Business

Shirley Leung

Suffolk overhaul must follow McKenna’s sacrifice

Suffolk University president Margaret McKenna.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Suffolk University president Margaret McKenna.

Did the apocalypse just hit Suffolk University?

That’s what it feels like after last week’s stunning end to the standoff between president Margaret McKenna and board of trustees chairman Drew Meyer, with both set to depart the downtown school.

There was no clear victor, leaving many faculty, students, and alumni of Suffolk a bit numb. Instead, McKenna and Meyer engineered mutual destruction complete with the school’s outside PR honcho George Regan playing the cockroach that possibly survives it all. McKenna, in one of her first acts as a lame duck, fired Regan, who probably will try to fight his termination.

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Barbara Anthony, an esteemed Suffolk Law alumna and adjunct professor for nearly two decades, is one of those trying to make sense of the debris.

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“Board reform good, good president leaving bad. That doesn’t compute,” said Anthony, former head of the state consumer affairs office.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who took the unusual step last week to weigh in on the Suffolk fight, continued to express support for McKenna, a civil rights attorney who served as the longtime president of Lesley University.

Walsh told me that he’s confident McKenna will steer Suffolk right and that it will probably be hard for trustees to see her go by the fall of 2017, a deal she struck in exchange for board reform.

“She’s a stable leader of the school, and I’d love to see her stay,” said Walsh.

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Those close to McKenna said she made the ultimate sacrifice, even though she was winning in the court of public opinion with Walsh, students, and business and community leaders rallying to her side.

McKenna faced a potential ouster and even if she survived she did not think she could be an effective leader reporting to a divided board, according those who know her well.

So she agreed to leave roughly half way into her five-year contract, but in exchange the board agreed that ringleader Meyer would go and new bylaws would be drafted to prevent the mess that just unfolded.

From what I can tell, current board policies allowed a cabal within the board to flourish and decide on its own McKenna had to go after just seven months in the job. They complained about her “abrasive” management style and alleged that she made unauthorized expenditures.

Then this group itself seemed to sidestep any formal nominating process and picked former attorney general Martha Coakley as the leading candidate to replace McKenna. Coakley would have been the sixth president in five years.

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But beyond stronger governance rules to prevent another board going wild, true reform will only take root if the boardroom culture changes too. Yes, that’s code for the old white boys network needs to be broken up.

The 27-member board is largely male and white, which looks nothing like the Suffolk student body. Women account for 56 percent of the 8,300 students, and whites make up only about 46 percent.

Meyer’s departure will go a long way toward reform, but so will be picking the right leader as the next chair.

Among current board members, John McDonnell, a managing director of the Tito’s Handmade Vodka business, and Jeanette Clough, chief executive of Mount Auburn Hospital, are no-nonsense types who could possibly be the next chairs. Legal Sea Foods CEO Roger Berkowitz could have been a candidate, too, but he resigned at the end of January, unhappy with how the board was treating McKenna.

McDonnell, who already chairs the board of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, said he’s not interested and hopes the trustees will conduct an external search.

“We should go outside the current board and bring in a fresh face,” McDonnell wrote in a text.

He’s right. It’s an opportunity to think big and go after folks like Margaret Marshall, the retired chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, or soon-to-be-departing Justice Robert Cordy. Jim McHugh is another name that comes to mind; he’s the retired state judge who did a stint on the Gaming Commission, including some time as acting chairman.

Roughly half the board’s seats could turn over this year, and Suffolk should recruit trustees who will instill confidence that the university can be put on the right track. The school should consider Boston Police Commissioner Bill Evans and Andrew Graff, the chief executive of advertising firm Allen & Gerritsen. Others who could bring stability include Scott Harshbarger, the former attorney general whose private sector practice includes corporate governance issues; Mo Cowan, the former US senator who’s now at ML Strategies; Diane Patrick, a partner at Ropes & Gray law firm and former first lady of the Commonwealth, and Jeanne Pinado, CEO of the Madison Park Development Corp. in Roxbury.

While last week’s pact between McKenna and the board ended the daily string of bad headlines, the real work begins now. The board had been under pressure by the attorney general’s office and a regional college accrediting agency to clean up its act. But little changed.

This time the public pressure both on and off campus is shaking up the board. That has to continue in order to ensure that McKenna’s sacrifice and the mushroom cloud over the school were worth it all.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.