-time risks. He made that clear in 2017 in remarks to the University Senate, a group that represents faculty and others. Someone asked Loh how he could be sure that U-Md. was “protected from the corrupting influence of athletics,” according to a report in the Diamondback student newspaper.
“As president, I sit over a number of dormant volcanoes,” Loh replied. “One of them is an athletic scandal. It blows up — it blows up the university, its reputation. It blows up the president.”
Rick Maese contributed to this report.