Split Decision at Suffolk

Margaret McKenna will stay on as president, but only until start of 2017-18 year. In interview, she discusses what happened. Board chair who pushed to oust her is out in May.

February 8, 2016
Margaret McKenna

Students marched and rallied Friday (right), as snow fell in Boston, outside the building where Suffolk University's board was meeting to decide the fate of Margaret McKenna.

The students strongly back McKenna, Suffolk's fifth president in five years, and were rallying against a plan by board leaders to fire her. The person who should be forced out, according to both students and faculty leaders, is the board chair.

The students got some of what they wanted. McKenna wasn't fired, but will leave no later than the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year. Board leaders have been pushing for her to leave, but students, faculty members and alumni have rallied to keep her, saying that she has reached out and listened to them, while making tough decisions about how to advance the university around an agenda of public service focused on the Boston area.

Andrew Meyer, the board chair, will finish his current term in May and not seek re-election. Many student and faculty leaders blame him for leaks that they consider inaccurate that appeared in Boston news media outlets in recent weeks criticizing McKenna.

Further, the university announced that "the board has agreed to adopt new bylaws that reflect best practices in higher education by May 2016."

Many students and faculty members took to social media late Friday to express disappointment. They wanted McKenna for the long run.

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed after the board meeting's results were announced, McKenna said she understood the students' disappointment. But she said she approached the board meeting with two top goals -- both of which she achieved.

One was that the board's bylaws and policies change to reflect good practice in higher education. Without those changes, she said, any future president would be hindered. The other was that any transition be an orderly one, involving a national search, and that Suffolk not have yet another interim leader.

"If there had to be a transition, there didn't have to be instability," she said.

Asked if this meant that she entered the meeting knowing she wouldn't be president for the long run, McKenna said that she was trying to avoid an up-and-down vote on her presidency that could have hurt the institution.

"I don't know what that vote would have been, but no matter what the vote would have been I think it would have been a loss to the university and it would have been very divisive," McKenna said. "Even if I quote-unquote won, it would still have been divisive" and the needed reforms to board policies might not have been adopted.

She said that current board bylaws don't have "basic features" for a college board, such as a set quorum, an academic affairs committee or clear duties of trustees and their committees. "Very basic things didn't exist, let alone best practices," she said.

Sexist Attacks?

Some of McKenna's supporters said they were particularly angered by the way some trustees criticized her, anonymously, in the press. After initially being vague about why board members wanted McKenna out, trustees said, among other things, that she might be too "abrasive" or might not be "a good cultural fit." To many, this was code for McKenna being a strong woman (who happened to have a strong record as a successful president at nearby Lesley University, which she led from 1985 to 2007).

Shirley Leung, in a column for The Boston Globe, described a pattern of women being brought in to lead institutions that faced tough challenges and then being told that they weren't deferring to others. The situation, she wrote, "has many women in this town watching in horror."

In the interview, McKenna was quick to say that she viewed the comments that have alarmed so many women as not coming from all board members, and as not representing all board members "and not representing Suffolk."

She said that the language used, however, was "incredibly unfortunate" and surprised her. She said she didn't want to speculate on the motivations of those who made the comments, but that she was "taken aback."

"I have been me for a long, long time, and I haven't heard those comments in my life," she said.

Campus Reaction

Many on campus were dismayed that McKenna will not be staying as long as they would have hoped.

Here is the student body president's tweet:

Many others said that the board members should quit and let McKenna stay.

The Faculty Senate held a special meeting late Friday and then issued this statement:

"Throughout this difficult period of time in our university, the Faculty Senate has consistently sought to bring about fundamental reforms in our university governance and will continue to do so. We note that the trustees recognized the need for the current chair to leave the board. We are also pleased that the board recognized that the current bylaws are grossly inadequate and is committed to promptly replacing them with new bylaws consistent with best practices. However, the joint statement issued by the university leaves many critical questions unanswered. The university community deserves to be apprised of the full contents of the agreement. We applaud the dedication of the students, alumni, staff and faculty to this institution and will continue to cooperate with them as this unfinished process evolves. While we are relieved that the immediate crisis has passed, the Faculty Senate will continue to insist on attainment of meaningful and urgent reform."

Many who have been watching events unfold over the last week told Inside Higher Ed that if the board fired McKenna, no sane person would apply for the job.

McKenna said she disagreed. She noted that a number of board members have terms that are expiring and are likely to be replaced. She said the changes in bylaws will make a big difference.

And she pointed to the protests of the last week, which united students, faculty members and alumni, all vocally expressing their commitment to Suffolk and willingness to work on its behalf. She noted that presidents all over the country have faced protests calling for their ouster, while she had students backing her all the way. That should impress potential candidates. "Six months from now, I think this is going to be a sought-after job."


Back to Top