NW Connections: Whitman’s new president sits down with The Pioneer

By Aleida Fernandez, The Pioneer 

New president Kathleen Murray shakes hand with the Chair of the Board of Trustees Brad McMurchie at her announcement earlier today. Photo by Marcovici
New president Kathleen Murray shakes hand with the Chair of the Board of Trustees Brad McMurchie at her announcement earlier today. Photo by Marcovici

Earlier today, Dr. Kathleen Murray was announced as Whitman College’ s 14th president.  Murray is currently the Provost and Dean of Faculty at Macalaster College in Minnesota. Murray received her Bachelor of Music degree from Illinois Wesleyan University in 1979. She went on to receive her Master of Music in piano performance Bowling Green State University in 1982 and her Doctor of Music in piano performance and pedagogy from Northwestern University in 1989.

Murray has been at Macalaster for seven years, where she acted as president in the fall semester of 2013 during the president’s sabbatical. Before arriving at Macalaster, Murray spent a few years as Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Birmingham Southern College in Alabama but spent the bulk of her career at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisc. At Lawrence, Murray was Associate Professor of Music and Piano Department chair.

Murray will begin her presidency in July 2015, but first, she sat down with The Pioneer for a first interview:

To begin, tell us a little bit about yourself.

I grew up in Davenport, Iowa right on the Mississippi River. I’m the youngest of five children with four older brothers. and they taught me persistence and confidence along the way. I went to a small liberal arts college as an undergraduate, but my training is all in piano.

[Before I went to college], I didn’t know what a liberal arts college was so I can’t say that I was intentional in my choice. My parents never went to college so they were very supportive, but we were flying blind. I walked onto the campus at Illinois Wesleyan University in Central Illinois, and I just thought, “I can maybe fly by.” I had low confidence, but I thought maybe I could survive, I could manage. It turned out to be the perfect choice for me. While I was a music major, all of my liberal arts courses were with students majoring in [other] fields. I really only understood what that meant when I got my first job at Lawrence and understood that [a full liberal arts education] was really right for students.

What attracted you to pursue leadership roles within the colleges?

I don’t think any of us starting off our academic career imagine becoming provosts or deans or presidents. So in my case, it happened quite by chance.

I was on a sabbatical and living in Amsterdam, having a great time. Somehow the president of Lawrence found me and said that the Dean of the Conservatory had resigned and it was too late to mount a search for a replacement and would I be interested in being the interim Dean? It was kind of the middle of my career so I thought it would be fun to do for a year. It’s only a year! Well, that search failed so they ultimately asked me to stay in the position and end their search.

[In my position as Dean] I really did start to love thinking about the broader issues of the institution. In another serendipitous moment, the person who was the Dean of the Faculty [at Lawrence] went on to become the president of Macalaster.  When they made the presidential transition at Lawrence, I left and went to Birmingham for a few years until I was invited to apply to Macalaster where I’ve been for the last seven years. Now, it just seems like the right moment to think about the biggest picture of the whole institution.

Why did you want to apply for the presidency of Whitman?

I was here in 2009 to help Tim Kaufman-Osborne think about the structure of the provost office when he took over as provost. I have to say, I became smitten with the college then – even though I was in meetings all day. I was also really impressed with the faculty. About a year ago, I said, I can’t imagine [President] George [Bridges] is ready to retire, but I did really love Whitman and thought about it every so often.

So when [the position of the presidency] did come open, I started digging a little bit more. Two members of the Board of Trustees came to Minnesota and visited with me about the position. They were so clearly passionate about this place… and that’s pretty infectious when that happens.

[During the search] I got to know the college a little bit better… they sent a box this big of documentation for me to read, and I read through all of it. During the second round of interviews [which were in Seattle] I spent a day here incognito, just exploring the campus and the town. I just became more and more engaged as time went on. Now [Whitman] feels like a really good fit.

How will your previous experience at Macalaster help you in this new role?

They’re both really exceptional liberal arts colleges so I understand that kind of liberal arts culture. What will be different here is that each college has their own campus culture and ethos. I need to understand Whitman’s better than I do now. I think knowing the liberal arts world – and working closely with the faculty, as I do now at Macalaster – will also help.

One thing I don’t get to do is work closely with the students as I really want to. That’s a piece that I’ve really missed a lot. It’s exciting to get back in touch with students.

How will you get back in touch with the students?

I think being a presence on campus is important. [That means] going to sporting events, concerts, guest lecturers, etc. I think there are all kinds of ways, but I think the students should guide it in terms of what would be meaningful to them with my presence.

What will your transition to Whitman look like?

I will admit [my partner, Bridget, and I] haven’t spent too much time thinking about that in the week since I was confirmed. President Bridges was incredibly gracious this morning when he told me I could come back any time, but I still want to be sensitive to the fact that he is still Whitman’s president. And I still have a job to do in Minnesota.

I do think we will be back occasionally for meetings and to get to know people better. The official move will happen in July. I would like to spend the summer and the beginning of the fall listening to all the people on campus I can find. I want to learn everything about this place. We do need to move fairly quickly into a strategic planning process, but we can’t do that until I understand the community a little bit better than I do.

President Bridge’s big project was his Now Is the Time campaign. What is your big project for Whitman?

It will be this strategic plan [I referred to].

The normal sequence on campuses these days is that a campus has a planning process that informs the principal goals for fundraising and then you have a campaign to raise that money. Then you spend some time thanking the donors because they’ve done great things for the institution but at the same time you launch the next planning process. What are the principal, strategic objectives to move this college to the next phase? That process has to be really true to the community and that’s the piece I really want to make sure we get right. It will result in good things as long as the process gets set up well. 🅼

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