University of Maryland student Ro Nambiar holds a sign as people gather at a “Justice for Jordan” rally in remembrance of offensive lineman Jordan McNair on Thursday on the university's campus in College Park. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

WHEN THE University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents decided to back the head football coach over the president of the University of Maryland, it was making a statement about its priorities. It was that sports and winning — and the money that goes along with big-time college football — matter more than academics and accountability. Thankfully, students, faculty and the community at Maryland’s flagship university have a far different set of values. In speaking out for those values, they sent a powerful message that should reverberate through the world of college athletics.

The dizzying events that unfolded this week at the College Park campus started on Tuesday, when the university system’s governing board, which was investigating the June death of 19-year-old football player Jordan McNair, gave U-Md. President Wallace D. Loh an ultimatum: either reinstate head coach DJ Durkin, on administrative leave since August after the disclosure of pervasive problems in the football program, or face immediate termination.

Mr. Loh acceded, but, signaling his disapproval, also made the surprise announcement that he would retire at the end of the school year in June. That precipitated a massive backlash, including from members of the football team, state lawmakers and Gov. Larry Hogan (R), and on Wednesday, Mr. Durkin was gone, dismissed by Mr. Loh. On Thursday, the chairman of the Board of Regents, James T. Brady, announced his resignation, pretty much acknowledging he had become the public face of a disaster that not only damaged U-Md.’s image but also threatened recruiting and fundraising.

It remains unclear how quickly the university can recover from the controversy that has roiled the campus since McNair’s death from heatstroke after a punishing practice. There are many questions that need to be answered. Among them is what happens now with Mr. Loh: Will he, as many are urging, reconsider his decision to retire? There’s no question Mr. Loh bears — and, to his credit, accepted — responsibility for conditions that contributed to McNair’s death. Some have argued that his push for Maryland to join the Big Ten helped create pressure that resulted in player safety being shortchanged. But Mr. Loh has a deserved reputation as an effective and principled leader. That makes all the more stunning the willingness of the Board of Regents to discard him in its apparent desperation to hold on to a football coach who promised a winning season.

Further investigation is needed into how the board arrived at its decision and the equally troubling issue of how it violated university principles by undermining the authority of the campus leadership at College Park. The role of governing boards is not to hire football coaches but to set policy, appoint a president and hold him or her accountable. If Mr. Loh indeed retires, can this board — given its wrongheaded bid to keep Mr. Durkin — be trusted with hiring his replacement?

Saturday will see a big game for Maryland as it faces Michigan State, and once again it is the students at College Park who are showing they have the right sensibilities. “Jordan was a son, a friend, an athlete, but above all, a human being,” said a student government leader at a rally Thursday. “Show up to the game. . . . Show up for the McNairs, show up for Jordan, and show up for our student-athletes.”