James McCarthy is the new president of Suffolk University, a 106-year-old institution that he says “epitomizes many of those values I hold dear.” McCarthy was chosen as Suffolk’s ninth president from more than 100 candidates vying for the position during a yearlong selection process. Formerly provost and senior vice president at Baruch College in New York City, McCarthy holds an A.B. in sociology from the College of the Holy Cross, an M.A. in sociology from Indiana University, and a Ph.D. in sociology from Princeton University. He has held various positions at the University of New Hampshire, Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University and Trinity College in Dublin. Thoughtful and engaging, McCarthy spoke with Suffolk University about embracing its legacy of access and excellence, creating innovative ways of infusing technology into the academic process and why, when it comes to declaring a baseball team allegiance in his new city, it may be best to be a “non-aligned nation.”
Suffolk University: What compelled your interest in becoming president of Suffolk University?
James McCarthy: There’s been an evolution to my career. I spent the first 24 years at some wonderful universities, where I focused on research and graduate education. Eventually I decided that I wanted to spend much more time on undergraduate education, more time on teaching, more time linking universities to the communities in which they live, and that I wanted to work with more diverse student bodies. And I mean diverse in many dimensions — social background, economic background, and also in terms of academic preparation. I think one of the great attributes of higher education in the United States is that opportunities are available to students at many times in their lives. People come to higher education from different backgrounds and levels of preparation, and they can succeed and thrive and go anywhere from the point at which they enter. So I became most interested in places that reflected this broad diversity, and places that are very closely linked to their communities. Suffolk epitomizes all these values I hold, and the University is certainly part of its community. Suffolk is so deeply woven into the fabric of the city, and that’s very exciting.
SU: Every college and university has faced extraordinary challenges in recent years, from soaring costs for students to shrinking endowments. How do you plan to confront those challenges as they affect the Suffolk community?
McCarthy: The cost of higher education is going up for every institution. The access to the financial resources needed to sustain the current models of higher education is a great challenge for everyone. Here’s what you must do — focus, focus, focus. Know who you are, know where you excel, know where you’re strongest, and focus on those things. Ask tough questions about whether what we’re doing is really consistent with the core mission of the institution. Before an institution can focus, it needs to know who it is. In an academic setting, that means having — and adhering to — a very clear mission. Secondly, everyone has to be relentlessly efficient. We have to make sure we’re developing the best programs for students and doing that as efficiently as possible.
SU: How would you characterize your leadership style?
McCarthy: There are two parts to my management style. One is broad consultation. I’ll meet with the deans and vice presidents regularly as a group, and I’ll also meet regularly with students, faculty and staff, both informally and formally. The purpose of those meetings will be to get the widest possible array of perspectives, opinions and views. I hope, in those meetings, I’ll generate a very open atmosphere where people can genuinely say what’s on their minds. I have a very thick skin, and I think we really learn most by exploring all ideas even if we end up deciding that some — including some that I propose — are not very good. That’s OK. I don’t care if someone else tells me it’s not a very good idea; that doesn’t bother me. What I’m interested in is coming to the best decision. I like to talk with everyone involved in formal and informal sessions because I think I learn a tremendous amount from them.
Part two of my style is making decisions and making them decisively. Decisive doesn’t mean precipitous; decisive doesn’t mean rash. It does mean recognizing when there has been enough discussion and being ready to move on. And, in making decisions, I recognize that some of them will be wrong. When you say you’re going to make a decision, you also have to be ready to unmake the decision if experience proves that there was a better way.
SU: As an urban campus, Suffolk is very much a part of downtown Boston. Can you speak about the challenges and charms of a university that lies within the heart of the city?
McCarthy: Some students are looking for a campus, a suburban or rural experience, with an idyllic quad at the center. But for some people, the absolute excitement of going to a university in the middle of a great city is phenomenal — those are students we want at Suffolk. True, there’s no quadrangle with grass — but we’ve got the Boston Common! What more could you want? One of the things Suffolk has done well throughout its history is take great advantage of its location. We’re not just in the city, but we’re deeply part of the city. We’re right in the thick of it. So although there are challenges to having a university in the middle of a city, the advantages of such a location far outweigh any challenges.
SU: Like New York, Boston is very much a city of colleges and universities. In Boston, a smaller city, the concentration — and competition — seems that much more intense. Can you speak of ways you would like to help Suffolk distinguish itself among so many institutions of higher learning?
McCarthy: Suffolk has already distinguished itself, so that makes it easy. Suffolk’s origin as a law school is an important part of its distinguishing nature. From its beginnings it was devoted to educating people for the professions, and that’s certainly still the case at Suffolk. The University has, since its founding, been devoted to providing students — in law, business or arts and sciences — with the education they need to succeed in life and, specifically, the education they need to launch their careers. Suffolk can continue to distinguish itself by continuing its historical commitment to providing students access not only to an education, but to a productive and satisfying life.
SU: We hear you are — and forgive the colloquialism — a tech guy. Please tell us more about your ideas about the integration of technology and higher education.
McCarthy: I am a huge tech guy. I’ve recently been involved in promoting enhanced online learning through hybrid courses and fully online courses. These are not in the traditional distance-educational mode. These are online courses for traditional full-time undergraduate students. I’ve been heavily involved in a national experiment teaching introductory statistics online. I’m also part of a group that’s exploring how we might embrace more online and technologically enhanced teaching. There are ways in which this promotes efficiency, and there are ways in which this promotes quality of education. When our current students graduate, they are going to be doing a fair amount of their professional work online. If they’re in a profession that requires ongoing training, it’s going to be online. We accept the goal that students coming out of a university must know how to write and that they must be skilled in oral communication. I believe there should be a third category that we expect and accept: namely that students also must be able to use technology to learn effectively, because that’s going to be an equally critical skill. In the same way we can teach students to write and communicate effectively, I believe we can also teach them to learn using technology.
SU: At Baruch’s 2009 convocation, you said, “We draw inspiration from all societies that have valued education and have ensured that future members of these societies learn the skills, experiences and perspectives needed for these societies to continue.” What has inspired your career as an academic, and what will inspire you as president of Suffolk University?
McCarthy: Here’s what inspires me now as an academic and what inspires me about Suffolk — and maybe this sounds scripted, but it’s true. A place like Suffolk exists to change the lives of students, to really change their lives. That’s what has to be in the front of everybody’s mind every day. At Suffolk, we encounter thousands of students each year, and we’ve got to make sure we’re giving them what they need to change their lives. That’s a pretty heady obligation, and that’s something that has to be on everyone’s mind — what’s in it for the students and whether we are providing the knowledge and skills necessary for them to move forward.
SU: And now, the most important question: You’re a native of Connecticut, and you’ve spent a number of years in New York and New Hampshire — so, are you a Boston or a New York sports fan?
McCarthy: I’m not talking! Let’s just say we are avid New England Patriots fans, and we love hockey. And Boston hockey is better than any other hockey. Beyond that, I’m going to be a non-aligned nation.