Then, a 19-year-old football player died this year after suffering heatstroke in a team workout.
Jordan McNair’s death led to a chain reaction of investigations, scandal and a power struggle that state lawmakers in Annapolis plan to scrutinize in a hearing Thursday.
The crisis exposed rifts that had developed between Loh and some members of the university’s governing board. In Loh’s eight-year tenure, the board had generally supported him as he sought to build U-Md.’s academic and research prowess and improve relations with neighbors in College Park and beyond. The board even gave him a $75,000 raise late last year, setting his annual salary at about $675,000, without sending any public signal it wanted him to leave.
But his handling of the McNair crisis and other athletic management issues led his bosses to a change of heart.
No one on the governing board will say that on the record. But people familiar with the board’s closed-door deliberations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, say there is widespread support among University System of Maryland regents for a leadership transition at U-Md. A rupture was evident Oct. 30 when Loh announced plans to retire in June.
“I know he’s ticked off a lot of people,” said Francis X. Kelly Jr., a Loh supporter who was on the Board of Regents from 2005 to 2016. “Overall, I think Wallace has done a terrific job at that university. Look at where we are academically, compared to where we were. But that doesn’t mean he should be there forever.”
Loh’s retirement announcement coincided with disclosure of a board recommendation to keep embattled football coach DJ Durkin and athletic director Damon Evans. On Oct. 31, amid a public uproar over the board’s decisions, Loh defied the board and fired Durkin. The next day, board chair James T. Brady resigned, easing tensions in what had become a dramatic power struggle.
The board’s new chair, Linda R. Gooden, later apologized for its actions.
On Thursday afternoon, the Maryland House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the football scandal and its aftermath.
Some of Loh’s supporters, including Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), have urged him to reconsider his retirement plan. Loh, 73, has neither embraced that notion nor ruled it out.
“I am focused now on all the reforms that we’re making — focused on changing the football culture,” Loh told The Washington Post. He said he also wanted to carry out recommendations to improve athlete health and safety. “That’s where my attention is at this time.”
Loh declined to make further public comments. So did several regents and university system officials.
On campus, views are split. Many students were upset that the board initially appeared to side with Durkin over Loh. But a substantial share also are not fans of the president. The editorial board of the Diamondback student newspaper supported firing Loh, Evans and Durkin in response to the June 13 death of McNair and revelations of other problems within the football program.
Loh has supporters and critics among the faculty — even within academic departments.
Nick Hadley, a physics professor who has advised Loh on athletics, said he strongly supported the president’s decision in August to accept responsibility for mistakes in McNair’s treatment that led to his death. “I admired that ultimately he made the decision to fire Coach Durkin,” Hadley said. “The right thing to do.”
But another physics professor, Thomas Cohen, said Loh botched the way he handled athletics and should have fired Durkin sooner. “I’m not encouraging [Loh] to resign,” Cohen said, “but I do think we should register our disgust with the way this has been handled and the way athletics has been treated on campus for the last seven years.”
The president, fond of bow ties patterned on the Maryland flag, oversees a 40,000-student institution with a massive research portfolio and significant academic enterprises in agriculture, business, computer science, engineering, humanities and the biological, physical and social sciences. Loh holds a law degree from Yale University and a doctorate in psychology from the University of Michigan. He came to College Park after serving as provost at the University of Iowa and holding senior posts at the universities of Seattle, Colorado at Boulder and Washington.
By most accounts, the university’s reputation has prospered under his stewardship. Donors have pledged record gifts for computer science, engineering and other fields. Competition for undergraduate admission has intensified, while in-state tuition and fees are about $10,600 a year, on par with or below the price of esteemed public universities elsewhere. U.S. News & World Report ranks U-Md. as the nation’s 22nd-best public university, tied with the University of Connecticut and just ahead of Clemson and Texas A&M universities.
In athletics, the Terrapins won national championships in men’s and women’s lacrosse and field hockey during Loh’s tenure, and conference championships in women’s basketball, men’s soccer and wrestling.
Loh relished cheering the women’s basketball team during an NCAA Final Four run in 2014. “Go to the NCAAs, represent Maryland well, and kick butt,” he told the women that year as they boarded a bus bound for the tournament finale in Nashville.
But athletic controversies have been a repeated theme. That is hardly unusual, as university leaders at North Carolina, Michigan State, Ohio State, Louisville and elsewhere can attest.
A year after he arrived, Loh accepted a recommendation to cut eight of the school’s 27 varsity sports teams because of a yawning financial deficit in the athletic department. “A day of enormous sadness,” he called it. One team was later saved — men’s outdoor track and field. But the cutbacks enraged fans and participants in a variety of sports that produced little to no revenue.
To put athletics on firmer financial footing, Loh in 2012 announced a deal to move to the Big Ten. That, too, stirred outrage in some quarters even though Loh promised it would bring more television revenue and plug U-Md. into a significant network of academic resources that operates parallel to the athletic conference. The Board of Regents overwhelmingly approved the move.
But one dissenter then on the board, Tom McMillen, complained at the time that the process was rushed. “It’s all about money,” he said. McMillen was an influential figure, a former Maryland basketball player and ex-congressman. He served this year on a commission that investigated allegations of an abusive culture within the football program.
Renaming what was once known as Byrd Stadium also strained Loh’s relationships with some regents. The president was initially cool to the proposal when it surfaced in 2015. But he changed his mind after receiving a report from faculty and others who studied the issue. Regents voted 12 to 5 to rename the edifice Maryland Stadium. Brady, one of the dissenters, recently told The Post that he was “viscerally opposed” to segregation but skeptical of revising history. Harry Clifton “Curley” Byrd, he said, was arguably the most consequential president in the university’s history. The episode left a residue of friction between Loh and Brady.
Then came the football scandal, which generated a host of questions about the football team and Maryland’s athletic management. Brady, as board chair, was tracking the issues closely.
On Aug. 14, Loh made a crucial decision: After learning preliminary findings of an investigation into McNair’s death, the president apologized to the athlete’s family and at a news conference accepted “legal and moral responsibility” for mistakes U-Md.’s training staff made on the day the 19-year-old suffered heatstroke.
Before the news conference, Loh consulted with Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) on remarks he planned to make, according to people familiar with the events who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity. Exactly what Frosh told him is unclear. A spokeswoman for the attorney general, Raquel Coombs, said she could not comment on legal advice the office gives.
One person close to the situation said Frosh indicated to Loh that it was a judgment call. “You are the client,” the attorney general said, according to this account. Another knowledgeable person said Frosh advised against making a public statement that would be construed as an assumption of liability.
Kelly, the former regent, said Loh “did the right thing” by publicly taking responsibility. But Kelly said he heard later that “some regents were upset” that they hadn’t been consulted in advance and felt “blindsided.”
Loh’s actions drew sharp scrutiny from the board. On Aug. 17, the board voted to take control of investigations that Loh had launched into McNair’s death and the football program. That set the regents and the president on a collision course. When investigators produced a report in October that found problems within the football program and “dysfunction” in the athletic department, the board and Loh diverged on what should be done about the football coach.
After he fired Durkin, Loh said in a statement that he would devote “the remaining months of my presidency” to reforms needed in the athletic department.
Asked recently about the leadership turmoil, Loh told the Diamondback: “That’s behind us.”
Rick Maese and Susan Svrluga contributed to this report.