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Keith Strudler: The Challenge Of A Presidency

Unlike the secure position of a tenured professor, university presidents hold far less guarantees in their employment status. In fact, some might call that role tenuous, or even day to day. If you don’t believe me, ask Margaret Spellings, who lasted all of two years at UNC. Or you could ask current Maryland president Wallace Loh, who’s lasted a full eight years in his job. That run will come to an end in June of next year, when Loh will retire. That’s not altogether shocking, since he’s 72-years-old and had a long run in his post. But what is less usual is the manner in which he made his decision – not as a well thought out life plan, or a strategic process to hand over the reins, but under relative duress thanks to an escalating crisis in their athletics program. More specifically, Loh will effectively surrender his post for lack of oversight of a sports program that appeared out of control.

For those that aren’t aware, earlier this year a 19-year-old Maryland football player died through a confluence of abusive, neglect, and misprioritization. In short, this athlete, Jordan McNair, would probably still be alive if coaches and trainers actually did their job. What ensured was a scathing report by ESPN about an athletics program referred to as toxic, where athletes were largely afraid to confront what looked a lot like fraternity hazing at its worst. Where punishment included things like force feeding and athletes were pushed to pass out during workouts. As that story continued to cycle upward, as is often the case in university governance, the buck eventually stopped in the president’s office. Or perhaps more precisely, in the office of the Board of Trustees, who often find themselves on both sides of hypocrisy. So, rather than belabor the issue or find a strawman, President Wallace Loh announced his retirement from the position effective next year. Thus answers the question of who ultimately is held to blame for the dangerous machinery of Maryland’s sports program. Interestingly and perhaps surprisingly, both the athletic director and head football coach have kept their jobs. Perhaps there might have been a different result if the football team weren’t having a decent season with an upset of Texas for the second consecutive year.

There are likely several specific reasons Loh lost his job, including perhaps a conflict with the Board over whether Maryland’s football coach should be fired – something Loh seemed to want to happen. It’s also quite likely that Loh decided to retire not simply because of this awful saga, but rather the accumulation of the weight of the Presidency. I’m certain that after eight years of leadership, this was not the first unwinnable challenge Loh had to confront. So as bad as it is, the athletic mayhem and the death of a football player may still only have been a straw that broke his back.

That said, Loh’s upcoming departure is yet another affirmation of an increasingly clear challenge to Universities and, more specifically, their leadership. Regardless of any org chart, a college president of a major Division I university – like Maryland – is often and perhaps typically unable and perhaps unwilling to try to wrestle the bear that is their sports program – especially one that maintains a successful football team. As much as anything that happens at Maryland happens essentially under President Loh’s watch, trying to tell multi-million dollar head coaches how to run a program filled with aspiring professional athletes playing in front of millions of TV fans is far easier said than done. So as much as I’m sure Wallace Loh wouldn’t approve of strength and conditioning coaches forcing athletes to eat candy while watching their teammates run sprints until they pass out, it’s also pretty difficult for him to keep it from happening. And that’s even more true when your Board of Trustees seems more interested in protecting a winning sports brand than enforcing the moral code of the University, which, it should be noted, covers the athletic department as well.

All of which reminds us that trying to be a college president of a university that has top academic programs, helps to solve the world’s problems, cures diseases, serves the public, and plays elite level athletics that makes a lot of money is probably more than any one person can handle for too long – be it Wallace Loh or Margaret Spellings or any of the other top bosses trying to juggle and ride a unicycle at the same time. That is why being a college president, especially one with big time college sports, is a whole lot less stable than being one of the many tenured faculty that report into them. And why for Wallace Loh, eight years was simply enough.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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