Cache of Messages Reveals Leadership Challenges of Maryland Move to Big Ten

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Wallace Loh, president of the U. of Maryland at College Park, announces the university's move from the ACC to the Big Ten. More than a few alumni were opposed to the decision.
December 05, 2013

William E. (Brit) Kirwan was in a bind. Hours after word leaked last year that the University of Maryland was considering a move to the prestigious Big Ten Conference, the system's chancellor was facing resistance nearly everywhere he looked.

"How ugly is it getting?" Mr. Kirwan asked a colleague the day after many reports surfaced.

"We have 80 emails against, 2 for," wrote Sapienza Barone, an assistant to the president of the College Park campus. One Facebook page, "Maryland to Big 10—I Hate It," had 1,755 members. Another, "Boycott Terps Football," had 973. "There are thousands and thousands of comments on the press stories—mostly arguing with each other about the cons and pros ... to be honest, I can't keep up."

The commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference, where Maryland had played sports for nearly 60 years, wanted answers. Alumni were threatening to pull donations. And many Terrapins coaches were upset and opposed to the idea, one leader reported.

"Does any of this give you pause?" Mr. Kirwan wrote to Barry P. Gossett, a member of the university system's Board of Regents.

In an earlier message, the regent had expressed concerns: "I have been getting calls and emails from friends and fans alike, bottom line is 'say it ain't so.'"

Despite the pushback, Mr. Kirwan appeared to have his mind made up, according to more than 1,000 pages of emails obtained by The Chronicle in a public-records request. He just needed to persuade more people that it was the right call.

Over 72 hours last November, as the conference question hung over the state's flagship campus, the chancellor painted a rosy picture of Big Ten membership, citing advantages for academic programs and an influx of new TV money that would bolster Maryland's struggling athletic department.

But emails between Mr. Kirwan and top officials suggested a lack of regard for concerns about the largely secretive negotiations. Confidentiality agreements prevented the Big Ten proposal from being shared widely, and the majority of board discussions happened over a weekend.

During that time, the chancellor sent notes critical of the ACC, a premiere league that Maryland helped form. He repeatedly criticized one regent who opposed the move. And the university worked closely with a corporate-communications consultant in an attempt to influence public opinion.

The chancellor's emails provide a rare glimpse into the leadership challenges surrounding a high-profile conference switch. They illustrate the power that top officials have over such decisions, and the peril that can accompany a fast-moving, highly charged debate.

Mixed Messages?

Plenty of colleges have faced similar incentives and made the same choices. And lots of people came to commend Mr. Kirwan's efforts.

One early supporter was R. Gerald Turner, the president of Southern Methodist University.

"Brit, I don't blame you," Mr. Turner emailed after Maryland's Big Ten move was announced. "There are too many positives for the University for you to have stood in the doorway.

"What I don't like," he added, "is the ACC taking another Big East team!!"

(Less than two weeks after Maryland said it was departing for the Big Ten, the University of Louisville said it was moving to the ACC.)

Mr. Turner and Mr. Kirwan discussed other concerns as well. As co-chairs of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a watchdog group that has advocated for controls on spending in college sports, they found themselves defending moves to higher-power conferences.

"With my moving to the Big East and Maryland's move to the Big 10, we will need to think through all our messages," Mr. Turner wrote. He said he didn't feel compromised on the commission's issues, but that he, Mr. Kirwan, and Amy Perko, the commission's executive director, "probably need a frank conversation."

"Totally agree," Mr. Kirwan responded. "I was thinking exactly the same thing."

But the message about leaving the ACC was Mr. Kirwan's to manage—and the prospect was not so easy for many alumni to accept. A number wrote to Mr. Kirwan directly, with some taking shots at Wallace D. Loh, the College Park president, and Kevin Anderson, the university's athletic director.

"I spoke to twenty Maryland grads tonight and we are all AGAINST going to the Big Ten," Neil Keller, a 1982 accounting graduate, wrote the chancellor the day before the decision was finalized. "I know Doctor Loh and Kevin Anderson are new to Maryland but how can they push Maryland to a conference when at least 90% of the alumni and fan base are against this?" (Two polls at the time suggested that about 70 percent of people opposed the change, emails show.)

Tom Millet, a 1976 graduate, wondered why the Terrapins would leave a powerhouse basketball conference that had a big financial upside.

"The ACC is on the verge of an exciting new era, with Notre Dame, Pitt, and Syracuse joining," he emailed Mr. Kirwan. "What an attractive market to build an ACC network, rather than join a market where the closest rival is a day's drive away."

Others praised the academic reputations of Duke University, Georgia Tech, and other ACC institutions, arguing that they stack up well against the universities of the Big Ten.

Mr. Kirwan, a former president of Ohio State University, trumpeted the benefits of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, the Big Ten's academic consortium. He claimed the consortium gave the league a "very substantial academic advantage."

The ACC, he told one former leader who had worked in the Southeastern Conference and the Pac-12, has become a "mix of institutions with no unifying academic mission." In other emails, the chancellor said that Maryland was "increasingly dissatisfied" with the ACC. "There was less and less identity with the schools, other than in athletics."

Some of the strongest criticism the chancellor heard came from Joseph D. Tydings, a former U.S. Senator from Maryland. He sent Mr. Kirwan a note blasting Pennsylvania State University, Ohio State, and other institutions for athletics-related improprieties, and expressed concerns about the lack of transparency in Maryland's Big Ten discussions. Mr. Kirwan emailed him an article about an academic scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"You seem to think we are sliding down the integrity scale by leaving the ACC for the Big Ten," the chancellor wrote. "This is about what's been going on at UNC."

In an exchange with James L. Shea, chair of the Board of Regents, the two leaders discussed the possible effects of leaving the ACC, including ending decades-long rivalries that many fans were already mourning.

"For some time I have been bothered that these 'traditional rivalries' have provoked toxic reactions from abusive language at the games to riots and car burnings after victories," Mr. Shea wrote the chancellor. "Maybe the most significant result will be that we have disrupted the fan base and that a new base, equally dedicated to excellence and success but more civilized, will take its place."

Media Matters

C. Thomas McMillen, a regent who strongly opposed the move, became a thorn for Mr. Kirwan. A former Maryland basketball star who served three terms in Congress, Mr. McMillen was most critical about the secretive negotiations. In an opinion piece for The Washington Post and in an interview with The Chronicle, he railed against what he saw as a "rushed process."

"I thought that something as monumental as this should take more time," he said at the time. "I thought the players, the coaches—even the ACC, which we have been involved with for 60 years—should be a part of the decision." (Mr. McMillen's sister, Liz McMillen, is the editor of The Chronicle.)

When Mr. Kirwan read the criticism, he fumed. "Tom's comments in the media are raising my blood pressure," he said on Monday, November 19, the day the deal was completed.

Later, he wrote to Mr. Shea, the board chair: "Tom is outrageous. He is using his self righteous protestations for shameless self promotion. ... Not sure there is anything we can do about it but I have lost whatever modicum of respect I had for him. I consider his blather an affront to the Board and to me personally."

As Mr. Kirwan prepared for final deliberations with the regents, he wrote to Mr. Shea, apparently looking for advice on how to frame the announcement.

"Jim: An important technical question. Does the BOR 'approve' or 'endorse' the deal. I would opt for the latter language but either can work," Mr. Kirwan said.

Mr. Shea suggested that an endorsement was more appropriate, but deferred to Thomas Faulk, who oversees legal matters for the university, for clarification of the regents' authority.

Mr. Faulk found no statutory provisions requiring the board's approval. However, he did find language allowing campus presidents the authority to "regulate and administer" athletic and student activities.

"Given this specific statutory language and the absence of anything to the contrary," Mr. Faulk wrote, "I vote for 'endorse.'"

On the morning of the announcement, Maryland's public-relations staff released a detailed schedule describing when certain constituents would be notified. After Mr. Kirwan and other leaders met with the board, at 9 a.m., the deans would receive notice. Then the university would hold a special session of its Senate Executive Committee.

At 11, Mr. Loh, the College Park president, would inform John D. Swofford, the ACC commissioner. A half-hour later, a media advisory would go out announcing a late-afternoon news conference. After the release, coaches were allowed to hold team meetings to tell players.

Head coaches were invited to stand on stage at the news conference in a "visible show of support."

By the time they gathered for the cameras, the student government association and the faculty senate had endorsed the decision. The deans also supported it, Mr. Kirwan wrote later. "In fact," he said, "they broke into spontaneous applause" when Mr. Loh informed them.

But two of the university's highest-profile employees, Mark Turgeon, the men's basketball coach, and Brenda Frese, the national-champion women's basketball coach, were not so sure. According to an email from one regent who had talked to them, both had balked at leaving the ACC.

In the end, though, after this long weekend, the coaches lined up. They may not have all agreed at the time, but they formed a solid wall of red behind the chancellor.

Read the Emails

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