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Suffolk president in standoff with trustees over job

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

Suffolk University president Margaret McKenna vowed Friday that she would not yield to trustees' pressure to step down, even as the board chairman sent McKenna a terse letter warning her against campaigning to keep her job.

The unusually public standoff will likely come to a head next week when the board of trustees votes whether to fire McKenna after a mere seven months at the helm.

The back-and-forth took place a day after a member of the governing board told McKenna privately that the board's chairman, Andrew Meyer, had gathered enough votes to fire her at an emergency meeting scheduled for next Friday. People close to the board said trustees were in talks with former state attorney general Martha Coakley to take over as president.


But McKenna made clear Friday that she is refusing to give ground in a dispute over how much autonomy she should have.

"I am committed to Suffolk University," she wrote in a letter e-mailed Friday to faculty. "I believe deeply in its mission, in its people, who care so much for this institution, and most of all, in its students. I don't intend to resign."

As McKenna's job seemed to be in question, faculty, students, and alumni sprang to her defense. They focused their anger at trustees, who critics said have been allowed to micromanage the downtown school with little accountability or concern for its best interest.

The student government association plans to take a vote of no confidence in Meyer, the chairman of the board of trustees, and call for him to step down next week. The faculty senate took a vote of "deep and sincere" confidence in McKenna on Friday.

Many students and professors called the board's move to oust McKenna the last straw in trustees' failed track record to resurrect the troubled school. They pointed out that McKenna is Suffolk's fifth president in five years and the first whom they considered truly capable of improving the college.


"This has a lot more to do with the problems with the chairman of the board than with any of the presidents," said Matthew W. Jerram, a psychology professor who has taught at Suffolk for 11 years.

Students and professors don't agree with all the changes McKenna has announced but said she has their respect.

"President McKenna has been nothing but a godsend," said Suffolk senior Victoria Ireton. "We need stability at Suffolk University, and she has brought that to us."

McKenna started in July knowing the job would be tough. The college has a small endowment and lacks direction because of its revolving door of presidents since 2010, when longtime leader David Sargent retired abruptly amid outrage over his lavish pay, which totaled $2.8 million in the 2006-07 academic year.

"It's actually the executive committee of the board [that] is functioning as the president and whenever that person crosses them, they want that person out," said a senior faculty member who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.

McKenna was selected to lead Suffolk in a divided board vote after trustees' first choice, Martin T. Meehan, took a job as president of the University of Massachusetts. She signed a five-year contract and makes about $650,000 annually, according to the school. McKenna has not had a performance review.


At her debut, board members seemed optimistic, but sentiment among some has devolved into frustration with what some on the board call an "antagonistic" style. McKenna has said she wanted the board to step back into a more traditional role as long-term planners.

Some trustees recently have objected to spending and hiring decisions she made without their approval, according to one board member.

But the call for her resignation did not come from all board members, according to the trustee, who said he was surprised to hear she was asked to step down.

As support for McKenna galvanized on campus Friday, and the hashtag #SUStandsWithMcKenna blossomed on social media, the standoff between her and the board intensified.

Meyer and Mark E. Sullivan, chairman of the search committee that chose McKenna, sent a cease-and-
desist letter to the president instructing her not to use "university resources" to attempt to sway board members in her favor. It is not clear whether the letter was in response to the e-mail McKenna sent the same day to faculty.

Meyer, a personal injury lawyer, has been chairman of the trustees since 2010, the same year Sargent stepped down. On Friday night, Meyer sent an e-mail to faculty that said the board's priority is to ensure the school remains "a stable and strong institution, both educationally and financially."

"To those ends, we take actions that are necessary in the long term, as opposed to what may be popular in the short term. This is absolutely necessary to fulfill our duty to those we serve," he wrote.


In the midst of the furor, Coakley remained silent on whether she is indeed considering the job. The unsuccessful Democratic candidate for governor and US Senate did not return multiple calls for comment Thursday and Friday.

Coakley was the state's first woman to hold the office of attorney general, and held the position from 2007 to 2015, during which time she won major settlements in her crackdown on for-profit colleges.

She gained a reputation as a poor campaigner in her failed bid for the Senate in 2010, when she suffered a humiliating defeat to Republican Scott Brown, and in 2014, when she lost a close gubernatorial election to Charlie Baker.

In 2011, when Coakley was attorney general, her office found that the University of Massachusetts board of trustees repeatedly violated the state's Open Meeting Law during its search for a new president.

On Friday, Suffolk University students criticized the board for the same type of secrecy in its apparent courting of Coakley as McKenna's successor, even though Suffolk is a private school and not subject to open meeting laws.

"To use this route instead of dialogue is just absolutely disheartening and quite frankly, childish," said Colin Loiselle, a senior and student government president. "In the past, nobody has challenged [the board] and now we know why, because when you do, this is what happens."

Other students also gave examples of how they said board members meddle in daily operations at Suffolk while simultaneously lacking an understanding of the school.


Former student government president Tyler LeBlanc recalled that the board insisted in controlling details as small as the time and location of a student group fair.

"They want their hands in everything, but they don't understand the things they're micromanaging," LeBlanc said.

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.