Suffolk University, seeking to end years of a revolving-door presidency and the campus unrest that accompanied it, on Thursday named its current interim president, Marisa Kelly, to the permanent role — but even that process was marked by sharp dissension and hard feelings.
Kelly, widely hailed as an effective interim who has calmed the chaos during her nearly two-year tenure, was not one of the two finalists chosen by a search committee. However, her name was presented to the board at the 11th hour and was initially approved by a slim majority after what was described by one trustee as a chaotic debate and vote.
Her job from here will almost certainly be a difficult one. She is taking over as president of a four-year private college in an era when the number of high school graduates is declining and families increasingly struggle to pay private tuition — and in a city crowded with colleges vying for prospective students.
One year of tuition at Suffolk is $37,000, and the cost with room and board is $55,000. Like many other colleges, Suffolk’s endowment is relatively small, so it depends almost entirely on tuition to operate. The university has 7,000 students, including those in its law school and graduate programs.
In an interview this week in her downtown office with a sweeping view of Boston Common, Kelly said she plans to aggressively market the school nationwide — using Boston as a selling point — and tap far more financial support from the vast network of alumni who make up a disproportionate number of the city’s lawyers and politicians. Fund-raising during her 20 months as interim president has increased, including the largest alumni gift — $10 million — that the university has ever received.
“We were coming out of a time of a lot of turmoil, and it was wonderful to see how much, irrespective of that, the entire community really just focused on our students,” Kelly said.
Although Kelly’s appointment was marked by some controversy, experts believe there are benefits to choosing an insider.
“The advantage of an interim is that she knows the institution well, she’s begun, presumably, to develop relationships that are helping to move the institution forward,” said Judith Block McLaughlin, a Harvard education lecturer who advises college presidents across the country.
The search process that led to Kelly’s selection lasted 17 months, included 160 listening sessions, and drew more than 80 candidates, including 20 sitting presidents, according to Robert Lamb, the board chairman who took over in 2016 after a controversy involving the board’s messy effort to oust its last president.
As the search drew to a close, Kelly was not one of the two finalists, according to three members of the search committee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they said they had signed nondisclosure agreements about the process.
The two finalists were Patrick F. Leahy, president of Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, and H. Keith Moo-Young, the former chancellor of Washington State University Tri-Cities, those trustees said.
But at the last minute, Lamb reopened the pool, Kelly became one of two finalists, and Moo-Young was removed, members said.
When trustees gathered Monday night on Suffolk’s campus to discuss the two candidates, the meeting lasted more than three hours and became chaotic and argumentative, the three trustees said. Some members asked to meet Leahy, who was never interviewed by the full board, but Lamb said that was not the agreed-upon process, according to Lamb and the trustees. Some others asked to restart the search, trustees said.
Kelly won the initial vote by a narrow margin and by a wider majority on a second vote, according to Lamb and the unnamed trustees.
“A significant majority of the board voted to elect Marisa Kelly the president after a robust conversation that went on probably far longer than people expected,” Lamb said Thursday, adding that the discussion was ultimately healthy.
Since assuming the chairmanship, Lamb, a retired New Hampshire businessman, has played an active role in overseeing the university, even keeping an office at the school, where he works multiple days a week.
In Lamb’s telling, the process did not go awry. He said it was clear that many people wanted Kelly as a candidate, and he made sure she had a fair shot.
“I took two names to the board because I knew that the combination of those candidates were clearly ahead of the third candidate,” he said.
But one of the three board members who provided information for this story questioned the integrity of the search because Kelly was reintroduced after she had been officially eliminated and because trustees were not allowed to meet the other finalist or talk to the search firm.
“She wasn’t even a finalist,” said that board member.
In recent years, Suffolk has seen unusually fast turnover in its presidents. It weathered a rocky period after longtime president David Sargent retired in 2010.
The board in 2016 publicly battled with the previous president, Margaret McKenna, even leveling accusations of financial mismanagement, which were later proven to be unfounded. The fight was the kind of public spectacle that colleges assiduously try to avoid.
Kelly will start July 1 as president. She first came to Suffolk in 2014 as provost. Before that she was provost of Ithaca College, a small liberal arts school in upstate New York. She was a professor and administrator for 12 years at University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., according to Suffolk.
One priority for Kelly will be improving the law school, a bedrock of the city’s legal community. Its rate of students passing the bar exam the first time they take it dropped recently to 65 percent, according to the state website that tracks results.
The pass rate for UMass Law School, which had struggled but is now improving, was 75 percent.
Kelly said she will reverse this. “It’s so exciting to be a part of a place that is so committed to its mission,” she said.