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Suffolk University, which inhabited just a few brownstones behind the State House two decades ago, has carved a glittery swath throughout downtown Boston in recent years, its 17-building campus now encompassing some of the most expensive real estate in the country.
It abuts the city’s most famous walk, the historic Freedom Trail, where students studying at the gleaming law school at the edge of Boston Common can hear the bells toll from the Park Street Church across the way. Enrollment, too, has soared - nearly doubling over 20 years to 9,600, with a growing number of international students and outposts in Spain and Senegal.
It is a world away from Suffolk’s extraordinary, humble roots as a law school founded in a Roxbury living room more than a century ago to offer night classes to immigrants.
While the school has risen to make its mark on the downtown landscape, it has not managed to break into the ranks of selective, elite universities - even as it rewards its veteran president with the second-highest compensation in the country among private college leaders.
“I get angry when I’m standing in line at the grocery store and I see the rankings and we’re like a third-tier university,’’ said Dennis Fernandez, a Silicon Valley patent lawyer and a Suffolk trustee. “It’s the shell they have built out, but have they generated any leading content? I see no Nobel prizes over there.’’
Suffolk, struggling financially after rapid expansion, depends heavily on tuition and fees ($27,200 for undergraduates this year) to fund nearly all of its operating costs. It accepts nearly 85 percent of undergraduate applicants, many with mediocre test scores and grades. Only a fifth of those admitted choose to enroll. And only 55 percent of its students graduate within six years, compared with 76 percent among Massachusetts private colleges, according to federal statistics.
Now, some trustees and alumni have begun to raise questions about Suffolk’s leadership, direction, and financial stability in light of the contract extension until 2013 that the school’s president, David Sargent, received this month.
Recent news of Sargent’s $1.5 million compensation package in 2008 coincided with Suffolk’s sweeping efforts to stabilize its debt. Several influential alumni said they worry that Sargent’s lavish pay tarnishes Suffolk’s reputation as accessible to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds. And they wonder whether he has the energy and vision to lead the university to the next level; he will be 81 the year his contract expires.
“The faculty, students, and alumni frankly deserve a leader who reflects Suffolk’s values,’’ said Kathleen McDermott, a 1986 Suffolk Law graduate and Washington lawyer who serves on an advisory committee for the law school. “The controversy has raised questions about governance, succession, and compensation, and whether the board’s policies reflect prevailing norms and the high ideals of Suffolk.’’
Even some Sargent supporters, including several trustees on the university’s 33-member board, fear that complacency and inertia are holding Suffolk back.
Fernandez, who said he backs Sargent’s leadership, would like to see the university recognized as a “thought leader,’’ so he is helping launch a program to patent university-sponsored discoveries.
Other trustees among the half-dozen interviewed say Suffolk needs to invest in recruiting world-class faculty and expanding its research.
“We’re in the early stages of a transition from the blue-collar guy into a respected global institution,’’ Fernandez said.
Provost Barry Brown says Suffolk is making academic gains. Test scores of admitted students are climbing, and faculty are publishing more and receiving more federal research grants, he said.
Sargent, a 1954 Suffolk law graduate who had largely shunned the spotlight during his 20 years at the helm, declined multiple requests for an interview. John Nucci, the university’s vice president for external affairs, said Sargent is “too modest’’ to take credit for the college’s transformation.
The crescent-shaped campus winds down Beacon Hill through Downtown Crossing to the once seedy Theater District, where the historic Modern Theatre, most recently an adult cinema, is being converted into the university’s fourth dorm.
Suffolk - a commuter school until 1996, when it opened its first residence hall - now houses nearly a quarter of its undergrads and hopes to house more than half within 10 years. Students have a view of the State House’s golden dome from their high-rise Beacon Hill dormitory.
The state-of-the-art law school building, which opened in 1999, bears Sargent’s name. A Newport, N.H., native, he became a law school professor in 1956, when he would sweep the floors and empty the ashtrays because the school was too poor to hire a janitor, said Nicholas Macaronis, chairman of the board of trustees and Sargent’s law school classmate. Sargent went on to become dean of the law school for 17 years before being named president in 1989.
“David Sargent has literally given his whole professional career to this school,’’ Nucci, a former Boston city councilor, said during a recent campus tour. “You can’t put a price tag on that.’’
Befitting its prime location, Suffolk also wields significant clout on Beacon Hill, where alumni make up nearly a fifth of the Legislature and 100 serve in the Massachusetts judiciary.
But some say Sargent’s unusually generous compensation amounts to an abuse of its nonprofit status.
“Here you have an average university and you’re paying your chief executive more than the best institutions in the world,’’ said state Senator Mark Montigny, a Democrat from New Bedford and chairman of the Senate committee on bonding, capital expenditures, and state assets. “The fact that anyone would defend that is laughable.’’
Last year, dozens of alumni wrote angry letters to Suffolk’s board after a Chronicle of Higher Education survey named Sargent the most highly paid college president in the country, drawing $2.8 million in 2007, including deferred compensation. They also questioned the independence of the board, some of whom hold lucrative contracts with Suffolk.
Some now threaten to withhold donations; only 7 percent of alumni give to Suffolk.
“I am not going to give money to the school anymore, and I’m encouraging my fellow alumni not to give until this clears up,’’ said law graduate Theodore Schwartz, a Philadelphia lawyer who helped raise $350,000 for scholarships in 2004.
In 2008, Suffolk paid the lobbying firm owned by trustee Robert Crowe $120,000 to represent the university’s interests in Washington, D.C. The same year, it paid $64,935 to the law firm where trustee Dennis Duggan Jr. is a partner.
While the college maintains those contracts, trustees say new bylaws have tightened disclosure and voting guidelines. As it looks toward the end of the Sargent era, the board’s main concern is putting Suffolk on solid academic and financial ground.
“I think it’s time there was a succession plan put in place,’’ said trustee John O’Connor. “We need to make sure we’re thinking about the things we need to do to increase our revenue base and deal with the challenges of fund-raising.’’