Suffering Suffolk: 5 Presidents in 5 Years

BY BRIAN C. MITCHELL

Here we go again.

Late last month, the board of trustees fired Suffolk University’s president, Margaret McKenna, for cause. She is the fifth president in five years to depart the school.

The six-month saga had more thrills, spills, and missteps than the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and has become something of a spectator sport in Boston. Ms. McKenna, a civil rights lawyer, foundation head, and former university president, is much respected and widely known throughout American higher education. The Board hired an independent investigator and found breaches in her employment agreement and fiduciary responsibility that justified the termination, according to an email from the board.

Ms. McKenna released her own statement saying that she was given three reasons for her termination. The Board complained that she had inadequately communicated with the board about university accreditation officials, improperly provided information to the accreditors, and participated in a meeting with the Boston Globe’s editorial board when the first effort to oust her occurred in February.

The Board released its email to a largely empty campus and terminated Ms. McKenna well before the start of the new academic year. It appointed the provost as the interim president and named a trustee to head the search committee for a new president.

The Boston Globe fired back in a blistering editorial, opening with “well, excuse us.” In a fairly balanced opinion, the Globe reported on the achievements of Ms. McKenna and the trustees. Yet the Globe concluded: “But now that the board has fired her, it owns the consequences, and must ensure that the university gets the fully empowered, long-term leader that an institution so important to Boston’s future needs.”

Failed Governance System Must Be Repaired

Let’s be clear about the principal issue facing Suffolk University. It’s no longer about shutting down the friendly fire nor is it about contributing further to the ceaseless gossip in the growing “she said . . . they said” debacle. Indeed, both sides need to get past what happened quickly and reach an accommodation immediately. If all parties love Suffolk University – as they profess they do – then the University community must move forward to understand the root cause of the mess they have created.

The point is that it is pointless to litigate Suffolk’s crisis in the court of public opinion. What is essential, however, is that the shared system of governance at Suffolk – or what is left of it – must begin to function again.

The actions by the University’s board of trustees indicate at the moment that the board does not understand that it is the problem. The board’s actions have been vindictive, exceedingly public, secretive, lacking transparency, and hopelessly insular. Its recent actions are like watching the captain on the Titanic rearrange the deck chairs moments before the ship collides with the iceberg. Anyone could see it coming.

Let’s state the obvious – the board has completely lost its credibility. It is divided, badly factionalized, and hopelessly out of touch with how American higher education works. The terms of the February agreement keeping Ms. McKenna in place for almost 18 months effectively set up her to fail by not crafting a corresponding climate to ensure her authority, and therefore, her success.

To fix Suffolk University, the board must begin by acknowledging its own mistakes. It cannot correct from within by appointing trustees, no matter how well regarded, to begin a new executive search. To regain credibility, the Suffolk Board must also reach out in full transparency to faculty and remaining senior staff – the three legs of shared governance in higher education – to describe a transparent and believable search process around which the Suffolk University community can rally.

It must also conduct a nationwide search that does not presume that local candidates best suit the needs of a national university. These conversations must go well beyond the boardrooms and legal offices populating Boston’s skyscrapers where much of the mischief began. For the moment, Suffolk’s trustees will need to borrow against the credibility of respected national voices to have any hope of attracting a deep pool of qualified candidates.

Perhaps the greatest mistake that Suffolk’s trustees can make in the coming months is to fail to understand that American higher education is watching. They will face difficult, painful angry conversations with faculty, students, alumni, donors, and other key stakeholders. It is likely a given that donor support – especially among alumni and parents — will take a hit.

Damaged Reputation, Loss in National Standing

But what should worry trustees the most is Suffolk’s loss in national standing due to the damage that they have inflicted on its reputation. American colleges and universities take decades to burnish their academic standing among their peers. It usually takes as long for the standing to decline as inattention, board overreach, or weak administrations – or some combination of all three – extinguish the reputational flame. But Suffolk’s trustees have managed to diminish the standing of the institution that they are obligated to protect with a parochial swiftness that is almost breathtaking in its arrogance and insularity.

In these kinds of crises, you can fix almost anything. Sometimes you can hide in plain sight, wait it out, and confuse the issue. But what you cannot do is fix a broken reputation.

Suffolk University is a good place. It deserves better.

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