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Faculty irate at high pay for Suffolk president

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / December 5, 2009

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Faculty dissent is bubbling up across Suffolk University, weeks after the furor over its president’s $1.5 million compensation - more than four times the national average for top college administrators - thrust the school into the national spotlight.

More than 70 percent of the law school faculty approved a motion during Thursday’s faculty meeting raising questions about the way the university is governed. The motion, relayed to the college’s board of trustees, expressed concern that President David Sargent’s “excessive’’ compensation has demoralized students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

The negative publicity over the pay package, they said, had harmed the Beacon Hill school’s reputation and its ability to raise money and attract strong applicants, criticism that the board chairman says is unfair and has dealt “a hell of a blow to Sargent.’’

Professors in Suffolk’s business school, the college of arts and sciences, and school of art and design have also begun to complain, according to several faculty members. Law professors say they would like better communication from trustees about key decisions and believe there should be term limits for board members.

It is the first time in the school’s recent history that such a wide swath of the school faculty have openly questioned the way the university is run and its direction, a move one longtime professor likened to “children finally acting out, standing up to the parent.’’

“One of the major themes going on now is dissatisfaction with the trustees’ method of governance, and the president’s salary is a manifestation of that,’’ said Valerie Epps, a law professor who proposed this week’s resolution, which passed 44 to 17.

Further fueling their ire, faculty say, was the unexpected two-year contract extension the board granted to Sargent last month. He will be 82 when his contract expires July 2013.

“It was like, ‘In your face,’ ’’ Epps said. “That was just too much.’’

Faculty had not publicly protested Sargent’s salary earlier because they say they believed he was on his way out in 2011. Suffolk froze faculty pay and raised student fees this year, while Sargent, who has declined multiple requests to be interviewed, continues to make more than his peers at some of the country’s more prestigious universities.

Nicholas Macaronis, chairman of the board of trustees and Sargent’s law school classmate and close friend, defended Sargent’s pay and contract extension.

“How many times do we have to go through this thing?’’ Macaronis said yesterday. “Everybody knows that some people are taken aback by some of the figures, but the board of trustees is not. This guy is gold. He’s done everything for the school. . . . This is really hitting him bad, and I feel for the guy.’’

The controversy erupted last year when a national survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education named Sargent the highest-paid private college president, with 2006-07 compensation of $2.8 million. In October, the survey said he was the second-highest compensated in 2007-08.

University officials say last year’s figure was deceiving because more than half a million of his salary was required to be reported twice, first when he became eligible for longevity and performance bonuses in 2006-07 and again when he received them in 2007-08.

Sargent’s compensation was unusually high as he approached the end of his presidency, they said, because it included a one-time deferred bonus of $1.19 million for his more than 50 years at the university, 20 of them as president, and made up for decades of low pay. Sargent’s compensation for 2008-09 is estimated to be $809,000, Macaronis said.

Macaronis criticized the faculty for commenting on a contract they have not seen.

“I’d like to know how many people examined this contract and are sophisticated enough to understand what’s in it,’’ he said. “I don’t think one of these 44 people would stand up to scrutiny if I were to sit down with them and examine them.’’

But even some trustees on Suffolk’s 33-member board said they have raised concerns about the way the board is run and have been advocating for changes behind the scenes. Term limits would allow a fresh infusion of ideas to improve the school, they say, and loosen the grip of longtime, powerful members.

The recent contract extension is an example of how things are typically done, said one trustee who requested anonymity to preserve relationships on the board. No written contract was presented to the board, and members were not given advance notice on the agenda, the member said. Two trustees said they voted against the extension because they objected to the process. Some of the others who went along with the proposal said it was presented as a “vote of confidence’’ in Sargent amid growing turmoil over his salary.

Macaronis defended the process, saying no special notice was required for a contract extension. “They wanted to talk about it for 30,000 hours, but if you know Nick Macaronis, I don’t do that. I make decisions on the spot.’’

Asked whether any changes would come to the way the board is structured or governed, Macaronis said term limits were under consideration. “Everything is under consideration,’’ he said. “The whole running of Suffolk is under consideration.’’

Macaronis, who has served as chairman for nearly a decade, said he would step down when Sargent leaves the presidency.

“Anything I have ever done or will do will be for the benefit of Suffolk,’’ he said. “Are you aware that I have donated a million and a half dollars to Suffolk? And this is not just pledged. Donated. No baloney, OK?’’

The board is also implementing a succession plan, Macaronis said, though a search committee for a new president has not been named.

“Nobody actually thinks David Sargent will be president until 2013,’’ said the trustee who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But what if he tries to be?’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.