Embattled Suffolk President Margaret McKenna told Boston Public Radio hosts Jim Braude and Margery Eagan that she had clearly told members of the board of trustees what to expect, even before she took the position. “I said, you hand me the keys, and I’ll run the place,” McKenna said in an interview on Thursday. “When people hear that, they hear it, but when it goes into effect, I think it’s very different.”

McKenna responded to being called “abrasive” by a number of Suffolk trustees, describing the adjective as “unfortunate” language. “The language was unfortunate,” she said, “and it is language that is usually not used with men.” Behavior that the trustees saw as “abrasive”—McKenna saw as strong. “Coming in as a candidate, I was very very clear that I was who I was,” she said, “which is a strong president.”

McKenna told WGBH that she made her plans clear to review Suffolk’s vendors, including a public relations contract with Regan Communications, led by George Regan, who backed McKenna’s ouster from her presidency. “I was looking very carefully at all the vendors, and I questioned, why do we need an outside PR firm?” McKenna said. “People knew that, I was not quiet about that. People in the institution knew that, the board knew that, and George Regan knew that, probably from the first week I was there. I gave it time, but there was no question that was coming, it was not a secret. It was something that was inevitable, that I was going to cut out things that I thought we did not need, including an external PR firm.”

McKenna’s intention was to revamp the board, which she perceived as having too much involvement in the day-to-day workings of the university. “I wanted to make changes, I expected people to…expect me to make changes,” she said. “The board was so used to being hands-on and involved, and the pace was very slow in terms of any changes, that I probably frightened some people. I made them nervous.”

McKenna conceded that her proactive attitude may have put off some board members, and she could have tried to cooperate more with the system that was already in place. “I think some people found it difficult, and I want to take some responsibility,” she said. “Maybe I should have been more patient.”  

“I’ve been in Boston a long time, and I guess there’s one thing I’ve learned about this—Boston is a very small town,” McKenna said. “It’s a very small town, and there’s a lot of very tight connections, and a lot of loyalties, some of which I certainly was not aware of, and I think that does affect people’s judgments.”

Ultimately, McKenna’s five-year contract was cut short, as part of negotiations with the board. The president will stay on  until the fall of 2017. “The importance, for me, was that there was dramatic change in the way the governance structure existed at Suffolk,” McKenna said. “To do that, there was a package, and the package was that the bylaws had to change, the leadership had to change, and for me to get that to happen, I had to be part of it as a deal…I would leave.”

If she had her way, McKenna said, she would stay at Suffolk until 2020, as originally planned, but that might have tipped the balance and hurt the university. “If I had gone into the meeting, and I had won the vote, and stayed, I would have had a divided board, and I would have had no leverage to get these changes made, in terms of the structure of the governance, and the rules, and the division of authority,” McKenna said. “That wouldn’t have been good for me, or for the board, or for Suffolk. That was not the right thing to do, and my intention now is to work with the board, and they are working, we are working together to revise the bylaws, to make them fit with best practices of universities today.”

For now, McKenna said she’s satisfied with the deal, and happy to be out of the woods with the very public and painful back-and-forth between president versus trustees. “The truth is, for two weeks I was waking up at three in the morning,” McKenna said. “It was incredibly painful to have things said about you that were not true, and to have a place that you care a lot about hurt. It was very, very difficult. But, you know, I’m not trying to make happy times out of it, but what worked was the support that I got, and the institution got. I do believe that energy and support can be turned around into something very positive.”

To hear President Margaret McKenna’s full interview with Boston Public Radio, click on the audio link above.