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Trustee resigns amid furor over Suffolk president’s pay

Nicholas Macaronis’s resignation from the board calls into question the university president’s own future. Nicholas Macaronis’s resignation from the board calls into question the university president’s own future.
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / December 24, 2009

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The chairman of Suffolk University’s board of trustees is stepping down following pressure from fellow trustees and criticism over his steadfast defense of the college president’s hefty pay package.

Nicholas Macaronis, who has served as chairman for nearly a decade, will retire in February, President David Sargent announced in an e-mail to the Suffolk community yesterday.

“I am 80 years old and I believe the time is right for new leadership on the Board of Trustees,’’ Macaronis wrote in a letter to Sargent on Friday.

In recent weeks, Macaronis and Sargent have come under fire from professors, alumni, and even some board members for the way the university is gov erned. At Macaronis’s urging, the board last month unexpectedly gave Sargent a two-year contract extension as an outward show of support amid outrage over news of Sargent’s $1.5 million compensation package, the second-highest in the nation among private college leaders in 2008.

“I believe the chairman recognized it was in the best interest of all to allow new leadership at the helm and lead the university forward into the future,’’ Andrew Meyer Jr., a trustee whom Sargent appointed as head of a new succession planning committee, said in an interview yesterday. “He has the full understanding and appreciation of the need for new leadership.’’

But Macaronis’s resignation - which another trustee said resulted from board members “urging him to retire’’ - dramatically changes the dynamic of Suffolk’s top leadership and calls into question Sargent’s own future. Many on the board have said they believe Sargent would not stay at the helm until July 2013, when his contract expires. Now they wonder whether he will leave sooner rather than later.

Meyer said Sargent would not be retiring in the near future, but could not say whether he would remain until the end of his contract, when he will be 82.

“I’m sure as we go forward with this strategic plan there will be ongoing discussions about what is best for the university, and there is no question that the president’s first and foremost interest is the university,’’ Meyer said. “Whatever is best for the university, I’m sure the president will be in favor of.’’

Earlier this month, a group of faculty rebuked the board for what they view as Sargent’s ill-timed contract extension, saying the negative publicity has harmed the Beacon Hill university’s reputation and its ability to raise money and attract strong applicants.

Some trustees also objected to the way the extension was handled, without advance notice or a written contract to review. Macaronis defended the process, telling the Globe at the time: “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.’’

Macaronis further angered faculty when he defended Sargent’s compensation and contract extension by questioning law professors’ ability to understand the fine print of the contract.

“I’d like to know how many people examined this contract and are sophisticated enough to understand what’s in it,’’ Macaronis, Sargent’s longtime friend and law school classmate, told the Globe earlier this month. “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.’’

Sargent disassociated himself from Macaronis’s remarks, calling them in an earlier e-mail to faculty “unfortunate and unfair to our distinguished faculty members’’ and “completely the opposite of my own assessment.’’

Macaronis, admired by some trustees as a forceful presence and a straight shooter, did not return calls to his office yesterday for comment.

“His heart was always in the right place for Suffolk University,’’ said trustee Jill Gabbe. “You have to admire that and honor him for all those years of service.’’

News of his resignation caught faculty and even some on the 33-member board by surprise. Macaronis, who joined the board in 1999 and became chairman in 2001, had told the Globe in early December he planned to step down from the board when Sargent leaves the presidency.

Some faculty viewed his departure as a sign of hope that real change would come to Suffolk, which Sargent has led for 20 years.

“Hooray,’’ said Judith Dushku, a government professor at the College of Arts and Sciences. “It appears that, at last, the board of trustees is acknowledging that faculty concerns should be taken much more seriously on the issues of governance and what is good for the reputation of the university, and not simply rely on David Sargent and a small circle of his friends at the top.’’

Dushku said the university had embarked on “sad priorities’’ over the past decade, pursuing explosive growth in downtown Boston and overpaying administrators. Instead, she said, it should have focused on keeping classes small and adequately staffing offices that serve students.

Last week, the succession planning committee sent an e-mail assuring the Suffolk community that trustees were taking “timely, comprehensive, and decisive steps to address all pressing issues related to governance.’’

“The president and the board all recognize that any responsible institution has to plan for its future,’’ Meyer said in yesterday’s interview. Sargent appointed the committee to “not only assure a change in leadership of the board, but also to plan for a change in leadership of the university as a whole.’’

Meyer said the board is considering whether to impose term limits on members, among other changes.

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