Suffolk U.'s New President Taps His Sociological Training to Meet Students' Needs

Suffolk U.

James McCarthy
January 29, 2012

James McCarthy, a sociologist turned administrator, will become president of Suffolk University on February 1. He brings to the private university in downtown Boston his four and a half years of experience as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at another sprawling urban campus, the City University of New York's Baruch College.

Both campuses deal with town-gown issues that challenge and invigorate them.

As Suffolk has expanded from a commuter institution into a residential university in one of the city's most desirable neighborhoods, it has had to make changes in response to neighbors' complaints. In 2008 it agreed to freeze enrollment of full-time undergraduates at 5,000 for the next decade, and to carry out any expansion in areas away from its historic home.

"The campus's center of gravity is shifting off Beacon Hill to the extent we can do that," Mr. McCarthy says.

His background as a demographer should prove useful at a time when campuses have fewer college-age students to draw on, particularly in the Northeast. The university needs to focus recruitment efforts on areas that have large numbers of college-age students, something it is already doing by attracting many international students, he says.

Mr. McCarthy was selected unanimously by Suffolk's Board of Trustees on January 18, after a yearlong search.

Like Baruch, Suffolk is "striving to provide an effective education, but one that doesn't saddle students with large amounts of debt," he says.

The trustees were thinking about that, too, when they drew up Mr. McCarthy's salary, says the board's chairman, Andrew C. Meyer Jr. The board checked with educational consultants and the Internal Revenue Service to make sure it wasn't overspending but was still paying enough to attract a high-quality candidate, he says.

Mr. Meyer declines to disclose the amount but says it isn't anywhere near the $2.8-million in total compensation that made Mr. McCarthy's predecessor, David J. Sargent, the highest-paid president of any public or private college in the country in 2006-7.

Critics said that distinction hurt the university's image and hampered fund raising.

Mr. Sargent retired in 2010, and Barry Brown has been serving as acting president since then.

At Baruch, Mr. McCarthy managed an academic budget of more than $100-million and oversaw the development of a five-year plan for the college. Before that he was a professor and dean of the School of Health and Human Services at the University of New Hampshire. He also taught courses in public health and sociology at Columbia University and the Johns Hopkins University.

Suffolk's trustees were impressed with his tech savvy. At Baruch he was examining ways to develop more hybrid and online courses for full-time undergraduates, something he plans to pursue, with the board's blessing, at Suffolk.

Mr. McCarthy's research interests include adolescent and reproductive health, and he believes his insight into such factors as substance abuse, sexual abuse, and stress make him particularly attuned to the needs of college students. Faculty members can help with such issues, he says, by letting student-affairs staff know about students who aren't showing up for class or are struggling with early assignments.

"One of the things I've learned is that education can't take place unless students are fundamentally healthy," he says, "and that knowledge will influence everything I do."