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    Suffolk University taps Margaret McKenna as new president

    McKenna, who had led Lesley, to stress finances

    Margaret McKenna.
    Margaret McKenna.

    Margaret McKenna, who helped raise Lesley University’s reputation during two decades leading the school, has been selected as the next president of Suffolk University, the downtown college announced Tuesday evening.

    McKenna, a civil rights lawyer who currently teaches at Brandeis University, is set to begin at Suffolk this summer. She said Tuesday said she has had her eye on Suffolk, but the timing was never right — until now.

    “I wasn’t looking for a job, but this is one I have such admiration for,” she said.

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    The Suffolk board of trustees selected McKenna over another finalist, Louis E. Caldera, who served a short term as president of the University of New Mexico.

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    Drew Meyer, president of Suffolk’s trustees, would not reveal the vote of the board, which chose McKenna in a closed-door meeting Tuesday afternoon. The board also discussed the selection of a law school dean but made no announcement about that appointment.

    In a phone interview Tuesday, McKenna said she plans to make fund-raising a top goal at Suffolk, whose budget relies almost entirely on tuition revenue. She said Suffolk, which also has a business school, appealed to her because it is a private institution with a public mission, focused on the city. Many judges, lawyers, politicians, and government officials hold Suffolk degrees.

    “People in the community love the place,” she said.

    McKenna will replace interim president Norman Smith, who has served since September 2014, when president James McCarthy resigned after 2½ years.

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    Meyer said a contract has been negotiated “in principle,” but would not reveal the details. At Lesley, which she led from 1985 to 2007, McKenna made $635,000 in total compensation.

    McKenna said she agreed to the Suffolk board’s request for a five-year commitment. She also said she is happy to be an at-will employee, serving only as long as the board is pleased with her work.

    McKenna led Walmart’s charitable foundation for four years after she left Lesley.

    Martin Meehan, who was tapped two weeks ago as University of Massachusetts president, has said that Suffolk had pursued him as a possible candidate, but he told them UMass was his first choice.

    In a forum with faculty last week, McKenna spoke candidly about herself, her leadership style, and her goals for the university.

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    She was frank about everything from board relations to her love for students and why she chose to close a profitable business school at Lesley.

    McKenna said her philosophy is to only do things that a school can do as well as or better than others, and the Lesley business school was outpaced by others. She promised not to close any schools at Suffolk.

    There should be more fund-raising, research, and professional development for faculty at Suffolk, she said, and more of a community feel for students.

    She termed the school’s website confusing and said its marketing “doesn’t excite me.” The school needs a clearer mission and a better elevator pitch, she said.

    McKenna last week said the job of the trustees is to hire and fire the president, approve a long-term plan, and a budget. McKenna, who has two grown sons and a dog, said she has observed there is more daily involvement from Suffolk’s board than is typical and said she told the panel as much.

    “You hire me, you give me the keys. I’ll report to you. You’ll never be surprised. . . . You have got to trust me to make the right decisions,” she said. McKenna also said she believes college presidents are paid too much.

    On Tuesday, she said her experience with the board so far has been positive and assumes that will continue. Her goal, she said, is to be respected.

    “The only agenda I have is the best interest of the institution,” she said.

    Contact Laura Krantz at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.