Suffolk settlement a big win for McKenna and university

Week of conflict ends with school finally on solid course

ON FRIDAY, AFTER a week of growing conflict between Suffolk University’s board of trustees on one side, and students, faculty, staff, and alumni who supported President Margaret McKenna on the other, the trustees agreed to a settlement:

  • Trustees chairman Andrew Meyer would leave the board at the end of his current term this May.
  • The board agreed to revise its bylaws in line with best practices, as required by the university’s accrediting agency, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC).
  • Once the new bylaws had been adopted and a new chair of the Board had taken office, a search committee would be formed to look for a new president.
  • McKenna would continue to serve as president until her successor took office, or not later than the fall of 2017.
Margaret McKenna

A win for President McKenna and Suffolk.

Many in the press, including CommonWealth editors Bruce Mohl and Michael Jonas, have expressed puzzlement at this settlement. McKenna seemed to be winning: Mayor Marty Walsh had said he supported her, NEASC was asking the board why it had not revised its bylaws already – it was supposed to have been done by the end of 2014, and Attorney General Maura Healey was threatening to investigate. Given all that, it seemed as if McKenna could have won completely, forcing out Meyer and his allies and serving at least the full term of her contract.  Instead, in Mohl and Jonas’s view, Suffolk is stuck with “a lame duck leader” until September 2017.

I think this view is wrong for two reasons. First, although McKenna was indeed gaining the upper hand, the path to complete victory involved the use of weapons that would have inflicted severe damage on the university. By Friday, the public was seeing two different Suffolks. On the one hand, there were the students, faculty, staff, and alumni showing how much they cared about Suffolk. No one could see that without thinking that this must be a special place. High school students deciding which university to choose might well want to join such a passionate and committed community.

The other image was one of squabbling, pettiness, corruption, and instability. As the conflict intensified, with irresponsible charges of out-of-control deficits (there were none), some students started to ask whether Suffolk would survive, and whether their degree would be worth anything.

McKenna clearly believes that the first story is more accurate, and is the story we want to tell to current and prospective students and their families. A challenge to Suffolk’s accreditation was the last thing anyone wanted to see, and the flurry of charges needed to end well before the spring recruiting season got into full swing — the first of the three big spring open houses for accepted students is just two weeks away.

One explanation, then, is that McKenna sacrificed her own interest in staying on for the good of the university. But that does not get the full picture. Basically, McKenna won the struggle in every important respect, including the ability to achieve the personal goals she set when she took office.

Since Andrew Meyer became chair of the Suffolk board, the university has had five presidents in five years. The particular circumstances have varied, but it’s pretty clear that Meyer was unwilling to give any president the independence they needed to do their job. Meyer’s departure, along with some of his allies, will make a huge difference.

The revision of the bylaws is equally important. The current bylaws are comical: a quorum of seven on a 30+ member board, the ability to serve forever (including four trustees who have been elected for life), the lack of transparency and accountability, and isolation from students and faculty (there used to be four faculty elected to meet with a committee of the board, but Meyer abolished that practice when he came in) are just some of the more notable features.

The agreement is not just that the bylaws will be changed, but that they will conform to best practices as defined by the accreditors.  This will be a revolutionary change for Suffolk.

Finally, McKenna will be anything but a lame duck. The balance of power has shifted from Meyer to her, and the remaining 18 months will give her time to solidify the changes she has sought. Her hand-picked senior vice president for advancement, who had had a contractual commitment elsewhere until January, is now on board and moving rapidly to improve the university’s fundraising. Her academic initiatives — the public policy focus, the new program in urban sustainability, the emphasis on teaching through community partners — will all be in place by this fall.

Meet the Author

By fall 2017, I firmly believe, people will be saying that Margaret McKenna has turned Suffolk around.

John C. Berg is a professor of government at Suffolk University, where he has taught for 42 years. He served as chairman of the Government Department from 2004-2010, and currently directs the Environmental Studies Program.