College-bound students interested in urban education, issues in a city, public policy, or entrepreneurship should have Suffolk on their lists, said President Margaret McKenna during remarks to the community as the academic year began.

“My aspiration is to make Suffolk the best university it can be while staying true to its mission as an applied liberal arts college with professional programs,” she said.

In a talk marked by humor and interrupted with applause, McKenna, who joined the University this summer, said her priorities include staying committed to access and making sure to allocate resources so students have the best possible learning environment.

She criticized the higher education move from need-based to merit-based financial aid.

“If you can get into college, you’re meritorious,” said McKenna.

Interdisciplinary possibilities

As the University’s three academic units increase collaboration, the result will be intriguing interdisciplinary programs and combined degrees that condense the time it takes to pursue a particular course of study.

“If we have intellectual property in the Law School and entrepreneurship in the Business School, we need to have them work together,” said McKenna. She also mused about a shorter route to a law degree – rather than four years of college and three of law school, students might be able to earn both degrees in six years–or they could pursue a five-year program in business and law.

“Why? Because it serves our students, and that’s what we’re about,” said McKenna.

McKenna said that the University is judged by what its graduates achieve. “They should be ready to write; they should be lifelong learners; they should be critical thinkers; they should be ready for graduate school; but they should also, if they choose, have the skills that allow them to enter a profession,” said McKenna.

Engaged citizens

The president also touched on the need to instill a sense of civic responsibility in Suffolk students.

“Colleges should be judged by the percentage of our students who vote,” she said. “If they don’t vote in college, they’ll never be regular voters. We need engaged citizens. We need to do something about it.”

As a civil rights lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice early in her career, McKenna didn’t think she’d live to see the election of an African-American president. “I also didn’t think that fifty years after the Watts riots, that I would see Ferguson or Baltimore or Eric Garner,” she said. “We need as a community to talk about these kinds of issues.”

She noted that Suffolk University, which was founded as a law school, came about because immigrants could not become lawyers. “Shouldn’t we be talking about what’s happening in Europe to immigrants and refugees? Academics are not supposed to have feelings – we need to hold onto a sense of outrage when we see these things, and we need to share it with our students. … We need to talk about it.”

McKenna touched on the opportunities for internships in the city that surrounds the Suffolk campus, but she also introduced the idea of inviting area workers who haven’t completed their degrees to take lunchtime courses at Suffolk.

She acknowledged that change is hard but can lead to better things and asked that new ideas be given the same gracious reception that she received when she arrived on campus.

“This is an incredible place that deserves recognition and huge support, and I’m sure we will get there together.”