Martha Coakley Withdraws Herself from Suffolk Presidency Job

The former attorney general is stepping away from the controversy.

Photo via AP

Photo via AP

Former Attorney General Martha Coakley announced Tuesday that she is not in the running to be the next president of Suffolk University.

“I would like to clarify that I am not a candidate for the role of president of Suffolk University nor will I be and I look forward to continuing my law practice at Foley Hoag,” said Coakley in a one sentence statement to Boston.

Suffolk has been mired in controversy since news broke last week that the school’s board of trustees wants to oust its current president, Margaret McKenna, after acting in the role for less than a year. As news of the acrimony spread, Coakley’s name was quickly floated as a possible replacement for McKenna by board members in the media. Members of the board have publicly accused McKenna of poorly managing the school’s finances and having an “abrasive” manner as president.

McKenna is pushing back against the the board’s push to oust her, describing it as an unprofessional smear campaign in the press.

“I will not stand by while this board fabricates reasons to justify my termination—with a relentlessly public campaign, no less. To do so is unfair to me, but as importantly, extremely detrimental to Suffolk University,” McKenna wrote in a letter to the board.

The board is expected to meet on Friday to decide McKenna’s future at the school.

McKenna’s ouster is inevitable, the Herald reports, quoting a source: “The writing’s on the wall.”

  • Joanne

    Presidential Politics

    In the current battle for the soul of Suffolk, the University’s board of trustees describes a president who, according to reports in the Boston Globe, has “overspent” and is an “abrasive” self-promoter. They are right, of course. His name is Norman Smith and he was their choice to replace the president they ousted less than two years ago, James McCarthy. In his first week on the job, Smith, who had never heard of Suffolk two weeks before being offered the role of interim president, felt empowered to autonomously replace Suffolk’s logo, resulting in an enormous expenditure of resources for a University-wide re-branding. He had the word “interim” removed from his title. He quickly earned a reputation for publicly berating staff members, sometimes at alumni events. He suggested the entire staff of a department be fired before meeting most of them. One of his tantrums nearly resulted in a discrimination lawsuit.

    And how did the board respond?

    “On behalf of the Board of Trustees, we offer our sincere thanks for Norman’s excellent leadership in this time of transition,” Suffolk Board Chair Andrew Meyer wrote. “He continues to do everything we’ve asked and more.” (Perhaps the abuse was in the “and more” category).

    Yet it is Margaret McKenna, the president they are seeking to dismiss just ten months after appointing her, who they find intolerably “abrasive.” On what basis are they making this assessment? Initial reports suggested the disappearance of trustee portraits from the Law School. In case this transgression alone wasn’t grounds for dismissal, there is an additional unsubstantiated charge of running up a deficit. (When asked by a reporter to provide proof, the trustees declined).

    To their credit, several board members were candid about their real problem with McKenna. “From my standpoint, the concern is mostly behavior,” trustee Mark Sullivan told The Globe, acknowledging that he “was not sure” if she was “warned about the expenditures or her style, or given time to improve the situation.”

    So why did the board praise Smith’s leadership style but consider McKenna, who has earned the

    respect and support of faculty and students, to be “abrasive”? One possible explanation came from the Boston Herald’s Joe Battenfeld who noted that the board is “dominated by white male businessmen and lawyers.” Perhaps McKenna is fortunate to be in the Hillary Clinton demographic or her bad “behavior” and abrasiveness might have been attributed to “blood coming out of her wherever.”

    There’s a certain irony that a woman who has spent a large part of her career working to enforce civil rights and promote racial and gender equality at the federal level is herself the victim of such a double-standard.

    On this point, however, the board has acquitted itself nicely, floating the name of another woman, former Attorney General Martha Coakley, as their choice for a replacement. No sexism here, folks.

    But gender issues aside, one has to wonder about Coakley’s chances for success. Either she accepts the position with the implicit agreement that she will leave the real decision-making to the board, or she challenges the board and risks the same fate as her predecessors. If Coakley believes she will fare better, she might keep in mind that this was the board that was chastised by the accrediting board specifically for its interference with the president. These are also the same trustees who told McKenna that they were prepared to turn over the keys.

    During the national search that resulted in McKenna’s selection, Meyer claimed the process needed to take time to make sure the community had input. Yet now, they have apparently made an offer for what they presumably believe is a permanent position without so much as a word from faculty, staff, alumni or students.

    “This is absolutely necessary to fulfill our duty to those we serve,” Meyer wrote. In other words, don’t you worry your pretty little heads about that process thing. We’ve got everything under control.”

    Yet if this episode demonstrates anything, it is that the faculty, alumni and students are the only constituencies acting in the real interests of the University—and their support for McKenna is clear.

    “To use this route instead of dialogue is just absolutely disheartening and quite frankly, childish,” student government president Colin Loiselle told The Globe. “In the past, nobody has challenged [the board] and now we know why, because when you do, this is what happens.”

    “It’s actually the executive committee of the board [that] is functioning as the president and whenever that person crosses them, they want that person out,” a senior faculty member added.

    As anyone who knows Suffolk will tell you, the man behind the curtain has always been former trustee and Boston powerbroker George Regan d/b/a board chair Andrew Meyer. Whoever holds the title of president, the power lies with Regan and Meyer. It is their shadow presidency that needs to end.