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What’s ahead for Suffolk University?

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Suffolk University has seen an unusual amount of turmoil at the top.

By Globe Staff 

One year ago, newly installed Suffolk University president Margaret McKenna had just unpacked in her sunny office above Boston Common when she shared with a reporter her sweeping vision to stabilize the school, focus its mission, and raise money.

Now, that corner office is empty again, her lofty goals overshadowed by a six-month standoff between McKenna and trustees that ended with her firing last month.

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As the university prepares to search for what will be its seventh president in as many years, including interims, it faces many of the same problems McKenna had hoped to tackle, with the added challenge of rebuilding its bruised reputation.

Although Suffolk remains financially stable, employees are weary of change, students have lost faith in their leaders, alumni are embarrassed. One wealthy graduate has even taken Suffolk out of his will — underscoring the long-term risk of the turmoil to a thinly endowed school.

“I have no confidence in the institution, and there are places that are more deserving in my mind,” said Paul McLaughlin, a 1974 graduate who said the school took a chance on him, a mediocre student, and that led to his successful business career as CEO of a faith-based foundation with a $150 million endowment.

McLaughlin had planned to give Suffolk a sixth of his estate when he and his wife died, but said he had that provision removed earlier this year during the height of the infighting between McKenna and the board of trustees.

Suffolk has been undeniably damaged. But there is a reason why this urban university has survived through so many presidents in so short a time, and why it may yet weather another transition: the singular resiliency of its employees, a group wholly devoted to the uniquely Boston institution.

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The school began in the Roxbury living room of a young lawyer, Gleason L. Archer, in 1906 and for decades has helped many climb the ladder of success and influence, from Boston projects to the city’s skyscrapers.

“There was something there that was special that we stayed for,” said Robert Rosenthal, chairman of the advertising, public relations, and digital media department who counts the school as his second family. “I just wish we had a senior leadership situation that was as good as the rest of the university.”

Professors are now accustomed to schoolwide e-mails about transitions and change, but they soldier on, attempting to keep classes as normal as possible for students.

Still, the constant churn at Suffolk has driven away some employees, including high-ranking administrators like chief financial officer Danielle Manning, who just began a job at Cal Poly Pomona. The school’s in-house attorney also left recently, as did the vice president for enrollment management and the vice president of advancement, all of whom have been replaced.

Most employees have not received a raise in four years, and under McKenna some were subject to several distracting office transitions, with desks and departments moved within and between the school’s buildings on Beacon Hill and in Downtown Crossing.

In an e-mail last week to her professors, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences tried to rally her faculty.

“I am asking you not to let the latest round of news dishearten you, or bring you to new levels of cynicism,” Dean Maria Toyoda wrote.

A year ago, McKenna said she wanted to help Suffolk find its focus. In a higher education landscape where many midtier schools like Suffolk struggle financially, colleges look for a niche to set themselves apart.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File

Margaret McKenna was all smiles in 2015 when she took over as the university’s president.

Six miles down the street, the University of Massachusetts Boston caters to largely the same demographic of students but for less than half the price: $13,500 for in-state students versus $35,500 at Suffolk. With plans to build a 1,000-student dormitory, UMass will be even tougher competition.

The most popular undergraduate majors at Suffolk are communications, government, marketing, and finance, areas McKenna spoke of expanding while paring down other programs, including some science majors.

Time will tell whether the next president will share McKenna’s vision or see things differently. It is also unclear whether the recent turbulence hurt the school’s enrollment or the quality of the class arriving for the upcoming year.

Academically, Suffolk became slightly more selective in the past five years, based on SAT scores of incoming students. School officials said enrollment did not drop this year and the school did not lower its admissions standards, but declined to cite specifics.

Suffolk serves a large number of minority and low-income students, and more than half its students come from Massachusetts, a rarity among universities in this city, which draw primarily from other states and countries. Suffolk in recent years has also increased its number of international students, which made up 18 percent of last year’s freshmen class.

In addition to diversity, foreign students bring revenue, because most do not receive scholarships. That helps the college, which relies on student tuition for 92 percent of its revenue because its endowment is a meager $185 million. Boston University, by comparison, has an endowment of $1.6 billion.

Suffolk also faces new expenses. Payments to public relations consultants and attorneys during the tumult piled up; the school has declined to cite the total sum. A new presidential search will probably cost more than $150,000, based on typical rates of academic search consultants.

McKenna had planned to increase fund-raising, a weak spot that rating agencies have pointed out for years. The school has $355 million in debt, and, after five straight years of flat or declining enrollment, its budget is stable but has little wiggle room.

Despite its network of fiercely loyal alumni, who work across state government and in prominent city businesses and law firms, the school historically has not aggressively sought large donations. Turnover in the fund-raising department has also hurt efforts.

Larry DiCara, a 1976 law school graduate and partner at the firm Nixon Peabody, said he donates a small amount annually (“in the hundreds not thousands”). He called the turmoil “a sad series of events, some of which I really don’t understand.”

If McLaughlin’s decision to remove Suffolk from his will is any indication, fund-raising may prove more difficult in light of the events of the past months. During the height of the standoff between the board and McKenna in February, the student call center that solicits donations closed rather than suffer the ire of angry alumni, according to its employees.

Another challenge awaiting the next Suffolk president will be reviving the law school, long considered Suffolk’s defining feature since Archer turned heads in 1908 when his first student, a machinist, passed the bar. Many local attorneys, judges, and politicians earned their degrees attending law school part time at night.

Suffolk has faced a particularly acute challenge amid the national decrease in law school attendance. The number of applicants was steady last year over the year prior, but fewer enrolled. At the most recent sitting of the Massachusetts bar in February, 43 percent of Suffolk students passed, down significantly from past years.

Still, perhaps the greatest challenge facing the next Suffolk president cannot be quantified in numbers or percentages. The new president will have to repair the school’s reputation internally, in the higher education community, and in Boston.

As professors and students prepare to return to campus, they harbor strong reservations about whether the board of trustees, whom many blame for the unrest, truly understands what is best for the school.

Trustees voted to fire McKenna on July 28, after most board members reviewed a report by an outside investigator into claims that the president had misused university funds and verbally abused staff.

New board chairman Robert Lamb said the investigator determined those allegations were false, but said the board believed, for reasons he did not specify, that it was best for the university for her to step down. McKenna refused an offer to resign.

Marisa Kelly, the provost who is now acting president, attempted, in a meeting with faculty last week to assuage lingering fears about the school’s former PR executive, George Regan, whose firing by McKenna appeared to ignite much of the controversy that led to her firing.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Suffolk University.

Kelly told professors that neither Regan nor former chairman Andrew Meyer, a major actor in the first attempt to oust McKenna, would return to the school in any capacity, according to an e-mail to some faculty from Carolyn Salvi, president of one faculty union.

Problematic dynamics between boards and presidents like at Suffolk are not common but they happen, said Terrence MacTaggart, a higher education consultant and former chancellor of the Minnesota State University System and the University of Maine System.

They typically occur when the board or president puts ego before the good of the institution, when trustees don’t include the whole board in important decisions, when trustees fail to work as partners with the president, or when they don’t critique themselves regularly, he said.

How does a university emerge from such a rough patch?

“In most places, you need new leadership,” said MacTaggart, pointing out that he was not speaking specifically about Suffolk.

Four trustees have left the 27-member board since May, and more are expected to go in the fall when their terms expire.

As McKenna, who has declined interviews since her firing, looked out over the Boston Common a year ago, the new president seemed to know that relations with the board could be a problem.

In the leadership vacuum left after longtime president David Sargent retired in 2010 amid controversy about his large pay package, trustees had grown accustomed to managing the college’s daily business.

But McKenna was hopeful. “They will have a lot more confidence that they can . . . step back into their role to what is a more traditional board role,” she said at the time.

She signed a five-year contract and said she would stay as long as she was healthy and “doing a good job.”

“Hopefully they won’t kill me,” she said.


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.