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Suffolk University faces renewed tension

Suffolk University president Margaret McKenna met with Boston Globe editors and reporters earlier this year.
Suffolk University president Margaret McKenna met with Boston Globe editors and reporters earlier this year.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File)

Two months after Suffolk University trustees and president Margaret McKenna reached a truce that seemed to smooth their splintered relationship, a cloud of discord is still looming over the downtown college.

A series of recent events raises new questions about the future of the besieged school, and about how long McKenna will lead it.

The college’s board of trustees has hired two attorneys to address personal and professional allegations against McKenna by public relations executive George Regan, who has threatened to sue Suffolk after it canceled his firm’s contract.

In addition, the school faces renewed scrutiny from accreditors, and professors say morale has plummeted.

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Last week, the faculty of the law and business schools passed two motions, one in support of McKenna and the other calling for the immediate resignation of board chairman Andrew Meyer and the rest of the board’s executive committee. Faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences are expected to consider the motions Thursday.

Professors said they worry the board is still working to undermine McKenna after its push to oust her backfired this year.

“We’d like it if this steady drumbeat of destabilization would stop,” said Ken Cosgrove, president of the faculty senate. “We haven’t seen much change in [the board’s] behavior at all.”

In a statement Tuesday, Meyer called the faculty vote puzzling.

“The executive committee has continued to step up and take on the hard work of putting a reconstituted board together,” said the statement, sent by Larry Rasky of the firm Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, whom the board hired in March.

Meyer said the board is available to meet with faculty at any time and is disappointed that professors did not contact trustees before passing the motions.

“Wild shots across the campus won’t help any of us complete the job of rebuilding a culture of trust and transparency in school governance,” he said.

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McKenna responded Tuesday through university spokesman Greg Gatlin, who said “president McKenna is committed to moving this incredibly important institution forward and to working with the board on governance reforms and the adoption of new bylaws that will best serve the university.”

The legal maneuvering and faculty motions are the latest developments in Suffolk’s squabbles that began in January, when discord between McKenna and some members of the board erupted into an unusually bitter and public spat.

The board and McKenna reached a compromise in February that calls for Meyer to leave the board in May when his term expires and for McKenna to leave no later than fall 2017.

Meanwhile, the board has hired two attorneys to help it handle a demand letter sent in March by Regan, after Suffolk severed ties with his firm.

First, the board hired New York attorney Monica Barrett, former general counsel of Rutgers University, for advice on how to handle the letter, which accused McKenna of wrongfully terminating Regan’s firm and excessive spending.

Trustees have now hired Daniel L. Goldberg, a partner at the firm Morgan Lewis who represented the Patriots during the “Deflategate” scandal, to investigate the allegations. Regan meanwhile has said he agreed to delay filing a suit until Goldberg concludes his inquiry.

Meanwhile, attorney Henry A. Sullivan, of the firm Mintz Levin, continues to work for the board, and the firm Brown Rudnick works for the university. It is unclear how much the university pays the attorneys.

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The board is also in the midst of revamping its out-of-date bylaws, part of the deal trustees reached with McKenna. A meeting is set for April 22, when trustees say they will approve updated bylaws, Meyer’s statement said.

Suffolk remains under the close watch of the regional accrediting agency, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. Suffolk was on the agency’s March meeting agenda, according to Barbara Brittingham, president of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education at NEASC. The school subsequently received a letter from NEASC, but has declined to release it.

State Attorney General Maura Healey’s office continues to investigate Suffolk for its lapsed bylaws and broader governance issues. That inquiry is nearing completion, Healey’s spokeswoman Cyndi Roy Gonzalez said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, a nominating committee of the board is working with the executive committee to field candidates for a number of openings coming up in May and October, when terms of many trustees will expire. Trustees must also find a new chairperson, a task some board members have said is proving difficult.

In recent weeks, rumors circulated that some trustees wanted to install UMass Boston chancellor J. Keith Motley as Suffolk’s next president.

Motley said Tuesday that he has not been approached by anyone from Suffolk, and Meyer two weeks ago said he had heard the rumors but deemed it too early to think that far ahead.

“I have heard very nice things about Keith Motley, but we have not even appointed a search committee let alone begun to evaluate candidates,” Meyer said at the time.

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Motley has led UMass Boston since 2007. He is serving the last year of a three-year contract that expires in January 2017. The contract says Motley is to meet with his boss, UMass president Martin T. Meehan, before July to discuss whether to renew that agreement.

Some students and alumni have questioned whether trustees are using the threat of a lawsuit to again try to sabotage McKenna.

“If anyone should be investigated for improprieties in spending, it’s Andrew Meyer for his spending tuition dollars on his own PR firm,” said Colin Loiselle, president of the student government association.


Shirley Leung of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.