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Catching up with Michigan State University’s 19th President Peter McPherson

Russ White, Peter McPherson
Russ White, Peter McPherson

Peter McPherson was the 19th president of Michigan State University, serving from October of 1993 through 2004. He's also president emeritus of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU).

McPherson’s wife Joanne, who as First Lady of Michigan State University founded Safe Place, the first shelter at a university to provide support for victims of domestic violence and stalking, died in June.

“She was so dedicated to Safe Place and so committed to having it work. Of course, now after all these decades really, it's worked very well. She always had an idea, like when we got here, Beaumont Tower’s bells weren't ringing, and they hadn't rung for about a year. She said, ‘What's this? The Beaumont Tower bells need to ring.” In short time, the bells were ringing, and they've rung ever since. Safe Place and the Beaumont Tower bells, and the signs at campus entrances were a couple of her accomplishments.

“When we got here, for whatever reason, the signs entering campus were a set of wire structures and they looked pretty bad. Joanne never wanted things to look bad. They're now stone and permanent, and they look really good. They've been that way since about 1994, and that was Joanne saying ‘What's this?’"

Michigan State University
Joanne and Peter McPherson

McPherson talks about growing up in West Michigan and always knowing he would attend MSU, just like all his siblings did. And he says “MSU opened up the world to me.” Then a stint in the Peace Corps inspired his lifetime of work on international issues. He describes working in both the Ford and Reagan White Houses. He was working for Bank of America in San Francisco after the Reagan years, and that’s when the MSU presidency opened.

“Running Michigan State was a dream I never really expected to even have an opportunity to do. You can imagine what my seven brothers and sisters living in West Michigan thought. By that time, unfortunately, my father and mother had passed away. I think often, and certainly did back then, how sad it was that they weren't around because, for my father especially, this would have been special.”

McPherson talks about a couple of his accomplishment he’s most proud of like bringing the Detroit College of Law to MSU and beginning the conversations that led to MSU’s presence on Grand Rapids’ Medical Mile.

“The leader of this effort was Judge Dick Suhrheinrich. Without Dick Suhrheinrich we wouldn't have a law school. He is really a grand man with enormous capability. We did put that law school together. First, there was some thought it might be in Detroit, which wasn't optimal. There were some issues and ultimately it came here as an independent school.

“They had some real self-identity that they were intent to protect, which I thought was reasonable. The agreement that I had with them was I would never push for there to be a closer affiliation. They may decide they wanted it, and that may be appropriate at some time, but it's not going to be MSU that pushes a closer affiliation. Before I left, they came to me and said, ‘We want a closer affiliation,’ and now, after several years, it's called the Michigan State University College of Law.

“The medical school idea came together in the years after I left. In my mind, the key decision and key meeting - there were several; anything like this has several key meetings - was a meeting I had with Rich DeVos in the hanger in the Grand Rapids airport where I laid out how we wanted to do this. Basically, DeVos said, ‘It's a good idea.’ and it wouldn't have happened without DeVos' important key intervention in the years afterwards it unfolded.”

Talk about APLU and its mission.

“We’re very aggressive and active in Washington on appropriations for universities, and we have a deep commitment to student degree completion, to equity, and to minority students having the same percentages of graduation rates as majority students. I'm pleased that current MSU President Stanley is on the APLU board.

Peter McPherson in the MSU Audio Studios
Russ White | MSU Today
Peter McPherson in the MSU Audio Studios

“Sam is a guy who we at APLU have always seen as a guy we could go to to get things done. During the pandemic, his medical expertise was invaluable. The presidents of this organization from around the country get together, and Sam was a person who could serve with real expertise and talk about the problems we were all having. Sam has always been a go-to guy. For him to come to Michigan State was just outstanding for Michigan State and for him.”

What concerns you about higher education's future? What are you hopeful about? What keeps you up at night? What are some challenges and opportunities moving forward?

“We need to continue to increase our graduation rates and decrease the time it takes to earn a degree. We've got to have more students graduate and do so in less time. Of course, there are cost considerations. Legislatures provide a substantially lower percentage of the cost than they once did. The Pell Grant money is helpful, and we've pushed hard for more Pell money.

“There's this whole set of equity, graduation, and cost issues that, of course, I could spend all your program on because I'm so immersed in them that are of deep concern. On the other hand, there are some successes. I looked at ALPU numbers over the last 10 years under Department of Education data, and our Hispanic students over the last 10 years have grown 70 percent. The numbers for Black students haven't moved that much. The Hispanic student population has grown.

“These are the kinds of issues we need to continue to really grapple with and make progress on now. We know how to graduate students better than we did. We've got the technology. I know these are important issues for Michigan State. Graduation rates here are quite high, but I know there's a commitment to make them higher.”

What do you hope your legacy is as president of MSU, or do you not even worry about that kind of thing?

“Well, I think if you worry about it too much, it's a mistake. There were certainly some key things that I'm very proud of. To me, ultimately, what a university presidency needs to be about is what kind of education students get. Michigan State happily and successfully educates many students, so I start there.

“The law school is important, and so is beginning the work on the medical school in Grand Rapids. This place is so complex. There are so many things that I learned and was part of. As I've said several times, every project has many fathers and mothers and many contributors, so I was proud to lead Michigan State for those years.”

MSU Today airs Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 5 a.m. on WKAR News/Talk and Sundays at 8 p.m. on 760 WJR. Find “MSU Today with Russ White” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your show.