Suffolk president felt distrust early on
Suffolk University president Margaret McKenna said she sensed trouble just a month into her tenure, when members of the school’s governing board told her bluntly that they did not trust her.
“I feel like the third wife,” she said she remembered telling someone last fall. “And the first two cheated on you and there’s no way I can prove that I won’t cheat on you, because that will take years before you will trust me.”
In remarks to Globe editors and reporters on Tuesday, her first in-depth comments since her painful and public standoff with the Suffolk board, McKenna offered insight into what went wrong in her dealings with trustees and what she believes must change for the downtown school to repair its image.
McKenna conceded that she could have handled her relationship with the board better. But she remained unapologetic for her attempt to reform its governing habits, which she (and the regional college accrediting agency) have said lean toward micromanagement.
In her comments, she also left the door open — just a crack — for a scenario in which she might stay on as president longer than planned. Asked if she might consider remaining longer as president once the board has new members, McKenna said, “anything is possible, but I don’t want to muddy the waters.”
She shared a revised to-do list for the 18 months before a new president is scheduled to take over. It includes consolidating and strengthening the school’s public policy programs, forming new relationships with community colleges, and increasing employee diversity.
McKenna, the fifth Suffolk president in five years, including two interims and longtime leader David Sargent, was nearly ousted in recent weeks by a group of trustees who wanted to replace her with former state attorney general Martha Coakley. McKenna refused to step down and the board reached a compromise on Feb. 5.
Under the deal, McKenna will stay as president until the fall of 2017 in exchange for a promise by the board that it will reform its outdated bylaws and that chairman Andrew Meyer will step down when his term expires in May.
Meyer, as well as several other trustees who backed the plan to oust McKenna, declined to respond to McKenna’s comments. But another trustee said Wednesday that he always believed she was capable of running the school.
“I had 100 percent trust in her and I still do,” said trustee John McDonnell, managing director international for Tito’s Handmade Vodka.
McDonnell said he supports the bylaw reforms and as chairman of the board’s development committee believes trustees should donate more.
“I would like to see more members on the board who are willing to donate to the university, to show that they have a vested interest financially in the betterment of Suffolk University,” he said.
Asked whether McKenna should stay longer than 18 months, McDonnell said, “I’m focused on the here and now.”
McKenna said the standoff just seven months into her presidency ultimately demonstrated how much students, professors, and alumni — many of whom rallied to support her — care about the school. She does not believe the crisis, and the lingering leadership questions, will permanently tarnish Suffolk’s reputation.
“It’s a very special place and very important to the city, and it did not deserve it,” McKenna said. “But . . . I have a lot of faith that this experience will right this place in terms of changing leadership and it will be worth it.”
In fact, the episode has proved even a bit lucrative: Suffolk received two donations in the past week that total $350,000, McKenna said.
But for the school to be ultimately successful, McKenna said, real change will have to happen on the board. The 28-member group’s bylaws allow seven people for a quorum and don’t include term limits, two things that must be changed in a reformed set of bylaws that trustees began to discuss last week, she said.
McKenna also asserted that the board needs fewer lawyers and more people with diverse business backgrounds, deeper ties to Suffolk, and deeper pockets. So far, she said, board philanthropy has been “not significant.”
Even as what is essentially a lame duck president, McKenna said she still has some leverage. The deal she struck with the board dissolves if the bylaw overhaul is not approved by May, she said. In addition, the search process for a new president is not allowed to start until after a new chairperson is installed and new board members are chosen, she said.
In 2014, the independent accrediting agency told the college it needed to reform its governance structure so the board was less involved in daily decisions. The board that year promised to rewrite its bylaws, but so far has not done so.
McKenna said it wasn’t long after she started the job in July before she realized how deeply the board was involved in daily university operations, including chairing search committees to choose college deans, a task most colleges reserve for administrators.
On several occasions, McKenna said, she went into a meeting with board members thinking they had an agreement, only to have things changed on the fly.
“I would be totally astounded,” she said.
McKenna acknowledged that the board provoked her and said she tends to overreact when someone promises to do something and then doesn’t.
“I don’t take it well, and I probably could have managed it better,” she said.
About the deal she struck with trustees, McKenna said she approached the negotiation with two goals: reforming the board and avoiding hiring another interim president.
“It was very clear that the deal could not be had unless I was part of the deal,” McKenna said.