Just days before the start of the new school year, Suffolk University Wednesday abruptly replaced president James McCarthy with a year remaining on his contract, and tapped a veteran educator with a reputation for turning around struggling colleges to serve as interim leader.
At an afternoon meeting, the university’s board of trustees voted unanimously to appoint Norman R. Smith, 68, who is best known for his tenure at Wagner College in New York City, where he led a small school on the brink of closing to new prominence.
Smith, who will begin next week, said he was first approached about the Suffolk position just two weeks ago.
“This has happened very fast,” he said. “They didn’t want to go internally, but wanted to have a seamless start for the fall.”
Andrew Meyer, chairman of the board of trustees, praised McCarthy’s short tenure, which began in February 2012, but said the university needed a change to realize its full potential.
“Things are going in a very positive direction,” he said. “We’re ready for the next phase of that growth.”
Meyer described McCarthy’s departure as amicable, saying McCarthy had “accomplished what he felt he could” as president. He will receive a modest severance package and will pursue consulting opportunities, university officials said.
Through a university spokeswoman, McCarthy declined comment.
The unexpected change in leadership comes as Suffolk seeks to stabilize its finances and attract students in the college-dense region. Facing a decline in enrollment and revenue, the university announced in June it would freeze employee salaries for the next fiscal year. It also offered buyouts to all law school faculty members with tenure or renewable long-term contracts.
This spring, the university came under fire for requiring tenured faculty to undergo performance reviews, a shift that critics said would undermine academic freedom.
University officials, however, defended the school’s financial standing Wednesday, noting that the endowment has grown by 52 percent since 2011, and its operating surplus has increased.
Tuition has increased only slightly the past two years, they said.
Meyer said McCarthy had ably guided the university through a transitional phase after longtime president David Sargent stepped down in 2010 amid anger over his high compensation package, which once topped a national survey. But amid growing financial pressures, Meyer said it is crucial to act decisively.
“We need to face those issues now,” he said. “We’re not going to allow the school to float.”
Meyer said Suffolk is on solid financial footing, but that Smith keenly understands the difficulties facing tuition-dependent schools with modest endowments.
“The board felt they didn’t have time to waste,” said one university source.
Meyer declined to provide Smith’s salary but said it was within the typical range for a college president.
The announcement came as a surprise to many faculty members, particularly given the timing. Stephen McDonald, chairman of the university senate and a professor in the business school, said the change will “create some anxiety.”
“When there’s uncertainty on the top floor, it’s disconcerting,” he said. “It’s certainly disconcerting because of the timing.”
McDonald said McCarthy was well-regarded on campus as “someone who made a real commitment to communicate,” and said his departure was probably the result of philosophical differences with an active board of trustees.
“The faculty concern has been overmanagement by a board of trustees that is looking at the college as if it were a purely commercial enterprise,” he said.
Smith, who most recently was president of Dowling College on Long Island, is a member of the Registry for College and University Presidents, which matches veteran educational leaders to interim positions. Interims cannot become candidates for the permanent position, giving them more latitude to make changes and unpopular choices.
Smith said he would stay as long as needed as the university searches for his successor.
“I will stay as long as things are rolling along well, or leave as soon as they are ready to move on,” he said. “I’m very at home in Boston.”
Interim presidents typically stay on for a year, specialists said.
Smith, who studied at Harvard and was the assistant dean of Harvard’s graduate school of education, said Suffolk had made great gains over the past two decades, and is well-positioned to build on them.
“I have been very impressed with kind of progress Suffolk has made,” he said. “I think they are ready to move to a higher level of regional and national visibility.”
Smith said that while improved fund-raising takes time, he would make a point of cultivating potentially major donors to give the university greater financial flexibility.
“I will be pushing very hard to get people in the pipeline,” he said.
During Smith’s 15 years at Wagner College, the college doubled enrollment and rose from the bottom tier of college rankings to the top, Smith said.
He was president of Richmond The American International University in London, and held leadership positions at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia, Philadelphia University, and Drexel University.
His most recent book, “What College Trustees Need to Know,” was written with George J. Matthews, chairman emeritus of Northeastern University, and Bryan Carlson, president of the Registry for College and University Presidents.
Like many private colleges, Suffolk is struggling to hold down costs to compete with public colleges, and faces sharp competition in the Boston area, Smith said.
Given the general decline in law school enrollment, Smith said he would expect to take a “quality over quantity” approach in assembling new classes.
“I don’t think there’s growth there,” he said, referring to enrollment.
Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, a Washington D.C. group representing small and mid-sized colleges and universities, said Smith’s experience at Wagner College would serve him well at Suffolk, another city school in a crowded educational market.
“I think it’s a great move,” he said. “He’s very talented.”
Smith would be able to capitalize on “distinctive opportunities” for the university without “trying to be all things to all people,” he said.
Ekman said that while he was not familiar with the situation at Suffolk, replacing a president so close to fall was unusual.Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.