Power breakfasts with business leaders and public officials, phone calls with prospective donors, sporting events, town halls in front of hundreds of faculty, staff, and students.
There is no such thing as a typical day for a university president, says James McCarthy, who with less than a semester under his belt as Suffolk’s new leader, continues to settle in and familiarize himself with the community.
“Jim is a breath of fresh air for Suffolk and his arrival has just brought a new sense of energy and optimism to the university,” says Interim Vice President of Marketing and Communication Greg Gatlin, who works closely with McCarthy. “He’s met with just about everyone—student leaders, faculty, staff—and he hasn’t even been here that long.”
McCarthy starts many of his days off with breakfast meetings at the Omni Parker House Hotel, just across the street from his office at 73 Tremont St. Otherwise, it’s breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts before he starts his day.
While he has made himself visible on campus since he started on Feb. 1, he has also begun to emerge in the community of power players in Boston, with the help of John Nucci, vice president of Government and Community Affairs, who “works behind the scenes to make sure I’m recognized,” says McCarthy, adding that he was one of a
few people mentioned at a recent meeting with Governor Deval Patrick.
“In the initial stages, it’s important for the external stakeholders to meet him,” says Nucci. “Together, we’ve met virtually every important decision maker in [Massachusetts] government,” including Patrick, Boston Mayor Tom Menino, and legislative and judicial leaders. “They’ve all told me they were very impressed with his openness and directness.”
Today’s schedule (April 6) doesn’t hold any such meetings, but meetings with faculty, a board of trustees committee, and McCarthy’s second town hall, meant to introduce a committee for the strategic planning process.
After breakfast, it’s straight to Donahue for a meeting with faculty from the Math and Computer Science and Physics and Engineering departments. About 20 professors are in the McDermott conference room, waiting to voice their comments and concerns.
The math and computer science faculty members are particularly concerned about the suspension of the Masters in Math and Computer Science (MSCS) because not enough students were enrolled.
McCarthy calls the suspension a loss for the university, and praises the program, but credits College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) Dean Kenneth Greenberg with acting quickly to balance the CAS’ budget, and assures faculty that the door to the program is not necessarily closed for good.
He talks about the need for different departments to find certain niches, or centers of gravity, to attract students, and talks about tapping alumni resources to recommend students to different programs. Some programs, he says, are too fundamental not to offer, even if they don’t quite break even with the number of tuition dollars from students.
“I cannot imagine a comprehensive university without a robust science program,” he says, calling for a “systematic study of what kinds of classrooms we need,” and explains that there will be tough choices. “The devil is in the details.”
His defers many questions to Greenberg, stressing that he believes that schools should be making more of the decisions for themselves. “I’ve always worked in places that decentralized.”
For example, while McCarthy thinks that 18 departments for the CAS may be too many, he encourages the school to make that decision for itself. “It’s not my call. You can have 20 departments if you want, but the administrative costs for 20 small departments,” are far higher than a smaller number of large departments.
“Clearly [McCarthy] has brought an approach that will empower folks at the school level and elsewhere the make decisions,” says Nucci. “People welcome that.”
Gatlin says he immediately felt McCarthy’s willingness to include people when he arrived at Suffolk. “He takes people’s ideas into consideration and he acts. He’s very much willing to do that.”
After the faculty meeting, McCarthy heads up to his office where he has some time to prepare for the upcoming town hall meeting.
His semi-circular office on the 13th floor of 73 has windows all around it, displaying a view of Downtown Boston that encompasses the Boston Common with the Hancock and Prudential buildings in the distance. Paintings from NESAD faculty members adorn his walls.
The rest of his office is void of clutter, the way he likes it. Even the few papers on his desk are slightly bothersome—he likes nothing on his desk.
Gatlin and Christine Dillon, one of McCarthy’s two assistants, come into the office to go over the power point that McCarthy will soon present to the school about the strategic planning process.
McCarthy is “awesome. He’s a great guy,” says Dillon, who started with McCarthy and is getting to know the Suffolk community along with him. “He’s very easy to work with. We have the same personality, work-wise. He’s laid back, but he does things right away. He doesn’t put things off.” McCarthy and Dillon are from the same hometown of Waterbury, Conn., something they realized about a month after starting.
Dillon helped McCarthy put together the power point for the strategic planning process and also helps maintain his crowded schedule.
He tries to keep Monday mornings and Friday afternoons free to catch up on emails—although his blackberry is usually with him at all times—and collect his thoughts. He also tries to schedule blocks of time between meetings to allow time to think.
“It’s really hard to remember if you go from meeting to meeting,” he says. Besides a standing weekly meeting with Provost Barry Brown, who is leaving in July to become president of Mount Ida College in Newton, McCarthy meets with all different people throughout the week. He even has off-hour engagements in his schedule to avoid a double booking.
One last look over the power point and McCarthy is almost ready to head to the C. Walsh Theater for the town hall. His wife, Magda Ghanma, stops by the office to wish him luck before she heads there to get a seat. Dillon says she stops by about once a week.
Discussing the Strategic Planning Process, McCarthy says he “set the framework and I have some influence on the outcome, but I’ll come to the beginning of the first meeting [of the committee] and the last one,” once again stressing the importance of decentralization.
Not to say he’ll be completely removed from the process; he plans to keep in touch with the co-chairs, so he has an understanding of what’s going on.
McCarthy leaves his cell phone behind, a new habit he’s picked up to avoid a buzzing in his pocket during presentations. He arrives a little early to the town hall to get mic’d up and shakes hands and mingles before he gives his presentation. He lays out the plans in front of a packed C. Walsh Theater and about 200 online viewers.
While there were less people there and watching online than his first town hall, he expected the drop off to be much bigger.
Most of the presentation was straightforward, but there were some laughs between McCarthy and the attentive crowd. At one point, he mentions the Harvard Business Reviews he bought to help him with the presentation, adding that they were quite pricey.
One audience member points out that the school already has a subscription. “Damn!” McCarthy exclaims, eliciting laughter from the crowd.
After the town hall ends, McCarthy sticks around for a bit to mingle. “He handles himself well in front of a crowd,” says Gatlin. “It’s not easy being president of university and he’s very adept at taking on some of the more challenging questions.”
When McCarthy returns to his office, he plops himself down in his chair and breathes a sigh of relief. “I’m just drained to do that. I feel like I could collapse.”
He grabs a quick, late lunch from the 73 café at about 2:30 p.m. Even as a professor, McCarthy says he could never eat before class because of the butterflies in his stomach. The same applies when having to speak to a crowd of several hundred.
Lunch makes him a little late for his next meeting with the Center for Teaching Excellence, a group of professors at Suffolk who discuss ideas and hold workshops to help teachers improve.
This meeting is only supposed to last for half an hour, but it runs long, as McCarthy and the group of professors discuss issues in higher education. Because of this, he has to rush to his last meeting of the day—something he tries to avoid. It’s a private session with the Board of Trustees committee that nominates new board members.
McCarthy says he is pleased with the way things have gone so far is in his new role as president, adding that it’s “been a whirlwind. Sometimes it feels like I’ve been drinking from a fire hydrant,” but he expects things to slow down a little after graduation.
“He’s brought a real infusion of energy to the school,” says Nucci. “I’m struck by the virtual nonexistence of a learning curve.”
McCarthy hasn’t even moved out of his apartment in Midtown Manhattan. He and his wife have been living out of suitcases in a high rise in Downtown Boston. They will be moving to a permanent location on Beacon Hill in May. Despite being a Yankees fan, McCarthy likes the smaller scale of things in Boston.
Gatlin says that McCarthy has “really embraced Boston. People are aware that there’s new leadership at Suffolk and I think he’s appreciated. It’s great to see someone who really loves being here.”
“His presence on Beacon Hill will help that relationship,” with the Beacon Hill community, says Nucci. “He will know the players and be accessible to them.”
He adds that McCarthy “knows so much about this school. He’s so intuitive. He gets it, almost as if he’s been here for a long time.”