The leader of the University System of Maryland’s governing board resigned Thursday, the latest surprise in a fast-moving power struggle between the state’s flagship school and the board that arose after a football player died following a team workout.
James T. Brady, chair of the system’s Board of Regents, informed the board of his exit during a closed meeting in Baltimore. Afterward, he acknowledged he had become “the public face” of the board and its controversial decision to retain football coach DJ Durkin despite a scandal that erupted after the player’s death in June.
Critics of the board said the uproar this week over that decision was damaging U-Md.'s image and imperiling fund-raising and recruiting. U-Md. President Wallace D. Loh defied the board’s decision and fired Durkin on Wednesday.
“In my estimation, my continued presence on the board will inhibit its ability to move Maryland’s higher education agenda forward,” Brady said in a statement. “And I have no interest in serving as a distraction from that important work. Accordingly, I will step down from the Board of Regents immediately.”
In a separate statement, the board appeared to signal that Loh had won the standoff with the regents: The panel said it “acknowledges and accepts” Loh’s decision to terminate Durkin “and his authority to make it.”
In Brady’s absence, Barry Gossett, the board’s vice chair, will assume leadership until the board votes on a new chair, which is expected to take place next week.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) had appointed Brady. Hogan’s office said in a statement, “The governor believes that the university system must move forward in an open and transparent manner to restore public trust in Maryland’s flagship university.”
Also Thursday, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education launched a review of U-Md.'s accreditation in response to questions raised about problems in its athletic programs.
Brady stunned many Tuesday with the announcement that the board wanted to keep on Durkin and athletic director Damon Evans following investigations into the football program’s culture and the death of 19-year-old Jordan McNair, who suffered heatstroke during a spring workout.
Simultaneously, Loh announced Tuesday he would retire at the end of the school year. Loh had told the board previously that he believed Durkin should leave.
The upshot was that the board had sided with Durkin over Loh — an unusual intervention in the university’s governance.
But Loh ousted Durkin the next day as Hogan, lawmakers, faculty and others heaped criticism on the board. Hogan declared: “The University System of Maryland has let down the University of Maryland community and the citizens of Maryland, and now is the time to fix it.” Hogan accused the board of a “lack of transparency."
Hogan’s denunciation was extraordinary because he appointed the majority of the 17 board members, including Brady. In addition, Brady chaired Hogan’s victorious 2014 campaign for governor and was co-chair of the Republican’s transition team.
Brady, 78, of Frederick County, was named to the Board of Regents in March 2015. He is a veteran of corporate boards, including the board of Dunbar Armored Inc. and is well known in state politics, having served on the transition teams of three governors — Democrat Parris N. Glendening, Republican Robert Ehrlich Jr. and Hogan.
In a telephone interview Wednesday — before Hogan spoke out and before Loh fired Durkin — Brady defended the board’s closed-door deliberations in response to the football scandal. “I’m particularly proud of the exhaustive process we went through,” he said. “We had a very clear majority with respect to the recommendations we made.”
Brady said he did not consult with the governor as the board developed recommendations. “He had no role in this process," Brady said. "Number one, it’s our job.”
On Thursday, Brady acknowledged that the board’s decisions were controversial. “I understand that reasonable people could come to other conclusions,” Brady said. “And even among our board, some did.”
The board’s solution prompted a firestorm. Many said the board had overstepped by meddling in a personnel decision that belonged to Loh.
“We are deeply disturbed with the actions of the Board of Regents in undermining the authority of the campus leadership at College Park and violating the integrity of shared governance principles, including campus autonomy and independence,” Geoff J. Gonella, chairman of the the University of Maryland College Park Foundation board of trustees, wrote Thursday in a letter to Brady.
Gonella said the board’s actions had “wreaked havoc” in the U-Md. community as the university is in the midst of a $1.5 billion fundraising campaign. He charged that the board’s actions “have not only dented our momentum . . . but you may have dealt our efforts a fatal blow.”
The board’s controversial handling of the matter could already be having financial implications for the university. The regents received a letter Wednesday from a prominent donor, Karen Levenson, who vowed to halt future donations “until such time as I am convinced the university will be governed in the manner I was led to believe it would be governed when I made my commitment.”
In Baltimore, Hogan told reporters he wants to “get to the bottom” of how the board recommended retaining Durkin as coach and said he was “frustrated” with the board’s lack of transparency. He also held out the possibility of asking regents to step down.
“We’re going to find out what happened in the process, and we’ll put the pressure on,” Hogan said. “We can ask for people’s resignations at some point if we feel that’s appropriate. But we’re not going to play politics, as some people are trying to do.”
Hogan is seeking reelection Tuesday. His Democratic opponent, Ben Jealous, called Wednesday for the governor to remove Brady from the board.
Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.) had also called for Brady’s resignation, citing what he alleged was “the extreme callousness and ineptitude he demonstrated by putting his own personal agenda ahead of the welfare of our students.”
At College Park, senior academic leaders lined up behind Loh. Mary Ann Rankin, the provost, joined with 15 deans in a statement questioning the board’s actions.
“We have been extremely alarmed for weeks by the interference of the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents into University governance matters,” the group wrote.
Regents serve five-year terms, except for a student member, whose term is one year. They are not paid. Their duty is to oversee a state system that includes the flagship in College Park, 11 other schools, and regional higher education centers in Rockville and Hagerstown.
The board is empowered to hire and fire the system’s chancellor and its university presidents. But in general it does not get directly involved in personnel decisions below the presidential level.
Asked about Brady’s resignation, Loh said through a spokeswoman: “During Jim Brady’s three years leading the Board of Regents, I worked with him on a number of initiatives. I thank him for his service to our state.”
Loh, 73, has led U-Md. since 2010 and plans to retire in June. Some supporters have urged him to reconsider that plan, but Loh has not given any public signal that he will do so.
Student leaders applauded Thursday’s developments.
“The chairman had to be held accountable and could no longer remain in his role, to move forward as a system, as a state,” said Jonathan Allen, Maryland’s student body president. “And I’m glad to see he will no longer be there.”
Students gathered for a rally Thursday afternoon outside McKeldin Library. Rohini Nambiar, a member of the student government, urged the crowd to remember Jordan McNair.
“While I didn’t know Jordan on a personal level, I know that Jordan was a son, a friend, an athlete, but above all, a human being,” Nambiar said through a bullhorn. "Which is something that we all can relate to.”
The rally, she said, was to demand justice for McNair. She urged the crowd to support their fellow Terrapins — the student-athletes who will be on the football field Saturday when Maryland faces Michigan State.
“Show up to the game on Saturday,” she said. “Show up for the McNairs, show up for Jordan, and show up for our student-athletes.”
Sarah Larimer, Susan Svrluga and Debbie Truong contributed.