Metro

Adrian Walker

Suffolk University loses — again — in latest skirmish

Suffolk University is searching for its seventh president in six years.
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
Suffolk University is searching for its seventh president in six years.

The people who run Suffolk University must really enjoy hiring presidents.

That is one of the few plausible explanations for the revolving door the school’s presidency has become. The latest casualty is Margaret McKenna, fired last Thursday. She is the fifth president in five years to depart.

McKenna was there only for one year. The knives were out for her by January, even though the school's trustees have yet to offer a coherent explanation for her dismissal. Her greatest sin seems to have been to step on the toes of a deeply insecure old guard.

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The most detailed explanation has come from McKenna herself. In a statement released Thursday, she said she was given three reasons for her termination: giving information to accreditation officials about the school; inadequate communication with the board about those officials; and meeting with the Globe’s editorial board in February.

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Seems to me communicating with an organization that controls your college’s accreditation is a basic responsibility of a college president, not a fireable offense. As for the meeting with the Globe — which I attended — McKenna was candid about the challenges of working for a board of trustees that doesn’t understand what trustees do, but that shouldn’t be a fireable offense either. Truth should be a defense.

The Globe meeting, in fact, followed a negotiated settlement in which both then-board chairman Andrew Meyer and McKenna had agreed to leave — Meyer this past spring, and McKenna by the fall of 2017, after the hiring of a new president.

Yes, they just fired someone who had already agreed to quit. Think about that for a minute.

Provost Marisa Kelly became interim president with McKenna’s ouster. She is an expert on government, but that may not prepare her to deal with the banana republic that has (temporarily) placed her in charge.

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Seriously, why would anyone want this job? Obviously, job security is not among its selling points. The board — much of which is due to be replaced this year — has a long history of meddling. Faculty members and students are demoralized, thanks to the endless in-fighting that shows no signs of abating.

McKenna became president almost by default. Trustees had assumed they were going to hire University of Massachusetts president Martin Meehan, who then decided he had better options. McKenna was the only other serious contender. The job hasn’t gotten any more attractive since. And all the turmoil can’t be good for enrollment. Hard to blame a family for not wanting to send their child (and tuition money) to a school with such chaotic leadership.

The biggest problem with the Suffolk job is not the board. The biggest problem is the war launched by a man who isn’t on the board: public relations executive George Regan. He wields an unheard-of influence for someone who is not an official of a college, or even a trustee. The investigation that led to McKenna’s ouster was sparked by Regan, who claimed — after McKenna canceled his firm’s contract with the school — that she had behaved unethically in office.

Suffolk board chairman Robert Lamb has said that none of Regan’s claims were substantiated by the investigation. But the facts were always beside the point. Regan viewed his battle with McKenna as a battle he was determined to win. Sure enough, the first public statement after her firing came not from Suffolk, or McKenna. It came from Regan, declaring good riddance. Classy.

The most pressing question facing the Suffolk board is who’s going to oust George Regan from his unofficial role at the center of this fight. But that’s one that the school’s silent trustees don’t seem strong enough to tackle.

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Completely absent from all the palace intrigue at Suffolk is most of what matters at a college. This fight was never about education. And regardless of who wins, there’s no question who the losers were: anyone who cares about Suffolk.

Suffolk University's revolving door
With the firing of university president Margaret McKenna last week, Suffolk will soon be seeking its seventh president in six years (including interim presidents).
President Years served
David Sargent 1989-2010
Barry Brown (interim) 2010-12
James McCarthy 2012-14
Norman Smith (interim) 2014-15
Margaret McKenna 2015-16
Marisa Kelly (interim) 2016-present
SOURCE: Globe research

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.