When she was elected president of her high school in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Margaret McKenna first learned the lesson that has guided her throughout her professional life: “Accessing power, if you do it for the right reasons, is a good thing,” she says. Now Suffolk’s 10th president and the first woman ever to lead the University, McKenna has enjoyed a varied, dynamic career in such positions as head of the philanthropic Walmart Foundation, deputy White House counsel to President Jimmy Carter, deputy undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Education, and president of Lesley University in Cambridge for 22 years. Most recently, she has been a visiting professor and acting director of the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy at the Heller School of Brandeis University. McKenna, who earned her bachelor’s at Boston’s Emmanuel College and a law degree from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, arrives at Suffolk eager to burnish its local and national reputation and brings a leadership style she describes as “transparent, inclusive, and very clear about expectations.”
Suffolk University: In the forum with staff, you said you were not seeking a job as a college president—you were interested in becoming president of Suffolk—and you made a compelling case with specific reasons why. Can you share these reasons with alumni?
Margaret McKenna: I have, for many years, watched Suffolk. I think it’s a really important institution, and its role in the city, in the state, and as a model urban university are all very important. It’s the kind of place where students who are interested in urban issues anywhere should look at because it’s a university that works in the city and with the city. And, unfortunately, that’s all too rare. I’m also impressed with the history of Suffolk and its origin of commitment to access, and the role it plays in the life of the Commonwealth in terms of its graduates. What an important role that is to have the kind of environment where people are exposed to the issues, the challenges, and sense of responsibility of being involved in civic life.
SU: You were president of Lesley for 22 years, a long tenure for a college president. What do you see as your most significant accomplishments there? And what are some of the things you learned in that role that might be applicable at Suffolk?
McKenna: Focus, vision, mission. When I got there, [Lesley] had a long history of teacher education, but it had [wandered] off that mission to do a lot of other things. My mantra is to do what you do as well or better than anyone else, and always make sure there’s a need for what you do. So we focused on our history and mission. I think really being clear about who we were and what distinguished Lesley was very important. Diversity was also very important to me—I started my life as civil rights lawyer, and when I got to Lesley [in 1985], less than one percent of the faculty was people of color; when I left it was 18 percent. It was the same for the student body and the administration, all of which changed and I’m very proud of that. It’s extremely important in this day and age for teachers going into classrooms to have experienced that kind of diversity. Lastly, I put Lesley on very solid financial ground with both a significant growth in the endowment and the facilities.
Focus, mission, and differentiation are extremely important: “Tell me why I should come here, what’s different here?” There are a lot of things [Suffolk offers], and we need to learn to say that well. Again, do what you do well. Don’t try to be all things to all people. Obviously I’m interested in seeing growth in fundraising and the endowment. Like Suffolk, when I went to Lesley it was about 95 percent tuition-dependent, and that’s very different today. I would like to see, over the next decade, tuition dependence here become significantly less. This is an institution that deserves support, and it has a lot of alums that are grateful to this place, and we need to ask for their help.
SU: How do you think most of your colleagues at Lesley would describe your leadership style—and how would you describe it?
McKenna: I think they would describe it as transparent, inclusive, and very clear about expectations. I’ve learned that you need to be very clear about what you expect, and include others in your decisions. When there’s a decision you’re going to make, tell them; don’t waste their time. Almost all decisions are better when they’re informed by the people who are affected by them. It’s important when you ask people for their advice to then close the loop and tell them why you made the decision you made. I’m pretty open and pretty accessible; I’m likely to pick up the phone and call anyone in the institution. I won’t always go only to the most senior person, but rather ask those closest to the issue.
SU: You began the Suffolk forum by walking out from behind the podium to the front of the C. Walsh Theatre stage, engaging very directly with the audience. What if anything might this suggest about how you might interact with faculty, staff, students, and alumni?
McKenna: That’s just who I am. I never stand behind a podium unless there’s some reason I have to, and I’d prefer not to even be on a stage. I don’t sit behind a desk to talk to people. I don’t believe in those kinds of barriers. If you want people to participate and be engaged, you want to really talk to them. I’m pretty informal, and I like to be out and about meeting people on all levels at all kinds of things.
SU: You’ve had a varied career, including as president of the Walmart Foundation [the retail giant’s charitable enterprise]. What did you learn and experience in that position that could be applicable to Suffolk?
McKenna: One, understanding the role business and corporations play. I had been on boards, but that was my first time on the inside of a corporation. I learned that the right person in the right place in the corporate world can make an enormous difference. Walmart decided to do something about environmental impact, and once it decided that, it had a ripple effect across the world. I had spent my life in government and nonprofit life, and one of the things I learned about is the power a corporation can have, including for the common good.
What I learned at the foundation that is applicable here is that partnerships and collaboration with the business community are essential. Independent schools have a certain flexibility that public institutions don’t have, so we should know from the business community what their needs are and we should be able to adjust to them to serve our students better.
SU: We’d like alumni to get a sense of you not only as a president, but as a person. What do you think is important for them to know about your history, family, and values?
McKenna: My parents were public school teachers their whole lives in Central Falls, Rhode Island. I grew up in a very diverse, working-class and poor urban community. I grew up on the third floor of a three-family that we did not own. I grew up in a family committed to public service, and that’s an important part of who I am. I had a sense very early on of the haves and have-nots, and my father was very involved in public issues and work with those who had less. I learned a great deal from watching that. I am a proud mom of two sons; one works in government and one is a high school teacher.
SU: What are some of the things you will need from faculty, staff, students, and particularly from alumni, to make your presidency successful?
McKenna: From the faculty and staff, I need support, patience, understanding, honesty, and candor. One of the problems with being a president wherever I’ve been, whether it’s Walmart Foundation or Lesley, is people assume you know things you definitely do not know. I need people to tell me the good things and the bad things, and I need their suggestions. I need them to be forthcoming and candid as much as possible. As for alumni, I need them to remember what this place did for them, to be ambassadors for the University, and to help us in any way they can, including financially. One of the things about Suffolk is people here really love the place, and really care about its success.