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Suffolk University to stress career learning

New president aims to keep tuition low, promote civic ties

James McCarthy

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

James McCarthy

Suffolk University president James McCarthy will unveil a new vision for the school Tuesday that seeks to transform the 106-year-old university into a leader in tech-savvy, career-oriented learning while keeping tuition costs down.

McCarthy, who will be inaugurated as Suffolk’s ninth president Tuesday, also said he wants to build on the Beacon Hill school’s prime ­location to bolster its civic engagement with Boston.

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“How will Suffolk be different? In very important ways,” McCarthy said, speaking in a recent interview in his top-floor office on Tremont Street, which offered sweeping views of downtown and beyond. “A Suffolk student graduating in 2018 will come through a Suffolk that’s much more ­focused, that has greater depth.”

McCarthy, who joined Suffolk in February after serving as a provost at Baruch College in New York City, will be officially installed as president in a Faneuil Hall ceremony. One of his
first orders of business, he said, is funneling resources into career-
oriented academic programs such as public policy, entrepreneurship, global business, inno­vation, and intellectual property.

McCarthy says he wants Suffolk, which enrolls about 9,500 students, to distinguish itself from peer institutions in the city and region that pursue a jack-of-all-trades approach to academic offerings. The university, which began as a law school taught out of a professor’s home in 1906, must reclaim its “unabashedly career-­focused” mission in ­order to succeed, McCarthy said.

“That’s a niche that we’ve had from the beginning,” he said.

McCarthy will also advocate for online learning, pushing for a hybrid approach that would couple Web instruction with smaller in-person sections and discussion groups led by faculty to review the class content. Five years from now, he said, at least 20 percent of an average student’s classes will be taught partially online.

‘Students and their families are paying a lot, and in some cases borrowing, to go to school here. And that’s a situation we have to address.’

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Online instruction, he said, will better equip students for a workplace where employees are expected to quickly digest and communicate information using technology.

His goals for e-learning, he acknowledged, will also function as a key cost-saving measure, important to a university that, McCarthy said, has ­increased tuition each year by what he called unsustainable rates. Suffolk charges about $44,000 per year for undergraduates who live on campus. In coming years, he said, he hopes to curb cost increases.

The university currently ­relies almost exclusively on student tuition plus room and board to fund its operations, making it more difficult to plan for the long term.

McCarthy says he is pursuing partnerships with local businesses for outside funding. He recently appointed a vice president for university advancement to focus on fund-raising. And then, he said, there are good old-fashioned alumni donations.

“Some of it means just getting money from people other than students,” he said. “Students and their families are paying a lot, and in some cases borrowing, to go to school here. And that’s a situation we have to address.”

The university has made plans to sell two of its Beacon Hill buildings, a move lauded by neighbors irked by noisy student traffic, and will open a $62 million classroom complex two blocks away at 20 Somerset St.

Financially, McCarthy said, the school is headed toward solid footing. Suffolk has an $11 million operating surplus this year, he said. And for the first time in the school’s history, all members of the board of trustees have donated to the school, a sign, he said, of growing interest within the alumni community of supporting the school.

In recent years, a modest 5 percent of alumni have donated to the school. McCarthy wants to bring that rate up to 15 percent, helping to grow the endowment that stands at $129 million, smaller than many institutions of comparable size.

But the bright future that McCarthy outlines may well bring drawbacks: Last year, the university laid off 20 admin­istrators. McCarthy did not rule out the possibility that more staff cuts may occur in coming years.

“Inevitably, there will be difficult decisions that will have to be made,” McCarthy said. “. . . That’s in all spheres of what we do. We have to make the difficult decisions because we want to become excellent.”

McCarthy’s appointment followed years in which the school was widely criticized by alumni and faculty as complacent and antiquated. In 2009, a Suffolk trustee told the Globe he bemoaned that Suffolk had become “a third-tier university.”

That same year, the acceptance rate for undergraduate applicants was nearly 85 percent. (That number has ­decreased; in 2012, the acceptance rate was 78 percent.)

The school also had faced criticism over McCarthy’s predecessor, David Sargent, who resigned in 2010 amid an outcry over his salary, which was one of the highest among college presidents nationwide.

David Yamada, a professor at Suffolk University Law School, said the strategic plan passed by the president and the trustees, which outlines the sweeping changes, falls short of providing a realistic assessment of how the university will function in the future.

The plan “provides a framework for planning, but doesn’t answer the critical question of whether university leadership will raise money sufficient to put Suffolk on a more secure financial footing, without more tuition hikes, layoffs, and pay freezes,” Yamada said.

One other professor, meanwhile, worried that the cost-cutting measures would diminish the quality of academic instruction.

Gazing out from a 13th-floor corner office with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Boston Common and parts of Suffolk’s campus, McCarthy said he believes the institution is destined for great things.

“You look around. There’s the gold dome out there. Every­thing’s within two blocks of here, really,” McCarthy said, gesturing at the State House. “That’s a place advantage over wonderful institutions that happen to be on the opposite side of the river, or wonderful institutions that are many, many, many stops on the Green Line out that way.

“For us,” he said, “place is big.”

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.
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