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Shirley Leung

Salem State presidential pick reflects parochial search process. Students deserve better

John Keenan (left) has been chosen by the trustees to be the next president of Salem State University, succeeding Patricia Meservey. When Meservey steps down, none of the state’s nine public universities will have a woman president Salem State University

Oops. They did it again. With the nomination of John Keenan as the next president of Salem State, the trustees of another public university in Massachusetts passed over more experienced female candidates to put a man in charge.

Barring any last-minute drama, Keenan, the school’s general counsel and a former state legislator, will succeed Patricia Meservey, the lone woman running one of the state’s nine public universities. A decade ago, women helmed five of the nine campuses.

Over the past four years, the boards of these publicly funded schools have failed to find one woman to fill over eight vacancies, from Bridgewater to Westfield State.


Trustees have no excuses, not even the old standby of how there aren’t enough female candidates. Close to 40 percent of the finalists for the top job at our public universities have been women, according to statistics compiled by EOS Foundation, a nonprofit that is seeking to diversify leadership ranks. Keenan bested two female finalists, both of whom had more higher education experience.

So who’s to blame for this pernicious pattern? Local board members.

Now I have nothing against Keenan. By all accounts, he’s a charming, well-connected, hard-working administrator. This is not about Keenan, but the flawed process that got him the nod. The vote was a contentious 7 to 3 where the proverbial insider won over the unfamiliar outsider.

Look across the entirety of the state’s public higher education system and the track record is better but still nothing to be proud of. Counting Meservey, female presidents lead seven of the 29 community colleges, state universities, and UMass campuses. Women run five of the 15 community colleges, while another woman oversees one of the five UMass schools.

The governor appoints most of the board members of these colleges and universities; they are coveted positions often used for political payback for supporters. But there is something different about the nine state university boards: They are the only ones in which the governor does not appoint the chair. Instead, the chair is elected by his or her peer trustees.


This matters because it results in an overly decentralized system where local boards look largely after their own interests, and no one takes a hard look at the big (mostly male) picture.

That’s the line of thinking at Salem State. Talk to board chair Paul Mattera, who was Liberty Mutual’s longtime lobbyist, and he will tell you that the trustees made a decision that reflected strong community support for Keenan. State university boards are stocked with locals, and at times that gives internal candidates an edge because they are well known.

“We are local,” Mattera said of the Salem State board. “That comes with all the pluses and minuses.”

Taxpayers, this system is not OK. The students of Massachusetts deserve the very best leaders, even if that means plucking someone not from around here or what seems radical to some — a woman. Parochialism is passe.

This is not the ’60s and or ’70s, an era when the Commonwealth could get away with a second-rate public higher education system because students had so many private options. Those institutions — think Northeastern — have gone after a global market, and now the Commonwealth educates more than half of the undergraduates in the state.


These kids are the ones who are most likely to stay in Massachusetts; they represent our future.

Fixing the boards of the community colleges is something the business community seized upon several years ago. Members of the influential Massachusetts Competitive Partnership met with then-commissioner of higher education Richard Freeland to discuss ways in which the state public higher education system could better prepare students for work. Executives got quite a primer and walked away wondering how anything got done in such a decentralized system.

As part of community college reform passed in 2012, the partnership pushed for the governor to appoint the chairs of the community college boards; the governor already appoints the UMass board chair.

So is Governor Charlie Baker at all troubled by the dearth of female presidents at state universities? You betcha.

“We take our commitment to diversity pretty seriously,” Baker said on Tuesday. “I certainly think in 2017 any organization that is playing in the higher education space ought to be taking into consideration both issues that involve gender diversity and demographic diversity.”

The governor said he was not involved in the selection process at Salem State but did appoint four of the 11 trustees. Baker recognizes his biggest impact is shaping the boards as terms expire and then making sure that his appointees select leaders who “adequately and accurately reflect the diversity of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

Let me put a fine point on that: Women account for 57 percent of the student population at the state’s nine universities. Yet with Keenan’s appointment, there will be no female president presiding over a state university.


Keenan still needs approval from the state board of higher education, but it’s unlikely it will overturn a local decision.

There should be no A’s for effort here. The state should recognize that its flawed board system is failing the students of Massachusetts.

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