Suffolk University's New Prez More than Ready for Prime Time on Beacon Hill

Friday, June 19, 2015

Boston’s Suffolk University has a new president, Margaret McKenna, who served as president of Lesley University, in nearby Cambridge, for 22 years and was most recently the president of the Wal-Mart Foundation.   

McKenna is the first woman to lead Suffolk, which sits in the shadow of the State House and has traditionally enjoyed a close relationship with the powers that be on Beacon Hill.  It’s a neighbor-to-neighbor thing, but also an alumni-loyalty thing:  last time I counted (in December, 2012), 18% of the 200 members of the Massachusetts legislature were Suffolk grads.  In any given year, a significant number of legislative staffers will be pursuing law or graduate degrees in Suffolk’s evening division.  It’s just so easy for staffers to dash across the street at the end of the day to catch a class.  Lawmakers are famously lenient for letting staff go early, especially during exams. 
Among the many current legislators who’ve graduated from Suffolk are House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Rep. Angelo Scaccia, the longest-serving member of the House.  Secretary of State Bill Galvin is also a Suffolk alumnus, as is former U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan, outgoing president of UMass Lowell and  incoming president of the entire UMass system.   

Meehan is rumored to have turned down the Suffolk presidency when it was offered to him.  If that was the case, McKenna was the second choice of the Suffolk board of trustees, a 30-member group filled with Boston super-achievers and power brokers.  Come on down, Dan Conley, Bill Hogan and Jen Nassour!  And you, too, Jim Morris, Damian Wilmot, Roger Berkowitz, Julie Kahn, Marshall Sloan, John Fernandez and Bob Sheridan!
To her credit, McKenna took head-on the question of whether the board loved Marty more, and turned it with fun to her advantage.  In an interview with the Boston Business Journal’s Mary Moore in early May, McKenna said, “Was I first, second, third or whatever?  Marty Meehan is an alumni and he’s definitely going to be one of my fundraising calls.”  (Meehan is savvy enough to write McKenna a big check, and to call Bill Brett in for a photo when he presents it to McKenna on the Boston Common, State House gleaming in the background.)

Speaking of the Suffolk trustees, they obviously felt they made the wrong choice last time they chose a new, permanent president of the university.  President James McCarthy was let go last August with a year remaining on his first contract.  McCarthy is a brilliant man, a Ph.D. from Princeton with an impressive list of professional accomplishments, but he never moved up to the exalted role of Boston big shot created and left for him by David Sargent, who ruled the Suffolk roost for 21 years.
Suffolk board chair Andrew Meyer told the Boston Globe that McCarthy’s departure was amicable, saying McCarthy had “accomplished what he felt he could.”  I think that translates as: McCarthy was tired of butting heads with us, and vice versa.

Back to McKenna: this lady is a force of nature!  She’s an attorney with a law degree from Southern Methodist University, and has served as a vice president of Radcliffe College, a civil rights lawyer in the U.S. Department of Justice, a deputy counsel in the White House, and as an undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education.  She was hugely successful at Lesley, which had 2,000 students when she started in 1985 and 10,000 students upon her departure in 2007. 
Another big reason to feel optimistic about the Suffolk presidency of Margaret McKenna: she’s a graduate of the frequently underestimated Emmanuel College, in Boston's Fenway district.  She has that in common with Mary Beth Cahill, once Ted Kennedy’s chief of staff and John Kerry’s presidential campaign manager, and with Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan.

At 70, McKenna projects the energy and drive of a person 30 years younger.  To the Boston Business Journal, she hinted strongly that she’s going to be an aggressive fund raiser.  “You ask for money,” she said.  “You can’t get money unless you ask for it.  We’ve got a great, large alumni base.  We need to engage them and get them excited about what Suffolk is today and go after them.”
A lot of that engagement, the “going after them,” I predict, will take place on Beacon Hill.  Most every legislator has an enviable list of donors.





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