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New guiding hands at Suffolk

School set to add 12 trustees with business focus

The school is expected to select David Sargent’s replacement in the next few months. Those familiar with the search say the ideal president would have experience leading an urban institution. The school is expected to select David Sargent’s replacement in the next few months. Those familiar with the search say the ideal president would have experience leading an urban institution.
By Mary Carmichael
Globe Staff / October 4, 2011

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Suffolk University is drastically changing its leadership, overhauling its board of trustees, and laying off several top administrators after a decade of explosive growth and 21 years under one of the nation’s highest-paid college presidents.

The school, which is seeking a new president after longtime leader David Sargent’s abrupt resignation a year ago, is expected to appoint 12 new members to its board tonight. Many are influential attorneys or chief executives known for running tight ships. The school may add more trustees to the 31-member board over the coming months.

Several board members, including some close to Sargent, have resigned over the last few years, and others may leave soon.

“Suffolk has gone through a transition. This is a new chapter in the history of the university,’’ said board chairman Andrew Meyer, a prominent malpractice attorney. “We need people who understand that running an institution of higher education today means running a business.’’

In the spring, the school hired the Pappas Consulting Group, a firm that specializes in higher education and nonprofits, to assess its structure and finances. Although the university closed the most recent fiscal year with a surplus, the consultants’ analysis showed Suffolk was at risk of running a $7 million deficit in the 2012-13 year, said provost and acting president Barry Brown.

Partly in response, the school laid off 20 administrators - many of them longtime or high-ranking officials - and shuffled 15 more into new positions two weeks ago. The move saved several million dollars, enough to cover almost all of the looming deficit, Brown said.

The Pappas consultants are still in place, and more layoffs across the university may be forthcoming.

The school will pick Sargent’s replacement in the next few months. It is conducting final interviews and background checks of a handful of candidates. Meyer and others familiar with the search said the ideal candidate would have experience leading an urban institution.

The university has not yet determined a salary for the new president but is unlikely to match Sargent’s $2.8 million in 2006-07, which stoked faculty and alumni protests and provoked an audit by the Internal Revenue Service. The results of that audit are near completion but “will have no impact on the university whatsoever, regardless of the outcome,’’ Meyer said. “That is between the IRS and the taxpayer, who is the previous president.’’

The board is working with a team of compensation specialists, different than the team that set Sargent’s salary, to settle on an amount for the new president.

Meyer and others interviewed some 40 candidates before choosing the 12 new board members, all of whom are expected to play major roles in determining the university’s direction. “None of them is just coming on to put this on a resume,’’ he said.

Among the new members is John Fernandez, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

“When I arrived at Mass. Eye and Ear, it had just not been making enough money to be great, and as a Harvard teaching hospital you expect it to be great, not good,’’ Fernandez said. “That’s the standard I would apply to Suffolk.’’

Fernandez said he would focus largely on finance and management. “Nonprofit is a tax status, not a way of life. You can’t run a business without figuring out how to make the numbers work,’’ he said. “I also hope I can bring a little perspective on making sure that if management says they’re going to do X, Y, and Z, they are held accountable.’’

Two other hospital chief executives - John Brooks of Joslin Diabetes Center and Jeanette Clough of Mount Auburn Hospital - are also joining the board.

“Suffolk is at a point in its evolution where it needs some fresh thinking, maybe from someone who hasn’t been on the board of a university before,’’ said Brooks, adding that he wanted to explore new ways the school could collaborate with industry. “It needs to be a little bit faster and slightly less bureaucratic.’’

Another business leader, Roger Berkowitz, president and chief executive of Legal Sea Foods, said he looked forward to debating changes to the school’s curriculum and considering whether students should take more classes online. “When I was approached, it was with the proviso that they were essentially reconstituting the board. That showed they were open to change,’’ he said. “I saw Suffolk as having the potential of Northeastern University - a place that was in the shadows for a long time and then had a renaissance.’’

Meyer stressed that many longtime board members remain. “There is not an exodus,’’ he said. But he added that new blood was needed to address issues the university did not face in its former life as a small school tucked into a few Beacon Hill brownstones. It now has 17 buildings, 10,000 students, and the fifth-largest law school in the country.

A recent credit report gave Suffolk a generally positive review, praising it for steady enrollment and regular operating surpluses in recent years.

But the school carries $360 million in debt, much of it acquired in 2009 during the economic downturn.

The vast majority of its revenue comes from tuition and fees, leaving it vulnerable to swings in enrollment. Tuition plus room and board totals $41,000 a year, and Meyer said there is no desire to raise that, even though most students pay less because they have financial aid. “We have an economy where people can barely afford to send their kids to school,’’ he said. “We have to stop tuition from going up.’’

Instead, the school will intensify fund-raising. Only 7 percent of Suffolk’s 62,000 alumni donate. “We have not had, to date, an effective and efficient effort to reach out and reengage them,’’ Meyer said.

Brooks, the Joslin chief executive, said alumni could also help new graduates. “They can be helpful in finding internships and entry-level jobs,’’ he said. “I think that effort is going on already, but we need to turbo-charge it.’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached at Her Twitter feed is @mary_carmichael