Why Suffolk community stands behind Margaret McKenna

Students, faculty, staff, and alumni are weary of trustees' micromanagement

MARGARET MCKENNA IS the fifth president Suffolk University has had since 2010; now, seven months into her first term, the chairman of Suffolk’s board of trustees wants to fire her.

That’s really all you need to know to understand the outpouring of support for McKenna from Suffolk students, faculty, staff, and alumni. We have seen and felt our university reeling from one strategic direction to another with sudden program cuts, mass firings of administrative staff that had no clear relation to their job performance, new strategic plans, and top-down micromanagement from the board.

Margaret McKenna

McKenna: Under fire from board chairman, but getting support from students, faculty, alumni.

We had high expectations for McKenna, and while she has made some unpopular decisions, she has mostly lived up to them. She has listened to everyone and spoken her own mind freely. And she has shown that she has a clear understanding of the threats to Suffolk’s future and a vision of what we can do to respond to those threats. Her initiative to publicize and intensify Suffolk’s existing strength in public policy has already raised the university’s profile, and her call for an expanded environmental studies/environmental science program focused on urban sustainability will increase the university’s relevance when the new program launches in September. I do not agree with everything she has done, but there is no question that she is restoring a sense that Suffolk has a strong future as an innovative university.

Given how good most of the campus community felt about McKenna, the sudden attempt to fire her is hard to comprehend. According to the Boston Herald, which broke the story last week, trustees were upset that their individual portraits were no longer displayed in Sargent Hall, were unhappy that the Beacon Hill Institute was leaving Suffolk, and thought McKenna made a bad decision not to fund the Suffolk Poll to survey voters in Iowa and to call for polling the California primary instead.

It is hard to take any of those seriously. Portraits? Really? The Beacon Hill Institute? I am sorry it is leaving but, for the record, the institute was under review before McKenna arrived, and could have stayed – and probably still can – had it been willing to accept the restrictions all other Suffolk research enterprises operate under.

As for the Suffolk Poll – presidents going back to David Sargent have made the decisions about which polls to fund. It certainly sounds bad to poll California instead of Iowa; but it would have cost a lot, and our poll would have been one of a great many. Of course, if either the Democratic or Republican contests are still up in the air going into California, she will look like a genius.

Next we heard that McKenna was promoting herself rather than the university. This one is hard to fathom. She launched the “Suffolk Solutions” and “Suffolk Is Politics” campaigns with great energy; and her own press interviews focused on the great potential Suffolk has for leadership. We heard nothing about what a great individual Margaret McKenna is. She may have bruised some trustee egos with her supposedly “abrasive” manner (has there ever been a woman in leadership not chastised for abrasiveness?), but all her actions were clearly in the service of Suffolk.

Over the weekend, Andrew Meyer, chairman of the Suffolk board of trustees, offered a new line of attack — that the university is on course to run a small deficit this year, the first in a years, and that it was due to McKenna’s irresponsible decision to extend the lease on the university’s Archer and Donahue buildings and to hire an executive assistant and some other key individuals without board approval.

A deficit would be unfortunate, but McKenna’s actions must be seen in the context of the damage left behind by her predecessor, interim president Norman Smith. In a nutshell, Smith sold the Archer and Donahue buildings and agreed to vacate them before September 1, but had not found the space to relocate either the classrooms or many of the offices based in those buildings. Only about half of them fit into the new Somerset building. McKenna had to choose between academic chaos and a spending overrun; her decision was the only responsible one.

Moreover, Smith had either fired or driven away all of the major gifts officers, and all but one of the alumni office staff. Fundraising was in chaos, and had to be built back up. McKenna hired a “special assistant” who could start immediately to run the operation, and a new senior vice president for advancement who could not start until January 2016. Fundraising is a long-term process. You get recent graduates to give small amounts in order to form a habit of giving, solicit donations in the $50,000 range from successful mid-career alumni, and hope that they will give much larger amounts when they make it big. You need people to help you do that, and you need to keep them long enough for them to build real relationships with potential donors. McKenna did not have much choice about hiring here; and the devastation of the advancement office helps explain why fundraising has fallen short of its target so far this year.

There are other things one might argue about. McKenna closed one of Suffolk’s gems, the Friedman Field Station in Cobscook Bay, Maine, and shut down the electrical engineering program, which had spectacular results in job placement but never attracted a large number of students. But these were individual decisions, not part of some overall pattern of dereliction or recklessness. They are certainly not a reason to fire a dynamic president who is otherwise doing a good job.

So why the urge to fire her? It could be Andrew Meyer’s bruised ego – pitifully, that is possible. But there are two larger themes to this story. The first of these is the rumored desire to replace McKenna with former attorney general Martha Coakley.

The Suffolk trustees have a strange fascination with politicians. It is an open secret that they wanted to hire former congressman Marty Meehan last spring, had he only not taken a much better job as the president of the University of Massachusetts. And now they seem to be dead set on hiring Coakley. But why? Public institutions of higher learning seek politicians—William Bulger, David Bartley, or Meehan—because they get big chunks of their budgets from the state, and need some political influence to increase the size of those chunks. But that is not true of Suffolk, a private university, so it is unclear what advantage a politically-connected president would bring.

What worries me is that the trustees have a different mindset, a belief that Suffolk will survive not by vision and development, but by throwing roadblocks in the way of our competition. Suffolk spent years in a losing battle to stop the creation of a public law school at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Today, our greatest threat is the potential opening of dorms at the University of Massachusetts Boston. McKenna’s response to this threat is to develop unique attractive programs that will draw students to us. The trustees’ preferred response, I fear, is to try to stop the Legislature from appropriating money to build those dorms. Such a strategy is immoral and unethical, and doomed to fail.

Finally, as with so many things at Suffolk, one has to consider the role of the university’s public relations agency, Regan Communications. Principal George Regan was named to the board of trustees in 2008, but did not take his seat because of questions raised about his firm’s contracts with the university. Julie Kahn, Regan Communications’s current executive vice president, was named to the board while working at Entercom Communications. Regan got about half a million dollars of business from Suffolk in the 2012-2013 fiscal year; in fiscal 2014 Regan was paid about $300,000, and about $200,000 went to Entercom. Regan has long been a power behind the scenes at Suffolk, and several trustees are Regan clients. Rumors are flying around campus that McKenna had sought to end or limit the contract with Regan Communications. These rumors have not been substantiated by any evidence, but are contributing to the mood of distrust and anger within the community.

I will soon complete my 42nd year as a Suffolk faculty member. In that time, I have never seen the mood that now exists on campus. On the one hand, there is a strong hope that McKenna can lead us forward to a period of strength; on the other, there is a profound fear that the trustees will once again set us back through their micromanaging of the university’s day to day operations and sacking of yet another president.

I will retire at the end of June, and my pension is fully vested, so I have no direct stake in this conflict. But I have given decades of my life to trying to help build Suffolk as a respected institution of higher learning and a place that provides our students with a top-notch education. I fear that a decision to fire McKenna would be a tremendous step backwards. That feeling is shared by many others on campus – and that is what gives me hope.

Meet the Author

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.

CORRECTION: This article been updated to reflect the fact that George Regan was appointed to, but did not serve on, the Suffolk board of trustees. It has also been updated to make clear that Julie Kahn, now at Regan Communications, worked at Entercom Communications at the time she was named to Suffolk’s board of trustees.