Suffolk U. is stronger than you think

Suffolk U. is stronger than you think

Boston location gives students access to opportunity

FROM A DISTANCE, Suffolk University appears to be an institution in disarray.

Six presidents in as many years. Enrollment is down, especially at the law school. It is reeling from a public spat between the board of trustees and its former president, who was removed in July after a contentious war of words.

A hangdog narrative clings to Suffolk, an image of management dysfunction and decline. Even a payroll blip recently generated a story in the Boston Globe, affirming that the university has a target on its back for making meaningless missteps. In football terminology it’s called piling on.

Yet when I walk up Beacon Hill to teach a course at Suffolk once a week, I encounter a Suffolk that in no way resembles the headlines. I find academic engagement — a beehive of motivated students and capable faculty.

You may be tempted to dismiss my perspective as bias from an employee, albeit a poorly paid adjunct. My motive is merely to expand a simplistic narrative. The university, below the surface, is doing just fine despite its embarrassing episodes. And my argument here is Suffolk has a bright future.

Its perseverance stems from students and faculty, for sure, but also from an extremely important asset: the city of Boston. For what matters more than ever in higher education is geography with access to opportunity. A good school in the right place with a motivated student will translate into a great education with abundant job options.

Unlucky and perhaps inept with its governance, Suffolk has the good fortune of being smack dab in the middle of one of the best economies in the country. Suffolk has the wind at its back, pushed by the momentum of Boston’s growth.

And students increasingly value the proximity. When I ask my class about its experiences with the startup community, a hand always pops up. It belongs to Lane Sutton, who, it so happens, has had internships at several tech firms, including HubSpot and TripAdvisor. Lane is not an average student by any means: He started his own website business when he was 11 and, now, as only a sophomore, has a part-time, remote job with Disney helping it use social media to attract talent.

Lane had no shortage of college options, but he chose Suffolk because of Boston and everything it has to offer. He takes full advantage, regularly attending startup-related networking events.

The problems at Suffolk? “I don’t think many of us think about it that much,” Lane says. “It’s our relationship with professors on a day-to-day level that matters. And that’s what makes Suffolk special.”

Lane is busy writing his own ticket, and when he graduates, he will have in spades what almost every student needs before he or she graduates: real-world experience.

Employers increasingly insist on seeing proof from young graduates that they already have successfully operated in a business environment. With Boston at its front door, Suffolk is situated to provide para-professional experience that few schools, with the exception of Northeastern and its co-op program, can match.

Our region very much needs the talent, and not only in STEM fields. Massachusetts faces a college degree shortage of 52,000 by 2025, according to a Board of Higher Education study. That’s a challenge that schools such as Suffolk would like to meet. In an era when colleges are under pressure to prove their value proposition, Suffolk has the advantage of putting its students in the middle of the action. In many cases, it’s a five-minute walk down the street.

Negative narratives take time to dispel. The truth is Suffolk’s finances are solid and undergraduate enrollment is stable. This year Suffolk again will select a new president, and it’s likely he or she will recognize and leverage the university’s secret sauce: Its deep affinity with Boston, whose dynamism meshes perfectly with a university in its midst. For all its foibles, Suffolk finds itself in the right place at the right time.

Meet the Author

George Donnelly

Vice president, Northwind Strategies
George Donnelly is a vice president at Northwind Strategies and the author of The Boston Economy: Understanding and Accessing One of the World’s Best Job Markets.