Metro

Suffolk University fires back at ousted president

Barry Chin/Globe Staff
Suffolk University.

The chairman of the Suffolk University board of trustees fired back Friday evening at ousted president Margaret McKenna, rejecting her assertion that she was wrongfully terminated, amid growing worries that the continuing feud had seriously damaged the reputation of the school.

“Former President McKenna’s statements are misleading at best,” said chairman Robert Lamb in a statement e-mailed Friday evening.

The salvo came as independent higher education specialists warned that the abrupt departure this week of the fifth president in five years could severely undermine the university’s finances, morale, and reputation.

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“It’s a Boston institution many, many people would like to see strong and healthy, and it’s not now,” said Judith Block McLaughlin, faculty director of the higher education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “The leadership turnover is not only embarrassing, it’s damaging.”

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Trustees have not explained why they fired McKenna, and their refusal angered students, professors, and graduates, who demanded answers Friday.

A letter obtained by the Globe on Friday said the president was terminated for “cause.” Signed by Lamb and presented to McKenna on Thursday, the letter said the cause was “multiple breaches of the employment agreement and your fiduciary duties to the university,” without elaborating.

McKenna, who served nearly a year at Suffolk after leading Lesley University for 22 years, said she was unfairly terminated and plans to seek mediation. The board had announced Thursday evening that McKenna was no longer university president without saying she had been fired.

Lamb’s statement Friday said “it is unfortunate that we were not able to reach an amiable resolution with our former president but it is now time for Suffolk University to move forward.”

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The board named trustee John L. Brooks, the former chief executive of Joslin Diabetes Center, as chairman of a search committee that will find a new president. Provost Marisa Kelly has been named to serve as interim president.

McKenna’s ouster came after a lengthy meeting Thursday when the board discussed results of an investigation by an outside attorney into allegations by the school’s former PR executive, George Regan, that McKenna spent money lavishly and verbally abused employees.

The investigation found no truth to the allegations, according to Lamb and McKenna.

McKenna, in her statement Thursday, said she was verbally given three reasons for her termination: inadequately communicating with the board about university accreditors, improperly providing information to the accreditors, and participating in a meeting with the Globe editorial board in February.

The termination letter, which was presented to McKenna on Thursday afternoon in a meeting with Lamb, the outside investigator, and lawyers, said she would be paid through that day, including for unused vacation. It did not mention a severance payment. “Your computer and building access has been terminated,” said the letter, which was obtained by the Globe.

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The ouster came during a time when the downtown campus is virtually empty because of summer vacations, leading some to question the timing, because few students or faculty were on hand to raise objections to the decision.

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“People were just surprised that they did this now,” said Ken Cosgrove, a professor who was chairman of the Faculty Senate this past spring during the unusually public spat between McKenna and the board.

“We went to bat for the university, we went to bat for good governance. The question that we really have is about process and governance,” Cosgrove said in a phone interview.

Turmoil first erupted at Suffolk in late January when a small group of trustees attempted to replace McKenna with a new president, but she refused to step down. Instead, she reached an agreement with trustees to remain until the fall of 2017 at the latest, or until the board appointed a new president.

“It’s unfortunate that there wasn’t a way to allow [McKenna] to complete the term without another transition,” said Renée Landers, a professor in the law school.

Students were equally stunned by McKenna’s departure. Student body president Sean Walsh said he was disappointed by the lack of information the board shared about McKenna’s removal.

“Students, as well as faculty, staff, and alumni of Suffolk University deserve answers from the Board in a timely manner,” Walsh said in a statement.

Alumni are watching the tumult with growing dismay.

“I’m pretty distressed, actually, and I think Margaret McKenna said it well: Suffolk University most assuredly deserves better,” said state Auditor Suzanne M. Bump, who said she was speaking as a 1988 graduate of Suffolk Law School.

The Suffolk board “has a documented history of bad governance and I think [McKenna] is another victim of that persistent problem there,” Bump said.

Block, the Harvard professor, said such a leadership churn will make it difficult for Suffolk to find a new president.

“At this point, Suffolk is not an attractive dance partner,” she said.

Two of the board’s 27 members declined to comment. The others, except Lamb, did not respond. McKenna, through a spokeswoman, also declined to comment.

On campus Friday evening, students criticized the way the board fired McKenna.

Fedjina Charles, a senior, called the board’s announcement of McKenna’s departure “sneaky.”

“The way the e-mail was sent [to students and faculty,] it just said ‘leadership change,’ and didn’t say why president McKenna was leaving earlier than she’d said she would,” Charles said.

Charles said she is concerned the school’s reputation will suffer after such public turmoil.

“I want my diploma to be worth something when I graduate,” she said.

Given the university’s high turnover in recent years, the news of McKenna’s ouster is unsurprising, said Edward Hynes, a sophomore at the school. But he said it’s disheartening nonetheless.

“I think the concern is that the school doesn’t have a consistent leader,” he said. “Everyone needs someone to lead them in one direction.”

Hynes said he works in the school’s call center soliciting donations and he has heard alumni outraged about the dispute between McKenna and the board. His supervisor even canceled work the week of Feb. 2 because he feared alumni reactions to solicitations, Hynes said.

“I was hung up on a few times, called out, like, ‘What are they thinking even trying to get money from us?’ ” Hynes said.

Globe correspondent Vivian Wang contributed to this report. Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz-@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz. Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.