The University of Maryland at College Park said it is working to respond to a warning from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education that its accreditation is at risk.
On Friday, the commission wrote to the institution informing it that its accreditation may be in jeopardy because of insufficient evidence that it is in compliance with standards on governance, leadership and administration.
The commission found this spring that the institution appeared to be out of compliance after its investigation found that personnel actions taken following the June 2018 death of football player Jordan McNair show “that the Board of Regents and the UMD administration do not have a clearly articulated and transparent governance structure.”
The commission has given the university until March 1 to show it has a structure that “outlines roles, responsibilities, and accountability for decision-making.”
In a joint statement Friday, University System of Maryland (USM) Board of Regents Chair Linda R. Gooden, USM Chancellor Robert L. Caret and U-Md. College Park President Wallace D. Loh said, “Progress toward full compliance is already underway and will be completed” by the due date.
USM administrators said in an email Sunday night that the board has taken a number of steps toward that goal, including appointing Gooden as chair, engaging the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges to conduct a review of the system’s policies relating to governance, and increasing board transparency.
Katie Lawson, a spokeswoman for U-Md. College Park, said in an email Sunday, “Under the new Board chair, the university is encouraged by USM changes and increased collaboration.
“The renewed commitment to openness and communication will ensure that the necessary actions are taken to secure autonomy and full compliance,” Lawson said.
In the meantime, the university remains fully accredited.
The warning from the regional accreditation agency follows a tumultuous and tragic year at the state’s flagship campus. McNair, a 19-year-old lineman on the school’s football team, collapsed from heatstroke during a practice on May 29, 2018, and died in a hospital 15 days later. An independent investigation found that school officials failed to properly diagnose and treat McNair, after it emerged that coaches waited an hour after he began showing troubling symptoms to call 911.
Fallout from McNair’s death sparked turmoil on campus and within the university system’s leadership. Following an investigation into the actions of the athletic department and coaching staff, the Board of Regents recommended in late October that football coach DJ Durkin remain at the university. Loh said Durkin would stay, but the president announced he would retire at the end of the school year.
The regents’ decision led to anger throughout the state, and the next day, Loh changed his mind and fired Durkin.
The turmoil after McNair’s death led James T. Brady, then chair of the Board of Regents, to announce he was stepping down and prompted a public letter from the university’s provost and deans who said the regents’ actions could imperil the school’s accreditation.
“We, the academic leaders of the University of Maryland, write to express our dismay and deep concern for the events and the process that has led to the forced retirement of President Wallace D. Loh,” they wrote.
“We have been extremely alarmed for weeks by the interference of the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents into University governance matters. It is the President who is responsible for personnel matters at the University, and it is within the President’s discretion and authority to decide whether to retain athletics staff. Through its intervention, the Board of Regents usurped the President’s authority and intervened in the ability of the President to carry out his full duties and responsibilities.”
In February, the university provided the commission with a report “in relation to the series of actions by the Board of Regents, President Loh, and the University Senate that transpired in the aftermath of the tragic death of student athlete Jordan McNair and the subsequent review of UMD’s football program.”
Lawson, the UMD spokeswoman, said the accreditation warning was “related to whether the Board of Regents was directly involved in personnel decisions at the university last fall, and not to “the handling of the care of Jordan McNair or his tragic passing.”
Universities rely on accreditation because the U.S. Department of Education requires it for a school to be eligible for federal student financial aid. Students at a school that has lost its accreditation also can find themselves unable to transfer their credits to another, accredited institution.
The Middle States commission is one of seven regional accrediting agencies that oversee the country’s colleges and universities. Brian Kirschner, a spokesman for the commission, told The Washington Post in November that the agency sought information from the school that related to two required standards: ethics and integrity and the student experience.
Although the warning should be taken seriously, the university is highly unlikely to lose its accreditation, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, an organization representing the higher-education community.
“It is uncommon, but certainly not unknown for accrediting agencies to raise questions about a college or university at any time, but particularly after a widely publicized event or a situation where a university’s handling of an issue might not have been as smooth as it could have been,” Hartle said.
Penn State University received a similar warning after the child sexual abuse scandal involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, and the University of North Carolina was warned after news reports of academic violations by athletes, Hartle said.
“This is not good news for a university; it’s something they would prefer not to happen,” he said, adding that the university needs to demonstrate to the commission that it realizes things were “managed badly” and that steps have been taken to prevent that from happening again.
In its email Sunday, the USM administrators said the board recognized that “its final decisions could have been handled more effectively. Middle States has noted both this lapse as well as the actions taken by the board to prevent a reoccurrence.”
This is not the first such warning for the University of Maryland system. In 2016, the commission issued a similar warning to Frostburg State University, saying it needed to improve learning assessment; the university made corrections and announced that its accreditation was reaffirmed the following year.
The College Park campus also is reeling from the death last fall of an 18-year-old freshman from adenovirus. In May, the family of Olivia Shea Paregol filed a notice of claim against the school, setting the stage for a possible lawsuit. Paregol’s father said her death could have been prevented if the university had disclosed that the virus was spreading through the campus. The commission’s warning does not appear to be related to that event.