Suffolk-cating presidents

Suffolk University is in a constant identity crisis. Of course, when you have five presidents in six years, that’s bound to happen. And, if the university’s board of trustees has its way, the downtown school may be making yet another change at the top. But this time, it’s not happening without a fight.

Reports began circulating last week that the board, led by its chairman, well-known attorney Andrew Meyer, was greasing the skids to oust President Margaret McKenna and replace her with former attorney general Martha Coakley. McKenna’s sin? Well, here’s where it gets murky.

Many of the leaks to the Herald and Globe cited McKenna’s decision to pare back on the school’s polling to save money and sever ties with the conservative Beacon Hill Institute. Other reports question her “abrasive” and “confrontational” administrative style and point to her unfettered use of a school credit card and the potential for a deficit in the current fiscal year.

Meyer and other trustees say the board has been bristling at McKenna’s style of excluding them from significant fiscal decisions and showing disrespect for the panel, such as taking down trustees’ portraits that had been hanging in Sargent Hall, ironically named for former president David Sargent, the first presidential domino to fall in 2010.

They cite her approval of more than $670,000 to market and sponsor Political Happy Hour sessions with the Globe, where high-profile politicians sit down for a conversation before a live audience that’s also streamed on the web. During one emergency meeting with the trustees last month, McKenna walked out to attend a Political Happy Hour with US Rep. Stephen Lynch.

“We are not potted plants,” Meyer told the Globe in defending the board’s authority to be involved in the decision-making process.

They may not be potted plants but it will be interesting to see if they wilt under pressure. For the first time in the six years of upheaval, students and faculty are fighting back. A group has started a crowdfunding site to raise money to run ads in support of McKenna and the president of the student government association, which is planning a vote of no-confidence in Meyer, is meeting with the board chairman this morning.

McKenna has not received full-throated backing from students or faculty on every decision she’s made, and some may not be sold on her style. But as longtime Suffolk professor John C. Berg writes this morning in CommonWealth, she is who everyone thought she was, and she does not sugarcoat anything or play games. She has shown a steady hand and positive vision for the university’s future, he writes, and that, more than anything, is what Suffolk needs most.

“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,” he writes. “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.”

But this all may come too late. One report has a board member telling McKenna that Meyer has the votes to remove her. But swirling through all this is the question of why, after seven months, does the board see McKenna as underperforming and why they want to replace her with someone like Coakley, a well-known politician but someone with no education administrative background and someone who is not even an alumna?

Coakley is not the first big political name the board has pursued. They openly panted for then-UMass Lowell chancellor Marty Meehan, a Suffolk alumnus, who ended up taking the UMass president’s job, before the board turned to McKenna.

As Craig Douglas at the Boston Business Journal points out, many of the trustees are tied into the city’s legal circle, which has been a staunch supporter of Coakley, and at least eight trustees, including Meyer, have contributed thousands to Coakley’s campaigns. Among those donors is Julie Kahn of the politically wired Regan Communications, which has been the benefactor of hundreds of thousands in fees as the school’s p.r. firm.

Douglas makes the case that the move to run McKenna out on the rails is a matter of pettiness and reflects more on the trustees than it does her.

“Say what you will about Margaret McKenna,” Douglas writes, “but no college president can effectively do his or her job with two dozen overlords scrutinizing every move, especially at a flailing organization in need of a turnaround.”




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A Herald editorial applauds the Senate’s public records legislation, saying it’s a big improvement over the House bill, which it calls “a disappointing effort, bordering on toothless.”

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Massachusetts food pantries expect an influx of 50,000 people come April 1 because of the reinstatement of a suspended rule that cuts some people off of food stamps if they are able to work, even if they haven’t got a job. (MassLive)


Suffolk University president Margaret McKenna fires back at trustees who are out to fire her after just seven months on the job. Adrian Walker says McKenna’s biggest sin seems to have been acting like a university president, something its trustees, who have fired four presidents in five years, don’t seem to appreciate. (Boston Globe)

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The lawyer for man convicted of a 2010 quadruple murder in Mattapan is trying to get the state’s Supreme Judicial Court to review the case based on potential outside factors that may have influenced the jury. (Boston Herald) 


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