Laura Krantz/Globe Staff
SUNAPEE, N.H. — Former Suffolk University president David Sargent, credited with shepherding the school during its most prosperous period, says he is devastated by the recent turmoil and worried about the future of the college he loves.
In a lengthy interview Monday at his lakeside home, Sargent criticized Suffolk’s board for being overly involved in daily university business over the years, and said he was disappointed by the way the school’s most recent president, Margaret McKenna, was fired nearly two weeks ago.
“I was terribly shattered; it’s horrible publicity for the school,” said Sargent, who led the downtown college for 22 years before retiring in 2010. He said he has had no involvement in university affairs since then.
McKenna was sacked July 28 by trustees under the leadership of new chairman Robert Lamb for unspecified reasons. The firing capped a rocky six months that began when several board members, including former chairman Andrew Meyer, tried to oust McKenna.
Sargent said he wants to believe the board did the right thing for the school, but doesn’t have enough information.
“It looks like just a plain personal vendetta. Maybe it wasn’t. Since I don’t know anything about it, I can’t condemn the board for what they did,” said Sargent, who is 85.
Lamb declined to comment on Sargent’s remarks via Larry Rasky, whose public relations firm the board has hired to represent the board amid the recent turmoil.
Meyer, whose term on the board expired in May, took exception that Sargent would comment on the years since he left, and he defended the board. He said tension between university boards and presidents is common.
“There are certain issues that the board has a responsibility to oversee, when the school is in danger, and [Suffolk’s] extraordinarily responsible board did that,” Meyer said.
Sargent spent his entire career at Suffolk. He started as a law student in 1951 and later became professor, law school dean, then president in 1989.
As president, Sargent oversaw a period of academic growth and financial stability at the university. During his tenure, it purchased several buildings in Beacon Hill and Downtown Crossing, increased the endowment, and added many academic programs, including one in Senegal.
But Sargent faced controversy of his own. The school received negative publicity near the end of his tenure when the Chronicle of Higher Education named Sargent the highest-paid private college president, with 2006-07 compensation of $2.8 million.
The school said his pay was high that year because it included a one-time deferred bonus of a $1.2 million that the board awarded for his many years of service.
Even now, though, Sargent still refers to the people at Suffolk as “us,” and can quote the annual budget surplus during his last 11 years of his presidency.
“When I left, the school had been in the best financial shape it’s ever been in,” he said.
Sargent described the close-knit feel of the college during his days and said he was proud of how it provided access to law degrees to working-class people, including women and minorities.
“It welcomed everybody,” he said. “There wasn’t the slightest hint of discrimination long before it became politically correct.’’
Sargent admitted Monday he has never met McKenna and spoke with her for the first time three weeks ago, by phone. McKenna called to ask if he would participate in an upcoming fundraising dinner she was planning, he said. He said he would but the next week, she was fired.
“I wished that they had found a way to, in view of the past record, to have more stability in the office of the president than they have had,” he said. Since Sargent, Suffolk has had two presidents and three interims.
McKenna was ousted after the board reviewed the results of a report by an outside investigator into allegations by the school’s former public relations executive that McKenna misused school money and verbally abused staff.
The report, according to the board, found those allegations untrue, but trustees nevertheless voted to fire her. They have not disclosed the reason.
McKenna has said she was verbally given three reasons for her termination: improperly providing information to university accreditors; inadequately communicating with the board about the accreditors; and participating in a meeting with the Globe editorial board in February.
Sargent said the Suffolk board has a history of close oversight over university operations that began during World War II, when the school was in poor financial condition because most young people were at war.
During those years, trustees dipped into their own pockets to pay the salary of faculty, he said.
Sargent said vestiges of that approach remained during his tenure, but said he persuaded trustees that their job was as overseers, not managers.
In the interview, Sargent was also explicit about his relationship with George Regan, the school’s former PR executive whose threat to sue the school for wrongful termination prompted the outside investigation into McKenna’s actions.
Sargent said he has not spoken to Regan in person or on the phone in several years.
Sargent said he recently received a three-page letter about the death of Regan’s dog, Georgia, who was a gift from Sargent. The two were close friends, he said, but are no longer.
“I won’t have anything to do with him,” Sargent said.
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