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August 08, 2016

Aerial view of Suffolk University. (Courtesy of Suffolk University)

Suffolk University is still reeling after the university's Board of Trustees voted last month to abruptly fire President Margaret McKenna, who had already agreed to resign.

Ever since last month’s vote, no one at Suffolk has been talking on the record and specific reasons for McKenna's dismissal are still murky.

To gain some perspective - in more ways than one - we reserved a table at the Top of the Hub, a swanky restaurant on the fifty-second floor of the Prudential Building, and invited former Bucknell University president and higher education consultant Brian Mitchell to join us.

Mitchell sat at a corner table, overlooking the Charles River, the Back Bay's quaint row houses, and the city's many hospitals and colleges.

Boston has long been known as the Athens of America. But since the Recession, Suffolk and other colleges have been struggling to address a whole host of challenges: shrinking endowments, flat enrollment, skyrocketing costs and dwindling alumni support. Mitchell says that creates tensions between the fundraiser in chief - the president - and board members.

“I think that college and universities have unsustainable economic models so it may be - in some cases - that there will be a merger,” Mitchell said. “It may be that there will be some closures."

Mitchell, who is currently writing a book about how colleges should be run, says part of the problem is structure - colleges simply put too many cooks in the kitchen.

“What they do is they try to balance it between men and women, between gender and race, by virtue of alumni, by donor capability,” Mitchell said. “So, as a result, we have these boards that are never quite complete but always too large."

Mitchell recommends that colleges create two boards. “[Colleges need a] larger board from which ideas can be solicited and recommendations can be made and a smaller board that actually works with the president and with the faculty, and with the administration, generally, to run the place," Mitchell said.

To find an example of how Suffolk should right the ship, the university's 27-member Board, which is made up of lawyers and public relation executives, doesn't need to look very far.

According to Mitchell, Harvard is a good example of a functioning and successful dual-board system. Harvard has one 32-member board of overseers, and a smaller board, called the Harvard Corporation, with just 13 fellows.

Mitchell explains that a “smaller group can meet together to think through the kind of critical strategic decisions with the president that a board that is so large and often fractionalized simply cannot.”

Mitchell says for too long Suffolk's Board has micromanaged the university, alienating a string of presidents, and the resulting turmoil isn't simply a Boston crisis anymore.

“The national American higher education community is watching,” Mitchell says. “And that means the reputation of the institution itself, that goes well beyond the boundaries of Boston, is very much at risk."

As Suffolk's Board tries to reduce that risk, Mitchell says 'noses in and fingers out' would be the best approach.

The Board has named Provost Marisa Kelly as the acting president, and plans to launch a national search for McKenna's replacement. 

Related: Suffolk Has Gone Through Five Presidents In Five Years: Who Are They?

Lydia Keating contributed to this report.

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