When Margaret McKenna assumed the presidency of Suffolk University in July, she said she planned to examine all of the college’s external contracts, including its longstanding relationship with Regan Communications.
McKenna questioned why the school paid the politically connected firm $294,000 in fiscal year 2014 when Suffolk had its own public-relations team, and wondered why a Regan employee works full time in Suffolk’s communications office.
Some board members urged McKenna not to challenge public relations guru George Regan’s arrangement, and others inside and outside the school told her to move slowly. But McKenna recently made it clear she was prepared to end his contract, according to three Suffolk employees and two sources with knowledge of her plans.
The relationship between the powerful and occasionally feared Regan and his alma mater may very well form the backdrop of the clumsy and sometimes bitter campus battle that culminated Friday with McKenna retaining her job, at least temporarily.
For years, Regan has cultivated deep connections inside Suffolk, securing honorary degree recipients and holding considerable influence over board members, according to university employees. At least seven members of the 28-member board are clients, former clients, or close friends, according to interviews and company websites. Trustee Julie Kahn is a Regan employee, and Mariellen Norris, the senior associate director of public affairs at Suffolk, also works for Regan’s firm.
In December, McKenna and Regan had a three-hour dinner during which they discussed his relationship with the school, according to those familiar with their relationship. A month later, problems started for the new president, first with rumblings in the Boston Herald about growing tensions between McKenna and Suffolk trustees, and then tit-for-tat recriminations in the past week that has left both sides bruised.
As the crisis heated up, Regan told a Globe columnist that Suffolk’s board members should “cut your losses” and fire McKenna.
In an interview, Regan dismissed the notion that he had a role in fueling the sudden campaign to oust McKenna and denied that he exerts undue influence over the board, including its chairman, Andrew Meyer, who led the effort to fire her. Regan said he never had an indication from McKenna that his contract was in jeopardy.
“It’s a small city, and I represent a lot of people of substance and the university seeks the best minds for its board,’’ he said. “It’s not unusual that my clients would sit on a board like that.”
Regan is in a way as much a part of the fabric of Boston as the university, a school that has a reputation for helping students of humble beginnings lift themselves up.
The downtown college, particularly its law school, has produced its share of powerful lawyers, politicians, and business people.
Regan grew up in Quincy and rose to prominence as press secretary for Mayor Kevin White. He went on to build the powerful communications outfit, with offices across New England and Florida, and still maintains close ties to top legislators.
Regan said he considers John Nucci, Suffolk’s third-highest-paid employee and senior vice president for external affairs, a close friend from when both worked in City Hall.
In 1999, Regan donated money to Suffolk to name the gymnasium after his father, George K. Regan Sr. Among those who spoke at the ceremony were Patriots owner Robert Kraft and then-Celtics owner Paul Gaston, whose teams were clients of Regan, according to coverage in the Globe at the time.
In 2008, then-Suffolk president David Sargent asked Regan to join the governing board, and although he was nominated, Regan withdrew his name because of his PR contract with the school after then-attorney general Martha Coakley raised questions about trustee conflicts of interests.
Regan’s close friend Bob Sheridan, former president and chief executive of the insurance firm SBLI, is also on the board. Other Regan clients who are trustees include Roger Berkowitz, the Legal Sea Foods chief executive, John Brooks, former chief executive of Joslin Diabetes Center, and Irwin Chafetz, former director of the Back Bay Restaurant Group, which has been a Regan client.
Trustee David Southworth owns Willowbend Country Club in Mashpee, adjacent to a home owned by Regan.
In July, the two planned a party together at the country club for the new Mashpee town manager, according to CapeCod.com.
Regan’s most obvious tie to the board is Kahn, the Suffolk trustee who oversees a division of Regan Communications. Kahn said this week that Regan introduced her to Meyer, the board chairman, after she first moved to Boston in 2000.
In 2014, when Kahn worked at Entercom Communications, that company sold $199,700 in radio advertising to Suffolk, according to the university’s tax filings. All the advertising transactions were done with proper disclosure to both Entercom and Suffolk, Kahn said.
“I’m not a publicist; I don’t do PR for the school,” said Kahn, who said she plans to step off the board when her term expires this spring.
Other trustees, contacted about their relationships with Regan, said he has no sway over their board duties. “Yes, Regan Communications has represented us for a number of years . . . that in no way influenced any of my decisions while on the board,” said Berkowitz, the Legal Sea Foods head.
Trustee and Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, who expressed disappointment that the relationship between some trustees and McKenna deteriorated so severely, said he has never spoken to Regan about Suffolk matters. “Mr. Regan hosted a fund-raiser for me in 2013, but so did more than 100 other Bostonians. I appreciated all their support, but I remain completely independent,” Conley said.
Sheridan, who earlier this week described Regan as “one of my best friends,” did not respond to a call requesting comment about Regan’s Suffolk ties. Southworth also did not return a request seeking comment, nor did Chafetz or trustee Carol Sawyer Parks, who developed the W Hotel in Boston, which is also a Regan client, according to his firm’s website. Regan said he does not know Chafetz and represented the Back Bay Restaurant Group when Chafetz was not director.
Regan’s official contract with Suffolk expired in 2013, according to a Suffolk employee with direct knowledge of the deal, but he is still considered on retainer and in fiscal 2014 was paid $294,019.
Jane DiGangi, a former director of donor relations and stewardship at Suffolk, said Regan was involved in all aspects of commencement dinners she planned.
“George was in the background and facilitating a lot,” she said. “His level of involvement was with the board.”
A survey of other area colleges found that most schools, including Northeastern, Boston University, Boston College, Brandeis University, and MIT, do not pay outside PR firms except for special occasions.
Asked Friday afternoon what the agreement means for Regan’s arrangement with the school, McKenna said, “I will deal with that soon.”
This story has been updated to include a comment by George Regan about his ties to Suffolk University trustee Irwin Chafetz.