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McKenna and The Board: Was Gender an Issue?

Suffolk’s PR team can take a deep breath: the drama with President McKenna and the Board of Trustees is over (knock on wood).

Towards the end of January 2016, tensions between Suffolk University’s President Margaret McKenna and the Board of Trustees made headlines.  The Trustees – most notably, the Chair Andrew Meyer – came forward criticizing McKenna’s ‘confrontational’ and ‘abrasive’ leadership style.  He also disagreed with her financial decisions, particularly her choices to renew the lease of the school’s academic buildings on Temple Street, lack of fundraising efforts, and marketing partnership with The Boston Globe.  The Board claimed these issues were reason enough to replace her, despite the fact she had been at Suffolk for a matter of months.

At face value, sure – McKenna’s decisions might be questionable, and it appears the Trustees are looking out for the best interest of the school and its financial well-being.  These issues weren’t completely unprecedented, either.  Since McKenna has taken office, lots of controversial changes have been made to the school, including cutting contracts with the Beacon Hill Institute and Reagan Communications.

But, the Trustees plan to remove McKenna came with some implications.  The school has had four different presidents in the past five years, and another president would prove some serious instability for the institution.  McKenna is also well-liked among students, as she frequently makes appearances at school events, donates to school groups, has frequent contact with student leaders, and attends school shows. Removing her would remove a leadership figure that has invested time and interest in the school, which not many other recent leaders have.

While a compromise has been reached between the Trustees and McKenna – the Board will revise their outdated bylaws, and McKenna will leave in the fall of 2017 – one big question remains: what’s the real reason the Trustees had such an issue with McKenna?  Was it her spending? Her no nonsense attitude?  The controversial changes she made during her first couple months in office?  

In a WGBH interview, McKenna attributes some of the problems she had with the Trustees to her gender.  McKenna says the board may not have expected her ‘abrasive’ attitude not only because former Presidents had not had that attitude with them, but because of the fact she’s female.  

Later in the interview, WGBH host Margery Eagan says after McKenna’s issues with the Board, she is not sure she would feel comfortable sending her daughter to a school where a female’s confrontational and independent attitudes are met with criticism, threats, and backlash.  McKenna responded with an opposite perspective, saying if anything, the student involvement with the highly publicized argument should be inspiration and reason for educated, independent, outspoken females to attend the school.

Now, I guess I could say I share McKenna’s confident, almost pushy personality.  I’m Type A and can be really bossy (hey, at least I own up to it). And as a matter of fact, U.S. News & World Report says Suffolk University is 55% female, and many of the girls I’ve met at Suffolk have the same ‘go-get-‘em’ attitude I do.

So, when I heard Eagan’s comment about not wanting to send a girl to Suffolk, I was taken aback.  While females are still socialized to be agreeable and subdued to their male counterparts, I’ve see this socialization as a phenomenon that’s changing.  Females are increasingly encouraged to be independent, outspoken, and proud of their decision to take charge.  Going to a city school with no real campus, it’s easy to see why most females would share these traits: to get what you want – whether it be a position in a club, an internship, or new friends – you have to be assertive.  It never crossed my mind that a female President would face backlash for embodying the independent traits that majority female student population exhibits.

With this in mind, I think McKenna’s behavior and response to Eagan’s comment give some important takeaways.

  1. My optimism that women’s socialization is changing may be a little too optimistic. Whether it’s true or not that the Board of Trustees were frustrated with McKenna’s attitude and leadership style because it defied gender stereotypes is not quite my point… but the fact that gender could be a factor to their frustrations is upsetting.  Women – and particularly women in a leadership position like McKenna’s – should not only be accepted for having the drive to get things done, but they should be expected.  Gender aside, McKenna was exercising a leadership style that a changing and growing school like Suffolk needs, and her gender should not have had an impact on these expectations.

  2. Suffolk IS a school for women who are unafraid to assert themselves. Like McKenna said in her interview, Suffolk is a model of activism – females included.  It is a place where any strong-minded, involved, activist student should go.  McKenna says this incident has energized the school – Suffolk stands out as a school where students are united and working together to better the school. 

So, that’s my recap/realizations from this incident. May Suffolk continue to stay out of the negative spotlight and encourage independent ladies like McKenna.  ~Peace~love~girl power~ am I right?!

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