When Passion Clouds Judgment: A Maryland Story

November 02, 2018

By Dan McGinn, Cofounder of Passions in America 

To folks with common sense,  the University of Maryland’s choice to retain Head Football Coach D. J. Durkin and two trainers after the death of a football player must seem impossibly clueless. How could a board composed of experienced, accomplished, and sophisticated people make a collective decision that is so tone-deaf, self-destructive and obviously wrong?

After spending three decades helping Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, and prominent individuals navigate crisis situations, I can tell you: this outcome is shockingly common. The Maryland Board of Trustees is made up of top-flight people who no doubt care genuinely for the institution. They believed I’m sure, that they were being thoughtful and prudent. They certainly were affected after a young man died needlessly on a football field and they undoubtedly want to do everything in their collective powers to be sure it doesn’t happen again. 

And yet, together they made a series of decisions that were jaw-droppingly foolish and deeply insensitive. 

What happened? I wasn’t in this particular room, and I don’t know the individuals involved, but I can tell you from being in similar rooms hundreds of times how groups of smart and accomplished people make decisions that everyone on the outside will instantly identify as catastrophic.

First, they lost sight of the institution’s core purpose: to serve the best interests of the students. This is the reason Maryland exists. And yet, in the heat of a crisis, people get so entangled in the passions and threats of the moment that they carelessly neglect the broader mission.

Second, they thought like Trustees instead of like parents. Every parent instinctively and immediately understands that the current football leadership team cannot be trusted to protect their children. Nothing else matters. But when you stop thinking like a parent in a situation like this one,  you can make disastrously wrong choices such as giving the head coach, athletic director, and trainers a vote of support. 

Third, they let personal agendas play a role in their deliberations. The board chair, James Brady, and the president, Wallace Loh,  previously had a falling out over a student senate initiative to rename Byrd Stadium because of its namesake’s record of racial discrimination. In a crisis, focus is everything. The Byrd Stadium issue should never have been a part of anyone’s thinking in this review. 

Fourth, they did not have anyone in the room who would tell them they were wrong. Nothing is more critical in a crisis than having an objective and fearless advisor who can see things dispassionately.

Finally, most dramatically, they made the common and critical mistake of thinking the decision was theirs to make. This arrogance and recklessness are so often at the heart of crises. When Jordan McNair died of heatstroke, the leadership of the university had the chance to make moral and sensitive decisions. But it was only that: a chance. 

When they didn’t act decisively and immediately with decency and grace, they made it clear to everyone in the University of Maryland community that they were not to be trusted. The community grew impatient. And when the board finally failed to do the right thing, that community of students, parents, and alumni immediately rejected the board’s decisions. They took control of the situation.

When faced with a revolt, the president stepped in and overruled the now discredited and powerless board. The board's credibility and judgment are now forever stained. They had a chance to respond to a heartbreaking tragedy with compassion, wisdom, and courage. They failed. They couldn’t see it, but everyone else knew immediately. 


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