Amid widespread criticism of the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents, the Maryland General Assembly introduced legislation Monday that would expand the board to 21 members, and require it to be more transparent.
Maryland State Senate Bill 719, cross-filed with Maryland House of Delegates Bill 533, would add four additional members to the 17-member board and require streaming and archived video of open meetings be provided to the public.
The bills would also require all open meetings include an opportunity for public comment, and any votes related to the termination of university presidents or the chancellor be made in an open session.
“There are important components in the proposed bill that will strengthen the board,” system spokesperson Mike Lurie wrote in an email.
The goal of the bill, according to its sponsors, is to increase the transparency and effectiveness of the board, which sets policy for the system’s 12 member institutions. The board came under fire in recent months for its handling of the fallout from the death of Maryland football offensive lineman Jordan McNair.
“I think everybody in Maryland would categorize the decision of the board last fall as being certainly tone deaf,” said Sen. Sarah Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel), the primary sponsor of the Senate bill. “There was a certain lack of transparency that just came to light in that process that, frankly, I think the general public were dissatisfied with, and I think we’ve lost some of the public’s trust.”
In the months after McNair’s death, the regents oversaw two investigations — one into the circumstances surrounding the workout in which he suffered heatstroke and another, broader investigation into the football program’s culture, which was described in an ESPN report as “toxic.” Despite the first investigation’s conclusion that athletic staff did not properly treat McNair’s symptoms of heatstroke, the regents recommended that the university retain the two trainers responsible. At an Oct. 30 press conference, then-regents chair James Brady recommended that head football coach DJ Durkin and athletic director Damon Evans keep their jobs, though the commission found they shared responsibility for allowing abuse in the program to go unchecked.
In his email, Lurie said the system looks forward to “working with the sponsors of legislation to ensure that the board continues to operate for the benefit of the system’s 176,000 students across the state.”
Under the proposal, the four additions to the board would include the commerce secretary, an appointee each from the leaders of the Senate and the House, and a non-voting student member in addition to the current voting student member.
The bills would provide an opportunity for the non-voting student member — who’d be appointed by the governor — to learn for a year prior to becoming a voting member.
It would also require that board appointments — including the student members — be made within 40 days of the start of each regular legislative session. In the past, student members have been appointed as late as June 30 for terms beginning on July 1, Elfreth said.
Last week, the system announced it commissioned an independent governance review to evaluate the current board’s policies and procedures.
Board chair Linda Gooden, who was elected after Brady resigned in the aftermath of the Maryland football scandal, promised increased transparency from the board — an increase SGA President Jonathan Allen said he has yet to see.
At the same Oct. 30 press conference where the regents recommended Durkin and Evans stay, university President Wallace Loh announced his retirement. The Washington Post later reported that the regents told Loh they would fire him if he fired Durkin. In the months that followed, the regents didn’t publicly share any updates in regards to the search for his replacement.
“The cultural changes start at the top,” said Allen, who has been critical of the lack of transparency in the months that followed Loh’s retirement announcement. “We need to see some cultural changes where they prioritize hearing the voices of the stakeholders they represent and govern over.”
It wasn’t until a Jan. 30 press conference when the regents announced that Loh would remain in his role for an extra year, and that regent Gary Attman would lead the committee to search for his replacement.
Sen. Jim Rosapepe (D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s) said it’s important for all Marylanders to be more informed about the board’s actions.
“Given the problems we saw last year in the operations of the regents, we wanted to try and improve it,” Rosapepe said. “I think part of the issue is that they need to be much more transparent in their decision-making.”
The bill is scheduled to be heard in the House on Feb. 19, and a day later in the Senate. If passed, the bill would go into effect July 1. Elfreth said she believes the Senate already has enough votes for a veto-proof majority.
State lawmakers gave the authority to the board in 1988, and 31 years later, the government is only doing the “healthy thing” by revisiting the issue, Elfreth said.
“This in no way is meant as a punishment, or to place shame on what happened,” she said. “This is just kind of a natural reviewing of the code to make sure that it is functioning as it should.”