Whitman’s 14th president forged a legacy of prioritizing student learning.
“Your business here is to learn.”
It’s a phrase so closely associated with President Kathleen Murray—since her first Whitman College Convocation address in 2015—that when campus closed due to COVID-19 in March 2020, students gave it a darkly comedic pandemic twist on social media: “Your business here is to leave.”
Now two years later, as the world slowly returns to a new kind of normalcy, it’s Murray who is preparing to leave—capping her final semester at Whitman with an in-person Commencement ceremony, which will include families and guests for the first time since May 2019.
After seven years in office, Murray’s mood is bittersweet as she reflects on retirement—and shepherding the school through such historic and tumultuous times.
“During the campus closure, I would often walk around Ankeny Field, hoping that someone would wander by just so I would be reminded that there really were people around,” Murray says.
For Murray, it was the dedicated people she had around her—virtually, if not physically—who made the difference during those lonely and logistically challenging times.
“My advice to other college presidents is to build a great team around you, because it’s such a complicated job now. I have an incredible cabinet, and I don’t know how we would have made it through COVID without every single one of them. We function very much as a team, and they do amazing work for this college.”
Provost and Dean of the Faculty Alzada Tipton returns the compliment. “One of the things I’ve loved best about working with Kathy is cabinet meetings, which is not something other people see. We have very energetic discussions, and she encourages us all to speak out. That allows us oftentimes to come to a consensus, but she is also very capable of stepping in and saying ‘OK, thanks for everybody’s feedback and here’s how we’re going to go,’ in a way that makes everyone feel heard. That’s a tremendously uncommon thing, at least in my experience—that ability to be simultaneously welcoming and decisive.”
Nancy Serrurier, chair of the board of trustees from 2018-2021, agrees. She believes Murray’s clear-eyed leadership during the pandemic struck the right chord, especially when it became evident that the school would need to temporarily switch to remote learning.
“She recommended that very difficult decision to the board, which we knew would have a financial impact, and I thought that was courageous,” Serrurier says. “It was the right decision, and it wasn’t easy. Her North Star was the health and well-being of the people in this community, and that is a reflection of her values. I think she has an enormous amount of empathy and compassion. Time and time again, when there were really challenging moments, that’s when she’s risen to her best.”
Much has changed since Murray’s solitary strolls around Ankeny early in the pandemic. Classes have been back in person for more than a year. Residence halls are bustling again and cherished college activities like sports, plays, concerts and improv shows are back in swing.
Murray recalls an outing to Cleveland Commons, the dining hall constructed during her presidency, soon after it reopened for indoor service. “People kept stopping me just to say how happy they were to be back together, to be sitting with their friends and enjoying a meal as opposed to taking it back to their room,” she says.
“I have to praise our entire community for how we’ve handled the pandemic. People are paying attention. They’re doing the right thing. And yes, we’re all tired of it. Yet, through it all, we’ve kept the focus on student learning.”
For Peter Harvey ’84, chief financial officer and chair of the Coronavirus Task Force, that emphasis on student learning—above all else—is the most significant part of Murray’s legacy.
“What I think is the most important cornerstone of Kathy’s leadership and presidency is her mantra of keeping what is best for students and student learning at the forefront of every decision we make. Her message to students that ‘your business here is to learn’ really summarizes her belief in a liberal arts education and what she brought to Whitman,” Harvey says.
Murray assumed the presidency in 2015, making history as the first woman in that role. Previously, she had served as provost and dean of the faculty at Macalester College in Minnesota, where she was appointed acting president for a semester in 2013. Prior to that, she was provost at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama. Murray began her career at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, where she was a piano professor for almost 20 years.
A gifted musician, she grew up the youngest in a blue-collar family in Iowa with four older brothers, and attended Illinois Wesleyan University as a first-generation college student. She earned a bachelor’s in music there before going on to earn a master’s in piano performance from Bowling Green State University and her doctorate in piano performance and pedagogy from Northwestern University. The path that led her to the president’s suite in Memorial Building started several years before the search, when Murray was invited to Whitman to conduct a review of the staffing in the provost’s office.
“What I remember most distinctly is that I was there to talk about staffing levels, and there was a session for faculty where I thought three or four people might show up. Who really wants to talk about this? And the place was packed. People were genuinely interested, and that really stuck with me: Here was a faculty that was so engaged … that they really wanted to be part of the conversation.”
Laura and Carl Peterson Chair of Social Sciences and Professor of Psychology Melissa Clearfield was on the presidential search committee and later served as chair of the faculty, a position she says she ran for in part for the chance to work with Murray.
“I remember there was a point when the finalists each got a chance to speak about Whitman, and Kathy spoke so eloquently that all of us on the committee got choked up at how well she captured who we are and what a great sense of community we have,” Clearfield says.
For Tipton, it was a high regard for Murray that inspired her to apply for the role of Whitman’s provost in 2015. The two had met by happenstance years earlier, when Tipton and her husband were attending a new parent event at Macalester with their son.
“We sat down at a table and a tall, stately woman came over and sat down next to us, and we started chatting. I discovered she was the provost at Macalester, and we had a great conversation. It was far more fun than I ever expected that dinner to be,” Tipton says. “When I came here to work with Kathy, all my hopes from that conversation came true a hundredfold, including the support she’s offered in the areas of faculty development, career and community engagement, athletics, the two Mellon grants for community engagement … the list just goes on and on.”
Serrurier and search committee co-chair Brad McMurchie ’84 also had positive gut feelings about Murray long before the formal interview process.
“During the presidential search, Brad and I flew out to the Midwest to unofficially meet with several of the candidates from our pool, and one of them was Kathy,” says Serrurier. “After our conversation with her, Brad and I looked at each other and said, ‘That’s the next president.’ So it was a really strong connection from the beginning. We both had the impression that this was a person that had the qualities and mindset we were looking for.”
“Her North Star was the health and well-being of the people in this community, and that is a reflection of her values.”—Nancy Serrurier
Murray came away from that first meeting with Serrurier and McMurchie with a similar sense of excitement. “Their passion for this place and their energy about the search and the board was really infectious. The more I learned about Whitman, the more impressed I was.”
When Murray arrived on campus for her official unveiling as the next president, accompanied by her partner Bridget Reischl, it was cause for celebration.
“I will never forget the moment in Maxey Auditorium when they announced who the new president was going to be,” Murray says. “There was an audible gasp when Brad McMurchie said my name—and it was very clearly about, ‘We finally have our first woman leader.’ Then he announced Bridget’s name and there was another gasp, as in, ‘not only is she a woman but she’s showing up with a woman!’ That was a sign of the kind of welcome we were going to receive.”
Jack Percival ’16 was one of the student representatives on the search committee and served as president of the Associated Students of Whitman College (ASWC) during Murray’s first year at Whitman.
“I remember asking her to dinner at the house I shared with two roommates behind Anderson Hall after one of our regularly scheduled meetings,” Percival says. “I was so nervous to extend the invitation, but I wanted to build a better relationship with her and demonstrate the warmth of the Whitman community as she settled into a new role in a new place. To my surprise, Kathy said that she and Bridget would be delighted to join us. We shared a wonderful evening, and it’s something that my friends and I still remember fondly.”
A New Agenda
It didn’t take long for Murray to make her mark at Whitman, restructuring campus leadership to improve cooperation and elevating the head of diversity, equity and inclusion to a cabinet-level position. The college also conducted a major campus climate survey and created an inclusion task force to implement a host of action items, including enrolling the most diverse student body in Whitman’s history.
“The view of leadership got a lot more holistic and a lot more collaborative,” says Clearfield. “In the cabinet, I had as much a voice as anybody else, and whenever there was an issue with faculty, she would seek me out and talk it through with me. She didn’t always do what I thought was best, but I always felt heard. I really appreciated a lot of aspects of her style. She showed me that she was paying attention, especially to folks who were being marginalized.”
Tipton echoes this sentiment. “The thing that struck me right away is just how smart she is, how able she is to stay on top of all the different details that all the cabinet members are bringing to her, and to ask really incisive questions. The collegiality that she exhibits inspires this really deep level of respect. And the consideration of what’s best for students, again and again, I think is the hallmark of her presidency.”
This commitment to the student experience is evident in one of the most lasting achievements of Murray’s tenure, the development of Whitman’s strategic priorities.
“When she came in, it was time to develop a new strategic plan and get funding for it, and that’s precisely what she’s done,” says Serrurier. “She really helped the whole campus catalyze the most important initiatives that needed to be worked on in order to move the college forward, to serve students now and in the future.”
An Enduring Legacy
During her presidency, Murray cultivated impressive fundraising—with more than $100 million in gifts and commitments to advance the college’s mission. This philanthropy enabled Whitman to increase financial aid to students with need by 50% and reduce gapping (the amount of unmet financial need per student) from more than $10,000 to a maximum of $4,000. It also facilitated the construction of two new modern and sustainable buildings: a dining hall, Cleveland Commons, and Stanton Hall, a sophomore residence hall.
“As a first-generation college student myself, I really am proud of our progress around access and affordability, our laserlike focus on that,” says Murray. “We’ve made huge strides in terms of the financial aid available to students.”
Clearfield, who co-chaired the strategic planning committee along with Murray and Serrurier, highlighted the magnitude of setting these priorities and seeing them through. “The whole strategic planning process was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever had the opportunity to do. I had a level of leadership that very few schools offer faculty. And so to me that really speaks highly of Kathy’s view of shared governance. No other schools put a faculty leader in charge of strategic planning. I was an equal partner in that. I learned a lot and the faculty have already made significant changes to the curriculum. Some of those are still going on.”
Serrurier points to the relationship between Murray and the Board of Trustees as another example of her success.
“One of the things we wanted to do was to strengthen that partnership and be there for each other, and Kathy’s style was to use the board in a way that was collaborative … We wanted a relationship with her that was mutually respectful and modeled the fact that we were in this together to try to make Whitman the best it can be, and she was that way from the start with the board and with her cabinet. I’m very proud of that.”
A Fond Farewell
As the college prepares to enter its next chapter, Murray sets her sights on one with less of an agenda—retirement. She looks forward to reconnecting with family and getting reacquainted with the piano, which she hasn’t had time to play seriously in many years.
Murray will miss the students most of all, she says.
“She always made the effort, if we saw each other, to come say hi and ask how I was doing,” says Cedric Jacob-Jones ’19, a student-athlete who got to know Murray, a basketball fan, on and off the courts.
“Whitman students work incredibly hard, and they do it in a really collaborative, supportive fashion,” says Murray. “On some campuses there’s a notion that if you do really well, that’s going to negatively impact me, and so there’s a competitive edge there that I just don’t see at Whitman, and it’s because our students believe that if they support each other, everyone can succeed. And that is just a really remarkable thing. We hear that from prospective students when they tour—that they notice how supportive people are of one another.”
Percival, the former ASWC president, said he was always clear on Murray’s main objective. “I was struck by her passion for advancing student learning through the rigorous liberal arts education that Whitman offers.”
So where did the famous phrase—“Your business here is to learn”—originate? Fittingly, it was coined by the very mentor who encouraged Murray to pursue a college presidency, the late Rik Warch, who was president of Lawrence University for 25 years.
“My focus since the start of my career has been on student learning,” Murray says. “I’ve never taken my eye off of that.”