Suffolk University and the Collapse of Shared Governance

In an ugly soap opera still unfolding, Suffolk University's efforts to govern itself responsibly imploded over the past couple of weeks in an acid cloud of public "he said/she said." As the Suffolk debacle deepened, the finger pointing became a matter of public record.

Margaret McKenna, a seasoned, well respected, and often opinionated higher education leader, is at the center of the maelstrom. Ms. McKenna, a civil rights lawyer, successful former long-term president of Lesley University, and foundation executive, has been in office for eight months, not even long enough for an annual performance review. A faction on the Board, led by its chairman, Andrew Meyer, objected to her style, and questioned some of her administrative decisions, spending habits, and fundraising ability, according to published reports. By mid-week, Boston's mayor and others weighed in to support Ms. McKenna.

Ms. McKenna is the fifth president at Suffolk University in five years. It seems pointless to debate the merits of a case argued in the press. On February 5th, Suffolk announced a compromise. The Board chair will leave at the end of his term in May, 2016, Ms. McKenna will step down after the 2017 academic year, and the Board will have new by-laws ready for adoption by May, 2016.

But the damage has been done. Suffolk University needs an immediate tutorial in shared governance.

The culprit is the University's by-laws. A 2014 review by Suffolk's accrediting agency, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), recommended they be revised. NEASC suggested that Suffolk rewrite its by laws to install a president with the authority of a CEO and that the Board relegate its responsibilities to program oversight and financial stewardship to assume a more advisory role. Significantly, the Board took no action.

The failure by the Suffolk Board to reform its policies is the real story unfolding at Suffolk. We may never know if promises were made to President McKenna about these reforms before she accepted the job. But the "fix" at Suffolk University begins with how the Board governs itself.

American colleges and universities operate through a system of shared governance. There are three groups: faculty, administration and trustees. The faculty exercise authority over the academic program -- the heart of the educational enterprise.

The president has a complex job. Presidents lead the administrative management of the college, setting the vision, developing revenue sources, and rationing resources. They look outward to determine how to position the institution competitively. Presidents can be thought of as the CEO who typically behaves like a 19th Century political boss -- doing favors and resolving political, social and cultural campus issues - while working with a group of independent artisans (faculty) who behave something like a medieval craft guild.

It is a very different job than that of a corporate CEO. Harvard has yet to invent a business model that fully accounts for the nuances in a president's job that is often more like an elected mayor than a corporate titan.

Of the three groups, the Board of Trustees is by far the weakest. As one board chair once put it, trustees are part-time volunteers with responsibility over full-time experienced management. Their Boards can often exceed forty members, not counting emeriti trustees, allowing significant in fighting with inbred factions competing for power and influence. Sometimes weak, ineffectual boards elect bad chairs. It is hard to get those who behave like Mr. Burns on the Simpsons out of the way before they do too much long-term damage.

The result is often a quiet catastrophe for the school that plays out over time as the college's reputation erodes, its competitive edge weakens, and its key metrics soften.

In fact, boards have three -- and only three -- responsibilities. Boards have program responsibility writ large to set general policy guidelines to ensure that the institution is sustainable. Trustees are also the financial stewards, setting the comprehensive fee, approving fundraising targets, and managing the endowment. And finally, they hire, nurture, and replace the president, depending upon what is needed. That's it.

Suffolk University is a lesson in how not to behave. The story does not end now that President McKenna reached a compromise with her board. Suffolk will slowly recede from the daily headlines. But the animus, reputational damage, and embarrassment shared by its stakeholders will take a long time from which to recover.

The bigger story perhaps is that Suffolk has become a poster child in higher education, and more generally among non-profits, for the failure of shared governance. Its outcome places the principal blame squarely on its trustees, especially on those who treated their institution as a wholly owned subsidiary of their sense of self.

What is most needed at institutions of higher education is better education among stakeholders on how shared governance works.

It starts with the Board of Trustees.