But U-Md. President Wallace D. Loh dismissed any questions about his job security as he confronts one of the most serious challenges of his eight-year tenure.
“This is not about me,” Loh told The Washington Post in a telephone interview Monday. “As president, my job is to lead the institution. When there are difficult issues or easy issues, it’s my job to address them.”
Jordan McNair’s death June 13 and subsequent allegations of a toxic and abusive atmosphere in the football program prompted Loh’s bosses to intervene. The University System of Maryland Board of Regents voted Friday to assume control of investigations that Loh had launched into the player’s death and the climate of the program.
These developments have prompted calls for Loh’s exit from some quarters — including, on Monday, from U-Md. alumnus and retired professional football star Boomer Esiason. They also have rocked College Park days before students return for the fall term.
“At this point, a lot of us are distressed,” said Christopher Walsh, a veteran professor of plant science. As chair of the University Senate, which represents faculty members and others, Walsh works closely with the administration.
Loh has built a deep reservoir of support among state and local political leaders who value that U-Md. has maintained an international reputation as a research power and is drawing more interest than ever from potential students in and out of state. About 41,200 applied in 2017, up 18 percent in six years. The public university has raised $1.2 billion in private donations under Loh, including a record $219 million gift announced last year.
Loh often refers to athletics as the “front porch of the university” — an element of campus life instantly recognizable to the public. But with the football program in crisis, Walsh said he feared “the university has lost its curb appeal.”
Loh has taken several steps to address the matter.
The university hired a sports-medicine consultant to review what happened to McNair and formed a commission with two retired judges and a former federal prosecutor to review the climate of the football program and the conduct of its staff — investigations the board will now manage. Head coach DJ Durkin was placed on administrative leave, and strength and conditioning coach Rick Court resigned.
Loh acknowledged “mistakes on the part of some of the athletic training staff” and met with McNair’s parents to apologize. “They entrusted their son to us, and he did not return home,” Loh said.
Whether these measures are enough remains to be seen. No one on the board has said publicly that Loh’s job is in jeopardy.
Board Chairman James T. Brady said in a statement Monday he was focused on fact-finding.
“It would not be appropriate to assess or comment, or to speculate in any way, on the potential findings of either investigation, or on any individual, until they are complete,” Brady said. “Ultimately, we must fully uncover the facts, so that we can make those assessments in an informed manner and then take any and all necessary steps to better safeguard the well-being of all students.”
McNair’s father said through an attorney that he supports Loh. “It would be a complete shame if, after such a display of decency and humanity, Dr. Loh were to be let go,” Martin McNair said. “Decency and transparency are the only path forward for our family, the University and its sports programs to heal and emerge as safe places for families to entrust their children.”
But some observers wonder whether Loh’s position at the helm of the 40,000-student university is secure.
“They seem to be handling it as well as one can address such a tragedy,” said Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, a former president of George Washington University who has edited and written books on higher-education leadership. “But sometimes no matter what one does, a ceremonial sacrifice of the leader must be part of the healing process. A young man is dead. A price must be paid.”
The blunt-spoken Loh, 73, took office at College Park in 2010 after serving as provost at the University of Iowa and holding senior positions at the universities of Seattle, Colorado at Boulder and Washington. Born in Shanghai, he grew up in Peru, immigrated to the United States after high school and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He is a legal scholar with a doctorate in psychology from the University of Michigan and a law degree from Yale University. In November, he received a $75,000 raise, for an annual salary of about $675,000.
Jonathan Allen, 21, the student body president, said Loh “has done a tremendous job at attracting students from across the country to the university, raising our academic caliber during his tenure.”
U.S. News & World Report ranks U-Md. 22nd among public universities, just ahead of Clemson University and just behind Purdue University and the universities of Texas, Connecticut and Washington.
State Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Baltimore County) said he respects how Loh has maintained U-Md.’s strong academic programs in agriculture and that he perceives him as a president who aims to take the university “to the next level.”
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who took office about the same time as Loh, credited him for engineering support for the Purple Line light-rail transit project and for development of the Route One commercial corridor next to the university. Both were vital signs, Baker said, that U-Md. valued its neighboring communities more than in the past.
In 2012, Loh took a major leap in athletics when he announced that U-Md. would leave the Atlantic Coast Conference and join the Big Ten. The move angered some alumni with allegiance to the ACC but helped secure significant national television exposure for U-Md. and more funding for athletics.
Three years later, Loh pushed to rename a football stadium that had been named for one his predecessors — Harry Clifton “Curley” Byrd, a U-Md. president from 1935 to 1954. Loh said he recognized that while Byrd was crucial to the development of the modern university, he also was an ardent proponent of racial segregation. African American alumni and students, Loh said, read in the name of Byrd Stadium “a racial message hidden in plain sight.” With Loh’s support, the board approved renaming it Maryland Stadium.
“He dug deep into it and came up with, in my opinion, the right answer,” said James L. Shea, a former board chairman.
Last year, Loh told the University Senate, according to the Diamondback student newspaper, that as president he sits over a number of “dormant volcanoes,” including potential athletic scandals, that could blow up the university and his own leadership. Now, he is seeking to contain one.
On Monday, Loh pledged to be guided by “fundamental values” of accountability and transparency as the university works through issues with the football program. His goal, he said, is to ensure all students have a “safe, supportive, inclusive and humane environment.”
Sarah Larimer contributed to this report