Suffolk University board members should be ashamed of themselves. They are passing up the chance to put the school back on the map as a proud and storied urban university and a meaningful player in greater Boston’s civic life. Its inbred board, concerned only about its own power, has launched an attack to undermine the school’s new president, Margaret McKenna, though she has only been in place for seven months and has clearly won the support of students and faculty.
The board has been slammed by NEASC, the eminent accreditation institution for colleges and universities, for having overreached its oversight and regulatory role and exercised inappropriate authority over functions that “best practices” dictate should belong to the president of an institution. The board, for example, has been handling hiring and firing decisions normally carried out by the president acting as CEO.
The board seems to have trumped up charges of overspending, though McKenna’s scant seven-month record hardly constitutes evidence of that. What mostly seems to have riled the board is that McKenna has hired and fired people without the board’s approval. As the Boston Globe’s Adrian Walker observes, she got fired in less time than it takes to flunk out. But wasn’t she hired to shake up things at the fusty institution, which has had five presidents in five years? Apparently not. Apparently the board wanted yet another puppet.
They also say she is “abrasive.” Meaning, I suppose, that she doesn’t kow-tow to the board. As the Globe’s Shirley Leung so rightly observes in this morning’s paper, when GE’s Jack Welch or Apple’s late CEO Steve Jobs was abrasive, they are hailed as bold and decisive. It’s hard to argue with Leung’s assessment that this is all about gender politics.
The 28-member board is highly influenced by powerful public relations guru George Regan. Walker’s column says he was paid a startling $366,000 a year to handle the university’s public relations. In today’s Boston Business Journal, Regan, apparently deeply offended, says it’s only $250,000. He has handled Suffolk’s public relations at least back to David Sargent’s very long reign as president and was put on the board briefly in 2008. That ended quickly because of the obvious conflict of interest. Now Julie Kahn, a senior executive at Regan Communications, sits there. Along, I might add, with a roster of other Regan clients. Again according to the BBJ, five of Suffolk’s trustees are Regan clients.
The tone-deaf board had actually made overtures to former Attorney General Martha Coakley to take over as president. Her public statement today rejecting the idea was one of the smartest moves Coakley ever made. What thinking person would want to become president of a university with that dysfunctional governing board? What accomplished woman would walk into such an old-boy-dominated snake pit?
A smart board, one worthy of running a university like Suffolk, would recognize the gem they have in Margaret McKenna. They would let her run the institution according to her best judgment, with advice not micromanagement from the board, input from students and faculty, and judge her fairly on the basis of at least a full year’s performance. It takes time to correct the course of an institution that has been botched for a long time.
I knew McKenna slightly when she was at the Justice Department under President Jimmy Carter. I worked with her briefly when she was president of Lesley University, where she did an excellent job and really put the school on the map. I watched from afar when she ran the Walmart Foundation, inching the retrograde Walmart reputation into more socially responsible sensibilities. She is a highly intelligent, creative and experienced executive, who has the capacity to improve and lead Suffolk University, if only the board will get out of the way and let her do the job.
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